Central AmericaScubaSouth America

May 5 2007: Malpelo

Today was a day of humor and hilarity. On almost every trip, it takes a few days for travelers to get used to one another but eventually their true (and wickedly witty) natures override their polite exteriors. For example, Lucien and I are having une petite affaire de couer, so each morning he greets me with a European double-kiss and tells me something chivalrous and hilarious. Like this morning, when I got two rounds of kisses because yesterday he was running late and didn’t see me.

Lucien: “Heidi you are more beautiful everyday.”
Me: *fluttering my eyelashes appropriately* “Merci Lucien.”
Lucien: “Can I tell you something funny now?”
Me: “Of course.”
Lucien: “I’m not wearing my glasses. Ha ha ha ha!!!”

LOL – so much for chivalry.

Dive #1: Scuba

We’ve swapped dive masters with the blue skiff, so today Wilson was our dive master and began his briefing with his typical humor and heavy Costa Rican accent: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is my favorite part of the day since its the only time people pay attention to me. Please let me tell you about our first dive site… ” Our first dive of the day was at a rock named, creatively, “Scuba”. I was looking forward to this particular dive for two reasons: because it’s an especially deep dive, and because this is where we’d find the red-lipped batfish I’ve heard so much about.

We descended immediately down the rock wall to about 130 feet where the batfish typically live. I love deep dives. The current is easier, the visibility generally clearer, and the ocean lives differently at depth. Of course, it’s cold. We passed two different thermoclines on our descent and my little 5mm wetsuit hardly provided adequate coverage, but you usually can’t stay long enough at depth to suffer terribly.

There were a handful of red-lipped batfish on the sandy bottom. They sit on the sand with their odd legs, chicken-wing-like sides, and big, red lips with hairy mustaches – truly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen underwater. I took a few pictures until I realized that the fuzziness on my camera wasn’t the sand but rather the condensation that built up as a result of the deep cold. The technical mishaps didn’t end there; my Suunto Stinger dive computer is set to a ridiculously conservative setting so the Nitrox calculations limited my depth to 124 feet which means that it started beeping ten feet before we got to the batfish. I thought I’d planned ahead and turned off the dive alarm but clearly my plan didn’t work so well. Beep! Beep! Beep! My next big gear purchase will be an upgraded dive computer with a little more forgiveness. That’s for next year.

Funky-looking red lipped batfish. (and camera condensation to the left)

Once we ascended, the water got bluer and warmer and the fish more plentiful. Of course so did the current and surge but that’s the price we pay. We found a lovely school of barberfish and grouper, but not much else aside from lovely rock formations.

Dive #2: Sahara

E had requested we return to Three Musketeers because yesterday he’d been videoing and he wanted some stills of the snapper in the current. All the group was delighted with this decision, but the current was unfortunately uncooperative so we had to cancel and instead returned to Sahara. Again, the current didn’t cooperate. There was a murky thermocline at about 50 feet that turned the water from a brilliant blue to a filmy brown-green – always interesting to see since there was a very clear line between one depth and another. We stayed in the brownish-green for a while but we couldn’t see anything beyond the occasional murky shape of a hammerhead drifting by. So we moved above the murkiness and swam into the “blue” with the hopes of finding more hammers – but they drift into our line of sight as a tease then skirt away, unsettled by the sound of our bubbles.

E and Lucien above the thermocline – note the green/brown on the bottom and the blue above

Eric had his still camera and Lucien had Eric’s video camera so that all bases were covered, but because we had time to kill with very little action, Eric handed me his massive still camera and demonstrated how to work the shutter. My pictures are hardly interesting – there’s not much to photograph when you’re diving in the blue except for… well… the blue and your fellow divers. Eric would tell me later that, usually, on these types of dives he and his friends will counter the boredom with underwater practical jokes – such as unstrapping each others’ tanks when no one’s looking. Diver humor knows no boundaries.

We aborted the dive after only 30 minutes since there was nothing to see. While we disassembled our tanks in the skiff, Renee made us all laugh by singing to the tune of “Singing in the Rain”: “We’re diiiiving in the green… just diiiiving in the green…. ”

Warren, our skiff driver, maneuvered our boat near the blue skiff so we could pick up Pilar and Christian who were removing some fishing line from around one of the reefs. Fishing is prohibited on Malpelo, but evil fishermen sneak into certain spots that are out of the line of sight from the Coast Guard and drop fishing line nearby. They let the lines run for miles and then return, hours later, to reel the lines in with all their illegal booty. We felt like we thwarted their evil plans – just this once.

