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Blog Posts by: sandy

[editor's note, by Jason] This journal was written by Sandy on Monday, February 21.

We left Cocos. We sailed northeast with the island behind us, gorgeous, streaming water as if it had just lifted itself from the sea. The clouds pile above it.

On the way out we pass another longliner coming in. This is the second we've seen since we've been at the island. The first had pled engine trouble as an excuse for anchoring in the bay; it's a common story and there is no way to confirm it. Last night the MarViva patrollers pulled in a six-mile longline that had been set in park waters. Still, this is nothing. The park rangers and MarViva staff say that three years ago, before they began their collective patrols, there were thirty to forty fishing boats in park waters at any given time. I can well believe it. It is impressive to see firsthand the continuous enforcement efforts, patrols that stay out all night through darkness and storms, and the continuous pressure -- any gap in the patrolling and the longliners will enter again. The new level of protection around Cocos is both dramatic and tenuous.

But what a difference it makes. Today, before we left, the film crew did a final dive. Juan Pablo reports:

"The site was called 'Dirty Rock'" -- a much-favored target for birds -- "and it is a little rocky island without vegetation of any kind. Underwater, the walls of the rock are fairly vertical and drop 55-60 meters. The form or the rock is a kind of pyramidal pinnacle, very steep at the start but which slopes gently toward the bottom.

The incredible thing about this dive is that it was a perfect representation of the trophic chain, or the food web, of the marine ecosystem of Cocos Island. You have, at the bottom, at a depth of -50 meters, the big predators -- the apex of the pyramid. These are hammerhead sharks, known in the area as "horned" sharks. We saw two or three large ones, patrolling and circling the base of the rock. There was nothing else. The area was stark, just the two or three sharks, circling...

A little bit higher, in the -35-40 meter zone, there were tongues of sand in the rock, almost vertical. Here there was another type of shark -- whitetip reef sharks. They were resting. Hammerheads, and most sharks, must move constantly through the water, but whitetip reef sharks are an exception.

At 30 meters: the jacks. Also a large predator. There were small groups of them, and they were large -- 60 centimeters or so. At this point we also saw a pair of spotted tropical rays.

Closer to the surface the fish are smaller and there are a greater number. The number of species also increases. In the dark, cavernous fissures in the rock there were bigeyes -- soldierfish. Further out were butterflyfish, surgeonfish, parrotfish, and hundreds and hundreds of damselfish.

It was one of the most beautiful dives I have ever done. Both because the conditions were great and because it is so unusual to see this enormous variety of species outside of coral reefs. It's obvious that the work of MarViva, the government, and FAICO to protect the island have had an effect. All sharks -- from hammerheads to rays -- are captured in longline fishing. If there were no fishing regulations and no control over the fishing boats, there wouldn't be this quantity and diversity of species. The entire structure of the system alters when the top predators disappear.

There is a phenomenon that biologists call the "reserve effect," which consists of the fact that in areas where fishing is well regulated there is an increase in the number of species, in the number of individuals and in their size. Thanks to the work of MarViva, it's clear that this phenomenon exists in Cocos Island.

As regards Oceana's work, I am proud -- personally and professionally -- to be part of this team. In the discipline of enviromental protection and education it's not easy to find projects of this type and of this scale. It's a great opportunity, for a marine biologist, to collaborate in an initiative of this size -- on a 22-meter boat, twelve people working, each with his or her mission, in some of the best conserved and least accessible areas of the planet."

[editor's note, by Jason] This journal was written by Sandy on Sunday, Feb. 20.

This afternoon the filming crew took a break and the other divers onboard the Ranger -- writers and support crew -- went out to Manuelita. I don'tt know where to start.

It was late in the afternoon when we left. The sky was dark and the surface of the water breaking in swells and whitecaps. Hussein, who is patient in three languages, talked us through gear set-up and got us into the dingy. Aitor, a diver himself but too generous to put on a mask before every other person has had a chance, drove us to Manuelita across the waves.

We got our BCs on; we pressed masks to faces. We sat on the side of the dingy and flipped backwards, fins up.

There is so much under the water! Too much to know where to look. The bottom was rocky, like a moonscape, cratered, scattered with boulders. Every few feet an otherworldly rock formation rose from the seafloor. There were fish everywhere. Schools of soldierfish (red fish with big black eyes), deep purple surgeonfish edged with gold, trumpetfish -- some bright yellow, others translucent with a scattering of neon blue spots at one end -- hanging in the water. It's impossible to tell which end of a trumpetfish is the front, an effective deterrent for predators and admirers alike, and more than once I found myself seeking eye contact with an indifferent rear. There were lobsters in crevices, anemones among the rocks, pufferfish (some yellow, some black/white and spotted), large elegant angelfish, butteflyfish... so very many fish. An occasional parrotfish would dart by, looking paranoid; with its heavy head the parrotfish doesn't seem to me made for rapid movement. And then there were groupers, larger fish that didn't move rapidly at all, didn't move at our approach, big fish mottled blue/green or brown/gray. They stared back, turned a superior and cynical eye.

