Encountering a school of hammerhead sharks can be a rare experience these days. Divers who have had the privilege report it as being one of the most awe-inspiring diving experiences. Those who've yet to have such an encounter list it high up on their 'must-do' list.
I went on a Cocos diving safari on Wind Dancer (now known as the Okeanos Aggressor II) where diving with these incredible hammerheads is reported as a daily reality. Like many divers, Cocos Island has long been a place I longed to visit.
When I did, my underwater experiences matched my expectations and will live long in the memory. Not only did I encounter lots of megafauna when diving, but I even joined a deep-sea submersible dive for an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Diving in Cocos offers plenty of opportunities to see exciting marine life species apart from the almost daily hammerhead sharks encounters. At the dive site Dos Amigos Pequeña I saw several Galapagos sharks as well as mobula and eagle rays. This is a great place for the hammerheads too as they are all around you and seem quite curious.
Manuelita Garden was one of my favourites dive sites and is where I saw a tiger shark, now fairly common at Cocos, and a small school of tarpon which is a rare oceanic fish about the size of a small shark. This site is also one of the best for amazing night diving and at just 7 metres deep you can see masses of whitetips darting about the reef as they follow the black jacks.
Giant marble rays are also fairly numerous gliding along the sea floor and pinnacle walls. The number of fish that you see while diving at Cocos is incredible thanks to the island's marine park status and its relative isolation. You can find snappers, bluefin trevally, bigeye jacks, Pacific Creolefish and grunts in massive numbers and Dirty Rock was one of the sites that best featured such large schools.
For macro diving or marine diversity, Cocos is not the best dive destination but for hammerhead sharks, other sharks, rays and huge volumes of fish, it is unbeatable. Most dives were to a depth of around 30m and it's the ideal place for nitrox diving. I was there in the dry season and the sea conditions were fairly calm most of the time and the water temperatures around 28°C with 26°C thermoclines. The visibility varied from 10-30m.
The Wind Dancer is a large steel hull boat run by the reputable Dancer Fleet franchise. Socialising occurs in the saloon on the main deck or on the shaded area on upper deck area and there is plenty of space to relax. There are 2 computers for photo and video editing or you can watch a film or read a book from the extensive library.
The boat crew were very friendly and helpful and always on hand to see to our needs.
Liveaboard operators generally agree that the 2 most important features of a dive cruise are the quality of the dive sites and the standard of food and onboard Wind Dancer the food didn't disappoint most guests. The only general criticism is that the 4 set dining tables are a little squashed on a full charter of 22 divers.
Breakfast is buffet style and is served before the first dive at 7 am. Lunch is the most varied meal and was very popular with guests on my trip. The evening meal is a fine dining, waiter service affair that is very well presented. Beer, Chilean wine and spirits are served free of charge.
I was very fortunate to be put up in an upper deck Suite cabin! There are 2 Suites and they are of an excellent standard with air-conditioning, sea-view windows, en-suite bathroom with separate shower and toilet cubicles, large beds, TV and DVD player, space for luggage, and so on. I loved it - it was just like staying in a hotel room!
There are also 8 Standard cabins located on the lower deck with either twin or double beds and private en-suite bathrooms. The cabins have plenty of head room for tall people but are quite small especially the 4 back cabins. On the main deck there is also 1 Owner's cabin with a double bed, TV/DVD, bathroom and porthole, but it is also fairly small.
The spacious dive deck easily accommodates 22 divers and there are separate equipment bins under the seats for each diver's equipment. There are 2 large rinse tanks for cameras, a camera table, toilet and 3 hot water showers on the dive deck too.
The dive sites are visited from 2 RIBs with central tank holders. Guests are divided into 2 groups and a divemaster allocated to each group. There are normally 4 dives per day and a total of approximately 25 per trip. Each diver is also issued with a waterproof satellite tracking device just in case there is a lost-diver scenario.
An undoubted highlight of my Cocos visit was a tour on the DeepSee Submersible. This custom-built 1 ATM submarine carries 1 pilot and 2 passengers and is capable of diving to a depth of nearly 475m (1,500 feet). If you'd like to dive deeper than the recreational limits among creatures few have seen before, then this a once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-this-world opportunity!
Once inside the sub you steadily descend at 10m per minute and as soon as you are under the surface, the 12 cm thick acrylic flexiglass shell becomes completely invisible. Rather than feeing cramped, this creates an amazing sensation of feeling so close to the water and its marine life, and with an awesome 360° view it is hard to know where to look.
The pressurised cabin means you breathe air normally and there's no need to decompress afterwards. The sub is electrically powered which means it is very quiet so doesn't disturb the fish.
Our deep dive in the sub took us to Everest - a deep underwater mountain that is covered in white octo coral giving the appearance of snow. We were treated to the sight of marine creatures that are only found at depths beyond the recreational dive limits such as certain species of grouper and bigeye, moray eels, scythe butterflyfish and brotula.
We also saw an endemic Cocos batfish that lives only at 35m and deeper.Some of Cocos' signature creatures such as hammerhead sharks and mobula rays can be seen at depths of up to 250m too. As we glided through the deep water column it was an amazing sight to see the iconic silhouettes of a school of hammerheads cruising past 30m above us. Then mobula rays circled the sub playing in the bubble wake.
As we ascended back into normal scuba diving depths, a huge school of bigeye jacks completely engulfed our view so that all we could see was a blanket of silver. It was fantastic to see that schools this size can still be found in some parts of the world.
These were just some of the incredible encounters I had on my first ever tour on the DeepSee Submersible. The total dive time was about 1½ hours, and time inside the sphere was 2 hours.
The submarine is housed on the MV Argo Cocos liveaboard. You can book your seat as a guest on the Argo or on one of the other fleet boats - the Sea Hunter or the Undersea Hunter. I absolutely loved the whole experience, not just the incredible alien marine life encounters but also the sensation of being inside a submarine exploring the underwater environment. I would definitely go again and maybe next time try the 300m dive, after all you only live once!
Ask me if I would like to dive in Cocos again and my answer is a definite yes! However I might want to visit at a different time of year to see how it affects the diving. I had a fabulous experience in Cocos and although it may not boast the greatest diversity of marine life, for hammerhead and shark encounters it is second to none.