Malpelo Island

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Malpelo Island.

We were in a strange situation. Malpelo Island is hallowed ground for many divers. A “once in a lifetime” sort of place, a mecca for shark diving. The Columbian government will be closing Malpelo at the end of the year to charters that operate from outside of Columbia, or all the reputable operators to put it another way. We should have been super excited. But the timing of the trip could have been better. The only places left on any charter of the year were on dates that meant we would miss Joey’s 4th Birthday. Unbeknownst to us when we booked, the trip would also happen during the middle of intense job hunting by both of us, trying to solve the two-body problem after we had made the decision to leave Washington D.C.

So, at the risk of sounding impossibly spoiled, we weren’t sure we wanted to go on this trip. We are still not sure if it was the right decision, even though the kids had a great time with their grandparents for a couple of weeks and Malpelo lived up to its reputation for us.

We are still uncertain, but I figured it would be worthwhile to write a post and let you decide whether it was worth leaving the kids and a job situation in flux for a couple of weeks, just to visit a lonely rock 500 km off the coast of Columbia…

Malpelo

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No traffic here…

Malpelo island is an old volcanic core that rises from a solitary undersea volcanic ridge in the eastern tropical Pacific. Surrounded by deep water, this area of the ocean does not offer up many islands. One has to travel a long way from Malpelo to get to land – Columbia is around 500 km away and Panama even further. 600 km to the north west lie the Cocos islands and to the southwest the Galapagos islands, both more well-known and far more frequented. The isolation of Malpelo is part of its appeal for us – difficult to get to, relatively undisturbed and no boat/scuba traffic (the Columbian government severely limits the number of boats that can visit). Malpelo is famous for one thing: sharks. Type in “Malpelo Island” on google image search and you’ll see massive schools of hammerheads circling over some lucky photographer. While you can see hammerhead schools at Cocos and Galapagos, the schools of silky sharks and the reliability of the hammerheads are two more reasons why we made the effort to come out to Malpelo instead of Cocos.

There are few reliable and safe operators that take divers to Malpelo. A recent set of diving fatalities, where divers were swept away by strong currents and died adrift, underscored our desire to charter a reputable operation (the Columbian group responsible for the dead divers didn’t alert authorities until someone else did, then did not have sufficient fuel to search for their missing party…).

After some time searching, we came across the Yemaya – a Panamanian boat with a great reputation. We booked with Ed Stetson out of UCSB and headed down to Panama City. Ed’s group of divers were unusual. All seasoned folks and no yahoos. We were humbled – everybody was unique in some way. A surgeon, a charter boat owner, a financial analyst based out of NYC, a successful real estate developer, the world editor of dive magazine. Everybody turned up with dive alerts (pneumatic whistles), 2 m long inflatable safety buoys, signal mirrors, signal strobes and Nautilus lifelines (AIS-based VHF position transmitters). No corners were being cut in terms of safety – becoming lost would mean being set adrift in the open ocean with no one but the others aboard your boat to rescue you.

After a four-hour bus ride from Panama City we arrived at a dinky old river port in the jungle. The muddy tide was running too low, so we cleared customs, loaded all our bags on to the dive tenders and drove out 45 minutes to the river mouth where the Yemaya was waiting. She was all that we needed, and some more we could have done without. Yemaya had her own water maker, air conditioning, nitrox bank for rapid filling, a substantial oxygen bank, two screws and three generators (5 engines total) and a wonderful crew of Panamanians who loved their jobs. She also had a slight list to port, a very high centre of mass and a vibrant population of giant tropical cockroaches. This was going to be a trip to remember.

From the river, it was a 36 hour transit over open water until we came to Malpelo: a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean. For the next 7 days, we did not see another vessel.

Diving Conditions

There are many similarities between diving Malpelo and other offshore islands, like the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, the Brothers Islands in the Red Sea or La Perouse rock at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI. Imposing cliffs and no beaches. Nesting seabirds. Deep drop-offs. Raging ocean currents that bring in the big schools but also threaten to remove your mask upon a sideways glance.

However, Malpelo differs in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is truly in the deep ocean. There is no fringing reef, nor does it occasionally receive licks of a coastal current and day fishers certainly don’t make it out here. Consequently, real ocean-going animals can be seen. Wahoos were the first sign. Then came bonito schools and big, fat yellowfin tuna. Ascents and safety stops in bottomless blue water were the norm and rather than being a featureless and boring affair, there was always the anticipation that at some point a large and majestic creature would materialize out of the blue. Sometimes it was a giant oceanic manta. More often it would be sharks.

The Sharks of Malpelo

The magic of Malpelo is made by the truly impressive number of sharks that migrate to and from, and live around the island. Hammerheads, Galapagos and Silky sharks are the main species seen here but there are also occasional sightings of ocean-going blacktip sharks and “el monstruo” or a rare species of sand tiger, which is usually only seen during the winter. Contrary to what you may think, sharks are a good sign. The first part of an ecosystem that is removed when humans encroach is the top of the food chain – it’s easy to catch sharks and their fins are valuable to unscrupulous Chinese. Next to go are the big fishes – the tunas, wahoos and big snappers. The cascade that results from their removal fundamentally changes the entire ecosystem and reduces it to an alternate stable state: the prey population explodes, meaning their food sources (coral, algae) are depleted, leading to barren reefs that can’t protect juveniles so no recovery can take place. That is a story that has played out all over the world, but has not yet destroyed Malpelo.