And then there were the sharks. Those I saw were whitetips; some of the other divers saw silkys and blacktips as well. When we first dropped to the seafloor they were occasional. Every minute or so a smooth gray body would glide into our field of vision, just below or just next to us. They kept close to the bottom, slipping around the sculpted rocks, silvery and sinewy, nothing superfluous in their muscled form. These were small sharks, maybe four feet on average. They move with quick, purposeful twists of the body, like the practiced flick of a whip. Swish swish. And then they glide. Swish swish. Glide. I reminded myself to breathe evenly and remembered what I know: that sharks attack humans very, very rarely and almost always in self-defence. That the great majority of attacks are perpetrated by bigger, brasher species like the tiger shark, bull shark, great white. That, contrary to the cultural mythology that I have apparently, unknowingly, absorbed, sharks are intelligent and cautious creatures at a far greater risk from mankind than they are a menace to us.

The protection afforded to sharks at Cocos Island, in fact, is one of the park's most salient points. Nearly everywhere else in this region sharks are hunted for their fins. Shark finning laws are lax, selectively enforced or non-existent. Within Central America, Costa Rica has some of the more stringent regulations: under a brand new fishing law, finning is technically illegal, and all boats are required to offload their catch at public docks. Notwithstanding, the government lacks the personnel and resources to enforce the law, and Punta Arenas is studded with private docks where fins are transferred from Costa Rican longliners to the bigger export ships that will carry them across the Pacific to Asia. "Yes, there is a law," says Samuel Morales, a member of the MarViva crew, "but if you have the money to build your own dock, you do it." Other countries in this area, like El Salvador, have no shark finning laws at all, and there are rumors that with rising attention to the problem in Costa Rica the larger finning fleets are moving there. In any case Cocos Island is a much-needed refuge for sharks in a hostile sea. Remembering all that, I drew more calmly from my tank and took the time to enjoy my proximity to such incredible and vulnerable animals.

At the end of the dive we ascended to a depth of 15 feet to make a decompression stop. We looked down. The ocean floor was alive with sharks. There were more. They were larger. They twisted and swung their bodies, going everwhere and nowhere. We hung in the water, incredulous, looking down, rising and falling with our breathing and with the swells. The sharks could not have cared less.

[editor's note, by Jason] This journal was written by Sandy on Saturday, Feb. 19.

More filming today. At nine in the morning we are on a MarViva boat, speeding out of the bay and around to the other side of the island. This boat is smaller and more mobile than the Ranger, larger and more stable than our little dingies, and MarViva has offered to transport the diving team from one site to another.

Miguel (a MarViva captain) steers, Mar watches the water. Every once in a while fins appear momentarily, or something jumps and lands with a splash. For a few minutes we have dolphins at the bow. The marine life at Cocos, even on the surface, is extraordinary -- but in this place it is the norm. The island itself is verdant and wet, quite literally dripping with water; it falls in threads down the island's steep green sides. Some of the waterfalls disappear into the forest. Others have carved long channels from the top of the island down to the sea. Cocos gets 280 inches of rain a year. There is so much water here that the park rangers who work on the island (they rotate month-long shifts) have constructed a hydroelectric dam to power their base.

Today the sky is gray, the ocean active. At the dive site -- again, an islet -- frigate birds and enormous gulls wheel above the pyramid of rock. The diving team (Mar, Hussein, Aitor, Juan Pablo, and Soledad) prepare their gear and load the dingy. We loose the rope and they are gone. Against the waves the dingy looks small and sad, smaller as it recedes away from us and toward the rock, but after an hour or so it returns and the divers climb back on board. The ocean life is amazing, they say, but the water turbid. A strong current today makes filming hard.

We do this all day from site to site. It is amazing to be on the water, hear the stories of the MarViva crew, see the ocean even from the surface. The real story, though, is underneath, and all of us are anxious to see what the filming will produce.

[editor's note, by Jason] This journal was written by Sandy on Friday, Feb. 18.

Cocos Island: A series of islands, really, one massive and countless miniature peaks that rise from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The main island is cloaked in forest. The smaller islets, of which there are many, all around the island, are little pyramids of jagged rock. Most have at least one hollowed-out cavern at the water line; when the sun hits them right they look like thatched huts with doors.

