Cocos Island trip review with Aggressor Okeanos, Sept 6-16th, 2015

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Messages
4
Reaction score
8
Location
Massachusetts
# of dives
100 - 199
Introduction


This is my trip report for the Aggressor Okeanos liveaboard to Cocos Island, Costa Rica for the period of Sept 6 - Sept 16, 2015. It was our first liveaboard.


This trip was presented to my girlfriend and I as a last minute cancellation from a dive master couple we had met a few weeks before. We had 16 days to get ready for it and little time to research. The information we did find was rather limited but we took the chance anyways and went for it. Cocos Island is supposed to be a diver's dream come true and for us, it certainly was. I hope you find the report useful in deciding whether to visit Cocos Island with Aggressor Okeanos.


The Research


If you are considering Cocos Island, it is necessary that you do prior research to know what to expect. Being unprepared 36 hours from civilization will make for an unpleasant trip.


This trip may not be for the beginner diver who hasn't mastered his/her fears of the open water (including sharks) and air consumption. The ship accommodates 22 divers (ours had 21 divers) and most guests had an average of 400 dives, but more than a few were in the thousands (1000, 2700 and 3700). I came with 135 dives under my weight belt and my girlfriend with just 16 dives (the least experienced) but I felt comfortable with her skills and my ability to get her home safely. The next novice diver had 36 dives and she did really well on her own, so don't let these dive counts scare you into delaying the trip.


You will be diving in conditions that will be intimidating even to seasoned divers. There is a high chance that there will be strong currents at each dive site and that the swells can be quite high (we had one such case where my girlfriend and another diver decided not to dive once we reached the site. If you don't feel comfortable, don't do it). Because of these conditions, you will need to enter the water negatively (no air in BCD) buoyant and quickly drop to the meeting point, which for most sites is around 100ft. You will be diving from 90-114ft most of the days, so if you are not comfortable with these depths, you will not enjoy the trip.


Finally, you really need to be Nitrox-certified to get the most of this trip. If you don't, you won't be able to last as long as the rest of the group and you will need to come up before everyone else, possibly missing that whale shark experience. The captain can do a Nitrox certification, as well as other SSI programs, but you will waste one or two of your dives doing this, so it is better to get certified before the trip. You will be charged $150 for the Nitrox tanks.


If you are confident in your skills and comfortable with the conditions I mentioned here, you can do this. Keep reading.




The Insurance


Aggressor will require that you buy diving insurance (such as DAN) and with good reason. There are no medical or chamber facilities in Cocos Island. If you have a diving accident, you risk dying before getting the medical attention you may need. Remember that you will be 36 hours from the mainland and extracting you from Cocos quickly is a physical impossibility. Aggressor has a basic medical response with oxygen and a defibrillator aboard but that may not be enough for the attention you need.


With DAN insurance, the captain will use the satellite phone on the ship to call for a high speedboat to come from Costa Rica with a dedicated DAN doctor aboard. But even a high speed boat will take 16-20 hours depending on sea conditions to transverse the 330 miles. This is why it is so important that you dive safely and within your skills. Do not push your boundaries in this trip. Please note that the captain will also collect an additional $30 cash to supplement the DAN evacuation program. I never asked how this fee was used.


Aggressor also recommends buying optional travel insurance. This will cover the costs of non-diving emergency evacuation should you need it. During this trip, I had a family emergency and I inquired about options about returning to the mainland. The cost of a speedboat was between $20K-30K depending on which company would answer the call. The island has a cleared area for a helicopter landing but we were told that Costa Rican helicopters are not large enough to have enough fuel to make the roundtrip so your only choice to evacuate is boat-based and takes up to 1+ days roundtrip.


As a side note, the captain went way above the call of duty in looking for other options for me to return to the mainland. He even went to a ferry which was unloading materials for the park rangers to see if they could bring us back with them but the timing didn't work out so we finished our trip with Okeanos.


So learn from this experience...buy travel insurance. You may not need it but if you do, you will easily save $20K, well worth the $150/person cost with TravelGuard.


