Costa Rica by Mark Kendall
From scenic, clear waters teeming with mantas, stingrays, dolphins, huge shoals of jacks and abundant eels and lobsters, to a UK style dip -'where have my feet gone' visibility, attractive brown rocks and the odd grey fish if you are looking for variety, Costa Rica is for you. Costa Rica lies between Panama to the South and Nicaragua to the North, is about the size of Wales (but with less sheep) and boasts some of the largest and best preserved nature reserves in the world. Wildlife is abundant, with the local Howler monkeys regularly competing for your attention with flocks of parrots and dog-sized iguanas. Other highlights include active volcanoes, white water rafting and horseback riding.
But more importantly, in recent years US interest in the country has opened up the diving. We stayed in Guanacaste province on the Pacific coast just South of Nicaragua, the most well established diving region. Our first dives were delayed for the best part of a week following the worst storms for two years. This was to have a significant impact on our diving. The winds had blown colder waters onshore and ruined the visibility, which was worsened by the large quantities of dark brown floodwaters emerging from all the local rivers. (Of course, if you decided to go in the dry season, you might miss out on the Gildenburgh refresher!) When we finally managed to get into the water, it proved a pleasant surprise. A gentle stroll around a small pinnacle just offshore offered plenty of morays, a number of rays, spiny lobsters, shoals of fusiliers, a small amount of coral and, to my surprise, plenty of butterfly fish that I had last seen in the Red Sea in April. I also learned, almost very painfully, that touching the rocks can be a bad idea. Scorpion fish were abundant but luckily the one I almost squashed didn't take offence. The only down-sides were the temperature and the 'handholding'. Having been promised that a 3 mm shortie would be more than sufficient, we surfaced to extended apologies from the dive guides. We were all frozen. Fortunately you were never more than a few inches away from a qualified dive master who was ready to save you at the first sign of a shiver. They soon realised however that everyone could actually dive and left us to it. (BSAC - who?) Having added an extra layer of neoprene, the second dive turned out to be my worst ever. Even Littleton pit could improve on the 2 metre visibility (at best) and non-existent fish life. I think Littleton may even be deeper! So much for the White Tipped reef sharks we were promised...
Having given up on the local diving, we decided to opt for something more adventurous. Two offshore island groups are renowned for larger aquatic life - the Bat Islands for Bull sharks and the Catalinas for Manta rays between Christmas and Easter. Another local dive operator had however told us that Mantas had been spotted at the Catalinas, even though it was September. So we parted with our cash again and got up early. The first of our two dives that day accounted for three Mantas, none off any great size, together with a large selection of Southern Stingrays, jacks, puffers, butterfly-fish and an odd-shaped Guitar fish (a cross between a shark and a ray). We spotted another Manta flapping on the surface between dives. The second dive proved to be memorable. Our dive guide was obviously bored that day and decided he'd sort the men from the boys by finding the shallowest, narrowest surge channel around the island and getting everyone to try and swim into it. After five minutes or so he gave up, although we did manage to spot our only true shark of the trip - a small, shy black tip. After our exertions, we tried a more leisurely approach. Fish were more abundant than the previous dive, but we soon forgot about them when a large shadow appeared directly in front of us. It slowly emerged as a large Manta that swam leisurely over our heads. It turned out to be as curious about us as we were about it. Rather than swimming off into the gloom, it circled the group of divers for the next twenty minutes. As the buddy pairs got low on air and started to ascend, the Manta followed us up and it was last seen circling below us as we started a safety stop in the shallows. The last buddy pair up also spotted a shoal of several hundred cow nosed rays swimming past in formation. As I said, a memorable dive and topped off with numerous pods of dolphins on the way back to shore.
We spent another day and three dives at the Catalinas but, as you might expect, the conditions had deteriorated and a few more Stingrays were about as good as it got. I would thoroughly recommend Costa Rica as a destination, but if it's only diving you are looking for, then perhaps some other site would better suit you. There is some reef diving on the Caribbean coast and there is reportedly some impressive diving to the south on the Orsa peninsular. But the Holy Grail seems to be the Cocos Islands. I'd love to dive with Mantas, whale sharks and shoals of Galapagos Hammerheads but unless someone is willing to donate ?3,500 to my diving fund, then I'll leave it until the piggy bank is full again. Industrial strength seasickness tablets may also be called for to cope with the 36 hour trip to get there (and back again!).
For steel lovers, I was reliably informed there was an old B-52 somewhere off the beach near our hotel. Anything else and you'd have to find it yourself...
Kingston & Elmbridge Branch www.kingstonbsac.co.uk