The islands are the center of a protected area that includes 24 square kilometers of land and 972 of water. The difficulty of access to the island kept it immune from human influence until the end of the twentieth century, when fishing boats, driven farther from shore by depleted fisheries, began to encroach. Cocos, however, has been lucky. The incredible number and diversity of species in and around the island have brought it international renown, and -- declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997, patrolled by MarViva and government park rangers since 2002 -- it has retained its character of wilderness.

Our task here is to document Cocos' marine life, both to present as a vision of what the oceans can be and to support continued efforts to protect the park. The videography team hasn't lost any time. Today they went diving by an islet called Manuelita at the edge of our bay. We sent them off in a dingy full of tanks, fins, gear, and a few hours later they were back on board, talking over each other, talking so fast that despite the rewind function on my tape recorder I've had to ask one of the native speakers to help me transcribe Mar's very excited report. Here's what she said:

The island -- Manuelita island, at the face where we went diving, has a ton of rocks, descending from the island, and they continue down from six meters to twenty making a very soft descent because at twenty, twenty-five meters is a sandy bottom, and you see spreading all the rocks of different sizes. There were rocks that were eight, nine meters tall, and full of every species -- absolutely everything, everything. All of the rocks are completely enveloped in algae and small invertebrates. We saw a little bit of coral -- here and there -- and more than anything there were mackerel -- the thing is that there was everything! There were sharks, sharks... reef sharks, little whitetips, five, six, eight, twelve, nineteen... And then, on the way back, when we were descending by the wall, enormous like this (gestures) -- it was breathtaking, full of tiny life forms, incredible, everything was gorgeous. We ran into two huge jacks chasing an eel, and then something like five sharks appeared. Whitetip. Amazing. Amazing.

We're here! We are at Cocos. We first saw the island, a gray splotch on the horizon, yesterday morning, and by the afternoon we could see its rocky crags, the lush green hills, and two MarViva boats anchored in the bay. Everyone was excited. We had Juan Pablo (director of VOEA and one of Ranger's divemasters) high up on the masts to film, swinging in the rigging like a spider monkey. Our two temporary guests (Marcela, director of communications for MarViva, and Alex, from FAICO) work every day to protect the island but had never seen it, so for everyone on board -- divers, biologists, Costa Ricans, Europeans, and Americans -- this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

At the twelve-mile border of the marine park we passed a long-line boat, just sitting there. There was a crew of five or six, a tangle of green and black flags rising from the boat (they are used to mark the long-line buoys), and "Punta Arenas" -- the boat's home port -- painted on the stern. Marcela says that the boats always wait on the border for a moment to enter, or use their knowledge of currents to let their lines drift into park territory even while the boat is legally outside.

It's obvious enough why they would. No sooner had we entered park waters than two dolphins joined us at the bow. Marcela said, "This is how you know you're getting to Cocos."

We anchored in the bay. In just a few days at sea you learn to dispense with petty luxuries -- like showers. Since we left Golfito, none of us have taken personal hygiene to a much greater extent than an occasional splash of fresh water over the face, and, once safely anchored, we tumbled off the Ranger's stern into the blue, blue water. A few of the professional divers on board -- Nuno, our fearless captain; Juan Pablo; Aitor; and Hussein -- went diving on the anchor in masks and fins, disappearing into the depths for longer than I would have thought possible, incredibly graceful and looking very much at home.

We left Golfito last night around 7 and have been traveling southwest toward Cocos ever since. The ocean has been perfectly calm. Those among the new crew who have never spent more than an afternoon sailing (myself included) are learning what it means to live on a boat from the seasoned sailing veterans of the Ranger crew.

There is one very big thing to learn: a boat is a self contained world. Detached from land, you realize how completely your day to day life is enmeshed in the infrastructure of civilization -- sewage system, water pipes, power grid. Here there is no handle to turn to bring an endless rush of fresh water, no button to push to whisk away your waste. The only resources available are what we brought with us; and what we produce is also ours to manage, at least until we get back to land. There is limited water, limited power, limited food. So we wash dishes with salt water and rinse them, only when necessary, with a little spurt of fresh water pumped from the reservoir tanks. When the sun goes down the boat is dark; if you need a light, you use the smallest light possible, and for as short a time as you can. Trash is separated: anything that can be recycled is kept on board to eventually be brought back to land, organic waste is offered to the fish once we are very far from shore.

Everything on this boat is attended to - every rope, every screw, every piece of detritus - everything has its role, and there is a sense of empowerment and independence in taking this precise universe to sea. Maybe it's the juxtaposition - absolute control over a limited system in the midst of endless water and wind, irrevocably beyond any control - that is so exhilarating.

