Swim with the Sharks
From the sea, Malpelo looks like something out of a classic 007 movie—the remote Pacific hideout where the over-the-top villain plots some dastardly scheme from within a rocky fortress. The island’s profile is so sinister it’s almost campy: The “shoreline” consists of sheer cliffs, and the island’s highest peak, Cerro de la Mona, looms 376m (1,234 ft.) above like a glowering overlord. The entire surface of Malpelo, a scant 350 hectares (865 acres), is harsh grey lavic rock, practically devoid of vegetation. And for 10km (6 miles) in every direction, the waters around Malpelo are a UNESCO sanctuary where some of the ocean’s most menacing-looking creatures circle and feed. Yet it’s thanks to this teeming and diverse population of sharks that Malpelo is one of the top scuba diving destinations in the world.
The miniscule above-water peak of an enormous undersea mountain that extends for 3.2 km (2 miles) to the floor of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Malpelo is located 506 km (314 miles) off the western coast of Colombia. Because of its extreme isolation and the government permits required to visit Malpelo, most people travel there on organized diving trips that include Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, another phenomenal dive site.
Massive, spectacular sea caves, where smaller fish seek harbor from rough mid-ocean conditions, are what make Malpelo and its offshore rock stacks such a consistently thrilling place to dive. These ecological conditions are a magnet for the shark species so frequently seen here, and at relatively shallow depths. Visibility underwater is generally excellent. There are more than 500 scalloped hammerheads swimming around Malpelo, as well as silky sharks, bull sharks, white-tip sharks, manta rays, barracuda, and an astounding number of moray eels. It’s also one of few places in the world where the rare small-tooth sand tiger shark is commonly seen, off a rock wall known as “Monster Face.” More friendly faced creatures in the vicinity include dolphins, sea turtles, and the occasional humpback whale on migratory routes. The prehistoric hammerheads, which measure up to 4.2m (14 ft.) in length and swim in formidable synchronized matrices—a dazzling sight for divers—may look monstrous, but neither they nor any of the other species off Malpelo are aggressive toward humans.
Unless you’re an experienced and intrepid diver (there are strong currents to contend with in addition to the toothy sea life), there’s no reason to visit Malpelo. The island’s name is a corruption of the Latin nickname a sailor once gave this barren rock: Malveolus, or “inhospitable,” which pretty well sums up the above-water aspect of the place. The island—“rock” is more like it—is uninhabited by humans except for a small Colombian navy garrison. Some other fauna, however, are perfectly suited to this seemingly hostile environment: A colony of some 25,000 Nazca, or masked boobies, thrives on tiny Malpelo, and there are a number of endemic species, including lizards and crabs, that live on the algae and lichens that grow on the crags.
Tour: Undersea Hunter, Puntarenas, Costa Rica ( 506/2228-6613; www.underseahunter.com).
San Jose International, Costa Rica. Diving trips depart from Puntarenas, Costa Rica.