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January 14, 2010

Costa Rica's Jurassic Park

A huge new Costa Rican marina/resort complex promises five-star luxury, pristine jungle and wide-open fishing

Every now and again, you witness something you know you won't soon forget.

Just such a moment in time along the northernmost coast of Costa Rica remains clearly etched in my memory.

Now and then over the years, I've seen dorado (mahi or dolphin) showering baitfish - the silvery shimmer of a school flying out of the water in unison as it attempts to flee a marauding bull, lit up with colors that would make a peacock jealous.

But this was the first time I'd watched adult dorado as the "showerees." It was indeed a sight to behold, and everyone on the 40-foot Gamefish Plautus beheld it in awe on that June morning, last year. A pack of big dorado were making like low-flying birds. The fish would hit the water and soar right out again in long-distance broad jumps worthy of an Olympic medalist.

The event lasted long enough that I managed to turn away to make a grab for my camera. I had no time to try to adjust settings for the dim light beneath a veil of morning mist and heavy overcast, just snapping a few quick shots, zoomed out to the lens's 200mm maximum. Later, looking at the images, I noted with some surprise just how close to shore we were when all this occurred.

"Now you see why we call it Jurassic Park up here," says Jamey Harless, our host and owner of the Plautus and Billfish Safaris.

I knew the reason for his comment, of course.

Not many predators are large and fast enough to threaten a school of grown dorado, putting them in head-for-the-hills mode like these. But for a big, hungry marlin, dorado offer a dandy meal. There was little doubt that a big billfish had chased the mahi topside.

Actually the "Jurassic Park" moniker can be attributed to a couple of sources. One is indeed the fact that big fish - of several species - hang out here. Also, this is Jurassic Park, at least according to Steven Spielberg. Part of the movie was filmed right here, north of the Gulf of Papagayo. That's not surprising, since this steep, rugged coast with its thick, pristine jungle looks every bit the lost world; I kept one eye out for a T-Rex to appear at any time.

Jurassic Habitat
The fact that dino-size predators patrol the waters along the Costa Rican coast just south of the Nicaragua border isn't terribly surprising either, at least when you've seen it on a map, on a depth sounder and finally, with your own eyes.

More often than not, a long, rocky finger of land jutting out into the ocean, with currents clashing over the rugged habitat, spells fish. This particular rocky finger qualifies as the westernmost point of land in the Guanacaste (the most northerly state in Costa Rica, just south of Nicaragua) and is the hot spot most often fished by the four charter boats that Billfish Safaris currently operates out of the new Papagayo Marina.

The geologic nature of this landform, in the area more properly known as Playa Blanca, can be understood when you see it from the water. Harless pointed to the east where, looking back at the peninsula, I could clearly see two landmasses that had been pushed together to form a steep, narrow ridge running right down into the Pacific. Depth-sounder readings as we trolled left no doubt that the ridge retains its austere form beneath the surface. The top of the ridge rises to within about 40 feet of the surface; it drops away on one side to about 100 feet of water and to about 250 feet on the other sides. Harless says the ridge extends into the Pacific this way for about two miles and offers productive trolling grounds with great variety.

Variety is definitely the spice of life for 14-year veteran skipper Luis Ruiz Ruiz. The captain and his two mates concentrate primarily on trolling live baits. Harless says just about all the major game fish of Costa Rica can be taken right here and down the coast to Papagayo Bay on any given day by pulling live skippies or blue runners. He ticks off a long list of targets that includes marlin of the blue, black and striped persuasion, as well as sails, wahoo, yellowfin, dorado, roosterfish, cubera, almaco jacks and still others.