What To Bring


Your certification cards (open water and Nitrox!). They accepted copies of our Nitrox SSI certification stored in our phones since we didn't have a physical card yet.


A dive computer is a MUST, as is, a complete understanding of all its functions and alarms. I didn't inquire about renting one because by now every diver should own such an important safety device. Know how to use it! You will need to adjust the PO2 (max 1.4) and O2 concentrations for each dive.


Diving gloves. The Okeanos checklist says gloves are recommended but you will definitely need them to hold on to rocks and when descending down the mooring lines.


At least a 3mm thick wetsuit. The water temperatures during our dives varied from 77F to 82F and I didn't feel cold but other people chose to wear 5mm and a hood. You can rent 5mm wetsuits on the ship.


Dive flashlights: Bring one powerful main flashlight and a backup for the night dives. We also had Fantasea colored light markers which made it easy to identify each other in the dark. I bought two BigBlue VTL2800 video lights and attached them to Below-The-Sea arms which made for convenient handles when removed from my video tray.


Most definitely, dramamine. There will be some in the ship but don't risk it running out.


Imodium for stomach issues. Again, there was some on the ship but it took me two days of suffering before thinking of asking. They have plaque on the wall that says "If you don't ask, you don't get"...this was so true.


Decongestants + Flonase - We used these to avoid any ear-equalization issues. The Flonase works wonders for me. I am always amazed at how congested my sinuses are even when I don't feel congested.


DVDs if you want watch your own movies. There is a large collection on the ship and guests are welcome to leave their movies behind for the benefit of future guests.


US Dollars: At least $520 to cover the park entrance and DAN extra fee. Tips are welcome in cash but can be paid with a credit card.


Finally, do not overpack. There is little space for storing lots of clothes and shoes. We each managed with 3 bathing suits that we washed and dried outside. Dinner was very casual and most people wore the same clothes for multiple days at a time.




Getting There


You should fly into San Jose at least one day before your trip's departure date. Our trip left at 7pm on Sunday Sept 6th and we could have flown in the same day and still made our 5pm pickup time (times vary depending on the high tide). However, that only works if everything lines up with the airlines. My luggage with all my diving gear was left in Miami during a transfer and I am sure glad that I had the extra day for the airline to deliver the luggage. Play it safe.


You can use the extra day to tour San Jose for $40/person. We used City Square Tours and booked it through our host hotel, the Holiday Inn Escazu. This tour was well worth the money for 5 hours in a brand new air-conditioned van. The guide was very knowledgeable which made the trip interesting. We made a stop at the culinary district for a late lunch and got to try out 4 microbrew beers from the Beer Factory. Gambas had the best ceviche I ever tasted, served in a plantain bowl. I highly recommend both of these places.


The Holiday Inn Escazu is quite a nice hotel, modern design with large rooms. I don't know if all rooms are as large as ours (room 610) or it may have just been a handicapped room (the bathroom did not have a walled off shower area which made for quite the splashy showers).


The area around the hotel has two large upscale shopping centers with several restaurants and an IMAX movie but there is not much more to do. We didn't like the tapas restaurant (La Masia) in the Tempo center but the French restaurant (Ille de France) in nearby Avenida Escazu center (2 minute walk) was really good. Expect to pay high prices in these restaurants.


The Okeanos pickup times were very punctual. Do not miss them or you will have to get to the ship on your own. Your luggage will be placed in a separate truck and you will ride in a nice mini bus with wi-fi. Our driver, Rudi, was very funny and informative during the 1.5hr ride to Puntarenas.


Upon arriving at port, you will quickly board and depart. Your luggage will be set out in the diving deck where after a brief crew introduction and explanation in the living room, you can unpack your gear and a crew member will then take your luggage to your cabin.


The Crew


These 8 people run a well-organized ship and diving adventures. I was surprised at how much work each of them put out. While they each have their individual tasks, it was not uncommon to see them helping each other out. I saw the captain folding towels, carrying diving tanks, picking up plates, etc. They are the definition of teamwork if I ever saw one in action.


