Author: Stephanie Huynh
The hot, blazing Costa Rican sun was beating hard upon us during the bumpy ride aboard the Blue Orca dive boat. But it was December, so that did not hinder me from wearing my thick 7 mm wetsuit as I’m convinced that winter waters in any part of the world will be bone-chilling to me. As we approached the lush Catalina Islands off the northwestern Costa Rican coast, they looked like ancient volcanic pinnacles right out of the Jurassic era. The seas were calm and despite being an experienced diver, I was a little nervous about performing my very first back roll off the side of the dive boat. Nonetheless, the jitters of not having dived in a couple of months quickly dissipated as soon as the weight of my heavy tank pulled me back and I splashed into the water. I quickly regained orientation and it was then that I realized how fun and effortless back rolls are!
Whitetip reef sharks Credit: Andy Murch sharksandrays.com
This archipelago of rocky islets is home to a staggering number of sea urchins strewn amongst the rocky crevices, different species of lounging starfish, shy and bold moray eels, territorial lobsters, and tornados of schooling fish. A distant Devil Ray drew my attention from afar but despite my burst of exertion, he effortlessly outswam me and my teal Seawing Nova scuba fins. Trumpet fish and Moorish Idol fish also resided among the locals as well as armies of those goofy-looking puffer fish with their big eyes, spotted skin, and subtle smirks. Another highlight was a camouflaging octopus who graced us with his presence on more than one dive; first outside of his den and then on another day hiding inside his den, covered with shells.
We also encountered one larger-than-life turtle who appeared to be on a mission, pushing us aside as he glided by with intention, a pair of Spotted Eagle Rays that seemed to be flying with the graceful flapping of their pectoral fins like wings, and Southern and yellow stingrays who maneuvered their flat, pancake-shaped bodies along the sandy contour with smooth, silky elegance. And following a safety stop at the end of one of our dives, we found ourselves breaking the surface with a couple of Devil Rays who were energetically jumping for joy out in the distance. What an astounding sight to behold!
But who were the stars of the show for me? The Whitetip Reef Sharks, of course! With their flattened heads, blunt snouts, and trademark white-tipped fins, they are one of the cutest species, in my opinion. Their facial expressions are so curious and innocent. The first one I saw was hidden in a cave. There he lay motionless with the exception of buccal pumping for effective oxygen exchange to occur over the gills without swimming. This shy little guy refused to move from his comfortable spot, nestled inside the cave. This observation of behavior made me concerned that all the Whitetip Reef Sharks would remain hidden during the day as they’re known to be nocturnal. Luckily, that was not the case.
As our group moved along, we encountered more whitetip reef sharks that were out in the open and not quite as shy and standoffish. A family of 4 or 5 larger whitetip reef sharks lay nearby on the ocean floor. They seemed calm and relaxed, only moving from their designated spots when they sensed our presence drawing near. They naturally want to avoid conflict and not be bothered by us, so they simply started swimming away.
I later saw a pair of male whitetip reef sharks. One kept following the other. The one being followed seemed annoyed by the other who even laid on top of him at one point. It didn’t take long for the annoyed whitetip to wriggle out from underneath the other and swim away, but the instigator kept following him. Not sure what the intention was behind this game of tag but the annoyed shark clearly just wanted to relax and not be pestered by his bothersome acquaintance. As much as I wanted to follow them and continue observing this interesting behavior and difference in personality amongst individuals, I was at risk of falling behind the group and forever being just another annoying entity to that one shark.
All in all, I found the waters of Costa Rica to be calm and welcoming. The diversity of underwater marine life was simply fascinating from cephalopods to crustaceans, reptiles, and fish. As with any other shark species I’ve encountered prior to this, the whitetip reef sharks were truly hospitable. While they didn’t show much interest in us and simply wanted to lounge around and not be bothered, their unique physical traits and fairly calm demeanor made them easy to adore.