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March 25, 2010 11:52 AM Pacific (GMT -8)

Malpelo: The Distant Paradise
by Carl Roessler

I love diving destinations which have atmosphere. Most of my favorite dive sites are 50 to 300 miles (80 to 480 km) from the nearest shore. Many don?t break the surface, but all have a visual chemistry that is conclusive. One look and you suspect; one dive and you know.

Some years ago I visited Malpelo with the goal of making it known and available to avid divers. To my great good fortune, a wonderful small-group dive yacht and crew had adopted the place with personal devotion. It was their pride, their joy. When I embarked upon the 300-mile (480-km) voyage to Malpelo, I was open to anything. Well, I thought I was.

Those few of you who have made the pilgrimage to these remote waters understand the contradictions of the place. It is a very tiny island compared to many, yet it rears above you with colossal stony mass when you are cruising nearby. The ocean around it looks empty, yet is more full of big marine life than any site you have ever dived. You dive sun-splattered shallows, yet it has existential deeper dives. It is 300 miles (480 km) from shore, but the singular dive yacht that takes you there is so comfortable it makes it all seem easy.

Above all, it has a secret seamount that harbors a gathering of immense, slow, secretive ragged-toothed sharks. Diving down to where these behemoths patrol is a transforming experience. Like diving with great white sharks and whale sharks, one is forever changed after the encounter.

Contrasts. Vast dimensions. World-level class.

I have had fabulous luck going to Malpelo on three different occasions. It has blessed me with clear water, swarming schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks in depths of 30 to 60ft (9 to 18m), countless shoals of fish such as jacks, tuna, goatfish, creole fish and leather bass, moray eels so numerous they prey upon each other even when divers are watching. Oh, yes?and the ragged-toothed sharks, those giant, dramatic cherries on your chocolate sundae!

Best of all, this is one of those special corners of the planet that most rewards those who love to spend hours in the water. Dives are offered from 7:00 am until late afternoon?by then our heroes are dragging themselves back aboard and lying about exhausted and exhilarated, swapping ever-wilder encounter stories.

How does someone prepare to see a place that erupts in chiseled, vertical stone 1,350ft (400m) into the sky? How do you arrange your thoughts for dives where you might not be able to see the ragged-toothed sharks through the swarm of hammerheads? How do you prepare to cruise up next to bait balls on the surface where hundreds of diving birds compete with dozens of thrashing sharks to devour a school of bait fish? How do you envision phenomena such as the Eel Condos, where 15 to 20 huge green morays can be sharing a single coral crevice?

I find such places hard to adequately describe?it would take an entire portfolio of pictures, for example, just to show the highlights! Yet, divers want to know as much as possible about a place before committing their precious vacation time. All I can say is that avid enthusiasts will be lavishly rewarded at Malpelo and the seamount. I know. I?ve done it.

Finally, I understand that many scuba divers who would love this remote paradise will be put off by the long cruise to reach Malpelo. For me, the 300-mile (480-km) cruise acts as a filter to keep all but the most committed divers away from this treasure. That results in a place that is completely unspoiled, undamaged, lush with savage imagery I will never forget. It will draw me back again and again, precisely because it is unyielding in its Primary Rule?it rewards only those who pay its price.

I pay it gladly!

Note: Malpelo is 2 miles (3.2 km) long and 884 feet (265m) at its highest point. It is owned by Columbia and lies in the eastern Pacific Ocean at one corner of the Golden Triangle, which includes Cocos Island and the northern islands of the Galapagos Islands (Wolf and Darwin). To get there, divers typically overnight in San Jose, Costa Rica, and fly the next morning to Golfito for a 30-hour crossing. The liveaboard Mr. Roessler refers to is the Inzan Tiger, and you're welcome to contact him for more information. The Undersea Hunter also recently started making trips to Malpelo.

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