Cocos Island is part of Costa Rica lying about 280nm southwest of the Costa Rica Coast. Cocos Island or Isla de Coco had its name given by a Frenchman as it appeared to him as the shape of a cocoa bean coming out of the water. To us it appeared as a large dark rock in the middle of the blue ocean in the clear morning sunlight, slightly resembling a kidney. On closer inspection and amongst the fleet it was described like a mini Nuka Hiva in Marquesas or simply as vegetation and rock coming straight out of the sea. However, despite what it was like or what it resembled, it was inviting. Very inviting after 18 days at sea. I think that the wind, sensing this, had finally given us a favour and blew from astern to push us towards it at a steady 7 knots on the morning of March the 3rd. This was a good omen especially given that on the journey thus far the wind had been temperamental at best.
As we came in on that first day I was impressed by the number of Brown and Masked Boobies and Frigate birds we passed while heading into Bahia de Chatham. Impressive still was entering this bay through the narrow channel between the massive sheer rock island called Isla de Manuelita and Cocos, where above these seabirds flew in great numbers. There were obviously good feeding grounds around. And so there should be given that Cocos Island is one of many wild life Sanctuary parks created by the Costa Rican government, where all Marine and terrestrial wildlife are protected - protection that encircles 12nm of the Island. This was an intact Island ecosystem where populations of species were left alone to keep their own checks and balances with the environment without the perturbations of man. Over the next couple of days, the Pacific Voyagers fleet would witness first-hand the evidence of how well nature can do without human interference.
In wanting to write so much to describe a place worthy of its own nature documentary I can only share highlights and vivid memories of what we experienced while there. Even as I write this, it is only now that I am fully reflecting and absorbing the time we had there, because while there, living it and experiencing it, it was hard to have a moment for reflection as there was always something new going on, something new to take in and new people to share it all with. From the diving and the snorkelling in clear waters and through dangerously narrow surf-filled rock cracks to the Umu/hangi (earth oven) and kava ceremony we had with each other and with the park rangers of the island; From the walks inland and upland, to waterfalls and spots with amazing views to lazing on grass and in icy cold fresh water pools; From hanging around the ranger station collecting coconuts, to the va’a hopping and intermingling with other va’a crew members. Everyday Cocos gave us something new to experience. Every day we learned something new about Cocos and each other. I think it was for this reason that it was decided to stay here longer than expected. There was no way we were going to experience and record even a little of what this place had to offer in 2 or 3 days.
|Bait ball - Cocos Islands|
Cocos will be remembered in my mind analogous with sharks, tuna and bait balls. Sharks were regularly seen everywhere. Every time you would enter the water in fact. Mostly seen were White tips sleeping on the bottom, but also Galapagos, Hammerheads and the occasional Tiger shark. These were all good signs of a healthy ecosystem where top predators were in abundance. And these were not the only predators that I witnessed in abundance. During my time in the water - and I think I spent more time in the water than on land or on the va’a - I snorkelled with feeding schools of Yellowfin Tuna, as well as with very large schools of marauding Bonito Tuna and Trevally. I saw the occasional unhindered spiny lobsters running along open sand, I saw spotted eagle rays vacuuming sandy bottoms, as well as a wide variety of different kinds of tropical fish species that are common in these locales. Fish seemed to thrive; Habitat was healthy.
On the second day in Cocos a few of us were lucky enough to snorkel with a feeding force of nature. After finishing a dive off the Isla de Manuelita we spotted seabirds working a frenzy above what looked like boiling water, an indicative sign of a school of bait fish being pushed and trapped at the surface in a ball, by much larger circling predators. While dumping dive gear on our tender and snorkelling towards this excitement, the consistent and methodical clicking sounds of common dolphins were encompassing us. This, coupled with the extremely curious behaviour of some Galapagos and White tip sharks and Yellowfin Tuna coming in very close to check us out, while swimming through small bits of flesh and scales was an invigorating and scary experience. Being alone in open water with large predators such as these, and watching hunting tuna and sharks for the first time, first hand is not something you will forget quickly.
As if that wasn’t enough, this experience was then picked up a level. In returning to the mooring off the sheer rock face island of Manuelita, the bait ball had re-emerged. This time we were literally on top of it. A school of around a thousand bait fish were herded and circled by some Dolphins, Galapagos sharks, White Tip sharks, and many Yellowfin Tuna. The ball of prey moved like it was alive, like a lava lamp of motion blobbing in and out but keeping mostly spherical as sharks and tuna took turns punching through it, taking lunging gulps within, and creating swirls of open sea amongst the tightly huddled fish in their wake. I was nearly hit by the largest yellow fin I have ever seen (dead or alive) as it came roaring out of the ball. So close it was that I felt its force of water movement as it rushed past, while eye balling me as if to say “What are you doing here?” Beautiful. This ball at times would veer close to us voyeurs, trying to encapsulate us within it. At the beginning, the prospect of being within the ball was furthest from our minds. Shark food, no thank you, but as the sharks and tuna seemed to get their fill and started to hang back, us witnesses grew in confidence and we started to look for the experience that the sharks and tuna would have, punching through the bait ball. I took a breath, went down, circled the ball for a bit, and then punched through. The fish opening up and enveloping me like a cloud. Scary, brilliant and thrilling as I pushed thoughts of meeting Mr Galapagos or Ms Yellowfin in there, to the back of my mind. This whole experience, one where all your senses are heightened through a mixture of fear and inquisitiveness, will be one I will cherish for the rest of my life.
That was the magic of Cocos Island. As days went on, more diving, snorkelling and walking ensued. More experiences were had, more Pacific voyagers learned about Cocos and marine life protection. The park rangers liked our presence, we think, although at times I’m sure having around 90 people on 6 canoes all doing different things would not have been easy to keep tabs on and be responsible for while in the park. We learned about their daily fight to keep poachers out, the daily patrols, the shed of confiscated fishing gear (they even had an elaborate 25m bridge made solely of confiscated and discarded fishing gear) their educating the large number of dive tourists and boaties that visit Cocos each week. Cocos was a part of them and they were a part of it.
After a week in this haven of fresh water and greenery it was time to collect what coconuts we could, fill our water tanks with sweet fresh water and depart for the high seas again. Next stop Galapagos Islands, one of the most famous of protected areas in the world and inspiration to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. The sail there will take approximately 4 days - just enough time to digest Cocos Island and re-asses our expectations for this new set of Islands that await, given our experience here.
This blog is dedicated to the rangers of Cocos Island and of all protected areas around the world. Your contributions and dedication is helping us save nature and its vital contributions to human society.