Trip Report Diving in Cocos Dec. 2020 Trip Report

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Dan

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Summary
This is a 11-day (1-11 December, 2020) liveaboard trip around Cocos Island, Costa Rica with Okeanos Aggressor 1. The itinerary, as shown in Table 1, includes 7 days at Cocos, 3-4 dives / day to a total of 23 dives on 12 dive sites. Figure 1 shows the dive sites we visited (marked by red dots next to the dive flags). We did checkout dive in Chatham Bay, several dives around Manuelita Island for Hammerhead shark and Tiger shark, Punta Maria for Galapagos sharks and Ulloa for Redlip Batfish. The most impressive dives to me were around Manuelita island to see up close and personal of big-mama Tiger shark and Scalloped Hammerhead sharks in their cleaning station.


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Figure 1: Cocos Dive Sites (Courtesy of Costa Rica Blue, The underwater guide)

Here are two-part videos of the highlight of what I saw during the 7 days of diving in Cocos:



Background
First of all, thanks to @Dom@DiveAdvice for flagging me about the special deal on Okeanos Aggressor and for Costa Rica, especially Cocos, being now open for us to visit and also for all of his assistance to make this trip happened. I would have not gone there two weeks ago, had I not been aware of this news from him as my previous plan trip to Cocos in September 2020 had been rescheduled to September 2021 due to the pandemic and Costa Rica was closed for visitors from some countries (USA was one of them) at the time.

Cocos island is part of Costa Rica, about 312 miles (502 km) from Costa Rica coast (Puntarenas), 34-38 hour boat ride from Puntarenas to Cocos Island. Figure 2, courtesy of Google Earth, shows where Cocos is located in Eastern Pacific, about 5° 32’ N and 87° 04’ W. I read the water temperature of Cocos would be about 79-81 °F (26-27 °C) around December. Thermocline could be down to as low as 69 °F at 80-100 feet depth (Manuelita Channel & Punta Maria). I dived with a 5mm full wetsuit with 1mm hood.

How to prepare for the trip during this pandemic, Costa Rica and Cocos marine park regulations / restriction for COVID-19 are discussed separately in Anyone traveled to Costa Rica under the new COVID regulations? | ScubaBoard

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Figure 2: Cocos Trip Path (Courtesy of Google Earth)


The Liveaboard
Okeanos Aggressor, as shown in Figure 3, is 110-foot (34m) log yacht with 9 staterooms for up to 22 guests, carrying 2 skiffs (pangas). It runs by 7 crews (captain, cruise director, engineer, host, chefs, skiff pilots, and divemasters). The crew have multiple roles. For example, the captain is also a divemaster (DM) in on of the pangas. Two pangas are for taking two groups of divers to dive sites. Each group consists of 11 divers and a DM.

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Figure 3: M/V Argo anchoring off the Chatham Bay


The boat layout is very functional for divers. Galley, dinning, and entertainment areas are on the main deck. Dive deck is on the back of the main deck. Seven of the staterooms are in lower deck and the remaining three staterooms are on the upper deck. The roof of the upper deck is a sundeck with open air sitting area for people to relax in between diving.

The lower-deck stateroom, where I stayed, has a bunkbed, with double bed on the lower section and single bed on the upper section (see Figure 4), private head and shower, plenty of closet space for 2 divers. The room has limited electrical outlets, only for use while in the cabin. Charging camera batteries should be done in the galley / entertainment room in the main deck. The housekeeping crew did a great job of keeping our cabin cleaned and orderly.

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Figure 4: Stateroom 6 of Okeanos Aggressor 1


Setting up your dive rig and handling were easy. Once you kit up your BCD and reg on a tank at your assigned station in the dive deck, the crew would take your gear to the panga and place it to another assigned station at the center of the panga. It stayed there for the whole trip (see Figure 5).

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Figure 5: Panga 1 of Okeanos Aggressor 1


The crew would refill the air or nitrox directly into your tank after each dives, right on your station on the panga. Your assigned dive gear station has a bench, a storage, under the bench, for storing your fins, mask, snorkel, booties, etc. Your wetsuit hanger is behind the bench. There are shelves, next to the dive gear stations to store your dry stuff (T-shirts, sunglasses, phone, etc.). The shelves are also for storing your outside towel to be used and dried after each dive. When you are ready to go diving, you just don your wetsuit, listen to the dive briefing and walk to the panga as everything else is already set up and ready to go at the panga. No need to haul your gear in / out the panga before and after each dives. You hand off your camera rig to the panga pilot before getting on the panga once it is ready to go.

