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A daring dive into the wild blue off Costa Rica
Don't Miss:Geo QuizOakland needs toy donationsSilicon Valley state?So long, 415Girls' brains vs. boysCarroll: Acts of kindnessThe scent of Reggie Bush White Jersey diesel, rusting anchors and fish slurry hung in the humid air of the harbor. I was in Puntarenas on the western shore of Costa Rica, waiting to leave on a scuba diving trip to Cocos Island often called an "underwater Serengeti" because of the many species found there, especially the schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks.
But I was remembering that this town has a darker side: It is the shark finning capital of Central America.
Though finning is outlawed in Costa Rica, fishing sharks is legal. In 2011, British celebrity chef and his film crew approached fishermen here unloading shark fins; the traffickers doused the chef and crew in gasoline and forced them out of town at gunpoint. And the protected waters around Cocos Island are especially favored by shark poachers.
I moved closer to our boat's slip and met the other 17 passengers. They were from Switzerland, France, Israel, England and Texas among other places. All were serious divers. And good thing: We were headed out on a 36 hour ride in choppy seas that would take us 330 miles west to swim with the sharks.
Voyage to Isla Cocos
After the day and a half journey, I awoke to see a crane lowering our dive boats from the deck of our ship, the Argo, to the water's surface. A cappuccino maker in the main room was getting a workout, and breakfast was made to order omelets and tropical fruit.
I hurried on deck to see Cocos Island. It's the top of a submerged volcano, with a circumference of sheer rock cliffs circled by gulls, frigates, white terns and boobies. In 1978, the island and 12 miles of seas surrounding it became a Costa Rican national park, and, in 1997, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.
Park rangers from the www.lionsnflofficialonline.com/lions-reggie-bush-jersey-c-9.html island boarded, led by , who sported a long dark beard, a camouflage cap with a patch, a necklace with a silver hammerhead pendant and a pistol in a shoulder holster. I had read on his Facebook page that his mantra was "Hasta La Victoria, Siempre" or "Until Victory, Always." He was talking about stopping shark poachers.
As Golfin spoke in Spanish, a translator gave the gist of the park rules: No touching the animals, no taking coral or anything else. Only a half dozen rangers patrol the ocean sanctuary; they are outgunned and outmanned by poachers equipped with radar to warn of approaching boats. The far less dangerous part of the rangers' jobs is to keep divers from boneheaded behavior, like trying to pet the sharks. Those warnings imparted, the rangers left.
Our dive master, , told us our first dive would be shallow, only 40 feet, and mostly so we could get used to our weights and gear. We divided into two groups, boarded the small boats, and headed to a reef Limited Reggie Bush Jersey called Manuelita. There, we submerged to find coral reefs with creatures straight from "Finding Nemo": Polka dotted guinea fowl puffer fish and spear like Chinese trumpetfish swam by, a small whitetip reef shark rested on the ocean floor, an orange frogfish crept from under a rock, and schools of blue and gold snapper shimmered past.
Later, as I toweled off, my roommate, Shui from Shanghai, said, "You know, a lot of people have died here. Not from sharks, but the current grabs them and carries them off. Never seen again."
Part of learning to dive is overcoming fear of an alien environment. You have to trust your gear, keep your dive buddy in sight, read the surges and currents, and never panic and surface too quickly. And then there are the sharks.
I surf in the Bay Area's ocean, part of the so called "Red Triangle" where great white sharks migrate every year to have their young and feed on sea lions. Statistically speaking, I knew better than to fear sharks they kill only about five people a year, worldwide but part of me still did. Waiting for a swell while surfing, I looked for dorsal fins. I don't like to be the only surfer in the water. I don't eat shark, in hopes of good karma. I don't wear "yum yum yellow" in the water, a color that many believe sharks are attracted to. In California, I had not wanted to face my fears underwater. Small gold and black barber fish, the size of my hand and shaped like angel fish, school around rock pinnacles, awaiting their "customers." As sharks pass slowly by, the little fish clean them off, making the sharks healthier and able to swim faster.
Currents whipped up like underwater whirlwinds, and I clung to a rock and watched. Two marbled rays hovered, their wings swaying, and yellowfin tuna hunted in the cliffs. Then, overhead, loomed the large, perfect silhouette of a hammerhead.
The hammerhead approached the cleaning station and slowed to a sway as the barber fish nibbled off the parasites. She turned her head to look at me from an eye that juts out at 90 degrees. This gives hammerheads 360 degree eyesight helpful for catching quick squid in the depths. White, thunderbolt shaped scars from mating etched the skin near her gills. She was glorious. And then she was gone.
Over dinner of steamed vegetables and snapper I hesitated before taking the fish our two dive groups compared what they had seen that day. Stephanie from Paris announced that they had seen a whale shark. In fact, she swam right alongside it. These plankton eaters are the biggest fish in the sea. They are polka dotted, mostly unafraid of people, and, Stephanie swore, she must have been 40 feet long. Our team boasted of the hammerheads we had seen. A little competition was developing between our groups.
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