Alberto (Beto) Munoz - Captain and Dive master
Warren Fernandez - Cruise Director and Dive master
Esteban - Panga 1 driver
Xavier - First Officer, our Panga 2 driver (and occasional dive master)
Osayuki - Waiter and housekeeping.
Douglas and Gerardo - best chefs. Worked from 5am to 10pm
Fabio - Chief Engineer
Juan - temporary mechanic but very nice guy.


The Living Room


This is the main gathering place for guests after dives and dinner. The initial introduction will take place here. The captain will go over the evacuation procedures and use of the life vests (stored in your room and dive deck). At one point during this introduction, the crew will collect your C-cards and passports! I am not sure why they hold on to your passports but they will be returned to you on the last day when settling your tab.


A TV connected to a computer can be used to play DVD movies and your diving videos/photos to be shared with others. The computer has a USB card reader for all types of flash cards. This is the primary way to copy the captain's photos at the end of the trip to your own media, though he will provide a CD if you don't have one. There is no internet service at all while onboard so you won't be able to share your awesome pictures with your Facebook friends until the end of your trip.


There is a water fountain here with fresh cold water to hydrate you plenty before your dives.


The Cabins


It is important to set expectations here so you are not disappointed. The Okeanos is NOT a cruise ship. The accommodations will be very basic but the crew does a great job of maintaining them stocked and cleaned. To conserve water, towels and sheets won't be changed unless you ask.


We were in cabin #5. The "bathroom" is cramped (I'm estimating the size to be 3' x 3' but could be slightly larger). The shower head will be too low for most people but you will learn to accommodate your body under it and squeeze between the toilet and the wall. Showering when the boat is moving could be challenging so we skipped it during "the crossing".


The beds are arranged bunkbed style with a full size in the bottom and twin in the top. I found the mattress a bit hard but that is just a personal taste. Most couples that I talked to shared the full size and used the twin for storing clothes and other personal items. There is a small (1ft wide) dresser/closet and two large areas under the bed where we stored our luggage, though they can also be retired to a storage area elsewhere in the ship.


The rooms have a TV and DVD player but we never used it. You will spend most of the time diving, eating and sleeping. Bring movies if you want to pass the time during "the crossing" but I recommend sleeping instead. A small hair dryer is also provided but it may not be hot enough for some guests.


There are two 110V outlets in the room. One near the TV and one next to the sink (the sink is outside the bathroom, next to the bed). You won't be allow to charge batteries in your room for safety reasons but there are plenty of outlets and power strips on the diving deck. The rooms do have a smoke detector, fire extinguisher but no operable window. The emergency hatch is in cabin #2.


Cabins 2-8 are below the main deck and are the smallest and most cramped in my opinion. Cabin 9-11 are above the main deck and #11 appears to be the most spacious, with a large non-operable window, as opposed to the port holes in the other cabins. I was told you can request specific cabins so the earliest you book, the best chance to get the upper deck ones.


All cabins are air-conditioned and you will need them in the cabins below deck because it gets quite hot without. Also, be prepared that some of the cabins can have quite a bit of a mildew smell which may take some getting used to. When the ship rocks, the water trap under the shower drain must also move, letting some sewer gases escape back into the room. This is not as bad as it sounds, but you should be prepared for the occasional bad smell. I also don't know if this was a problem in other rooms as well. I have passed this feedback to Okeanos with hopes it can be corrected for future guests. Don't let this dissuade you from using Okeanos because most of the times you will be outside of your cabin and the other benefits outweigh these inconveniences.


The Crossing


After you leave the calm waters of the Puntarenas Bay, you will enter the 36 hour journey across the Pacific Ocean to reach Cocos Island. Besides the distance and time, this will probably be the worse part of the trip due to the rough seas that can be expected. Dramamine is a must. A large percentage of the guest suffered from some form of motion sickness. My advice here is to buy the drowsy version of Dramamine and enjoy the long sleeps. I also recommend bringing reading material in electronic form for the times you may be awake.


