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Our trip started with a flight to Panama City, and a chartered bus ride the next morning to Puerto Mutis, a tiny port town deep in a mangrove estuary, four hours to the southwest. In mid-afternoon we boarded the two 25' fiberglass dive skiffs for a half-hour ride out to our liveaboard, anchored in deeper water. We motored out to the open sea and began a 6-hour crossing to Isla Coiba, a national park and world heritage site. We had the roughest crossing the captain had seen, wallowing through big seas and sheets of driving rain. We anchored for the night in the lee of Coiba, and awoke to the same conditions.
Coiba is reputed to be an excellent dive destination in good weather. It was humpback season there, and we saw a number of whales breaching, all in the distance. The schedule called for us to make a first warm-up dive there, then start the long crossing to Malpelo, but due to losing the anchor (yup, losing the anchor), we did three dives there under thick, low clouds, heavy rain, and five-foot chop, and spent a second night, as well as the following morning. Early in the morning following our second night at Coiba, we began the crossing to Malpelo, also the roughest crossing the crew could remember. The crossing used up that day, plus well into the night. The anchor travesty and crossing are included in my separate boat report here.
Malpelo ... it's interesting to speculate about what the trip could have been. You can fix some things, but bad viz is bad viz, and it's tough when you do a liveaboard that really requires decent visibility, and what you get are conditions that the dive guide had only seen once before
in four years. Over the course of the trip the weather improved greatly; the viz only marginally.
Malpelo is a barren, barely-a-mile-long rock, 230 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, south of Panama. It's actually Colombian territory , and is inhabited by a rotating group of a half-dozen Colombian soldiers and thousands of sea birds. It seems that, to Americans, it's the least-known, least-visited of the Pacific triad of pelagic stopovers, the others being Coco (often called "Cocos", which is actually in the Indian Ocean) and Galapagos. It's a much more popular trip for Europeans.
The seascape is rocky with barnacles and urchins, and not much else. One resident school of small barracuda, some jacks, leather bass, and snappers, the biggest concentration of morays I've ever seen in my life, and sharks ... lots of scalloped hammerheads and silky sharks, and the occasional Galapagos shark.
Lousy viz is good if you're a filter feeder ... we saw one manta out in the murk, and no whale sharks, though they're reputed to make an occasional appearance there. The visibility was bad down to the thermocline, which moved between 75' and 95'. Water temp above was 80-81F (27C), below that down to 66F (19C). That was also where the hammerheads, the ones we could see, liked to hang out ... in that oily-looking, distorted layer of visibility right at the thermocline. The dive plan was pretty regular ... eight of us and a dive guide back-rolling in, sometimes negative, and descending to a spot on the rocks where you just sort of found a place to back yourself in and wait. I was in a 5 mil wetsuit with a Pinnacle BioPly skin and a 2.5 mil vest under it, a 3 mil hood with a 3 mil beanie over it, plus gloves and booties. If I was moving it was "OK", but hanging out shark-watching, I was cold.
As an aside, the Colombian government imposes some rules on diving at Malpelo: Only one boat at a time can be moored at the island, all dives must be led by a divemaster, and there is no night diving. Whatever your thoughts are about these rules, that's what they are, so bear them in mind if you think about going there. Eight divers to a group proved to be no problem, as the terrain and type of diving allowed people to spread out; there was no clustering to look at a macro speck of protoplasm.
There are a half dozen or more pinnacles in two clusters off both ends of the island. The northern group, called the Three Musketeers, offered a nice dive called the Cathedral. One of the pinnacles has a vertical split in it that goes nearly to the surface, and is open to daylight on both ends. It's usually filled with a couple of schools of snappers, and exiting out the far end brought us to an area facing open ocean to the north. We were still plagued by bad viz here, but by simply swimming out toward open water beyond the pinnacle, we were "found" on two dives by the silkies, in a school that I estimated around 250 strong.
Whereas the hammerheads were shy and skittish, the silkies were bold and curious, but never threatening. At first we would see a pair, then a dozen, then a minute later we were literally surrounded by them, like we were in a big bowl made of sharks slowly circling around us, one golden eye in our direction, often no more than 6-8 feet away. They are truly beautiful animals. Without those two dives, I may have considered the trip a total bust. We felt fine in a group of nine, but I'm not sure I would have felt the same alone or in a single buddy pair. One Belgian woman, an experienced diver, was glued to the DM, but laughed about it afterwards.
There aren't a lot of productive dive sites around the island, and depending on the prevailing weather and/or currents, you may only be able to dive a few of them. We spent days rotating through three dive sites, and when the visibility isn't cooperating, that gets old real fast.
If this destination interests you, I guess the odds are with you in terms of weather and visibility. Just remember that it's a long, expensive boat ride if you get skunked. More about the boat and the ride here .....
