LEATHER BASS ARE LARGE and solidly built, but slightly annoying for underwater photographers in that they are quite gregarious yet do not school neatly like other fish. It makes them difficult to compose into a satisfying shot.
I spot a bunch of them clustered around the top of a little seamount, unimaginatively named the Aquarium by our dive guides.
I like this spot because it’s well away from the rugged cliffs of the main island, and the water is less subject to the double surge as the huge Pacific swells rebound off the cliffs.
Creeping forward with my camera to the leather bass so as not to fragment the group, I make a mental note of another rocky structure beyond them in the gloom as a place to which to head next – only it isn’t a structure.
It’s a huge whale shark, hovering stationary in the water.
One digital exposure on the leather bass, my original photographic prey, and I’m using them instead as cover to get the head-on shot of the spotty ocean juggernaut.
Forget the babies you might see in the Maldives. This one’s got to be at least 15m long! No wonder I thought at first that it was another seamount.
I get a few pictures, adjusting my camera to suit as I go, before the shark slowly turns away. I latch on to its right pectoral fin as it passes me, and go for a ride. It may look flabby, but it’s as hard as the rocks I’ve left behind.
The gargantuan animal doesn’t seem to notice me, and I feel as if I’m holding onto a branch of oak. My over-sized camera rig provides too much resistance in the flow, and I soon let go.
The leviathan meanders off none the wiser into the gloom, and I head back to the seamount, elated. That was very big – but then, every experience you have at Malpelo is big.
You have to consider where you grip these limpet-covered rocks. There are literally hundreds of free-swimming morays just gagging to grab an ill-placed hand. Put your hand in a crack, and there’s a chance you won’t get it back; that’s a moray!
Not only that, but the tops of the rocks have numerous scorpionfish that don’t take kindly to being disturbed, either. These scorpionfish are fat, can be up to a couple of feet long, and certainly appear different to those more usually seen in other parts of the Indo-Pacific.
But they light up crimson in a photograph, just like their warmer-water cousins.
The whale shark had been hoovering up orange creolefish, of which there are millions. They seem to occupy every available space in the water. A huge school of blue-striped rainbow runners take it in turns at cleaning stations and pile up through the open water above us.

AS WE ASCEND, hidden within this surging, circling pile of fish, we can look down at the otherwise skittish scalloped hammerhead sharks that mop up below them.
Malpelo is famous for its schooling hammerheads. They are the number-one attraction. The island itself is nothing more than a huge windswept rock punctuating the ocean between the Galapagos and Cocos, and 225 miles from our point of departure in Panama. It’s a wild and lonely place.
The sky is heavy with rain, and the ocean enjoys an irrepressible surge that has been carried for thousands of miles across its surface. This is not diving for softies.
With no sheltered anchorage, our liveaboard, Yemaya II, snatches and tugs at its mooring under the unforgiving cliffs. Only a million boobies and the frigate birds that bully them have residence, apart from a few unlucky Colombian soldiers, who have to access the island by rope-ladder.
If you can negotiate a rope-ladder and manage a steep climb, you can visit the ranger station here, and see some unique lizards on this barren lump of rock.
There’s no respite from the rough conditions. Our pick-up boats plunge and crash alongside the main vessel, and it’s hazardous just making the transfer.
Even Sten, the not-so-gentle-giant Viking and one of our dive guides, is careful to get the timing right. We swing out on a knotted rope, and then we’re off to dive.
Under water, it’s just as tough. There’s a heavy surge. The rocks appear grey in the grey water. Even the gorgonia are grey. The surface above us boils angrily in places as white water is churned up on impact with the steep cliffs.
Little sunlight penetrates the clouds in the sky or the clouds in the water. So why are we here
Down in the murkier colder levels at around 35m deep, we gather near Sten as he gets to work with his plastic bottle, rubbing it noisily on the rocks.
Soon, a dozen or so moody-looking Galapagos sharks are buzzing round, frenetically looking for where the action is, drawn by the vibrations.