The return portion of our trip was extremely smooth and lasted about 34 hours. You may want do some star gazing during this time if the weather is cooperating. You will have an (almost) unobstructed 360 view of the sky and the only one light from the boat won't interfere with the majestic view of our universe.


Cocos Arrival and Park Information


We arrived early Tuesday morning (I would say 5-6 am) and were diving by 8am. Sometime during this day, a Cocos Island Park ranger will board the ship and explain the park rules. They will show a video which explains that you are not allowed to touch any marine life, among many other common sense rules. I was happy to see that all divers respected these rules to the letter. A park ranger is supposed to dive with the group during the first day to evaluate the impact of divers on the ecosystem. In our case, the ranger couldn't go.


The park receives 3000 visitors a year, 2200 of them being divers. The park entrance fees are quite high but I think of them as a way to preserve this beautiful natural park for future divers. You will need to bring $70 * 7 days = $490 cash.


It was interesting to learn how the rangers have to patrol such a large protected area and what limited resources they have. I saw them collecting their supplies from our ship in a boat that had at least 3 or 4 large holes in the hull. Luckily, they finally have collected enough money to buy a $200K speedboat to go after illegal fisherman. When we were there, they received construction material to start to building a radar station to be able to detect illegal fishing. These fishermen are pretty smart at not getting caught red-handed. They quickly enter the park to set their large fishing nets and leave the park. Then they simply wait for the currents to bring them outside the park boundaries. Thus, they are never caught inside the park with the fish. When you visit the rangers' station, you will get a chance to see all of the fishing lines and hooks that the rangers have found. So much of it that they built a hanging bridge using those lines and buoys.


There are about 22 park rangers working Cocos Island, with half of them on the island at a time. They work 30 days shifts and rest 20 days in the mainland. Through an agreement with the diving operators, the rangers and some of their supplies are transported to and from the island on the diving ships. So take the opportunity to talk to them if when you see them on the ship.


The park also accepts volunteers who can provide unique skills (such as carpentry, electrical, construction, etc) and who can commit to at least 30 days in the island. They will provide transportation to the island, food and lodging in return for your hard work. The hanging fishing line bridge was built through volunteer work.


You may have an opportunity to visit one or two of the rangers' station. The one in Chatham Bay offers a spectacular view of the bay but requires climbing to the top via a slippery trail so wear good shoes for that adventure. Both stations generate their power from hydro turbines which you may also get to see. Amazingly, the ranger station in Wafer Bay has a small cell phone tower that reaches the boat when anchored there. I believe it uses GSM technology and not CDMA so you may be out of luck if you have Verizon. I was able to SMS text (but not MMS), make and receive voice calls and use data at very slow speeds for WhatsApp texting. Facebook was unusable at those speeds.


Overall, I was very impressed with the dedication of these rangers and volunteers. They are constantly doing hard work to improve their bases and protect the park. I saw them carry concrete bags, one at a time, up these steep trails to build the base for the radar tower. Kudos to them.


You will pretty much see this entire Jurassic Park-like island from the panga boats but the crew is not authorized to land in any of the desolate and beautiful beaches you will see. Dozens of waterfalls dot the landscape and in one that empties straight into the ocean, you will be able to jump into the sea and swim to it without getting on land. What an experience!
 

drrich2

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Thanks for a great review; very practical and detailed in areas people will need to know. I don't know whether I'll ever make it out there, but if I were going, this covers a lot of what I'd be researching.

What highlights of wildlife did you see on your dives?

Richard.
 

beaverdivers

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Thank you for your detailed trip report.
 
OP
R
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Location
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# of dives
100 - 199
This is the continuation to the review at the head of this thread. I had to split it into two because it was so long. Apologies.

The Diving Deck


The diving deck is arranged around 2 large racks where you can hang your wetsuits. On one end of the racks hangs a shower head dispensing hot water, a much welcome treat after returning from each dive. On the eve of your first dive, you will setup your equipment on the dive tanks. After that, the tanks will be moved to the panga boats and remain there until the departure day when they are brought back on board for you to disassemble your gear.


