Malpelo Rebreather Expedition – July 2007
Malpelo Island is renowned by the lucky few who have had the opportunity to go there as one of the best places in the world to dive with large schools of hammerhead sharks. In fact, in the right season (and in my humble opinion) it beats the Galapagos and Cocos islands hands-down with the fantastic encounters that it repeatedly serves up. As well as the huge numbers of hammers, there are large congregations of silky sharks, Galapagos sharks, whitetips, oceanic blacktips and even the odd whale shark passing through – and all in relatively shallow water.
We had already made the trip with Shark Safaris groups 3 times in the last 18 months on open circuit SCUBA, when Jon Cooper, our tech diving aficionado declared that it would be a good idea to do the expedition all on rebreathers! The benefits of this were obvious, fewer bubbles would mean closer encounters with the ever-skittish hammerheads and allow for better photography and videography opportunities. ‘Great idea!’, I said, not fully appreciating that the next few months we would spend contending with the logistical challenges that this ‘great idea’ actually meant.
Located 300 miles south of Panama, in Colombian waters, Malpelo isn’t the easiest place to get to, even at the best of times, and especially not in these days of airport security and limited baggage allowance. Transporting ourselves and heavy rebreather kit through 3 flights, 2 overnight stops, a variety of taxi rides before we even get to board the boat for the 2 day journey out to the island is not for the faint-hearted – and that’s without considering soda lime for the rebreathers, lots of oxygen for the various gas mixes and lots and lots of emergency spares! Thankfully, we have a very good relationship with Arvid, the skipper of the 80 foot catamaran, Inula, that we charter to Malpelo, and he was able to receive advance shipments of most of the things that we required and safely see them through Panamanian customs before we got there.
The team was as varied in nationality as was the rebreather kit they brought with them:
Jon Cooper, expedition leader, UK – Ourobourus
Rob Allen, expedition co-ordinator, UK – Draeger Ray
Robb Witt, US – KISS
Uli & Katherine, Germany – Draeger Dolphin
Andy Hillery, UK – Draeger Dolphin
Andy Purkis, UK – Draeger Ray
Christian Heylen, CCR instructor and technical consultant, Egypt – Inspiration
Arvid, skipper of Inula – ex-Russian military CCR!!
Travels and tribulations
Most of the team had travelled to Panama early - with some of them even going on the previous trip led by Jon. It just left Andy H and I to get to Panama – not difficult one would think, but the best laid plans…
Firstly, the staff at the airport check-in were being sticklers about luggage weight. Although we were only a couple of kg over the 2 x 23kg allowance, apparently there was an embargo on all overweight baggage flying into Panama and so we couldn’t even pay for the excess. This led to the farcical rearrangement of equipment into hand luggage which ended with Andy’s wet suit being draped around his shoulders as we went through airport security, making us look like a couple of old bag ladies! Next, when we got to Newark, connecting through to Panama city, Andy’s Nitrox bottle was confiscated by the TSA which led to his bags being delayed till the next day’s flight at 10pm. Although allowing an extra day in Panama for just such an eventuality we missed our flight to David, and with all others booked, we decided to hire a car and make the 7 hour road trip overnight to get to Inula on time! But the trials weren’t all over yet, Arvid had asked us to pick up some spare Nitrox tanks to bring down with us as we were now driving, and as we stopped at midnight to pick them up, we were stopped by the police as the rental car didn’t have number plates on it and the documentation we were given by the rental company to cover such an eventuality was bogus! Thus, after much debate in broken Spanish and pigeon-English, and a lot of hand-waving, we were finally allowed to drive all the way back to the airport to try to change the car, and thankfully got the last one available!
So at 1am we finally hit the trans-American highway going west to David and arrived at 8am that morning dog-tired but with a 2-day Pacific journey ahead to recuperate.
After clearing customs on Inula, there was a 3-hour motor down the river from David to the open sea, we then sailed through a spectacularly stormy night - pyrotechnic display on horizon, as we travelled South. Our first stop was at the Panamanian island of Jicarata – beside Jicar and Coiba - which we reached and moored at about 3am. Here, in these relatively sheltered waters, we were going to do our check dives after breakfast:
A gentle reef beside a beautiful and secluded beach along a promontory which submerges at about half its length – a suitably shallow, and sheltered first check dive for all the equipment. We were approached by a couple of whitetip reef sharks and a turtle plus lots of reef fish and silently cruised by an octopus huddled down in a scrape surrounded by empty shells, the debris of its breakfast.
Christian took the opportunity to test out his ‘rock’ shark hide, his plan to get super-close to the hammerheads – although it looked more like a giant grey billowing cloud than a rock, it needed a few more weights, I think!