They keep their distance, but occasionally one will break off and provide a lucky photographer with that Kodak moment. Each of us hopes it’s our turn.
Far above us, the warmer, clearer water appears to fill with the unmistakable shapes of the schooling hammerheads.
In shallower water, on a reef wall that tumbles down, emulating the rock and shale slopes of the island, we take up position and wait.
Sure enough, the hammerheads come in to be cleaned by the zealous yellow angel barberfish that are stationed near the rocks, or the blue king angels that wait further out in the deeper water.
We cling on, grateful for sturdy gloves. The rocks look grey but turn out to be pink in the light of the camera’s flash, as do the Mexican hogfish that hang about us, ready to gobble up any small invertebrates revealed when a lump of limpet-covered rock inevitably breaks off in the hand.
In fact, common as they may be here, the larger adult Mexican hogfish look rather stylish when revealed in their pink and yellow garb.
The scalloped hammerheads take turns to run the gauntlet of the reef to be cleaned and then, with a sudden flick of the tail, they’re gone, back to open water.
Getting a good picture is all about being in the right place at the right time, and we all spend most of our time in the wrong place. Daniel, a young German underwater photographer, raises a fist
in triumph when a hammerhead passes close by his head and he captures its image.
When it’s time to come up, we head out into open ocean, avoiding that boiling white water that is churning close to the reef top.

OUT IN THE BLUE, it’s time to watch for silky sharks. Richard is lucky. He gets one investigating his fins, while the rest of us must content ourselves with close encounters of the rather unpleasant kind with an infestation of Portuguese men-of-war jellyfish.
Malpelo isn’t just about sharks, however. Eagle rays flit like giant demented moths around the rocks.
The sea is rich with schooling fish of all types. There are slimline barracuda huddled in a mass; as tightly huddled as a ball of whipper snapper that try to look like a single whale shark at a distance.
Horse-eye jacks do the same. The ocean here is rich in both prey and predators. Only large, evil-looking black jacks have the confidence to cruise these waters in pairs.
It’s an arduous trip. We stopped for a couple of days at Coiba Island to do some diving on the way out. It’s one of the extremities of the country of Panama, famous for its canal that links both hemispheres. Coiba itself is famous for its giant frogfish.
The boat ride out to Colombia’s Malpelo is not so bad, but once the boat is moored the relentless rolling and snatching takes its toll over seven days.
It’s only really safe to take a shower without bruising once we set sail for home. Otherwise, it’s like having an argument with an invisible David Haye.
However, if you’ve been to the Galapagos and Cocos, you’ve got to go. Malpelo completes the famous golden triangle.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Panama City via Madrid or Amsterdam with Iberia or KLM. UK/EU passport holders require no visa. Add a few days to your trip to visit the tropical rainforest and, of course, the Panama Canal.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: The Yemaya II liveaboard is a 35m twin-engined, steel-hulled motor yacht with eight air-conditioned cabins for 16 guests. En suite facilities are shared between two cabins and there are two large master cabins. Electricity is 110V (US plugs). Originally American-built, the vessel was converted to a diving support vessel in 2008. It has a seven-man crew and two dive guides. Diving equipment includes 12- and 15-litre tanks with nitrox by membrane system. There are two glass-fibre tenders, and an emergency satellite phone. www.coibadiveexpeditions.com
WHEN TO GO: December-September is best. The weather will be tropical wet. A 5mm wetsuit with close-fitting hood and sturdy gloves is recommended. An SMB is essential.
MONEY: US dollars. Cash only accepted onboard Yemaya II.
PRICES: Nine nights on board including one day at Coiba and five days’ diving at Malpelo (3-4 dives a day), full board, refreshments, airport-hotel and the four-hour road transfers between Panama City and Puerto Mutis and national park fees costs around £3000 at current exchange rates. Typical return airfare is £720.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitpanama.com