I knew weather would be a factor on this expedition to Cocos Island. After
all, the place gets enough rain in a year to fill up a two-story house well
into the attic, and it's still the rainy season. I just didn't expect weather
to be a factor so soon.
On Wednesday, I got a call from Michele Hall. I said I was looking forward
to meeting her and the rest of the IMAX film crew in Miami Thursday evening.
Won't happen, Michele said. Hurricane Georges, if it kept to its current
course, would strike southern Florida sometime Thursday evening, just in time
for our 7 p.m. flight to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital. Michele, the
logistical whiz of Howard Hall Productions, the film production company she
runs with her husband Howard, had found a solution: We would fly to San Jose
out of Dallas/Fort Worth. Could I change my flights?
I met the team in Dallas Thursday afternoon. Besides the Halls, there was
cameraman Bob Cranston, Howard's right-hand man when using the underwater IMAX
rig; three camera assistants, Mark Thurlow, Mark Conlin, and Lance Milbrand;
and Billy Holdson, an IMAX camera technician. To a man, they seemed fit,
upstanding, and self-assured, and most of them towered over Michele, who would
appear petite if she weren't so thoroughly in charge. On their fifth filming
expedition together to Cocos, they were clearly a tight-knit group. Would I
Our flight to Costa Rica was uneventful. At least until the plane arrived
over San Jose, when the weather got in our way again.
The Howard Hall Productions and boat crew, before boarding the Undersea Hunter.
It had been raining since we had left Guatemala City, our one stop on the
flight. Was this the furthest edge of the hurricane? Was Georges getting to us
after all? By the time we neared San Jose, the rainclouds had sunk right down
to ground level. My ears were telling me we had descended a long way, yet out
my rain-streaked window I could see no lights on the ground. Aren't there
large volcanoes near San Jose? I wondered. Against my will, I found myself
trying to recall the particulars of that flight that crashed into a Colombian
mountain a few years ago. Suddenly I could see lights on the ground below us,
and they were close.
Just then the pilot gunned the engines. As we rose into the night sky, I
thought again of volcanoes—big, looming volcanoes. We climbed and climbed.
The whole plane was silent. Finally the pilot got on the intercom. He would
try one more pass, he said, but if it didn't work, we would fly to Managua,
Nicaragua and wait till the visibility improved.
I glanced over at my companions. Stalwart as ever, the three I could see from
my seat were all reading, as unfazed as if they were sitting in a rocker at
home. Taking the hint, I pulled out the book I was reading, How to Photograph
Underwater, by leading marine photographer Norbert Wu. My new friends were all
in there, in Wu's photographs: Bob Cranston with a giant jellyfish, Mark
Conlin dancing with sea lions, Howard filming a whale shark. Despite the
spanking new "Advanced Openwater" diver card in my wallet, I was beginning to
feel like a baby-faced neophyte around these guys.
After interminable minutes, we approached the airport again. I could feel the
plane going down, down, down. No visibility. The pilot alternately revved and
relaxed the engines, as if trying to ease down just low enough to slide
beneath the clouds and catch sight of the runway. Below, lights appeared
again. They were so close I could see their shape.
The Undersea Hunter with on-board crane in use.
Then, unbelievably, we were on the ground. Applause leapt up from the cabin,
though I noticed Howard Hall Productions didn't join in. Even as we cleared
customs, got our bags, and headed through a light rain to a waiting bus, they
remained largely subdued, businesslike. Had they even noticed?
"Get used to it," Michele said from my side as we walked across the tarmac,
her dark eyes glittering in the harsh light of a street lamp. She meant the
rain, but she might as well have meant this group's rigorous self-control,
their unflinching professionalism. I settled in the back of the bus, behind
all the others.
Then someone said, "Pretty hairy landing, eh?"
"I'm just glad we're not back there on that mountain," Bob Cranston replied.
"Oh, you were thinking that, too?" asked Lance Milbrand.
Instantly, like a dam opening, everyone was talking and laughing with relief.
They started joking among one another, and even pulled me in, amiably dubbing
me the FNG. (The last two letters stand for "new guy.") They were human after
all! As we drove to our hotel through the rainy streets of San Jose, I
thought: I'm getting used to this weather already.
It's now Friday morning, and we're about to drive to Puntarenas on the Pacific
coast. There we'll board the Undersea Hunter for the 33-hour
crossing to Cocos Island, whose waters teem with marine life, most notably
sharks. And get this: it's sunny.