For water entry, DM and panga pilot would take your gear from the center mounting to the side of the panga, next to you, and help you don your gear, one diver at a time. Once everyone has his / her gears on, DM will point to each diver to backroll into the water, one diver at a time. You then descend to the bottom. Once everyone is at the bottom, the DM would lead the group and swim to the dive site.

The meal (breakfast, lunch & dinner) were buffet type in most of the days. Full course of dinners were served during special day (e.g., Welcome dinner). The food were excellent. Special dietary meal were served to those who asked for it.

More detail info about the yacht can be found here: Costa Rica Liveaboard Scuba Diving, Cocos Island | Aggressor

To be continued in next post.
 
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Dan

Dan

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The diving
We did 23 diving during the 7-day of diving around Cocos, as shown in Table 1, three dives / day on Day 1, 3 and 4; four dives / day on Day 2, 5 and 6; two dives on Day 7, the last day of the trip, as we had to sail home after the second dive, so we would be in Putarenas in the evening of 10 December at high tide. The divemaster would ring a bell 15 minutes before the scheduled dive, for donning the wetsuit and dive briefing before getting on to the pangas. Typical 3-dives / day schedule is as follows:

06:30 – breakfast
07:30 – dive 1
11:00 – dive 2
13:00 – lunch
15:30 – dive 3
19:00 – dinner

For a four-dive day schedule, dive 1 would be ~ 6:30, before breakfast; dive 2 would be ~ 10:30; dive 3 would be ~ 12:30 and dive 4 would be ~ 15:30. No diving is allowed after 17:00. This rule was set after the diving accident happened in November 2017, when a tiger shark attacked and killed a diver. After each dive, when we were back on the liveaboard, we would be provided with some water, fruit juice, fruit bits (pineapple, watermelon, orange, cantaloupe, mango, etc.) for hydration.

Day 1 at Cocos
The first day of diving was fantastic. Water temperature was about 75-79°F. Dive 1 in Chatham Bay, 50 feet depth. It’s calm & shallow dive site, a good place for checkout dive. We saw White-tip Reef sharks, Marbled ray, Guineafowl puffer, Spiny lobster, schooling snapper & goatfish.

Dive 2 in Manuelita Channel, 92 feet depth, was epic. We saw some Hammerhead sharks and my first Tiger shark, as shown in Figure 6, below.


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Figure 6: Big-mama Tiger shark cruising around Manuelita Channel dive site in Cocos.


Dive 3 in Manuelita Coral Garden, 71 feet depth, was more biodiverse than the first two dives. We saw Hammerhead shark, Whitetip Reef shark, Peacock flounder, Garden eels, Marbled ray, Panamic Green moray, Guineafowl puffer, Pacific creolefish, Glasseye snapper, Leather bass, schooling goatfish & Blue-Gold snapper.


Day 2 at Cocos
This is a four dives / day excursion. So, we started early for Dive 4. We went to Dirty Rock, 95 feet depth. We saw lots of schooling Bigeye jack, which meant not much Hammerhead sharks to be seen, but there were some Galapagos sharks. There were some schoolings of snappers and Panamic soldierfish.

Dive 5 was in Punta Maria, 98 feet depth, with panga tied on to a buoy and we descent along anchor line to the bottom. This site is where Galapagos sharks like to hangout. We also saw Pacific creolefish, free swimming Fine-spotted moray, schooling of Bluefin trevally and Bigeye jack.

Dive 6 was back in Dirty Rock with better daylight for Hammerhead shark sighting, as they don’t like video light. We saw some Hammerhead sharks this time. There were also more sighting of Galapagos sharks, flounder, fuciliers and Pacific creolefish.

Dive 7 was back to Manuelita Channel and Coral Garden,100 feet depth. We saw big-mama Tiger shark again cruising at the bottom. Some Whitetip Reef sharks were swimming below us and Hammerhead sharks in the blue. After nearing to deplete our remaining bottom time and seeing no more shark sighting in the blue, we moved on to shallow towards Manuelita Coral Garden. There we saw Harlequin shrimp munching a piece of sea-star limp inside rock piling cavity, next to giant frogfish, as shown in Figure 7, below.

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Figure 7: Harlequin shrimps munching a piece of sea-star limp inside rock piling

Day 3 at Cocos
This is a three dive / day excursion since the dive sites are on the other side of Cocos island, requiring 20-30 minutes of panga rides from Chatham Bay. Dive 8 was in Submerged Rock, 105 feet depth, seeing another Tiger shark (a skinny one). This site was also very fishy. We saw Whitetip Reef sharks, Marbled ray, Green moray, pufferfish, box fish, Bluefin trevally, and schooling snappers. We also saw reef creatures such as Spiny lobsters and Day octopus.