Second dive on Jicarita was on a reef with lots of amber jacks, a few whitetips and an octopus. The other group went to a location on the reef that they had seen ‘silkies’ on the previous week and again saw 5 or 6 nice big sharks coming up from the deep. On photo identification, they turned out to be oceanic blacktips (Carcarhinus Limbatus).
Travel day to Malpelo. A long, lumpy journey strafed by rain most of the way. The team were unnaturally quiet – probably the drowsy side effects of all that Stugeron!
The wind and current were against us all the way and so we finally reached Malpelo at about 10am on 1st August. The slate grey skies lightened a little and the barren and imposing rock that is Malpelo loomed into view through the low cloud cover and drizzle.
We moored on the north east end of the island in the lee of the waves and readied ourselves for our first dive. The Colombian authorities sent a boarding party over to check our credentials and then went away again in a heavily laden and poorly maintained RIB. There is a Colombian naval boat here apparently to protect the waters from fishing – an excellent development and apparently successful too.
Dive 1 – La Parad del Naufrago (Castaway Coast)
Jon, the 2 Andys and I dived around the corner of the island where the boat was moored. Within 5 minutes we saw our first (of many!) large shoal of hammerheads pass just below us. Swimming on we stopped on a ledge on the corner to wait for something to happen – and it didn’t take long as school after school of hammerheads paraded past us within 20m. What a show and a great welcome to the island!
Dive 2 – Altair de Virginia
This is a lovely gentle dive on a flat and rocky area which is used as a cleaning station by the hammerheads. We descended to the site (at about 10m) and spread out hiding behind rocks and coral (Christian in his floating rock disguise!)
The depth meant that there is far better light than on some of the deeper sites which is great for photography also the feeling was that the visibility is better in the morning. Unfortunately, with the best laid plans and all that, the sky was black with dark pendulous clouds and the water looked dark and gloomy, but still we (Andy H , Robb Kathi and Uli) went down. We had also noticed that it took 45 minutes or so for the hammerheads to be comfortable with our presence so planned a 90 minute dive on the rebreathers. I repeated the previous day’s trial with the longer lens and settled down into a favourite spot on a sandy hollow within the coral at about 10m with Andy while the others went further down the reef to about 25m. For the first 50 minutes or so we observed the usual hustle and bustle of the cleaning station. Clouds of scissortail (whitespot) chromis, yellowtail damselfish and king angelfish hovered above the coral while larger fish – parrotfish, yellow Chinese trumpet fish, Mexican hogfish and leather basses among others - came in to be cleaned. Below this morays of many species – green, undulated, zebra, yellowedge and finespotted – swim freely through the coral.The odd hammerhead would come through cautiously at the reef top, while many others circled in the gloom below. The hammers have a very obvious ‘cleaning’ posture – mouth open, with a slightly turned gait, pectoral fins flat and belly exposed inviting the attendant fish to come and peck the parasites and other morsels from the sharks body, gills and even mouth. Often this is ended by the shark shuddering and swimming off fast as if the fish had taken a liberty or two, or had touched a nerve!
We stayed down for 90 minutes and let the hammerheads repeatedly pass by – oh, the wonders of rebreather diving!!
Dive 1 – La Nevera
My best non-chummed shark dive ever - OK, I know I say that a lot but this was wonderful. Jon & I positioned ourselves either side of a gully at the cleaning station and the hammers came past us time and time again for the entire 90 minutes.
Dive 2 - Altair de Virginia
Another nice dive on Altair – just Jon, Andy H and I. Lots of sharks at the cleaning station and the sandy bed beside it. Lots of cleaning behaviour with hammerheads repeatedly coming around to get their fins pecked by the attendant fish. Visibility wasn’t great but got some very nice close passes. Got some nice close up shots of a couple of turtles with sharks in the background. The sharks started turning up in a few at a tiome then went away returning with more and more until finally about 50 gave us a nice swim-by before vanishing off into the blue.
Dive 3 - Altair de Virginia (again!)
The vis had deteriorated badly and was milky. Very few sharks now, but a few passes of 15+ hammerheads. A couple of turtles again too. All 7 of us dived so that may have been the reason for so few sharks too.
After a night that was broken by the boat’s engines being run for 45 minutes to power the desalination unit so we could have fresh water in the morning, it was an early start with first briefing at 6.30. Well, that was the plan, but we actually finally had the briefing at 7.30 and didn’t get out till 8.20 – it’s not so easy to move quickly with rebreathers!