This is a random memory that I want to keep: on our ride back to the Sea Hunter we had a rather lively discussion about the various words for “bathroom” across the world. I told Richard that I had to “use the loo” – which I always thought was a global term for bathroom. Global in the British Commonwealth, maybe, but clearly not in Switzerland because Richard and Renee looked at me with the strangest expressions on their faces. This prompted a listing of all the different words or phrases for bathroom: toilet being the most prominent, then WC, bathroom, salle de bain, and the American phrase which most foreigners don’t get: restroom. Since I had to use the loo / toilet / bathroom (badly), I hustled off the skiff and onto the Sea Hunter so I could get out of my wetsuit as quickly as possible. Naturally everyone knew exactly where I was headed and Wilson yelled out, “Heydee!” (because that’s how they say my name here – “Heydee”) “Heydee! Wait! I have to talk to you! Just a few more minutes – don’t go nowhere yust yet!” I love how quickly we – even the crew – transition from being polite to being comfortably, hilariously wicked with each other.

Dive #3: Castaway

By far, one of the most beautiful dives I’ve done yet. E and I stayed to the back of the group and we let the current carry us across the rock face until we swam across a massive – and I mean MASSIVE – school of creole fish and jordan snapper that sat in the surge. The schools were so dense that we could swim up to them and they’d part only slightly to let us through, then close on the back end so we were surrounded by fish on all sides. A school of blue-striped snapper arrived to add brilliant yellow to the mix, making this a photographer’s dream. So we stayed for quite some time to snap shots and enjoy the scenery. In the blue the odd hammer would swim by, curious, and two lovely spotted eagle rays, but most of the action were these thousands upon thousands of fish.

Spotted Eagle Ray Hammerhead passing by

Of course there are only so many pictures my point-and-shoot can take of gazillions of fish, so after a while I joined Janet and Greg – two Americans from Michigan – on their hammerhead watch. We perched ourselves on the side of the rocks, wedging our hands and knees into crevasses to take hold against the strong current, and from this point we stared into the blue to look for sharks. It’s true what they say about nature: that if you sit still for long enough that nature will come to you — I swear the entire ocean passed us by in the 10 minutes we stayed. Groupers, snappers, trevali, moray eels, and even the hammers felt a little more emboldened to approach, but of course not close enough for me to get quality photos.

Eric’s pic of me swimming with the jordan snappers
We rounded the corner to find our entire dive group perched much the same: hanging on to rocks while their feet flew into the current. When Wilson saw us he gave the signal that we should all ascend (our dive had been almost 50 mins long), so we released our various hand-holds and – woosh! – let the current whisk us into the blue for our safety stop. It was here, at 15 feet, that we looked down and found the ocean carpeted by a school of hammerheads beneath us. I pointed my camera down and cursed at the words that blinked back at me: “Please change battery pack” Gah!


Just after we returned to the Sea Hunter, a large gathering of birds began to circle a few hundred yards from the boat showing signs of a bait ball underneath the water. They circled the spot for a half-hour and we – envious divers drooling at the possibility of exciting marine activity – stood on deck and desperately wished our tanks still had air and that the sun was still high so we could explore beneath the surface. “Next time!” Wilson promised.

Eric and I did our typical post-dive journaling / downloading / office time on the floor of our teensy cabin, and then I went topside to watch the sunset with Thomas and Claudia. Of course I was late (I always lose track of time when I’m journaling) so the sun was already well below the clouds when I arrived.

We leave Malpelo tomorrow afternoon for Cocos Island, so Pilar will be returning to her spot in the Coast Guard barracks where she’ll wait for the next dive boat to pass through. After dinner she asked that we complete a survey on behalf of the Columbian government – questions about the dive operation, the quality of the diving, the cleanliness of the sites, the respect of the divers, etc. The survey itself prompted a great deal of conversation among the Swiss contingent: “What means ‘Strongly agree’? If you ‘agree’, why wouldn’t you ‘strongly agree’? Why have two choices?” Of course this would make no sense to them because they feel every opinion strongly and passionately, so anything less than ‘strongly’ is redundant. But we found this endlessly amusing and for the rest of the evening we inserted “strongly” as a preface to all our opinions:

Lucien: “Wilson, is there ice cream? I strongly agree that I would like some ice cream.”

Wilson: “I strongly agree that we’ll dive a bait ball tomorrow… as long as you all still have air in your tanks.”

Renee: “I strongly believe it is time to go to bed.”