The Stuff of Legends
No topside holidaymaker would rate Cocos and Malpelo as star attractions, and even for divers they are rugged enough to present real challenges. But these eastern Pacific islands are as desirable diving destinations as youll ever find. John Bantin catches a boat that promises to take in both places on one trip

YOU MAY BE A LEGEND IN YOUR OWN LIFETIME, but never forget that the garbage goes out on Thursdays! Thats what my wife tells me.
Stanton Waterman, the veteran underwater cameraman, is totally self-effacing, but he can afford to be with productions like The Deep and Blue Water, White Death under his belt.
And Stan has been diving for a few years now. He was 80 in April, and yet I discovered him still chucking himself off boats, encumbered by a somewhat substantial video housing, into the often-difficult diving conditions found around the Pacific islands of Cocos and Malpelo.
Stan is amazingly well-preserved. In fact, everyone on board was amused by looking at old books about Cocos which revealed photographs of Avi, the owner/ captain of mv Sea Hunter, as a young man. Stan, on the other hand, looked very much the same as he does now.
But Stan was not there to do anything more than simply be one of the boys, shooting more underwater video footage for himself. He merely offered to present a little bijou entertainment during the long crossings to and between the islands. That came in the form of some of his previously made underwater home-movies and an oft promised but never seen collection of Sea Hunt stories.
Of course, with so much diving experience, he has accumulated more than a few anecdotes over the years and, sharp as a tack, he is always ready with a witty response.
I always know when Stan has finished a shot. I can hear his computer bleeping as he hurtles off to the next one! offers Nancy, his bodacious business manager and underwater assistant.
My goodness, retorts Stan. Can my computer bleep

So what brings Stan Waterman back to these two remote outposts in the Eastern Pacific time and time again These locations always deliver, replies Stan.
Malpelo is a bleak collection of near-vertical cliffs topped by bare dry rock, manned by a few unlucky Colombian soldiers. Its 350 miles from our home port of Punta Arenas in Costa Rica.
On the other hand, Cocos is a humid island covered with impenetrable rain forest, 350 miles further north, owned by Costa Rica and equidistant from the continental land mass. Both are official marine parks. Rainfall Cocos is one of the wettest places on earth.
Neither island is the sort of place you would care to visit if you were not a diver - unless you were a foolish treasure-hunter, of course. Cocos is known to be the resting place of tons of Spanish gold, stolen by English pirates. Robert Louis Stevenson based a novel on the true story, but no-one has yet come away in profit from any search.
Our route with Sea Hunter forms a 1000-mile triangle in the ocean, but she is a vessel built for the job, 600 tons of submarine support vessel thoughtfully converted into a luxurious liveaboard.
Stan is just the sort of company you need for a long sea voyage. A student of English literature, a friend of the famous, a raconteur, a man who has filled his life with experience. When Stan holds court, everyone chooses to listen.

He can be spell-binding. For example, he told us of a drama of which he was part while diving years previously in the Sea of Cortez with his son. Gordy had become doubled-over with severe abdominal pains after one particularly deep dive. The hyperbaric doctor had been called.
It was terrible. I found myself stooping over Gordy, tears in my eyes, my son subjected to the horror of the bends. Everyone was gathered round him, concerned.
Then Gordy let rip the most devastating fart, emptying the room of people. He confessed to feeling a lot better and blamed the symptoms on the several burgers he had eaten previously.
And what is the secret of Stans eternal youth He jokes that he buys a lot of little blue Viagra pills!
Treasure Island apart, the true treasure of these islands can be found in the surrounding water. Natural upwellings caused by a confluence of ocean currents bring cold nutrient-rich water up towards the surface and the sea teems with pelagic life.
Its as bleak below the surface as it is above. There is no pretty coral to speak of. There is nothing pretty about life under water here either. It is both pugnacious and predatory, and seen against an equally harsh backdrop.

Big schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks hang out in the surrounding ocean. They feed in the sand in deep water at night but the day is time for socialising and getting manicured by vast flotillas of cleaner fish, mainly barberfish, a type of over-sized golden butterflyfish. These form tight colonies in the rocks which mark the spot where larger animals will queue up for service. That also includes gangs of orange bigeyes, pouting yellow-tailed sweetlips, great black trevally jacks and even greater almaco jacks, the largest of all jacks and often as big as tuna.
The boulder-strewn bottom at Malpelo is a veritable snake pit. It crawls with massed moray eels. Every crack is a nest of vipers. Dozens of eels snake through open water. But then, every animal turns up here in battalion strength. Its no place for the vulnerable individual.
Even the rosy-lipped batfish gather in dormitories on the sand at 40m. Vast troops of robust leather bass haunt the margins of the rocky reefs.
Bluefin trevallys hunt in small groups and smaller horse-eye jacks form such huge aggregations that they can fool you into thinking they are one of the solitary whale sharks that cruise by in stately majesty, gigantic maws agape and gathering plankton. On one occasion I saw the silhouette of a sailfish darting in and out of the ball of fish above me.
Suddenly, it was mating season for the jacks at Cocos. One day at a site called Dirty Rock, they were the usual silver mass moving as one; the next they had split into inseparable pairs, one silver and one black, ready for spawning.