There are small storage areas in front of the racks to store any personal items (e.g. sunblock). There are also two large camera tables where your camera will be set after each dive. The crew will not place cameras in the rinse tanks for you, however, due to a previous incident. They have two compressed-air hoses for quickly drying your camera cases. This was a nice surprise as it helped keep water from getting inside the cases while changing batteries between dives.


One much missed necessity was a rinse tank for the wetsuits. It would be a nice addition that Okeanos should consider adding soon. We all used a lot of hot water trying to rinse our wetsuits after each dive.


The Diving: Schedule, Procedures and Sites


For the next 7 days, we followed a typical diving schedule that went like this:


07:00 - Breakfast
08:00 - First dive
11:00 - Second dive
12:30 - Lunch
15:00 - Third dive
18:00 - Night dives (2 or 3 available)
18:30 - Dinner (non night dive days), 19:30 on night dive days


The diving sites that you will dive are set by the park rangers and by not the crew. They have very little control on what days they can dive where. Okeanos typically gets 2 night dives but we got lucky and were allowed to dive 3 times.


Your first dive upon arrival is considered the checkout dive. This is where the dive masters will have a chance to evaluate your skills and make suggestions to improve your diving. The captain actually helped me quite a bit with my weight selection. I always dove with 8 or 10 lbs when using a 3mm wetsuit but over the course of my dives, he challenged me to drop to 6 lbs, 4 lbs, 2 lbs and finally no weights (didn't try the last suggestion as my dives were already done). I was surprised to see what a difference each step down made and I'm thankful that he cared enough to continue working with me.


Fifteen minutes before each dive, a bell is rung to indicate it is time to suit up. During this time, the panga driver will read the O2 percentages from your tank, which you are required to write down in journal. You will then have a 3-5 minute briefing on each site. It is very detailed and you should pay close attention on where to meet at the bottom and on which direction the group will head. There are some basic rules that we all had to follow:


No deco diving
No solo diving
No out-in-the-blue diving.
No exceeding Nitrox's maximum depth limits.
At 1000 PSI (75-bar) start thinking about ascending.


Due to the possibility of strong currents and separation from the group, you will be provided with a GPS unit that can be used to track you. Its use will be explained during the first briefing. You will also be provided a surface marker buoy (SMB) or sausage. No one had to use theirs during our trip but I felt extra safe knowing that I had these two items.


The 22 divers are divided into two groups which visit the dive sites in different order to avoid congestions. You will not see divers from other companies either, so for the one hour, the 11 divers have exclusive access to that site. That means a bigger chance to see the big fish we all came for.


The pangas can feel a bit cramped with all that equipment in place but the dive masters do a great job helping put your tank and BCD on and handing your camera equipment. Entry into the water is via back roll and negatively buoyant so you can quickly reach the meeting point and not drift away at the surface. At the end of the dive, you will be rewarded with fresh fruit right in the panga: watermelon, papaya, sweet pineapples, pear, you name it. I don't think I have ever eaten as much fruit as in this trip.


Now most trip reports will go into detail about the diving sites but I don't want to do so here because you will have your own chance to explore them all (pending ranger approval). I will say, however, that I liked Manuelita Island and Alcyone best. Manuelita offers a reef section in the "shallow" part, which is really a misnomer since it is around 90ft deep. Its back side offers a great opportunity to find hammerhead and tigers sharks and the occasional whale shark. Alcyone has 3 cleaning stations around 100ft and deeper and a big chance to find large schools of hammerhead sharks.


And while talking about sharks, if you are afraid of sharks, then this is not the place for you. You will be surrounded by white tip reef sharks, sometimes in the hundreds, specially during the night dive, and schools of hammerhead sharks (if you get really lucky and come close to you). I believe everyone in our trip was here just to see the large schools of sharks and we were rewarded in that sense.


Visibility was low in my opinion. It ranged from 25ft to 50ft in most dives. Half of us got separated from the dive master and the rest of the group during one dive, so make sure you talk about what to do in a situation like this. The low visibility also made it difficult to photograph the hammerhead sharks which tend to be quite shy and don't get close to the divers. So you may not get that iconic picture of you diving inside a large school of hammerheads. Nonetheless, it was still very impressive to see them from afar and I have a few pictures to show back at home.


