COCOS, CHAPTER 5: Return to Manuelita

On the backside of Manuelita during the first dive, I watched a gang of whitetips swarm the reef until I was distracted by a cloud of bigeye jacks approaching us from the channel. As the jacks descended onto the reef, they instantly split off into pairs; one jack remained silver and the other turned black and swam below the silver one. Each pair continued to swim in sync with each other. At the same time, all of the fish released their eggs and sperm which clouded our visibility. I was puzzled how they all decided within a mere moment which fish they were going to mate with. Not one fish was left out of the mass coupling event. They didn’t switch with each other either. Remembering another impressive fish, I ascended cautiously to check the shallows; sure enough, a large tiger shark practically touched the island on its patrol for fallen baby boobies. I dropped back down next to a solitary yellowfin tuna that was larger than me. The panga picked us up and drove us to the Argo’s panga. Captain Al asked the driver if they had seen hammerheads. The driver said there was a large school cruising Manuelita Gardens. I noticed a thick shark-deterring metal rod attached to the back of the Argo’s divemaster as he bobbed on the surface.

On the second dive, I back-rolled off of the panga and my head pounded as it hit the surface. The other divers were already at the bottom as I spun slowly at 10 feet in my attempt to descend. The thought of being alone with the 14 foot tiger shark motivated me to ignore my pain and join the other divers. From the edge of the reef, there was a train of hammerheads on parade over the sand. The divers hid themselves behind coral heads as they filmed the show. As I slid my body between two boulders, I instinctively held my breath whenever hammerheads strayed from their school to swim towards me on their path to the cleaning station. They were so close to me at times that I could see each and every tooth. This was the closest I had ever been to such notoriously shy sharks. I didn’t realize how out of breath I was until the entire school passed by us and I spent the time it took for them to turn around to catch my breath. During their next pass, I noticed it was the small hammerheads that were most likely to split off from the school to check us out. A larger hammerhead followed the younger shark as if to say, “Billy! Get back here! What did I say about approaching strangers!” And the younger shark would say, “But, Mom! What ARE these aliens blowing bubbles behind the coral heads?” I suddenly felt like I was instead watching a school of dolphins.

Back on the surface, the divers gasped for air between their yells of excitement. I heaved, “I wasn’t the only one who held my breath?” Pete coughed, “How could I not hold my breath? I didn’t even think about it, it just happened!” The other divers nodded in unison. I mused, “So, we all held our breath, we hid behind the coral heads, and we didn’t enter the cleaning stations. We just happened to figure it out on the last day with no signals or planning whatsoever!” On the ride back to the mother ship for lunch, we couldn’t contain our excitement. We had just spent an hour watching a hundred scalloped hammerheads, some up close and personal, which is practically unheard of. The chatter at lunch was at an all-time high. My head was in so much pain, but I was elated.

It was pouring down rain on the short panga ride to Manuelita Gardens. I back-rolled off the side, but instantly returned to the surface. I clutched the side of the panga as Diego appeared above me. “What’s wrong?” He asked. “My head. It’s the worst pain. I just need a second.” The panga drifted closer to the island. Diego urged, “You either need to drop down now or you have to get back on the panga. The tigers…” I stuck my mask in the water and saw a few hammerheads. I was caught in diver limbo – neither above nor below the ocean; just bobbing indecisively in-between. I lamented, “I’m such a damned booby!”

Diego said calmly, “If you’re going to go down, do it slowly. Even if you go inch by inch. I’ll be right here if you change your mind. But, decide now.” I let go of the panga and began my long descent. I had a lot of time to think about my decision since it took me so long to work my way to the bottom. Spaces in my head popped that I didn’t even know existed. I knew I was injured, and some part of me knew that I would pay for it later. But, I realized it was worth it to witness such magic. There were a hundred hammerheads that were finally unafraid of me! This was the last dive and I wasn’t going to miss such a rare opportunity.

I found the other divers hiding behind their coral heads. From the space between my two boulders, I decided it was now or never since I wasn’t planning on returning to Cocos. I laid my body completely flat on the sand and slowly army-crawled towards the school. When a hammerhead turned towards me, I stopped moving and held my breath. I continued my slow-motion army-crawl until I sensed that I had gone far enough and the magic began. A large hammerhead broke through the school and swam towards me. I thought it had a funny shaped head compared to the others. As it grew closer, I recognized it…the same tattered dorsal fin and mouth scar as the 14 foot tiger from the first day. Tiger sharks hang out with hammerheads? There was something about this particular tiger shark that was special. I felt she made this grand entrance as her way of saying goodbye to us. When she disappeared into the shallows, the hammerheads completely surrounded us.

