Escape to Bat Islands
By Genna Marie
I am floating weightlessly, staring down the nose of an enormous bull shark, and time has come to a standstill. Immersed 90 feet below, I’ve forgotten anything and everything that exists in the world above. My heart rate quickens; each pulse sends a nearly imperceivable ripple out into the depths where it bounces off the creature’s heightened radar. When I can no longer hold my breath I exhale. My large bubbles spook the shark’s super-sensibility, and it darts off.
Did that really just happen? I slowly regain my composure and begin to think in words and sentences again, rather than in raw emotion. I was an intruder on that fish’s marine turf – and it simply let me be. It allowed me to share its space, just like its brothers and sisters had so many times before. Thanks for not eating me, I thought.
Affectionately known by English speakers as the “Bat Islands,” Islas Murciélago sits offshore from Santa Rosa National Park near the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Fearless bull sharks stretching ten feet or more; enormous manta rays big enough to block out the sun; and zebra eels as long as a garden hose are just a few of the sea creatures that adventurous souls can hope to encounter on a single diving expedition within these protected waters.
The main island is composed of rolling, lush green hills – a shade of emerald lime so stunning it almost looks like an artificial backdrop. It’s one of those magical, picture-perfect places that you have to convince yourself is actually real. The lone building on the island, a ranger station full of Costa Rican law enforcers and environmentalists, is the only sign of human life. Everything else is primal, and probably exactly as it was thousands upon thousands of years ago. If you let your imagination wander you can almost expect a tyrannosaurus rex to come stumbling out from the trees around the bend.
As gorgeous as Islas Murciélago is above sea level, what rests beneath the surrounding waters is what’s truly spectacular. On a good day, even the most experienced divers feel like kids in a candy store. Local dive instructor Will Erazo of Summer Salt Dive Center in Playas del Coco has been exploring the Bat Islands for over three years.
“The best place to dive is a site called The Big Scare,” he said. “Sometimes you can also see whale sharks and other large marine life here, but people mostly come to dive with the big guys – the bull sharks. Once a mixed pod of bottlenose and pantropical spotted dolphins swam with us as we were finishing a dive. It was hands down the best experience of my life.”
However, a trip to the Bat Islands should be reserved for intrepid souls only. On an unlucky day of bad visibility and choppy waters, the turbulent 2-hour journey from Playa del Coco can make even experienced seafarers nauseous; and – if you don’t see anything but murky water and rocks it’s challenging not to cry out in frustration. Fortunately, good days at the park are more prevalent than not, so it’s well worth the gamble.
Although the protected water around Islas Murciélagos affords some of the most incredible marine habitats in Costa Rica, its status as a safe zone may soon expire. A proposed revision to Article 9 of the 2005’s Fishing and Aquaculture law would lift a commercial fishing ban in these waters. Lobbyists for the bill argue that locals depend on fishing to feed their families – despite the fact that it is already possible to obtain small-scale fishing permits within the park through the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET).
Opponents to the bill fear that the law will deplete these precious ecosystems, damaging vital breeding grounds. They also worry it might cause a domino effect that could lead to deforestation, deregulation, and slackening of other laws preserving Costa Rica’s national parks. In reality, no one can accurately predict what the repercussions of relaxing this statute will bring if it comes to pass – and for now, only time will tell.