This afternoon the filming crew took a break and the other divers onboard the Ranger — writers and support crew — went out to Manuelita. I don’tt know where to start.
It was late in the afternoon when we left. The sky was dark and the surface of the water breaking in swells and whitecaps. Hussein, who is patient in three languages, talked us through gear set-up and got us into the dingy. Aitor, a diver himself but too generous to put on a mask before every other person has had a chance, drove us to Manuelita across the waves.
We got our BCs on; we pressed masks to faces. We sat on the side of the dingy and flipped backwards, fins up.
There is so much under the water! Too much to know where to look. The bottom was rocky, like a moonscape, cratered, scattered with boulders. Every few feet an otherworldly rock formation rose from the seafloor. There were fish everywhere. Schools of soldierfish (red fish with big black eyes), deep purple surgeonfish edged with gold, trumpetfish — some bright yellow, others translucent with a scattering of neon blue spots at one end — hanging in the water. It’s impossible to tell which end of a trumpetfish is the front, an effective deterrent for predators and admirers alike, and more than once I found myself seeking eye contact with an indifferent rear. There were lobsters in crevices, anemones among the rocks, pufferfish (some yellow, some black/white and spotted), large elegant angelfish, butteflyfish… so very many fish. An occasional parrotfish would dart by, looking paranoid; with its heavy head the parrotfish doesn’t seem to me made for rapid movement. And then there were groupers, larger fish that didn’t move rapidly at all, didn’t move at our approach, big fish mottled blue/green or brown/gray. They stared back, turned a superior and cynical eye.
And then there were the sharks. Those I saw were whitetips; some of the other divers saw silkys and blacktips as well. When we first dropped to the seafloor they were occasional. Every minute or so a smooth gray body would glide into our field of vision, just below or just next to us. They kept close to the bottom, slipping around the sculpted rocks, silvery and sinewy, nothing superfluous in their muscled form. These were small sharks, maybe four feet on average. They move with quick, purposeful twists of the body, like the practiced flick of a whip. Swish swish. And then they glide. Swish swish. Glide. I reminded myself to breathe evenly and remembered what I know: that sharks attack humans very, very rarely and almost always in self-defence. That the great majority of attacks are perpetrated by bigger, brasher species like the tiger shark, bull shark, great white. That, contrary to the cultural mythology that I have apparently, unknowingly, absorbed, sharks are intelligent and cautious creatures at a far greater risk from mankind than they are a menace to us.
The protection afforded to sharks at Cocos Island, in fact, is one of the park’s most salient points. Nearly everywhere else in this region sharks are hunted for their fins. Shark finning laws are lax, selectively enforced or non-existent. Within Central America, Costa Rica has some of the more stringent regulations: under a brand new fishing law, finning is technically illegal, and all boats are required to offload their catch at public docks. Notwithstanding, the government lacks the personnel and resources to enforce the law, and Punta Arenas is studded with private docks where fins are transferred from Costa Rican longliners to the bigger export ships that will carry them across the Pacific to Asia. “Yes, there is a law,” says Samuel Morales, a member of the MarViva crew, “but if you have the money to build your own dock, you do it.” Other countries in this area, like El Salvador, have no shark finning laws at all, and there are rumors that with rising attention to the problem in Costa Rica the larger finning fleets are moving there. In any case Cocos Island is a much-needed refuge for sharks in a hostile sea. Remembering all that, I drew more calmly from my tank and took the time to enjoy my proximity to such incredible and vulnerable animals.
At the end of the dive we ascended to a depth of 15 feet to make a decompression stop. We looked down. The ocean floor was alive with sharks. There were more. They were larger. They twisted and swung their bodies, going everwhere and nowhere. We hung in the water, incredulous, looking down, rising and falling with our breathing and with the swells. The sharks could not have cared less.