SSI x Edges of Earth: Diving in Costa Rica With Over 200 Tiny Stingrays

Some dive days are almost guaranteed to be awesome; the ones at local dive sites that we know and love, on vacation at idyllic destinations, and at places that feature among the best diving spots in the world. But sometimes, it is the dives that we have no expectations of that are truly incredible. This is what Andi Cross from Edges of Earth discovered when she took a day off to go solo diving in Costa Rica. Read on to find out more.

Solo diving in Costa Rica: My once-in-a-lifetime dive

Fraught with exhaustion from getting used to navigating Central America by car, I wanted to have a single day off from expedition life when I went solo diving in Costa Rica. Do not get me wrong, being in the field every day, working alongside incredible people who are safeguarding our blue planet is beyond fulfilling. It is humbling, wholesome, and downright fun.

However, the days are long and there are not many breaks—we are always on and very much on the go. When we get home from a day out in the field, we review photos, write stories, and document every detail of the experience. And now, throughout all of Central America, into Mexico and back to the USA where we have one of our home bases, we were driving. An added layer of excitement and energy usage to the mix. 

So by the time we reached Playa Grande, just 30 minutes from the bustling tourist hotspot of Tamarindo on the north-Pacific coast, I was desperate for a break. And by a break, of course, I mean another dive. But not my usual kind of diving, I am talking about diving just for the pleasure of it—no cameras, no frantic notetaking after every conversation with our partners. 

While the rest of the team opted out of diving for a change, I was eager to venture solo into the unknown

With dreams of exploring further north, I was excited to discover what lay beneath the surface as a solo explorer going diving in Costa Rica. So I took the wheel of our reliable yet battered Nissan X-Trail and set out at 6 am to explore the Catalina Islands. My search for local SSI dive centers turned up one option —TamaDive. For the day, TamaDive would be my new best friends, dive buddies, and the much-needed support away from the expedition’s relentless pace.

At that point, I had not dived without Marla on our expedition team for nearly a year. Together, we had logged 95 dives since the expedition began, and diving without her felt like missing a limb. Marla was not just my dive buddy; she was my lifeline underwater. We knew each other’s diving styles intimately. We shared the same excitement for particular marine encounters, celebrated any time we saw bubble coral, consumed the same air, and were always on the lookout for red and orange-colored creatures, our favorites.

We felt the cold simultaneously, shared the same risk threshold, and never hesitated to end a dive if something did not feel right. Reflecting on that moment, my apprehension about diving without her became, for a moment, quite real.

RELATED: How to be the best dive buddy you can be

After a 35-minute drive north from Playa Grande, I found myself in a nondescript parking lot between Brasilito and Playa Flamingo. It was there I met Franko from Spain and Remo from Switzerland, the charismatic duo behind TamaDive. 

Some people just have a way of making you feel instantly at ease, and Franko and Remo of TamaDive were no exception. On this solo venture of mine, they made me feel as if I had known them forever, was a part of their crew, and was welcomed unconditionally. Even without my usual dive buddy by my side, their warmth assured me that my time diving in Costa Rica was set to be something special.

I didn’t fully comprehend HOW special this random day of diving would end up being. 

On our expedition, we have encountered some extraordinary marine life, but these moments are often overshadowed by challenging conditions. Low visibility, strong currents, and surging waves frequently make our dives feel more like marathons than leisurely swims. 

Out of the 95 dives we have completed, only three could be described as relaxing. We intentionally choose demanding sites that reveal the ocean’s plight and highlight the dedicated individuals working on solutions, rather than visiting popular, "top tier" dive locations. But today was different: I was heading off with the TamaDive crew to one of the more celebrated places to go diving in Costa Rica. 

READ MORE: SSI x Edges of Earth: Diving with Japan’s Giant Salamanders

By the time I boarded the TamaDive boat, I had already visited two other Catalina Islands: one in Panama and Catalina Island in California. Now, we were off to Costa Rica’s Santa Catalina to dive the North and South points, and depending on the conditions, we would possibly even visit the site known as "Classic." 

To me, the conditions seemed perfect. However, Remo and Franko were not as pleased. They lamented that visibility was not the 30+ meters they get on very rare occasions. Nor was it even the 20+ meters they get around May to November. Because I was diving in Costa Rica during one of the windy months (December to April), with an average of 8-15 meters, I was not going to get crystal-clear waters. 

Feeling oddly comforted by the "slightly" murky waters, I felt at home out there. 

The small boat, carrying just a few divers due to the atypical Costa Rican weather, added to the day’s allure. So, Remo and I were paired up to be a buddy team, going off on our own to navigate these fun depths. I was stoked as this was the best possible alternative to my typical dive buddy situation, as the two of us had already agreed that moving at a snail’s pace and observing every single rock and crevasse was our preferred method. 

Clad in 5 mm wetsuits, we plunged into the noticeably cooler waters preparing for the thermoclines that were sure to come -  much like our previous dives around Santa Catalina in Panama. During this season, from March to April, the thermoclines are particularly striking, causing temperatures to fluctuate dramatically from 30 degrees Celsius down to 18 degrees within a single dive. 

