A place where no one has ever been before, a biological phenomenon that has hardly been explored and an area over which mass tourism has not yet had any influence. Doesn’t that sound like a real dream for underwater photographers? When my cave diving instructor in Playa del Carmen told me about it, it took me no more than five seconds to be on fire.
While the Caribbean coast of Colombia has been gaining popularity among South American tourists for some time now, the Pacific side of the Latin American country is barely developed and borders on an almost untouched part of the ocean for divers. And all this despite the fact that once a year there is a huge natural spectacle to be admired here. A Sardine Migration that takes large shoals of these small fish straight to the coast. Similar to the worldwide renowned Sardine Run in South Africa, this high concentration of biomass attracts many hunters. In contrast to the South African counterpart, Bonitos and not so much sharks and dolphins are the guests at the richly covered buffet.
The first planning for the journey sounds rather adventurous: Flight via Amsterdam to Panama City, then on to Medellín, the notorious drug capital of Pablo Escobar. Then with a small propeller aircraft across the Colombian jungle to an airport called Nuquí, which is completely unknown to me.
How big a surprise was my arrival in Medellín. A modern city in the size of Munich with comfortable hotels and a rich cultural offer awaited me. The times when the drug mafia Medellín had a firm grip on it are now more than 20 years ago. What remains is an Escobar museum and guided tours of the former villas of the megalomaniac Heroin Lord. Horror sells well – even if it has a real background. And nothing is as stable as a well-groomed prejudice.
The next morning we went to the domestic airport in the middle of the city. Slowly we climbed into the sky with a Russian-style propeller aircraft. Medellín is situated in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by rainforest. Two hours later we landed at the airport, or should I rather say runway, of Nuquí. A short walk to the local jetty and then a Lancha was waiting for us, one of these boats, with which almost everything is moved over the water in Latin America. Passing a military checkpoint – the peace treaty in the Colombian civil war was still a few months away at that time – and then we went along the coast to our accommodation. A dive center in the middle of nowhere. On one side rainforest, on the other the Pacific Ocean, with a narrow strip of beach in between.
In the middle of nowhere
Diving in such a remote place means first and foremost “safety first”. If the next hyperbaric treatment centre is two hours’ flight away and still at an altitude of 1500 metres, there is no hyperbaric chamber. Deco sickness is simply not an option here. That is why I am not testing the limits of my dive computer this time. Not here, though.
While we spent the first two days in pouring rain looking for the sardine swarms, we were lucky from the third day onwards. We had to understand that the seabirds did not betray here, as in South Africa, by busy activity where a Baitball under the water surface was active. No, here the pelicans simply sat lazily on the surface of the water, held their beak in the water and apparently just gave themselves a good bite. Only with snorkel, mask, fins and lead we could start our photo hunt.
I was surprised by the colouring of the water. So close to the equator I suspected a clear deep blue. So close to the rainforest, a lot of organic material is washed in. Near the coast, the visibility was therefore partly very cloudy. After about half a mile the ocean cleared up and had a wonderful aquamarine to greenish colour. I hadn’t expected that.
Underwater, a very compact ball of pacific sardines awaited us. They turn around themselves at an enormous speed. Someone or something has to hunt them down, i. e. drive them to the surface of the water in order to eat them better. I looked around. No dolphins like in South Africa, no sailfish like in Mexico, no sharks. So I take a deep breath and dive. At about ten meters I saw them: Bonitos. This is a relatively common biological species belonging to the mackerel and tuna family. They are not particularly imposing in appearance or size. But they impress by their speed. Again and again they hammer from below into the sardine swarm.
As a photographer, I am thrilled by the wonderful formation that the swarm of sardines holds. Almost geometrically perfect is sometimes the spherical shape they form. Since the Bonitos attack exclusively from below, they do not destroy the structure, but keep it in shape. This is much less action than hunting silk sharks or bryde whales, which like to drive through a swarm of sardines with their huge mouth. I have plenty of time to take my pictures. Filmmakers and videographers may be happier with the Sardine Run in South Africa. As a photographer, this is exactly where I want to be.
For three days we were lucky enough to be able to spend several hours with the sardines every day. We got especially nice results as soon as the sun came out. That is never the case for long. But then we will even better appreciate the great light show.
But also on land, this stretch of coast had a lot to offer for me. Above all, peace and seclusion. No traffic noise, no phone, no internet. The noise from the compressor or generator only occasionally cuts through the soundscape of the sea and jungle. How much you can talk to your fellow travellers when you are on the spot with your head and your heart and not in any net.
But even the best time will pass someday. So we dry our dive gear on the last day. A wonderful opportunity to explore the rainforest. A canoe trip and a visit to a hot spring shortens our time. However, my camera equipment had a particularly hard time. A rainforest is not called rainforest without good reason. Flood-like cloudbursts were a daily occurrence. Once the sun came out, water vapour immediately rose from the wet ground and crawled into all corners and crevices. It’s a good thing my camera had to be overhauled anyway.
On the last day we were brought back to the airfield with pouring rain. The precipitation was sometimes so severe that navigation on our motorboat was difficult. We made it just in time. Enriched with many impressions, we made our way back to Medellín in the small Russian plane.