Dive 9 was in Alcyone, 105 feet depth. It is similar to Punta Maria, where the panga was tied on to a buoy and we descent along anchor line to the bottom. We had thermocline at the bottom with temperature down to 70 °F. We saw octopus, Whitetip Reef shark, Marbled ray, Hammerhead sharks, morays, Galapagos shark, Blue-gold snapper.

Dive 10 was back in Dirty Rock, 108 feet depth. We saw, the usual suspects (Whitetip Reef sharks, Hammerhead sharks, schooling snappers & Bigeye jack).


Day 4 at Cocos
Th is is another three dive / day excursion with long boat rides. Dive 11 was in Small Dos Amigos, 103 feet depth. We saw Galapagos shark, Hammerhead sharks, lots of Barber fish wanting to clean the Hammerhead sharks, swimming Green moray, and schooling Whitemouth jack.

Dive 12 was in Big Dos Amigos, 98 feet depth, We saw Whitetip Reef shark, Galapagos shark, Rockmover wrasse, Giant hawkfish, schooling Bigeye jack, snapper and wahoo in the blue during safety stop.

Dive 13 was in Manuelita Outside, 86 feet depth. We saw the big-mama Tiger shark again and the usual suspects, i.e., Hammerhead sharks.

Day 5 at Cocos
This is another four dives / day excursion. The boat moved to a more centrally located in Wafer Bay to save sometime of panga rides. For Dive 14 was back in Manuelita Outside, 92 feet depth, hoping to see the wall of schooling Hammerhead sharks in the blue, but none had shown up, yet, just some individuals swimming by. ☹ As bottom time dwindling, we decided to move on to the shallow with the wall on our right shoulder. Then some interesting fishes started to show up. An eagle ray went cruising by my side. We swam with it for few minutes. Towards the end of our dive, a Yellow-fin tuna passed by. Huge school of Bigeye jack were swarming us like hail falling from the sky.

Dive 15 was back to Dirty Rock, 84 feet depth. We saw Hammerhead sharks, Whitetip Reef sharks, Marbled ray, Black jack, schooling of Bigeye jack, Blue-gold snappers.

Dive 16 was back in Punta Maria, 100 feet depth, where huge Galapagos sharks cruising by. A fine-spotted moray eel happened to swim by my side while we were hunkered down waiting for the Galapagos shark parade to go by. We also saw Panamic Fang blenny, Marbled ray, schooling snapper and Bluefin trevallies. During our safety stop in the blue, Silvertip shark and Galapagos shark swam by, checking us up.

Dive 17 was back in Manuelita Channel, 84 feet depth. We saw the usual suspects, i.e., big-mama Tiger shark, Hammerhead sharks, Marbled ray. When our bottom time was about spent, we swam up to Manuelita Coral Garden to see the resident Giant frogfish (we saw 3 of them) and the Harlequin shrimp, still fiesting on sea star piece. When I was in Raja Ampat, I knew a DM who brought a sea star to Harlequin shrimp nest to feed them. I wonder if it is similar case here. We also saw schooling of Moorish Idol and Yellow-tail surgeonfish, a unique Snow-flake coral.


Day 6 at Cocos
This is our last four dives / day excursion. Dive 18 was in Shark Fin Rock, 105 feet depth. We saw Marbled ray, Almaco jack, Bluefin trevally, Whitetip Reef shark, various schooling fishes (Yellowfin surgeonfish, Blue-gold snapper, Red snapper, Bigeye jack).

Dive 19 was in Ulloa, 112 feet depth, to see Redlip batfish. We saw 3 of them. We also saw huge Marbled ray, Qoaker fish (jawfish?), Garden eels, Almaco jack, and Mexican hogfish.

Dive 20 was back in Manuelita Outside, 100 feet depth. We saw some Hammerhead sharks being cleaned by Barber fish, Whitetip Reef sharks, schoolings of Burrito grunt, Amarillo snapper and Bigeye jack.

Dive 21 was a repeat of Dive 20, 85 feet depth. Still no schooling of Hammerhead sharks in the blue was seen. We saw the similar fish that we saw earlier in Dive 20, except for a couple additional fishes, i.e., schooling Leather bass and two Yellowfin tuna near the end of our dive.

