Central AmericaScubaSouth America

May 2, 2007: Malpelo

I woke up at 1:30 this morning violently, disgustingly ill. I didn’t want to get sick in our little cabin so I raced up the stairs to the head in the main room, where I promptly disposed of my dinner. I wracked my brain, trying to think of what this was – not sea sickness because it wasn’t just vomiting, it was (ew) the other thing too. Food poisoning? A stomach flu? I settled onto one of the couches to wait it out, and this is where I stayed for the rest of the morning… save a few other heinous trips to the bathroom. Sleep must have found me eventually because I woke up to the sounds of the staff preparing breakfast at 5AM.

Over the next few hours, fellow divers wandered in and out of the lounge; all full of advice, medication, and sympathy. Eric showed up around 7AM and flopped on the opposite couch – he started to get sick at 4AM. We were quite the pair – laying prone on parallel couches, trying to sleep and fight this bug as best we could. Richard gave us each an Immodium tablet which seemed to help, so by the time we arrived at Malpelo Island (45 hours after leaving Punterenas) we were both eating, feeling a bit more human and seemingly kicked the bug – whatever it was.

Malpelo Coast Guards

Malpelo Island is a protected reserve off the coast of Columbia that was recently named on of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites because of its eco system and abundance of life. The island has a permanent staff of Columbian Coast Guards whose job it is to ensure that the people diving in these waters are (a) legitimate people, (b) educated about the importance of preservation, and (c) not poaching or harming the marine life.

Only one dive boat is allowed at the island at any time, and we’d been warned in advance that – though we were already on the Malpelo dive schedule – we’d have to get final approval from the Coast Guard to dive this week. This means that the Columbian Coast Guards boarded our boat with full uniforms and machine guns (yes, machine guns) to have a look at all our passports and to give us some information about Malpelo. As they rounded the room, one by one, they looked at each of our passports and began to ask questions, which made us slightly nervous until we heard the questions. “How did you hear about Malpelo?”… “Have you been here before?”…. “Are you with so and so over there?”…. We found the line of questioning endearing – these guys live on this island for a month at a time and probably relish the idea of meeting new people. The only other excitement they get is when a masked boobie lays an egg near their barracks.

The guards stayed for about an hour, socializing with the crew, munching on our food, and enjoying people and scenery outside their island while we bustled about, preparing our gear for dive #1.

Dive #1: Virginia’s Altar

I was on the fence about diving since my stomach was still suffering and I was terribly dehydrated, but I’ve been waiting for eight months for this trip – what’s a little stomach bug when you’re diving exotically? One dives Malpelo with a “skiff” – or a smaller boat attached to the larger liveaboard. We split the group into two and climbed onto our appropriate skiffs (we are aboard the yellow skiff; or – as Wilson briefed us in his Costa Rican accent – the “de jellow skeeff”), which whisked us away to our first dive site: Virginia’s Altar. This was really a “checkout dive”, to get a handle on our weighting, our buoyancy, and our comfort under water.

Malpelo is known for its schools of hammerhead sharks, white tipped sharks, and manta rays. But mostly the hammerhead (aka “hammers”) action. As we swam through the dive site we occasionally caught sight of their silhouettes in the distance of the blue, but none came close to investigate. All in all, though, it was a good way to start our dive trip. I went through my air quickly because I was terribly overweighted and had to fuss with my BC to achieve buoyancy, and part of the current was terribly strong. But within a few more dives I know I’ll get back into the groove.

Though I invested in underwater housing for my new digital camera, I decided to leave it on the skiff for the first dive. I had enough to think about with all my gear and unhappy stomach, and a camera only complicates the underwater logistics. So no pictures of this particular dive, save for the after-dive shot of Eric with his blue lips:

Back on the Sea Hunter we had lunch and napped for a bit until Dive #2.

Dive #2: The Fridge – Out

Diving with a camera changes one’s perspective as well as the goal of the dive. The diving isn’t about the love of marine life, but instead about memorializing it. For me, this trip will be one long lesson in photography where I learn how to differentiate between moments to use the camera versus moments to enjoy the scenery itself.

I should mention that it poured rain all afternoon. For a comfort level, we don’t particularly care because we’re going to get wet anyway, but the lack of sun means a darker dive and less vibrant pictures. Still, “a bad day of diving is better than a good day at the office”.

But onto the dive. We had some hammerhead visit but they were feeling less than social so we’d glimpse their shadows and watch them disappear into the blue again. We’ll see more as the diving goes on. I’m shocked by the abundance of moray eels in this part of the world. In most other parts of the world you can find their snouts poking out in little nooks and crannies, but here at Malpelo they’re everywhere and absolutely huge. So large, in fact, that they can barely fit into the nooks and crannies offered by the reef – most are out, freely swimming from one spot to the next.

Moray Eel


After the dive was serious nap time so I curled up in bed and slept for a few hours, which nicely rejuvenated me. I still stuck to rice and toast for dinner, but Luis’ split pea soup definitely felt good on my tummy. So strange – whatever it was that hit this morning must have been a 12-hour bug, because Eric and I both agree that we feel much better though we’re not quite 100% yet. Tomorrow we plan to be a “new and improved Cabin #3”.

After dinner a woman named Pilar – who works for the Malpelo Conservatory – gave us a show about why Malpelo is considered a world heritage site, and how the ecosystem is so connected. From the rain captured by the rocks… to the droppings from the masked boobie… to the current of the water… the island is an impressive example of how nature thrives in the correct (and preserved) environment. When the Coast Guard first began its station here, the guardsmen would each paint a rock with their name, date, and a message. But after years of this, biologists soon discovered that the paint was preventing algae from forming, which prevented the crabs from eating, which prevented the boobies from eating… and so on and so on. Listening to this, you can’t help but develop a full appreciation of how nature functions.