It's just my opinion, folks ... ___________________________ " ... when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you've been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent. "
I recently came back from a trip to Malpelo on the Yemaya. We spent one day in Coiba for our checkout dives and then proceeded to Malpelo for 8 days of diving. My experience was totally different. We were fortunate to have calm seas and good visibility on most of our dives; although we did have ripping current at times and sporadic squalls during the trip.
It was a mind-blowing trip. We encountered hammerheads, silkies, and galapagos on almost all of our dives. One of my best dives was at La Gringa, where we had 5 galapagos sharks coming in for a closer look at the divers while the hammerheads were swimming 5 meters above us. We simply had to look up if we wanted to watch the unmistakable shapes of the hammerheads and look in front if we preferred to gaze upon the more robust silhouettes of the galapagos sharks. When we went up for our safety stop, around 500 silkies circled our group, sniffing and watching curiously. We had to force ourselves to get out of the water when our time was up.
At some point we took a break from the sharkfest and went in search of "smaller" stuff. We were rewarded at the Altar with a big school of barracudas. At Three Musketeers, we back rolled smack-dab into the resident school of mullet snappers and then moved on to watch a school of big-eyed jacks so large that we lost sight of some of the divers from our group for a while. Along the way we came upon a congregation of spotted eagle rays resting on the sandy bottom. When three of them broke away from the group, we followed them around for a bit until we reached the Cathedral, which is a split in the rocks that is open on both sides. We captured a few Kodak moments while exiting on the shallower end.
Speaking of photo opportunities, Malpelo is a great location for expanding one's collection. From start to finish, a diverse array of subjects would catch the eye of budding photographers and full-fledged lensmen alike. In addition to the spectacular underwater tableau, there are also plenty of topside shots to take — ships passing through the Panama Canal; a couple of howler monkeys vocalizing in the Gamboa Rainforest; an indigenous Kuna woman in colorful traditional garb; the bright beak of a toucan resting on a leafy branch a tall tree; the silhouette of a crocodile in the water as it navigates through lush mangroves in San Pedro River; the fine powdery sand of Coiba's beaches and the palm trees that thrive on the island; Malpelo's wild beauty with its resident colony of boobies, tiny waterfalls formed by recent rains, and pinnacles that jut out of the water like northern and southern sentinels of the island.
Great report - I got the same feedback from divers who were just there aboard the Yemaya - these are very experience divers who have dived everywhere and they reported that it was one of the best trips they had ever done. I was there a few years back and loved it but I am aware that conditions can be changeable so one needs to go with an open mind.
High Desert - I am sincerely very sorry that your expereince at Cocos was less than everyone would have wanted, but here is the video of the trip earlier this month on the Yemaya that I mentioned above Malpelo May 2012 - YouTube
i have been to malpelo years back on the sea hunter. Did two trips and our first was like the one high desert had. Lousy viz killer thermocline with thousands of sharks which you just could not really see. Second trip with good viz its a killer trip. Problem is whether you get the viz or not. Not sure if they have it worked out now. I know the Sea Hunter stopped doing trips there a few years back
Thanks Augustus - the Sea Hunter have stopped the trips mainly because a combination Cocos/Malpelo trip meant steaming well over 1000 nautical miles and it is impossible to predict what the conditions will be at Malpelo. The rules at Malpelo only permit one boat to be there at any time, and permist have to be requested in person in Colombia a year in advance, and cannot be requested before that time, and high fees are payable on the spot. I can understand why they no longer wish to operate there as it is a huge investment in time, cost & energy. Now with the option of Yemaya and Inula from Panama, there are other options. Here is some info on the seasons at Malpelo.
Malpelo is really all year but here are someanswer to questions about Malpelo seasons, I hope this helps you with planning:
Hammerheads: All year round. Scientists describeslightly bigger groups from January to April though we can not confirm this. Weobserve on all trips all year round schools of more than 150 to 300individuals.
Silkies: big schools of Silkie sharks from 300 to 1000from May to beginning August. Best months June and July
Sand Tiger "Monster shark": when cold water. So from January to April, thereis a 50% chance to see them but no guarantee. Normally they stay in 50 to 60meters depth. We take only the very experienced divers to that depth.
Whale sharks: all year round, but best time July,August, and beginning of September
Other species: Free swimming moray eels all yearround, Galapagos sharks all year round, big schools ofjacks, snappers and groupers all year round. Eagle Rays are very common inMalpelo, all year round
Water Temp: from January to April 26 C 70 27 C onsurface and from 24 down to 16 C under Thermocline. Thermocline can start at 15to 20 m April to December 27/28 C on surface and 24 to21 C under Thermocline. During this time Thermocline starts normally below 25 mor can even disappear completely.