Random hammerheads broke away from the school and approached me head on in the sand. They passed right above and beside me. I could have reached out if I wanted to. As if to protect the sharks from us, the evil green blob decided the show was over and it was time for us to leave. I saw it approaching from the outskirts of the reef farthest from our position. The freezing green fog blew onto the sand towards the hammerheads and I retreated back to the reef. The hammerheads transformed into blurry silver shadows. There was such a clear line that separated me from the evil green blob that I stuck my hand in it for a moment to wave goodbye to the hammerhead ghosts and only my hand became numb. The green blob chased us to our safety stop and we boarded the panga before it consumed us entirely.

As the anchor lifted, the crew and divers squeezed into the main room for the medal ceremony. The crew announced each diver’s name, placed medals around their necks, and handed them each a certificate. I clapped and smiled along despite my jealousy. I was mad at myself because I was one of the only divers who didn’t complete all of the dives. When Hans’ name was called, he announced, “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept this medal.” We all turned to him in our confusion. He explained, “I completed all of the dives, but there is no way that I could survive Alcyone wearing only a bikini. Megan is the iron diver.” He walked over to me and placed his medal around my neck. My cheeks flushed red as I protested, “But, this is your medal. You earned it. I can’t take it from you!” He smiled, “No, you earned it. I’ll keep the certificate.” I continued to attempt to return it to him, but he insisted that I keep it. I was happy to earn the Germans’ respect, even if it was because I dived half-naked.

That night at the dinner table, the ship’s rocking became so intense that the water cooler leaped from its stand, bounced down the stairs, and rolled down the hallway in its attempt to knock over Annie. With the empty cooler in her arms, she lamented, “Well…I was dry.” One by one, bottles of red wine flew out from the cabinets and smashed on the carpeted floor. The computer in the main room tumbled from the desk and the screen cracked. Somehow, a plate of chicken appeared in front of me amidst the chaos and I mouthed “Pura vida” to a fast-moving Carlos. He smiled wide and yelled, “Pura vida!” as he disappeared to the kitchen, which emitted all sorts of crash-clanks. When divers began to fall out of their chairs, we all decided it was best to hold on to each other while we ate. As the ship lurched, the plates and drinks slid from one end of the table to the other. Holding my head in my hands, I stared hard at Bogs’ last unopened Coca Cola bottle from his private stash as I attempted to will it in front of me. Bogs pushed it to me and said, “You look like you need this more than I do.” I sighed, “Is it that obvious?” He smiled, “You’re actually green.” I held the Coca Cola up as though it was the greatest gift that anyone had ever given to me. Teary eyed, I said, “You have no idea how much this means to me. Thank you.”

Since I felt too nauseous to properly socialize with the other divers, I clutched my Coca Cola as I made my way back up to my room. Waves slammed against the dive deck when I swung open the door and I nearly slipped off the ladder. After I crawled into my bunk, I gripped the edges of the mattress until I fell asleep. At some point in the night, I awoke as I felt my cold feet in the bathroom sink. I was practically vertical. I grasped at the sheets and the ceiling as the ship began to roll in the opposite direction. “No, no, no, no….” I pleaded as my body slid back across the sheets and I braced my head for impact against the wall. There was a breath-taking moment each time the ship paused before it rolled to the other side; in these moments, I truly thought the ship was going to roll completely over. As I anchored my feet against the sink and my hands against the wall and ceiling, I closed my eyes and repeatedly whispered, “Please, no…please.”

I awoke the next morning to calm seas and sore limbs. I wrapped my pillow around my ears, curled up against the wall and fell into a deep sleep. By evening, I heard Sofia rustling in the cabinets and laughter from the bench outside. Wearing my pajamas, I slid off my bed, down the ladder to the main dive deck, and I packed up my gear. The other dive bags were already packed. I found the other divers celebrating on the top deck. “Megan! Grab a cerveza!” I slumped in a chair as I opened an Imperial and admired the first (and last) sunset of the entire trip. Suddenly, yells of “Dolphins!” echoed from the lower decks. We instinctively bolted for the railings. A pod of Costa Rican spinner dolphins took turns performing impressive acrobatic leaps in the ship’s massive wake. More importantly, I spotted land. The lights of Puntarenas shined in the distance. I sighed long with relief as I finished my beer.


2 responses to “COCOS, CHAPTER 5: Return to Manuelita”

    • I’m so glad you liked it! I can’t complain about cold water around you haha! I hope it came through that I absolutely loved Cocos Island. The diving was incredible. I just stupidly descended too quickly and got a sinus barotrauma. All healed now.


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