Many other fish find it convenient to solidify into vast massed bands; ubiquitous blue-line snappers, brassy trevallys, silver jobfish. Theres safety in numbers when it comes to surviving an attack by marauding silky sharks and dolphin. But when it comes to marauding, theres no better animal than a whitetip reef shark.
You might have the impression that the scalloped hammerhead is the key-note animal of Cocos, but youd be wrong! This is the realm of the whitetip, and they hunt in massive voracious packs both day and night.
Theres no scene more spectacular, nor impossibly close-up for a diver, when they go to work. There is no hiding place among the rocks for the weak or weary fish when these determined predators with their flexible rubbery bodies pick up the scent. At night, they have learned to take advantage of the divers light and even turtles have to duck for cover in the darkness. Otherwise these gangs of reef thugs spend their day time lazily surfing on thermoclines or resting in the current on sandy ledges.
Cocos is noted too for its platoons of butch-looking marble rays that resemble extra-terrestrial spacecraft. They are in no way beautiful. These intelligent elasmobranchs seem to co-exist peacefully with the reef sharks, often lying alongside them on the ledges. Massed ranks of lobsters roam freely too, oblivious to any dangers.
I had the advantage of a closed-circuit rebreather, a special mini-Inspiration equipped with 2 litre cylinders, for this trip. It enabled me to sneak up on things carefully with my camera from behind a rock.
It also meant that I could stay down at 40m for a whole camera-load of pictures without incurring swingeing deco-stop penalties.
I used a Nexus computer in CCR mode. However, there were times when I had to choose between bending a back-up computer, setting a nitrox mix fraction equivalent to 1.3 bar ppO2 at 40m, or becoming very unpopular with my companions, who were by then bouncing about in a pick-up boat at the surface.
Sea Hunter is a very rebreather-friendly boat, supplying Dräger units for those who want to rent them, scrubber material and pure oxygen if you need it. Avi, her owner/captain, always dives with an adapted Biomarine. The boat is also designed for photographers and has plenty of camera workstations.

Conditions under water can be difficult for photography. Many photographers return time and again in an effort to capture that elusive shot recorded with perfect clarity.
Visibility is affected by the plankton levels and thermoclines that refract the light so that an otherwise perfect image can get a woolly edge.
There is no bright sunshine to give that vibrant tropical blue background, either.
Currents and water temperatures change from moment to moment. Its rather like being out in a gusting wind.
At one of my personal favourite sites, Alcyone, I dropped into a feeding frenzy of whitetips, while a big marble ray cruised over them and a hammerhead appeared in the background. It was a magic moment. Did I record it Typically, I got a rather blurred image caused by the mixing temperatures of water.
So what of the sea conditions for divers Well, the water can be chilling at depth, especially at the more southerly of the islands, Malpelo. Big currents are often of concern to those who have not been shown how to handle them, but it is these currents that bring in the pelagics.
If there is a strong uni-directional flow, a current-hook can be invaluable, allowing a diver to float free of the rocks and have two hands available to operate a camera. In Malpelo we were more affected by a massive surge that first rushed us one way and then another.
In this case the current-hook is useless. Instead, a thickly padded layer of neoprene covering the body, together with stout gloves to enable me to get a purchase on the rough rocky edges, was essential. It is important to avoid kneeling on any scorpionfish, as one of my co-passengers discovered.

Alcyone is a submerged sea-mount, evidently discovered by Cousteau and named after the vessel he was using. The current is usually very strong but once you have dragged yourself down the anchorline to gain the shelter of the rocks, this is easy to handle.
Anything can turn up and, on open-circuit scuba, you can hide behind a ridge while your exhaled bubbles are conveniently swept away horizontally behind you. This is the place to see everything Cocos has to offer a diver.
As Alcyone is something of a deep square-profile dive, I found that the decompression advantages of the CCR allowed me to stay deep so that my computer was well into deco stops, yet be off-gassed quickly with the ever-richening nitrox mix provided during the ascent back up the line.
Open-circuit divers either had to curtail their dive much earlier or hang out like flags during a deco stop. It can be quite uncomfortable but not impossible. It seems that even an octogenarian, albeit fortified with those little blue V pills, can manage OK, even if he is having to manhandle an over-sized video camera and lights!

a scalloped hammerhead shark
A feeding frenzy of whitetip sharks at Alcyone
suddenly it was mating season for the jacks at Cocos
Even turtles have to duck for cover as whitetip sharks hunt at night
Malpelo is a veritable
Whale shark and trevallys at Dirty Rock, Cocos
a leather bass
Stan is indeed The Man
gangs of orange bigeyes at Malpelo


GETTING THERE: Fly to San Jose, Costa Rica, via an American hub airport such as Miami, Newark or Houston. Transfer by road to Punta Arenas. Baggage allowance is 64kg in two bags, with one small carry-on bag allowed. No visa is necessary for EU passport-holders. Exit tax US $26.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION : On board mv Sea Hunter or mv Undersea Hunter. The trip is suitable for those with open-ocean experience only. Rebreather divers are welcome.
MONEY : US $ and Access/MasterCard on board.
WHEN TO GO: Any time for Cocos. Malpelo is subject to open-ocean conditions.
COST: Each trip is tailored differently but 12 nights all-inclusive with four days each on Cocos and Malpelo, departing London to Costa Rica via the USA, transfers to/from Punta Arenas, full-board accommodation on the liveaboard and two nights hotel accommodation, costs£2770, plus flights from£520 depending on season and airline. Fourteen-night trips (six days on Cocos, five on Malpelo) cost from£3487 plus flights. Book through the UK agent for Sea Hunter and Undersea Hunter, Scubatours Worldwide (01449 780220,
LANGUAGE: Spanish. English widely spoken.
HEALTH: No special requirements.