Dive 1 - David
On the first dive the tech divers needed to do a deep dive for their course. The others of us on Nitrox mixes (me at 50%) couldn’t go deep so it was agreed that we should do a drift dive in the hope of seeing on of the large congregations of silky sharks. Unfortunately we saw very little – the odd few hammerheads that came to investigate and then swam away again, a couple of wahoo and a brief visit from a sailfish – a beautiful thing!
Dive 2 – Altair de Virginia
For the second dive, the most of the group went to La Pared del Resquardo, but Jon, Andy and I decided to just do Altair again, hoping that our luck with the hammerheads would hold out. And sure enough, a large group of 25+ were there just milling around, swimming in a circuit over the sandy patch (where some appeared to scrape their bellies along the ground) and the coral where the angel fish et al cleaned them.
Unfortunately, I had a leak in my rebreather which caused the canister to flood. This meant that the breathing gas didn’t circulate properly and caused a dead pocket around the O2 sensor causing it to read as low as 14%! Each time I inhaled, the demand valve provided Nitrox at 50% so I was effectively diving open circuit! This meant that not knowing if it was the rebreather or whether I was actually breathing gas at 14% O2 – neither being good - when this started happening after 40 minutes we aborted the dive and ascended to the surface.
Dive 3 – La Nevera
Andy P decided to miss the 3rd dive which, after my canister had flooded, meant that I could use his Ray for the dive. Jon, Robb and I went to the ‘terrace’ area of Le Nevera for a dive at 4.30 as the afternoon drew to a close. This area is aptly named as it is just like a sloping football terrace with flat rocks on which one can sit from about 20m down to 50m and beyond. We spread out and hunkered down for the show and as the gloom grew around us and the dark abyss below darkened and came closer we could see many large shapes moving just at the limit of visibility. Within a few minutes the first hammerhead came to check me out scooting off at the flash of my strobe – this clearly wasn’t going to be an option so I upped my camera to ISO1600 and resigned myself to some ‘atmospheric’ shots. Next, a large Galapagos shark came very close, and then made another pass before heading off in the direction of Robb, the flash from his camera being the only way of knowing where he was now. The dark brought a real sense of isolation as more and more hammerhead sharks came close by, sometimes from behind or overhead but mostly in front, and far closer than I had experienced before. Two oceanic blacktips (C. Limbatus) cruised by at one point and a number of silky sharks flashed by overhead, while the Galapagos sharks came back again and again. Then, at about 35 minutes into the dive, the unmistakable silhouettes of a large number of hammers materialised from the watery twilight to my right. The school grew and grew until it filled my view moving slowly to my left – a wonderful parade right in front of my ringside seat! At 50 minutes we swam off to pick up Robb before ascending to the boat and back to Inula for a well-deserved meal and to tell the others what they had missed – FOUR shark species and a spectacular, if a little edgy, dive!
Dive 1 - La Pared del Resguardo
I skipped the first dive while the rest of the group did La Pared del Resguardos and they had a good dive, with Uli filming a shoal of hundreds of hammerheads swimming past the cape. The techies (Arvid, Jon and Christian) did a 60m training dive under the boat!
Dive 2 – Altair de Virginia
A lovely, lovely dive on this dive which is fast becoming a world favourite for it’s almost guaranteed shallow water hammerhead cleaning. I had chosen to take my lesser quality but longer lens to try to get in closer to the hammerheads but was unsure how it would work with my dome port. So, with Kathy, Uli and Robb down at 25m watching literally hundreds of hammers swimming past, Andy and I found our place among the coral around the sandy patch. I tried to coax the attendant fish into giving me a clean by hovering silently just above the coral, but they weren’t being tempted so I settled down into my spot. It wasn’t long before a smallish school came through and then another and another. With each pass they seemed more at ease with us until they came so close we could almost touch them! I got some great shots, thanks to the longer lens!
Dive 3 – La Nevera
To try to repeat the previous day’s dive would have been foolish but a few of us still wanted to give it a go, although going a bit earlier this time at 4pm. We sat spread out on the terrace between 15m and 25m and waited for the show – and waited and waited! It was obviously going to be far different today. However, after a while, the odd hammerhead came up to investigate us; occasionally a galapagos shark would patrol along the line in front of us. After 40 minutes we re-joined together and started to swim away from the terrace. Just then a large shark swam straight at me, veering away at the last moment. I’m certain it was a dusky shark, it looked very much like a Galapagos but with a far broader and flatter snout. On our safety stop we were approached at speed by a silky shark. Then 2, then 3 started circling us. The boat arrived and the others boarded but just before I got in I looked down and saw 8 silkies circling me very close! I was torn between getting back into the boat and staying in the water with the sharks! Finally discretion became the better part of valour and I hopped on board! This dive lived up to expectations after all – 4 shark species can’t be sniffed at!
