Trip Planning - Article 1

Timing is Everything in Dive Travel



A few years ago I went to a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers concert in Jackson, Wyoming - it was going to be epic. I’ve wanted to see them for years, I’d heard from several people who have seen them that they do a kick ass show and the concert was staged in an outdoor amphitheatre at the base of a mountain just outside Grand Teton National Park. It couldn’t have been a better setup …. right up until the time that the near freezing rain started and turned the whole show into a soggy, muddy mess. The band seemed less than enthused and even cut the show short. It was a real let down from the high expectations I had and was far short of epic. There was great potential but the timing was just off.

Expectations When We Travel


Fast forward to today and I just came up from a dive off Cocos Island; a national park, marine reserve and world heritage listed site that sits isolated 300 miles off Costa Rica’s west coast. The water is warm, wonderfully warm, luxuriously warm and that’s exactly the problem. We’ve got a “mild” El Nino going on right now and Cocos Island is firmly in its grip. The water here is warmer than usual, much warmer in fact. The thermocline that usually exists at 80’ and drops the water temps into the low 70’s and even upper 60’s is now well below recreational dive limits. The thermocline we do have is at 100’, only drops the water temps to 78 degrees and has created very low visibility that looks like L.A. on an incredibly smoggy day. The long and short of it is that the marine life that makes Cocos Island a must see and must photograph place is largely absent. During the week we catch maddeningly quick glimpses of large schools of sharks a few times but they are down in the deep mostly deeper than we can go or see with the very limited visibility and out of camera range. And it’s not just the hammerhead sharks; most of the marine life seems to be in shorter supply and other shark sightings are rare. Later, as I steam on board the Sea Hunter back to mainland Costa Rica, I feel pretty much the same as I did after the Tom Petty concert. And that brings to mind a very important rule when planning dive travel, especially for the underwater photographer – Timing Is Everything.


dive travel for underwater photography - when to go

Where's the sharks??


Cocos Island, Costa Rica


On this trip to Cocos Island, we broke that cardinal rule and were rewarded appropriately. Months ahead, we knew a mild El Nino was predicted – we keep track of this kind of stuff - and in planning our dive trip, pushed the timing a little to try and skirt the effects that we thought might come. What we should have done was completely rescheduled for another time well outside the window. The only reason we didn’t reschedule was because our dive trip was a site inspection for when we will guide guests to Cocos Island early next year and it was potentially the only time we could get to Cocos. Even so, we would have had a much better experience if we had really pushed our schedule around to make it work some other time.

We will be coming back to Cocos which made me especially empathetic to other divers who wouldn’t be and were literally here for the dive trip of a lifetime and got average instead of great.


hammerhead sharks at cocos island

You can see a few hammerhead sharks now


Planning Dive Travel as an Underwater Photographer


When planning a dive trip, timing is everything and should play a central role in deciding when to go – but often it doesn’t. Especially for the underwater photographer, timing is so important because it might dictate what marine life is and isn’t there, what marine events may or may not be happening and what conditions such as visibility might be like. Quickly you can see that this can make the difference between an OK underwater photography dive trip and dive trip of a lifetime. It can make the difference between incredible, show stopping images and just good images. One hammerhead shark or one hundred? Thirty foot visibility or one hundred and thirty foot visibility? Spawning grouper schools and accompanying whale sharks or empty blue water? It’s that big a difference.


A lot of things get into the way of vacation planning, right? When can I get time off work? When can my spouse/girlfriend/friends get time off work? If you have kids, you’ve got to work with their schedule. You may not want to travel for diving during certain seasons because it’s nice at home. You may have bingo every Tuesday night or not want to miss American Idol or need to get a haircut. There’s inevitably a host of other things going on. C’est la vie, yes?


So here’s the formula – find out when the best time or window is for you to go and then just make the other stuff work around that. It’s really that simple. Sure there are always complications but if you let all that other stuff dictate when you go on a dive trip to a specific destination, you’re at the mercy of chance. You may end up with mediocre, with good or with great but it’s all a crap shoot. And if you’ve only got a couple of weeks a year vacation and have a limited number of dive trips you can take each year, do you really want to take that chance? Are you always on the wrong end of, “you should have been here last week?” Well now forewarned is forearmed.


So the first piece is to find out when is the prime window for weather or animal action. In general, resorts and dive operators are a lousy place to find out that info and here’s why; resorts and dive operators are in the difficult position of needing to fill every bed and boat every day of the year whether it’s the best season or not. So, quite often, it’s “always” great. Most resorts offer seasonal rates for precisely this reason. Think of it as the resort offering discounts for people willing to come “off season.” Many resorts/live aboards/dive operators offer special off season packages or sales and my response to those is almost universally – no thanks. Ask yourself if it makes sense to you to save a couple hundred dollars if it means reduced conditions or marine life. After all, you came all this way to create some awesome images right?


lots of hammerheads - cocos island underwater photography

This is what it's like to travel at the right time


I ask divemasters and locals all over the world to find out when is the “best” time. The only problem with that strategy for most people is that it means you have go there first to know when the best time to go is. Recently, a friend called me about going on a dive trip to Tahiti. He was being offered a great deal in the Society Islands in December and the agent told him that the conditions would be fine. And sometimes things are fine in the Societies in December but it’s the rainy season. And when it does rain in the rainy season - amazing how that happens - then the silty water from the bays flush out onto the reefs and you can have 10’ pea soup visibility. When conditions are like that, shark dives are canceled and you get to wallow around in the London fog. After I shared this with my friend, he immediately declined the offer. Smart move.

What’s the Traveling Underwater Photographer to Do?


We understand that most underwater photographers want to go on a dive trip at some point. Many go every year because if you want to capture the images, you’ve got to go where they exist. That’s why we are building a comprehensive Dive Destination Guide. Over the next month, we will be working hard to update the destination section with this kind of information. Our goal is very simple; to provide the traveling underwater photographer with the information and insight to know when you have the best chance of producing the images you want in the places where you want to dive.


dolphins at cocos - dive travel at the right time

Travel at the right time, and you get happy marine life, and happy divers. Photo from Cocos island.


Nature by definition is dynamic and the Ocean is never a sure bet. Things can change dramatically even from week to week and seasonal anomalies happen all the time. Even so, it makes huge sense to stack the deck in your favor and the first way to do that is to realize that - Timing is Everything.


Ridlon & Carin Kiphart
aka Sharkman & Mantagirl
Travel Editors


The Underwater Photography Guide has started a bi-weekly travel column written by Ridlon and Carin. Check back in two weeks for the next article!


You can find out more about Sharkman and Mantagirl at


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