Central AmericaScubaSouth America

May 4, 2007: Malpelo

We – the busy divers – have a set schedule on the boat for each day at Malpelo. No rest for the wicked:

  • 7:00 AM – Breakfast
  • 8:00 AM – Dive #1
  • Post-dive snacks
  • 11:00 AM – Dive #2
  • 1:00 – Lunch
  • 2:30 – Dive #3
  • Post-dive snacks
  • 7:00 PM – Dinner

It’s surprising how quickly time flies when you’re doing physically exhausting activities. It’s also surprising how quickly the body reacts to those physical demands. We’re starving after every dive, exhausted by the end of the day, and there’s no desire to dehydrate the body with glasses of beer or wine. All my body wants is water, water, and more water. And Diet Coke of course.

Dive 1: The Three Musketeers

On each dive, we do a rolling seated entry to get into the water – which means we suit up, sit on the edge of the boat, and roll backwards into the water. If done correctly, the force of the entry plus a few well-placed kicks puts me on a solid head-first descent for at least the first 10-20 feet of the dive. So I’ll see the boat, then the waterline as I flip backward, and finally the rock wall and my fellow divers down below me as I complete the flip. I mention this because – on our first dive today – I flipped backward, kicked down head-first, angled my head and looked directly at a school of big eyed trevali and snappers that was so dense it was as if the entire floor of the ocean was carpeted by them.

Since there are a number of quality photographers on this trip I’ve already learned a few photography pointers that I can apply on my little point-and-shoot Canon such as “always shoot from the bottom up”. There’s also the “don’t use your flash unless you have a strobe or unless you’re six inches away” rule, which is a bummer since my Ikelite underwater housing cuts off about 1/4 of my flash. No worries though, since Eric gave me the perfect opportunity to shoot from the bottom up and with natural lighting:

Eric surrounded by fish

Since we’d dropped into the spot where the current hit the rocks, this is where most of the marine life concentrated so we stayed for a while. Beyond this spot of the rocks, the current eased and so did the marine life. Another lesson learned: the good stuff sits facing the current since this is where they get dibs on the food.

The Oddest Bait Ball Ever Seen

After we’d climbed back on the boat and disassembled our gear, we spotted a number of bird clusters over the water. Always great news because that means bait balls and bait balls mean fun fish/shark activity under the surface. Even though we had no Nitrox in our tanks, we decided we wanted to snorkel around one of bait balls so we closed in on one that showed a lot of activity near the surface. But as the boat got closer the fish descended and the birds left to find more action. I teased Eric – “Just like the Sardine Run all over again”, where we’d find something exciting only to have it disappear by the time we arrived.

This was interesting, though, because we realized that the bigger bait ball had appeared around a smaller bait ball… in a laundry basket. We laughed so hard when we got close — a blue laundry basket was floating top-up on the surface of the water and in it were about thirty or forty spotted fish. The bigger fish swarmed around it, trying to get the smaller fish, and the birds circled around them, trying to get the bigger fish. Eco systems at their finest.

Eric, Fabio (our dive master) and I jumped in to snorkel and I snapped a few interesting photos:

Eric freediving – you can just make out the faint shape of the school of fish below him

Dirty Laundry Fish

After our short-lived bait ball snorkel, Lucien insisted that we get the laundry basket out of the water since it’s trash and this is a natural preserve. So we maneuvered the boat over so he could grab the basket and dump the fish into the water. Sending them, of course, to their untimely demise. “Fish murderer!” we teased him.

Dive 2: The Fridge – Out

Our second dive was a site we did the first day so Fabio’s dive briefing – which usually involves a whiteboard drawing and in-depth discussion of our dive plan – sounded like this, “We’re diving Fridge Out. Any questions?” We looked at each other, grinned, and shrugged, “All right then. Let’s go!”

Lucien’s been diving with Eric for years, so he does an excellent job as Eric’s buddy and keeps a good eye on our roving photographer, giving me plenty of time to explore the reefs. But on this dive Lucien had a fin mishap and had to abort the dive which means I was on Eric Duty – an entirely different and extraordinary way to experience a dive. He spots things that I would never see and is proof that, if you wait, very often the marine life comes to you. We settled into one spot on the reef where a number of hammerheads filtered through a “cleaning station” where smaller fish clean the hammers teeth and flanks. We also saw a couple of white tips and an eagle ray, and Eric spent quite a bit of time filming a dense school of snapper in the surge.

Eric in the surge

Photography 101

Between dives, E and I sat in our “office” and downloaded pictures to our various hard drives and talked about different photography techniques. Red filters… white balance… ISO… and then details about using Photoshop to liven up the pictures. He’s convinced that – by the end of the trip – I’ll be taking pictures and using Photoshop like a champ. I’ll be happy with pictures that are just in focus. 🙂

Dive 3: Monster Face

Our final dive was a calm, current-free spot called “Monster Face”. We’d hoped this was because we would see the elusive Monster Shark, but the site was named because the above-water rock structure looks like – you guessed it – a monster’s face. Beneath the surface it was COLD. At least 69 degrees below the thermocline so I moved a little shallower to warmer water which turned out to be a good move since most of the action was at around 40 feet. There, was saw a big school of blue striped snapper, a few playful flounders, and a wonderful school of barracuda – which is when I switched from photography to video. I especially enjoyed our safety stop, which was scenically surrounded by creole fish.


Barracuda school fleeing – with bonus shots of Lucien and ESunset Cruise

At 6:00 a small group of us took a sunset cruise around Malpelo, capturing the play of light off the rocks as the sun went down. We were a cheery party because Pepe, the skiff driver, is full of jokes and silliness. We managed to get a few minutes away where the angle of the Three Musketeers provided a lovely contrast to the backdrop of Malpelo and the setting sun, when Pepe’s radio beeped through that someone back on the boat wanted to come up with us. “Make him swim!” we laughed. It was David, our soft-spoken Parisian doctor, so of course we didn’t mind circling back to get him.

Sea Hunter in front of Malpelo, pre-sunset

The Three Kings at sunset


Shark Reef – Fiji

After dinner Michael Copeland showed us a DVD of his dive operation in Fiji called Shark Reef – a special preservation of various types of shark. He has some excellent shots of some tiger sharks and lemon sharks and we were thoroughly entertained by the footage. Who knew that sharks have very definite personalities? But they come through very clearly on film.