Day 7 at Cocos
This is our last diving day with two dives in the morning. It was rainy day and dark. Dive 22 was in Dirty Rock, 90 feet depth. We saw the usual suspects.

Dive 23 was in Manuelita Outside, 88 feet depth. Still no schooling of Hammerhead shark had shown up. On the way back to Chatham Bay, the water was muddy from Cocos soil runoff.


Conclusions
The seven days of diving in Cocos this time has been another great diving experience, especially after nine-moth being grounded by the pandemic. Although no Whaleshark, Oceanic manta ray and schooling of Hammerhead sharks were seen this time and poorer visibility in comparison to my previous trip to Cocos in September 2018, we see new fishes that I haven’t seen there before, like the Tiger sharks, Silvertip shark, Eagle ray and Redlip batfish. Kudos to Okeanos Aggressor 1 for allowing us to make 23 dives, 3 more dives than what was normally done in the past.
 

living4experiences

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Excellent trip report! Beautiful video and pictures! Cocos is not on my list of dive destinations, so I experience it through trip reports like yours. I had a land-based topside tour scheduled in Feb. 2021 in Costa Rica that started in San Jose and ended in Guanacaste. The trip was cancelled. My opinion is that the very strict and difficult COVID-19 rules and stringent insurance requirements were structured to keep people out of the country. I have rescheduled for 2022.
 
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Dan

Dan

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Excellent trip report! Beautiful video and pictures! Cocos is not on my list of dive destinations, so I experience it through trip reports like yours. I had a land-based topside tour scheduled in Feb. 2021 in Costa Rica that started in San Jose and ended in Guanacaste. The trip was cancelled. My opinion is that the very strict and difficult COVID-19 rules and stringent insurance requirements were structured to keep people out of the country. I have rescheduled for 2022.

Thanks for your kind words! Glad to know that you like them.

Ya, it costed me about $400 of travel insurance from DiveAssure to meet Costa Rica COVID-19 related coverage in case I got the virus there requiring hospitalization & quarantine. The reason I still went there was the special offer from Aggressor that cover those COVID-19 related extra costs. Just for getting the PCR swab test costed me $129.

Hopefully there will be less stringent rule & insurance requirement as the vaccines are given out to majority of people who need them and the pandemic is becoming more manageable by 2nd half of 2021, as my trip to Cocos in September 2020 was rescheduled to September 2021.

Actually I feel safer there than at home, where some of guys here are still refusing to wear mask. Some of them who wear masks, don’t wear them correctly, like the masks just loosely covering their mouths with their noses sticking out & over the masks. I told them: “How are you wearing your underwear?” “Is your pecker sticking out and over your underwear?” Useless!
 

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Thank you, Dan. Great video to watch on Christmas Eve day getting ready to watch the 1951 (Alister Sims) version of A Christmas Carol tonight! We were there in September 2016 and your video reminds me what I loved about Cocos. I can't believe you found a Harlequin Shrimp! Still haven't seen one despite trips to the Philippines, Raja and Wakatobi. Thanks for the treat and glad you had a great time. You had a very close encounter with the Tiger. Since that attack one year after we were there, my spouse would not consider returning, but it was very special.

Rob
 
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Dan

Dan

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Thank you, Dan. Great video to watch on Christmas Eve day getting ready to watch the 1951 (Alister Sims) version of A Christmas Carol tonight! We were there in September 2016 and your video reminds me what I loved about Cocos. I can't believe you found a Harlequin Shrimp! Still haven't seen one despite trips to the Philippines, Raja and Wakatobi. Thanks for the treat and glad you had a great time. You had a very close encounter with the Tiger. Since that attack one year after we were there, my spouse would not consider returning, but it was very special.

Rob

Glad to hear that you like it.

I was thrilled to see such beautiful shrimp when I saw it for the first time in Lembeh in 2012. Then I didn’t see them again until 2016 in Raja Ampat. When Captain / DM Mauricio of Okeanos Aggressor 1 told us that there are Harlequin shrimps in Manuelita Coral Garden, I was flabbergasted and couldn’t believe it. I got to see them for myself.

About the Tiger sharks, they are harmless if you know how to handle them. The accident happened during a safety stop when the diver was alone, away from the group. Since then we were told to stick together, at least be closed with your buddy who is watching your blind spots and vice versa, as those Tiger sharks are sneaky.

When we were in Manuelita Channel, our backs were against the wall and when we were in safety stop, we were together in a group with the panga was right above us. When our safety stop time was done and the coast was clear, DM would point to one of us to ascend to the surface right away, hand off the camera & fins to the panga pilot and swiftly get on to the panga, one diver at a time. He would be the last one to get on the panga. He also carry along a bayonet like poker for poking any sharks away from us.