In fact, the ecosystem remains so intact at Malpelo that you can witness inter-species teamwork on a grand scale. Anecdotal evidence suggests this kind of behaviour used to be common everywhere, but the depletion of predators has all but eliminated observations of this kind: Picture a reef filled with many small fishes swimming about and grazing on plankton. All of a sudden: pandemonium. A large school of leather bass (groupers) hundreds strong, blue fin trevally and moray eels arrive quickly and purposefully on the scene. Small fish dart everywhere, trying to escape by finding small holes in the reef. The morays are able to squeeze in to these tight spots and eat/flush the fish out – straight into the mouths of the leather bass, waiting just outside. If some make it past the bass, they succumb to the blue-lined jacks waiting right behind. We witnessed these ‘gangs’ attacking reef fishes on a daily basis and we could get very close – the predators were so focused on getting a meal they seemed oblivious to us taking photographs from just centimetres away!

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An incredible cloud made of thousands of enormous mullet snapper, Lutjanus aratus, at Malpelo. The ball is perhaps 60 m across.

Another thing that can be seen here and perhaps nowhere else are the numbers of mullet snapper. These predatory fish are large – about 1.5 m in length and 40 kg or more. They can be solitary but sometimes assemble in schools. At Malpelo, ‘schools’ doesn’t really describe the size of these aggregations. ‘Cumulonimbus cloud’ was the first thing that came to mind when we saw them. Untold thousands. Each an impressive creature, but together an almost prehistoric scene. The school wasn’t a spawning aggregation or some special event – the snapper frequent a particular reef next to the island every day.

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Galapagos and Silky sharks could be seen on the reef and in open water. They were very curious and non-threatening. We spent many hours diving and snorkelling with these inquisitive creatures.

One more good sign is that the sharks are naturally curious – they aren’t wary of people. With the exception of hammerheads, which are a notoriously flighty species, sharks at Malpelo will approach you with a genuinely inquisitive demeanour that is so obviously unthreatening you’re embarrassed you ever considered them dangerous. The feeling is exactly the same as when you are approached by a strange yet friendly dog in the street. Relaxed and languid movements, a preoccupation with the surrounding fishes, casually sniffing out potential morsels under rocks on the reef, all within arm’s reach. The feeling remains the same even when surrounded by a school of silky sharks in open water, miles from the island.

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Snorkelling with a large school of silky sharks miles from the island in open water was one of the highlights of the trip.

Hammerheads

One thing that stood out to us almost immediately was that while we were at Malpelo, the hammerheads were going to remain very shy. The dive guides tell us that five years ago, schools of hundreds could be approached almost by accident. You know they’re there because you’ll occasionally see them at the edge of visibility – their wing-shaped head and large dorsal fin are unmistakable. But they never willingly came close. Our time at Malpelo quickly became an effort to get as close to and see as many of these elusive creatures together as possible. We were eventually able to get fairly close to hammerheads coming in to a cleaning station to be groomed. Divers would settle on a rocky ledge and remain still and low, breathing smoothly and making as little noise as possible. Eventually, they would come up from the depths, replete with little butterflyfish picking parasites off their skin. One mistimed strobe flash or careless move would send the nervous animal bolting back to the depths. Patience and timing paid off: Lauren (who uses much less air than I do) was eventually able to get some great photos of these very special animals.

The classic image from Malpelo is of giant hammerhead schools circling overhead, reminiscent of those old photos of enormous bison herds or clouds of passenger pigeons, now long extinct. This kind of hammerhead photo is very hard to take, especially on open circuit scuba, because of 1) the noise you make and b) rising bubbles in the frame. We learned that in order to witness these majestic schools, and to photograph them, many cards had to fall in our favour. In fact, we were only able to witness truly schooling hammerheads on the morning of our last day. The factors in our favour then were: 1. Early morning before other divers. 2. A strong current that bought the schools to a reef and swept our bubbles away behind us. 3. Rough weather meaning our bubble noise was obscured by wave noise. 4. A deep reef with nothing overhead. 5. A shallow thermocline that compressed the available warm water overhead.

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In stormy open water, we descended without a line to a barnacle covered rock at 31 m, where the temperature dropped from 27 C to 15 C and the current was roaring. We became part of the reef. Slowly they appeared overhead, first in small numbers but then in their hundreds. They could be seen cavorting and displaying to each other, languidly cruising in mid water. They seemed oblivious to the freezing, breathless divers below, desperately trying to focus their cameras on the silhouettes above. I didn’t need to try to be quiet – at some point I realised I had been holding my breath for a minute or so (not recommended on scuba). It was worth the pounding headache. We hope our kids can see this one day.

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Schools of giant, shy creatures silhouetted against the morning sun.
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What we came to see.
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