San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The shark whisperer

By Genna Robustelli | Special to The Tico Times

Avi Klapfer’s scuba diving luck probably has something to do with his 22 years of experience at Cocos Island. But it’s much more fun to believe he has the ability to summon the sharks. 

Avi Klapfer

Aboard the Undersea Hunter, Avi Klapfer changed his mind about the ocean. He began protecting fish rather than spearing them. Courtesy of Genna Robustelli

Born and raised in the northern part of Israel, Klapfer ended up in Costa Rica by accident. After completing military service as a naval officer, he took a job as a dive boat captain on the Red Sea. There he fixed up a sailboat and navigated around the world with Orly, his soon-to-be-wife, and Yosy Naaman, who is now his business partner at the Undersea Hunter Group.

 “We lived eight years on the boat doing a little bit of everything. I was a fisherman, and I spent up to six hours a day spearfishing,” remembers Klapfer. Little did he know then that he’d soon begin protecting fish rather than hunting them.

Klapfer went to work on the very first liveaboard in Palau, Micronesia, where he was introduced to an American friend’s waterproof camera. “I began as his underwater slave, carrying his second camera around,” Klapfer recalls. “I took the whole roll of 36 pictures on the very first dive – a fantastic dive, with mantas.” And just like that, an underwater photographer was born.

In the 80s, underwater photography was a tedious and impressive feat. Old-school cameras in waterproof boxes were about as high-tech as it got, and if Klapfer managed one or two good photos out of a roll of 36 he considered himself lucky. The Kodachrome had to be put in a prepaid yellow envelope and sent off to a processing center in the U.S. where it would take about three months to develop and get back (assuming it didn’t get lost in the mail). Once the pictures arrived, he had to try to remember where the shots were taken and on which settings.

As his images started circulating in big publications like Oceans Realm, Klapfer began toying with the idea of building a cruise ship specifically designed to serve professional filmmakers. He imagined a boat so luxurious that after experiencing it, moviemakers would be spoiled and unable to go back to traveling on an ordinary ship.

But where to go next?

In 1990, after selling their ship in Palau, Klapfer and his travel partners began thinking about where in the world to stage their next adventure. While attending a DEMA diving tradeshow, a former agent recommended that they go to Cocos Island. Looking at a map and realizing it was 300 miles from mainland Costa Rica, they rejected the idea at once. “Nobody in their right mind would go three days offshore on a boat to dive,” Klapfer thought. Then, in the next booth, exciting footage of a whitetip reef shark in a cave caught his eye. He asked cinematographer Stan Waterman where the film was taken, and – sure enough – the answer was Cocos Island.

Hammerheads near Cocos Island

A large population of hammerheads sharks can often be spotted near Cocos Island. Courtesy of Genna Robustelli

Without any more ado, the Israelis acquired the Undersea Hunter ship, upgraded it with visual artists in mind and set off to this unique and isolated place. Home to the largest biomass (total density) of fish in the world, Cocos Island’s prolific marine life includes mantas, sea turtles, whales and – most famously – unprecedented numbers of hammerhead, Galapagos, tiger, silky, blacktip, silvertip and whitetip reef sharks. It’s one of the few baselines we have to understanding what the ocean was like before humans started destroying it.

Over the years, the Undersea Hunter Group has given scientific assistance to organizations like Duke University and DAN (Divers Alert Network), providing statistics and log data on upcoming trends and technologies like nitrox and dive computers. It has also helped with numerous research projects in conjunction with Pretoma, Misión Tiburon, and the Smithsonian, along with the University of Costa Rica.  

In addition to more than two decades of dive logs, every time their “Deep See” submarine descends, it catalogs depths, temperatures and other info at various locations. It also records video files with a laser scale, which scientists can then freeze frame by frame, zooming in to count algae, particles in the water, etc. Analyzing years of this information creates a sort of virtual mosaic of the island’s underwater topography.

When it comes to Cocos Island’s preservation efforts, the company has done everything from lobbying to declare it a UNESCO World Heritage Site to providing visual evidence of illegal fishing practices within its boundaries. Ocean conservationist John Tresemer (who was involved in transferring control of the island from the coast guard to the national park service in 1978) says “the arrival of the Undersea Hunter Group was a real blessing for divers, the new park personnel and the marine life.” He maintains that its submarine exploration and service to researchers aided in confirming the park’s unique biodiversity – and “helped make Cocos Island one of the best protected dive sites in the world.”

To Klapfer, one of the most important elements in keeping Cocos Island protected has always been spreading word of its novelty through video and media images. “Obviously this is our livelihood and we have a commercial interest in this place … but the diving community is truly Cocos’ voice,” says Klapfer. Without that community, he believes the commercial fishing industry would pounce on the area, because no one would kick and scream to protect it. “It’s not being a national park that makes [Cocos] famous,” says Klapfer. “It’s the tourists and filmmakers that travel here and go back that make it a famous place.”

However in terms of preserving the park, it’s Avi’s ultimate wish that authorities would utilize his records and familiarity with Cocos more than they currently do. “They could take more advantage of using my knowledge of 22 years here to make more educated decisions,” he laments. “I don’t charge a consulting fee.”

Avi currently goes between Costa Rica and Israel where he has a home with his wife, three sons, dog and cat. He frequently visits Cocos Island on any one of the Undersea Hunter Group’s three boats. 

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