Within the first five minutes underwater, we encountered over 200 tiny stingrays nestled in the sand, resembling miniature pancakes perfectly dotted across the ocean floor. 

Despite the thick thermoclines blurring our view, their spotted bodies lay motionless, seemingly unfazed by our presence. Just above them, enormous fleets of stingrays glided over our heads. It was as if we had stumbled upon a ray sanctuary, consisting of a multitude of various subspecies. I was floored by how much ray activity was happening all around us. 

Surprisingly, despite the incredible marine action, the Santa Catalina and its neighboring islands are not protected areas. These 20 volcanic islands off the Nicoya Peninsula are open to fishing and hunting—a fact we could see firsthand from the dive boat during our surface intervals. 

Known for some of the best diving in Costa Rica, it was disheartening to discover the lack of conservation measures here. Diving among the abundant sea life, I felt a mix of awe and sadness, realizing this vibrant ecosystem is unprotected. TamaDive, however, aims to change perceptions by bringing divers here to remind them of the power of the underwater world—that there is so much worth fighting for. 

Throughout the dive, we navigated rock formations adorned with purple corals and sponges, swimming through vibrant undersea landscapes

Schools of fish swarmed the reefs, feeding energetically. Rare tiny pink jellies floated past, a surprising sight in these waters. Overhead, whitetip reef sharks patrolled the shallower depths. Despite these diverse encounters, my mind lingered on the stingrays. Their striking presence felt truly unique, and the spectacle was something I doubted I would relive soon (even with hundreds of more dives planned for the near future).

Love rays? Check out: Manta Madness - Experiencing the Iconic Kona Manta Dive

Compelled by this unforgettable scene, we returned to the same location for our second dive, eager to revisit what I had dubbed the "underwater Imperial Army" of rays. Thankfully, there they were—still resting in their perfect formation or gliding above us. 

We discovered that what we were observing were Leopard round stingrays (Urobatis pardalis), also known as Costa Rican round stingrays. These creatures, which inhabit the intertidal zone down to depths of about 20 meters, are notable for their circular bodies and distinctive, leopard-like spotted patterns that vary in shape and size.

These rays possess a long, venomous tail—its potency unknown to me at the time—which they use for hunting at night, explaining their stillness during our daytime dive. While not typically dangerous to humans, the stingray’s tail can be formidable, necessitating caution and respect for their space, much like any wild animal. 

We also encountered the mesmerizing Longtail stingrays (Hypanus longus), a species native to the Eastern Pacific

These stingrays are typically found on sandy seabeds extending down to depths of 90 meters. Much larger than their rounder counterparts, Longtails can weigh up to 45 kilograms and are equipped with a whip-like tail adorned with spines, posing a greater risk to divers due to their formidable weapons. 

Learn how to dive safely with rays: Join the SSI Manta & Ray Ecology Specialty

Despite their impressive size and distribution in Baja California, Mexico, Central America, and down to the Galapagos, Longtail stingrays are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, highlighting the need for careful conservation efforts to protect these remarkable creatures.

Costa Rica is a haven for many of the 630 known ray species that inhabit our oceans, as outlined in Rays of the World by CSIRO. This iconic group, which includes stingrays, skates, sawfish, guitarfish, and devil rays, represents some of the largest and least understood fish in the sea. Despite their prevalence, a significant number of ray species remain understudied, leading to gaps in our knowledge about their behaviors and habitats. Alarmingly, CSIRO notes that:

"About 20% of the world’s ray populations are at risk, including 10 species listed as critically endangered, 30 as endangered, and 72 as vulnerable." 

Encountering even one of these majestic creatures is a privilege, let alone two different species during a single dive, making such experiences not just rare but also significant. As we made our way through the dive, we got hit with a massive current with a surge, putting us at a full stop. It was the startling kind where you become immobile as the conditions are just way too powerful to resist the forces of nature. But this detour proved to be epic all the while, as a gigantic school of grunts engulfed us.

Up next were hundreds of Razor surgeonfish feeding on the reef around us that permitted our presence in their crew for a moment. Known for a single sharp spine—reminiscent of a surgeon’s scalpel—these fish moved with purpose, grazing on algae and tidying the reef. We drifted with this bustling community, wrapping up my solo adventure on a high note, immersed in the vibrant life of Costa Rica’s waters.

When all was said and done, I did not get the fully relaxing dive that I was anticipating when diving in Costa Rica (taking a break from the usual order of things on the expedition trail). Santa Catalina dives are certainly a bit more advanced, as you can get some heavy conditions to work through depending on the season. But I had an unforgettable dive, nonetheless.

As Remo put it, no day out on the water is a bad one—and this could not have been truer in my case

Remo and I were like two little kids seeing a fish for the first time down there. Completely on the same page even though he was someone I had only just met. Even with both of our years of diving combined, we still were hooked on the thing that got us into it in the first place: a genuine love for exploring the ocean, and the sport that makes it all possible.

Keen to go diving with stingrays in Costa Rica? 

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Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube, and their website