Swimming with Sharks off Coco Island

This article first appeared in 
The San Francisco Examiner
TWENTY feet below the surface, the ocean swallows the color red. We swam 90 feet below, gliding slowly upward through curtains of tropical fish, along the crags of an underwater mountain, off the pristine Isla del Coco, 300 miles
of Costa Rica, in the equatorial eastern Pacific. We watched sharks-–hundreds of them, white tips and hammerheads–-as they lay on ledges or cruised past us.

Rising to 40 feet, a pale green liquid filled by mask. I looked at it, then at two white tips within arm’s reach. At the surface the fluid in my mask would have been bright red, but this depth the blood was green.


Earlier in the day we sat in a natural jacuzzi at the base of a 300 foot waterfall on Coco Island. The water felt cool and smelled sweet enough to drink. Rainbows circled us amid a silvery mist. From the pool below the falls, we could look through the jungle and see Evole--an 85-foot ketch, our only link with civilization–-anchored in the distance.

We swam across the deep, broad pool and lay on warm slabs of rock. No one would disturb us. The waterfall was not easy to reach.

To get there required a three-day cruise from Costa Rica, then a dinghy that can get within 50 yards of a rocky, surf-beaten shore, then a swim, then a hobble, negotiating boulders and waves. We followed a stream, scaled a jungle hillside by clinging to a fallen tree and then, parting thick leaves, founded the Edenic pool.

“Not a soul,” I said, amazed a place so beautiful had not been overrun.

“Of course there's no one. This is a fantasy," my guide said.

Coco Island, like its hundreds of waterfalls, like the ocean that surrounds it, is the essence of purity and peace.

Five degrees above the equator, Coco, said to be the largest uninhabited island in the world (approximately nine square miles), is a Costa Rican national park, accessible only by boats carrying special permits. Its very inconvenience has preserved it for us, and from us.

Physically, the volcanic island is abrupt and dramatic. It has only 3 beaches and they disappear during high tide. It rises to a 2,200-foot peak with verdant, sheer, 1,500-foot cliffs–-like extravagant hanging gardens–-and accompanying waterfalls along most of its coastline. Tidal surges have cut deep caves and blowholes into the lava cliffs. Numerous smaller islands and rocks lie offshore. Beneath the water, they emulate the larger island’s forbidding vertical edges.

The interior of Coco is a dense jungle, cut by streams, and a few trails and colored by spotlights of sun that bring forth vivid yellows and greens. A hike, even along stream’s stepping-stones, is arduous. But the hardy are rewarded by visits from Faery Terns-–beautiful, pure white, swallow-like birds that, when not performing aerial pas de deux over the island, hover impatiently near one's head until the uninvited move on.

There's also the promise of other rewards. According to old maps and diaries, pirates hid their treasures on Coco Island. Doubloons have been found occasionally, but so far, the island has kept the big treasures to herself.


“So how was the waterfall? Nice?” The Italian, Renato Redaelli, rarely left the ship except to scuba dive. A research physicist in the real world, Renato is a scuba junkie and was the dive master of the trip. It was his evangelical mission to make a diver of me, and he took it as high treason to miss a dive in favor of a hike.

“It was spectacular. You should try it.”

“Maybe so. How is your nose?”

My nose was problem. I had blown it too hard clearing my ears during my first dive. Later, on the boat, the nose bled and my ears plugged

“There's no pain.”

“Good. So you will dive today?”

“Yes. But not deep.”


Different people enjoy different aspects of underwater diving.

For Robert Horowitz, a trim, successful, 61-year-old Boston businessman, it was a lesson in relaxation, a floating world where no telephone or beeper could make demands. For David Goldman, a 47-year-old engineer, it was mobility. “It provides an experience of outer space for someone who knows he’ll never get there,” he said.

For me it was a sensation of being suspended off frighteningly high cliffs, of flying, of watching bubbles rise in hundred-foot ribbons.

For Renato, it was sharks. “I like the way they move,” he said. “They are the kings. They are like lions. I would also like to see lions.”

This was a good place for sharks. The marine life around Coco Island is abundant, varied and colorful-–stingrays, lobsters, parrotfish, Moorish idols, gars, wahoos, dorados, dolphins, Moray eels, sea urchins and sharks; everyone is well-fed and content. Some fish seem almost domesticated, coming up regularly beside the boat for handouts of watermelon, oranges or cornflakes.

But on our first deep dive, I worried. My bad dreams are populated with sharks. The only sharks I had ever seen were on TV, and that was close enough. But I decided to dive here, and so relied on the assurances of other divers.

As we approach the first dive site, one of the divers, the 32-year-old Swedish crewman named Roger, told me to stay with him.

“You can get this close to the white tips,” he said, holding his arms a foot apart. “Don't worry. They only eat at night.”

“Good,” I said. “Just don't do anything to make them mad.”

We neared Manuelito Rock, put in our air and flipped into the ocean. I looked below me as I descended. The water, ledges and bottom far below were littered with sharks. And, as Roger said, they were disinterested, even skittish around us. Instead of fearful, I became fascinated.

We approached one shark that rested on a ledge. Roger motioned me to come close. We moved within four feet of the shark, trying to be stealthy. Then Roger picked up a rock and dropped it on the sleeper’s head.

The shark wheeled and swam off (to assemble his friends, I was sure). I shook my fist at Roger, who shrugged.

A 10 feet, we decompressed. There we saw our first hammerhead. It stretched to 10-feet long and moved at the edge of visibility. Its body shone sleek and powerful. Its monstrously wide head seemed omniscient as it swept the water laterally. It seemed that hammerheads were to white tips what watchdogs were to lapdogs–-a breed with more important business and the ability to take care of it.

It moved away from us, then suddenly back toward us as if it had remembered something...then, thinking better of it, returned to the shadows again. Renato tried for a picture. Roger tried nothing funny.


“So,” Renato said, “you will see more sharks today.”

“No doubt,” I said. “Horowitz missed seeing the hammerhead. He’d like to see one today.”

“What about you?”

“You seen one, you’ve seen them all,” I said, not wanting to tempt the devil.

We dove to 90 feet and the sinuses felt fine--no pain, no blood. We coasted along the cliffs of Cascara Rock, grabbing at lobsters, pointing at eels and bullying through formations of indignant white tips. It was the assent that caused the trouble.

The easing of pressure allowed the blood to flow from my nose into the mask. Normally, one clears a flooded mask by blowing air into it from the nose. Obviously, that was not an option. Conventional wisdom eschews the mixing of blood and sharks. But it offers scant advice and almost no hope for those so involved. Panic is almost prescribed.

But around Coco Island, panic is as remote as civilization. The serene island, the image of the waterfall, had conferred a confidence born of peace. Like the transformation of color at different depths, there is, at Coco Island, a transformation of attitude.

We spoke of it at dinner on the Evole that night.

“Look at that sunset,” said Robert Horowitz, “is that beautiful?”

“How is your nose?” said Renato.


“Were you afraid?” He seemed eager.

“No,” I said. “Not here. This is part of Costa Rica--a democracy surrounded by sharks, a Central American peace plan, bloodless bullfights, calm seas, no army and no revolution. This is Eden. Sharks don't bite here.”

Renato shrugged and threw perfectly good macaroon overboard.

“Why'd you do that?”

“To feed the fish,” he said. "If you don't give them desert, they’ll never go home.”