Visibility: 10-50 metres (best in the deeper, cooler water)
Water Temperature: 15-28°C (thermoclines lower the temperatures at depth)
Diving: Sharks, Manta Rays, Whale Sharks, walls, sea-mounts, pinnacles
The forbidding Malpelo Island is located 360 miles off the coast of Buenaventura, Colombia. A small Colombian naval garrison has been in place since 1986 and Malpelo is now recognized as a Colombian Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, with a marine protected area of six nautical miles around the island.
Malpelo, more of a rock than an island, is the peak of a large submarine volcanic ridge that extends for 150 miles, lying from northeast to southwest. The Malpelo ridge rises from depths of 4000 metres and breaks the surface in just one place: the tiny solitary rock of Malpelo. The rock has three distinct peaks, the highest of which, El Cerro de La Mona, reaches 376 metres. Maritime weather and sea action has eroded the island in its own inimitable style, forming steep cliffs and sea caves along its borders. Off the northern and southern sides of the island are 11 smaller satellite rocks, each with its individually characteristic dive sites.
There are few protected anchorages and the currents that flow through the area are strong. So what is the big attraction? Sharks, lots of them. Big fish in big numbers. At Malpelo divers are treated to schooling Scalloped Hammerheads (in possibly greater concentrations than at Cocos Island), often in shallower areas where cold thermoclines meet warm surface water. Dive sites at Malpelo share some features with Cocos Island; a remote location and dramatic marine life.
At The Altar of the Virgin divers can see hundreds of free swimming moray eels. One of Malpelo’s most famous and most common species is the Fine-spotted Moray Eel. They are everywhere: free swimming or in clusters inside crevices. The eels can be found snarling from their rocky lairs, undulating over rocks, or simply gliding sinuously through the water. Dolphins and Manta Rays sightings are not uncommon in this area. Also known as The Reef, this is the part of the island with the least vertical walls. For this reason corals have been able to take a hold and have formed terraces which receive a greater amount of light (so important for their growth). Numerous species of reef fish are thus called to pray at this altar: snappers, sea bass, surgeons, King Angelfish, damselfish, Moorish Idols, eels, Trumpetfish and goatfish congregate here. Schools of barracudas and jacks are also common here and hammerheads are seen on occasion.
Most of Malpelo’s dive sites are on the north coast. A group of pinnacles of the northern end, The Three Musketeers, comprises a series of tunnels and caverns filled with silvery baitfish, lobsters, schools of goatfish, grunts, groupers and jacks. One pinnacle has a large tunnel, Cathedral, that passes through it from a sandy bottom at 20 metres until almost reaching the surface on the other side. The walls of this tunnel are completely covered in corals and sponges and the interior is completely fish-filled, including huge aggregations of sweepers, creating a mystic atmosphere. Welcome to church!
Of course it is the shark action that lures divers to Malpelo and shark enthusiasts will certainly be in seventh heaven at The Fridge and Freezer Wall, where dense columns of Scalloped Hammerheads line up in the strong currents off the granite wall. There have been sightings of armies of Black-tipped Reef Sharks, so densely packed that it is impossible to distinguish individuals, and forming a panorama of sharks as far as the eye can see. Large female Hammerhead Sharks bully smaller ones with intimidating displays to win their place at the centre of the school. This area forms a small bay that hosts an important cleaning station for Almaco Jacks and Hammerhead Sharks. A high concentration of Creole Fish, together with a good chance of groups of Spotted Eagle Rays or other pelagics, make this place absolutely incredible, especially when the spectacle is completed by waves of Silky Sharks that can sometimes be counted in the hundreds.
La Gringa is the biggest rock on the south side of Malpelo. There is a cave that passes through part of this pinnacle between 25 and 40 metres. From here, with good visibility, it is possible to see three seamounts. A big school of Bigeye Jacks inhabit the exposed side of the rock where one frequently encounters groups of Scalloped Hammerheads. Sometimes Galapagos Sharks visit this area.
Diving off Malpelo, like Cocos, is for the more experienced diver: thermoclines and upwellings cause a considerable variation in temperature, while unpredictable currents and surface chop are also a feature of diving in this area. Visibility can vary from 10 metres in the warmer, upper levels to 40 or even 50 metres once you have dived below the wiggly disruptions that mark the thermocline. There are no sheltered anchorages and the boat must lay anchor close to the cliff face on the most protected side of the island. Crew members take it in turns to keep watch through the night and make sure that the boat does not drag its anchor and drift too close to the rocks.