Waves: calmest months March and April
Rain: dry season from 15 of December to beginning ofMay. In this time mostly north wind Rainy season: From May to December, mostly windfrom south normally it rains 2 or 3 hours a day untill thesun comes out There are also days with absolutely no rain. Therainiest month is November
I always thought one of the reasons the Sea Hunter stopped the trips to Malpelo was the conditions (meaning viz) was too unpredicable. I am curious if Yemaya has a handle on what times are better for Viz. If viz is good the pelagic action is some of the best I know of. Makes Cocos look tame.
Malpelo is a remote island (mountain) far out in the ocean, so it is more than logic that conditions may change quickly. But its worth to take the chance, if conditions are ok you will be rewarded with some of the best dives you may get.
I go personally to Malpelo since 5 years, have made all season. Cold season January to end march/beginning april we observed that the hammerheads are shallower, we saw them in the cleaning station of Altar de Virgina at about 8 to 10 meters in groups of 20 to 30. Rest of the year they approach as well but not in such numbers at such shallow depth. Neverthless you may see large groups in Nevera, Sahara, Gringa and durings drifts in the blue. Personally I prefere from May to September, but had also some good trips in other month.
Due to my experience there is North wind and more unpredictable conditions beginning of the year, but that does not mean that you can't have a great trip. Anyway get prepared for colder water, surface 18 to 23 degree and termoclines around 14 degree celsius. If you go from Colombia your trip will be combined with Gorgona island and January to March is NOT a good season, from May on starts to get interesting, you may even see Whalesharks and Mantas and from July on Humpback whales.
Silkies in large groups we have seen until September, but that may change of course, so I agree with Dominics dates. I dived with Whalesharks every year from June on until November.
By the way just back from a Malpelo trip on MV Yemaya, was amazing, we dived in a baitball with hundreds of silky sharks, tunas, dolphins and even some galapagos sharks showed up. During drifts from Nevera to the south we encountered tunas and silkies and far out a huge groups of hammerheads, actually the largest group I have ever seen, in our diving group we guessed about 500 animals. Twice we met whale sharks, once in Nevera and once in Monster reef, was a spectacular trip.
I started guiding in Malpelo on the Yemaya in April because I was looking for a bit of change after guiding in the Revillagigedos for 5 years. On the two trips that I have been on, I can say that it is world-class diving out there. Here is an excerpt of my trip report:
Our group was on its way to dive the Altar when we spotted a bait ball from the surface. The groups normally dive in separate sites, but on this occasion we decided to jump in together. Even while we were gearing up in the skiff we could already see how action-packed the dive was going to be with the shark and dolphin fins skimming the surface and yellowfin tunas jumping out of the water. The boobies were also swooping down from the skies trying to get a piece of the action.
The baitball separated into two so the groups drifted apart. We took a careful approach as bait balls can get a bit intense and dangerous if we get caught in the middle of it. In the water there were silky sharks everywhere! Some got a bit too curious that now and then it was necessary to drive them away. Big Galapagos sharks were also in the bait ball. They would slowly go in sideways, even upside down, to the compact ball then quickly jerk their head sideways to snap up some of the big-eye scads. Meanwhile we could hear a constant "thump, thump, thump!" as boobies dive bombed between the sharks and tuna to snatch a morsel with their beak.
The yellowfin tuna, some of the big guys weighing up to 100 kgs, raced up from the deep like bullets into the center of the ball and then quickly disappeared into the depths again. They were too quick for us to actually see them gobble up some of the bait fish. Other "smaller" fish that also wanted a share were mullet snappers and rainbow runners, hoping to feed on the scraps of what the bigger predators where spilling. Not to be left behind were a few blue-and-black striped pilot fish that always follow the Galapagos as well as the rainbow runners, hoping to get a little piece as well. We could hear dolphins but they had headed off to another part of the bait ball as it had split into two.
After about a half an hour the bait ball had become smaller and smaller and then the action slowed down until only one single big female Galapagos hung around. Nevertheless, there were still around a hundred sharks swimming and nosing around us, wanting to see what we were up to. Tuna still occasionally attacked, making the scads realize that it was better to follow the Galapagos shark so they would not get eaten. Then the scads decided that the best protection were the divers! That was not the best situation for us because now we part of the bait ball. For a time I managed to swim away with the bait ball so sharks and tuna started going after me! I even got hit on my back by one . I swam up to Tino, our skiff driver, and waved him over to us. Just as I thought, the school of scads chose the skiff as a better option for shelter from the sharks so we were safe again.
Sharks were still swimming around us for a long time, but the feast had ended. I think this bait ball has been the best one that I have seen in my life as a diver. It was not the biggest, but it did not move around as much so it was easy to get close to.