We have seen other sharks (Silvertip, Galápagos, Silky) swimming by during safety stop in the blue water. Once we went vertical and be on our each other back and made eye contact with them, they usually just swim away.
 

drrich2

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When you are ready to go diving, you just don your wetsuit, listen to the dive briefing and walk to the panga as everything else is already set up and ready to go at the panga. No need to haul your gear in / out the panga before and after each dives.

Love that trip report; very useful to people planning or considering such a trip. The stateroom photo was really nice; good to see what to expect.

My only panga experience as diving the Galapagos with the Humboldt Explorer Jan. 2020. We had to gear up on deck and step down into the pangas (but IIRC, crew got our gear out of the pangas after we got back to the main boat). I like the way you describe, though I wonder if it's a hassle getting a weight belt on for some people in a panga. If I have to use one to supplement my integrated weight system, since I'm chunky I wrap it around just above my hips, bend over and really girt that belt up so it'll 'stick' on me. Of course, I guess one could do that on the main boat.

Your video reminds me of the Galapagos, with a mainly rocky/boulder-strewn landscape, some corals but mostly not what I think of as 'reef diving,' waters teeming with fish, and fair viz. that made me wish it was great because of all those fish to photograph!

How would you compare your Cocos trip to a Galapagos trip? I imagine some people will strive to choose between the two. I see some of the same animals (e.g.: white-tip sharks, scalloped hammerheads, guineafowl pufferfish, giant hawkfish) - but the Galapagos aren't known for tiger sharks (whether that's good or bad you decide!).
 

peeweediver

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Glad to hear that you like it.

I was thrilled to see such beautiful shrimp when I saw it for the first time in Lembeh in 2012. Then I didn’t see them again until 2016 in Raja Ampat. When Captain / DM Mauricio of Okeanos Aggressor 1 told us that there are Harlequin shrimps in Manuelita Coral Garden, I was flabbergasted and couldn’t believe it. I got to see them for myself.

About the Tiger sharks, they are harmless if you know how to handle them. The accident happened during a safety stop when the diver was alone, away from the group. Since then we were told to stick together, at least be closed with your buddy who is watching your blind spots and vice versa, as those Tiger sharks are sneaky.

When we were in Manuelita Channel, our backs were against the wall and when we were in safety stop, we were together in a group with the panga was right above us. When our safety stop time was done and the coast was clear, DM would point to one of us to ascend to the surface right away, hand off the camera & fins to the panga pilot and swiftly get on to the panga, one diver at a time. He would be the last one to get on the panga. He also carry along a bayonet like poker for poking any sharks away from us.

We have seen other sharks (Silvertip, Galápagos, Silky) swimming by during safety stop in the blue water. Once we went vertical and be on our each other back and made eye contact with them, they usually just swim away.

I do know that new procedure have made it safer. We have kept in touch with the crew we had (they were the ones present during the incident) and I agree that staying together, keeping your eyes open during the safety stop and boarding the panga is critical. On the other hand, having hammerheads around you during the safety stop was a ton of fun!

Rob
 
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Dan

Dan

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How would you compare your Cocos trip to a Galapagos trip? I imagine some people will strive to choose between the two. I see some of the same animals (e.g.: white-tip sharks, scalloped hammerheads, guineafowl pufferfish, giant hawkfish) - but the Galapagos aren't known for tiger sharks (whether that's good or bad you decide!).

Excluding the cost, I would choose Galápagos, which is more bio-diverse. You won’t see penguins, marine iguanas, mola-mola, Sealions in Cocos.

During this pandemic situation, Cocos gets my vote due to short (< 4hrs) nonstop flight and being more sharky. I tried to get to Galápagos right after Christmas with the 50% off offers by some liveaboards and had to give it up trying with long layover international flights in Panama & Guayaquil with total travel time of > 11 hours and no available domestic flight to GPS.

34 hour sailing to Cocos in December 2020 with Okeanos Aggressor 1 wasn’t as pleasant as with Argo in September 2018. May be the weather change (from raining to dry season) in December is rougher than in September (raining season). Okeanos Aggressor 1 may also be not as stable as Argo. The constant side-to-side swing during the crossing from Puntarenas to Cocos on Okeanos Aggressor 1 made me sea sick. The sea sickness medicine did not help. It was OK on the return trip. With Argo I slept like a baby. Sailing in Galápagos was no problem for me. I didn’t even take sea sickness medicine then.
 
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