The water temperature varied from 77F to 82F according to my dive computer. The captain did say that 82F was warmer than usual and 77F was more of the norm and the right temperature for large number of hammerhead sharks which prefer colder waters.


We did see 3 whale sharks in this trip. One small, another 20-25ft and a 25+ ft one. Be prepared to swim fast to catch up to them if you want some close up pictures and videos. Some guests got great footage of them from the front by doing this, but pay close attention to your changes in depth as you do this. A picture is not worth getting a DCS hit.


I was satisfied to buy Warren's edited videos for $65 which included short clips of all the guests, dives, lunches, and many, many sharks and a closeup of the whale sharks. The captain has a very nice camera and he will also take pictures during the dives, providing you free copies at the end.


When you return to the ship at the end of each dive, you will be asked for your maximum depth and bottom time. This is recorded in case there is a diving accident for the doctor to review.


The Food


Now this is really where the Okeanos shines. The two chefs, Douglas and Gerardo, put out quite a variety of food every day for lunch and dinner. There was never any repetition of the meals. All meals are served buffet style, with a few exceptions.


The guests sit around two tables which sit 14 and 8 people, respectively. This is where you get to know the other guests really well and exchange diving stories, past and present. Osa will decorate the table for a few of the special meals (like the filet mignon). He is also cognizant of your dietary needs and will provide you with alternatives as needed.


Breakfast always had a large assortment of fruits, ham, bacon and breads. You can also ask for eggs to be cooked any way you want. I suggest you not eat a lot here because you will be diving soon after and there will be yummy snacks and a large fruit plate brought out to the diving deck after the first and third dive. The ham and cheese sandwiches with mustard were memorable and went fast!


Lunch and dinner are quite a full production. You always found a warm soup waiting for you at lunch and dinner. I can't tell you how good this was after returning from a dive where you hit a few thermoclines that dropped the temperature to 77F. Different salads, vegetables, freshly baked breads and entrees (from filet mignon to shrimp, tuna, chicken and much more) throughout the 10-day trip made it so I never felt hungry in this trip.




For drinks, free soda, wine and beer are available but the dive masters have a strict policy on alcohol consumption prior to dives so don't miss a dive because of it. There will be time to drink on the return portion of the trip.


The Gratuities


The crew earns a big percentage of their income from the tips guests provide at the end of the trip. You will receive an envelope on your room during the turn-down service on the night of departure from Cocos. No guidelines were provided on what is the right amount to tip so I quietly inquire with the others guests and most agreed that a 10% of the cost of the trip would be customary. The tip is divided equally among the crew. In my opinion, they played an equal part in making this a trip an awesome adventure and should all be equally rewarded for their hard work.


Puntarenas Arrival


Our ship arrived at Puntarenas around 2am after an uneventful 34-hour crossing. Breakfast was at 6am that morning and our luggage was carried to the dock while we ate. We promptly disembarked just before 7am.


If you adhered to Aggressor's recommendations, you did not book your return flight for the same day as weather conditions could have made for a later arrival. In this case, you have a free day to explore Costa Rica and you will be offered two tours by Rudi: a zip lining and a crocodile tour. We couldn't participate in these so I have no recommendation.


For the hotel stay that night, you could return to the host hotels in Escazu but I recommend staying closer to the airport since most flights for the US depart early and the trip from Escazu is about 35 minutes. We have used the Hampton Inn Airport location before and were happy with the quality of the room and its continental breakfast. Rudi didn't have a problem dropping us there even though it was not a host hotel, but it is right outside the airport, which is one of this destinations.


Conclusion


This was an unexpected trip for us but one that I always had in my bucket list. When the opportunity presented itself, we had little time to research before paying for the trip. In the end, going with Aggressor Okeanos was a great choice for us. The crew made us feel at home during the 10-day journey, we ate like royalty and dove amazing sites to see the majestic creatures of our seas. We would not hesitate to return in the future.
 

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