The Color of Blood

Cocos Island Shark Diving
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"That's blood, you nimrod!" my cabin-mate yelps as we peel off our wet suits on deck, and I describe the black slime that moments earlier was oozing from the half-inch gash on my wrist during our dive. "Water absorbs color at depth. You were down there bleeding in front of 300 hammerheads?"

Guess so. I didn't mean to. We had just executed the classic strategy for sighting hammerheads at Cocos Island: Drop to 110 feet, hunker down behind the boulders, and wait motionlessly for the freakish creatures to hover into view. But just as a fleet of several hundred sharks darkened the ocean before us, I accidentally raked my arm across a colony of sea urchins, ripped open my wrist, and watched in horror as sludge began spewing from my body. I panicked. I flailed. I emitted high-pitched squeals through my regulator and began squeezing, pressing, and coaxing what I imagined to be deadly sea-urchin toxin from my veins. How did I know I was fanning plasmatic barbecue sauce under the noses of 12-foot-long apex predators?

Wilderness Diving
Back on deck, I contemplate the snack I almost was, and for the first time the degree of our isolation strikes me with the force of an oncoming train. We are 21 souls on a small boat in the yawning Pacific Ocean, 300 miles west of Costa Rica. We have anchored off Cocos Island, an isolated speck of land days away from any other speck of land. There are no hospitals, no doctors, no 24-hour pharmacies. No blood banks. There aren't even any tribal medicine men with voodoo rattles because—except for the half-dozen park rangers holed up in a tin shack—no humans inhabit these 14 square miles of mountainous jungle so impenetrable that even the rangers have no idea what lies in the dark interior. Hell, we're alone.

On the upside, Cocos Island, one of the last pristine ecosystems in existence, has perhaps the greatest diving on the planet, with waters chock full of nature's largest, weirdest, and most sublime creatures. Which means that, given the limits of human speed in water, the trickle of folks who journey here to ogle sharks, rays, whales, and other big-toothed meanies occupy a spot on the food chain somewhere near mollusks. True, the pelagics at Cocos aren't necessarily known as man-eaters. But in the waters off this very lonely island, only two things are certain: aquatic vistas so spectacular you'd think someone had left the tap running at the Grand Canyon; and the merciless cycle of life and death.

"Don't worry yourself, mate," says P. J. Probert, our boat's cheery-yet-reserved British captain, slapping me on the back with that stiff-upper-lip touch of one of the Queen's mariners. "We used to dive bait balls." A bait ball, I learn, occurs when ruthless gangs of bottle-nosed dolphins fan out over a chunk of ocean, trap millions of terrified fish in a tightening circle, and then emit a series of squawks and grunts that serve as something of a Pacific-wide dinner bell. The sharks, tuna, and other big fish lose control, slashing their way through the feed like truck drivers at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In trips past, Probert and his clients would gleefully plunge into this soup of blood and teeth. "It was something," he sighs, with a chuckle. "But after a while I figured it wasn't worth it. We've never had a shark attack anyone, but they've got to be curious. One day, one's going to ask, 'Hmm, I wonder what this tastes like.'"

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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