Dive 1 – Altair de Virginia
So for the first dive today a few of us went back to a favourite spot – shallow (10m), pretty reef with lots of fish and most importantly a hammerhead cleaning station!
At about 50 minutes the first large group of hammers came through – 25+ of them slowly swimming up the reef through the schools of cleaner fish which darted in to be of service. With my longer lens on I was able to get some lovely close shots of cleaning behaviour. Beside the cleaning station there is a large area of sand and gravel which the hammers often swam through after there clean, scraping their bellies along the ground. Whether this is part of the cleaning behaviour I am not sure but the proximity of the area next to such an easily accessible cleaning reef might explain why there always seem to be sharks there.
After 80 minutes, a cold thermocline crept up the reef and brought with it thick green water reducing the visibility dramatically. We signalled to swim the 100m back to the boat and found about 20 silkies circling beneath it so we did our safety stop with them before ending another wonderful dive.
Dive 2 - Bajo Suani
This is a small pinnacle with as lot of life, but most well know for it’s morays which cover the mounts slopes sometimes with as many as 10 to a single hole! Our hope was to see some whale sharks while there but we only saw the omnipresent hammerhead schools and a few silky sharks.
We ascended to dark storm clouds and rain which lasted persistently for the rest of the day. Having had such a good first dive there wasn’t much motivation on the boat to brave the waves and weather to dive again, so the last dive of the day was cancelled.
Dive 1 – David - had to abort due to flooded canister at 30m! The others drifted off into the blue for a short distance but only saw a few hammerheads and silkies in the distance.
Dive 2 – Altair de Virginia – murky but lots of sharks as usual!
Dive 3 – La Nevara – not much going on – a couple of close Galapagos sharks encounters at the beginning and the odd hammerhead but nothing else sharky to mention.
Dive 1 - The last day at Malpelo and Uli, Kath, Christian and I went onto Malpelo Island while the others had a good dives on Nevara and Altair.
There is a Colombian naval outpost on the island to protect the marine park against illegal fishing – the staff are made up from Navy and Coastguard. The Island is as bleak on land as it looks from the ocean and is formed from jagged volcanic rock. Its slopes are covered with masked boobies nesting on patches of small collected pebbles (and in some cases broken glass and mirrors) which they collect with their beaks – obviously sitting on these is infinitely more comfortable than the surrounding rock! Paired birds are very obvious with some sitting on eggs. The island is also home to large numbers of lizards and land crabs (even at the top) which feed on the bird’s eggs and whatever else they can scavenge. The highest point is 396m and is a treacherous climb/scramble over razor shark rock (images of Tolkien-inspired landscapes with Frodo, Sam and Gollum climbing into Mordor sprang to mind!) with nesting boobies at every step aiming sharp beaks at our ankles! The last section is very steep and one has to climb up a rope to reach the summit – and the spectacular view around the island. The guard have to do this twice a day to look out for illegal fishing boats in the marine park’s waters.
Dive 2 - Our last dive was on Altair (our favourite spot for hammerheads), unfortunately it was very milky and there were only a few hammers, although that in itself is a testament to the way our expectations for the dive had grown through the week with each new encounter. I went to 35m to photograph the red-lipped bat fish which live there in vast numbers then back to reef top for 90mins!
We set sail back for the mainland after dinner on the 7th and journeyed through the night – one which was just as rough as the one coming out and the following day wasn’t much easier. The plan had been to set anchor back in Panamanian waters in the early hours of the 9th so that we could dive near Coiba, but the conditions were too rough so we had to carry on to a more sheltered spot. We found this finally in the delta at the entrance to David. This is a labyrinth of inlets and mangroves with secluded beaches, edged with palm trees – a perfect place for a swim and some R&R for an hour or two.
After this we pushed on for the final 3 hours up river to the mooring at Pedregal and finally disembarked to ready ourselves for the long journey home.
It had been an extremely successful and unique trip. We proved beyond doubt that the encounters with the usually shy and skittish scalloped hammerheads were vastly improved by diving on rebreathers – even semi-closed units didn’t frighten them away like open circuit SCUBA ones do. Also the fish were more inquisitive and came in much closer and in large numbers. Finding shallow sites that were well within the reach of Nitrox blends, where cleaning behaviour could be regularly seen meant that we had a reliable ‘encounter hotspot’ that never failed to fascinate.
We will be mounting another rebreather-only expedition to Malpelo next year – sign up for the Shark Safaris newsletter to get all our expedition information as soon as it is released.
Happy shark diving!
12 August 2007