If details aboard the Ranger are important, I'm learning, details around us are even more so. We keep a 24 hour watch to scan the horizon for storm clouds, other ships, light or smoke signals - anything. The day is divided into eight 3 hour periods. Everyone watches for 3 hours in the morning and 3 at night. My watch, today, was 6 to 9 AM. Marcela, a journalist from MarViva, woke me and 2 other watchmates when her team had valiantly completed the 3 to 6 AM shift, and we climbed on deck to a rising sun. Early in the morning we pass a massive Cosco container ship -- after open ocean in every direction, sharing the water with another boat makes things feel crowded -- and just a few minutes ago a booby flew by, but otherwise the day has been completely calm and the ocean all ours.

The Ranger is here! She arrived yesterday. Everything has been crazy since -- people running around buying supplies, fixing engines, finding old friends -- and we're leaving for Cocos tonight. I'm more excited than I can write.

We (Xavier, myself, and some of the MarViva crew) went out to meet the Ranger yesterday morning in one of MarViva's boats. We were up at 5:30 and on the water by 6:00, coasting towards the Golfo Dulce through a morning fog. For fifteen minutes or so we had two dolphin escorts riding under our bow.

We met the Ranger near the mouth of the gulf. What a beautiful boat! She appeared on the horizon; we passed the binoculars back and forth until there was no doubt -- her white pontoons were bright against the water, and the Oceana logo was clear against the white. The crew were all on deck, grinning and waving, taking pictures of us taking pictures of them. When we pulled the MarViva launch alongside the larger boat there was a happy chaos of hugs and introductions.

I knew what the Ranger looked like -- I'd seen pictures -- but seeing pictures is nothing like seeing this boat in the ocean. She is so very light. It looks like she sits on the water, not in it, and she flies over it like a skater over ice. The two pontoons just barely cut the water. She is elegant. She's gorgeous. I don't know all that much about boats but I am completely enamored.

And the crew! The group is an eclectic mix of professional biologists, divers, videographers, and professional sailors. They are all wonderful. They came ashore exhausted but excited, gregarious, welcoming to us new folk and redolent of weeks at sea. The always generous MarViva staff offered showers and laundry.

That was yesterday. I'm writing on Wednesday morning. We are packing today, testing communications technology, restocking the boat and generally preparing for a week-long trip to Cocos. Getting there is a two-night, one-day (~ 36 hours) proposition; the sea, apparently, is usually rough. We'll be accompanied by one of the MarViva fleet. I'm sure that all this afternoon we will be zipping around in Golfito making last-minute arrangements, and then at 7 pm, in the early dusk, we'll be off.

So here we are, waiting for the Ranger in Golfito. And waiting keeps us busy. There are arrangements with the marina to be made, communications technology for the boat to be tested, press releases to be sent out. Xavier is on the phone non-stop; I'm trying to learn as much as I can about Golfito, Cocos Island and the water in between before we abandon land and internet connection both.

a Golfito resident pulls his lancha ashore

Golfito ("little gulf") is a very small town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, just north of the Panamanian border, set on a "sub-gulf" that emerges from the larger Golfo Dulce ("sweet gulf") like a droplet of water from a larger drop. It was born as a banana town: from 1938-1985 Golfito was the southern Costa Rica headquarters of the United Fruit Company -- the much-vilified banana empire notorious for its involvement in the 1954 U.S.-sponsored coup in Guatemala, for widespread repression of workers, and for having economically colonized much of Central America.

Golfito boomed with the banana trade. Trains carried supplies in and bananas out. The town grew along the track and is still one long, narrow strand, nearly all the buildings set along one road. In the old days a train ran here, slowly; people traveled from one end of town to the other by grabbing hold as it passed. The Company -- and people here still refer to it as "la Compañia" -- built a hospital, schools, a pier, and populated "el pueblo civil" with worker houses.

Then the Company left. Rising tariffs in Costa Rica and worker unrest in Golfito made the operation more trouble that it was worth in profits. Golfito was overtaken and overwhelmed by unemployment and other attendant plagues -- prostitution, drug addiction, poverty. In an attempt to revive the town, the Costa Rican government recently built an enormous duty-free shopping mall here -- el deposito -- to attract domestic tourism. Visitors are required to spend the night. To some degree it has worked; the thing is a concrete-walled, barb-wire fenced monstrosity, but on weekends the many little hotels around town are full.

There are other reasons that things are looking up for Golfito. It is a sportfishing destination of growing popularity. There are two or three ritzy marinas on the waterfront, a handful of luxury yachts resting in the bay, and on any given evening small groups of wealthy foreign expats sipping cocktails in one of the fancy marina bars. Come day they go fishing for sailfish, marlin, and other big beauties -- for $300-700 you can arrange a day-long trip.

Equally if not more encouraging, the Central American ocean conservation group MarViva has its operations base here. MarViva was created (Xavier Pastor, Carlos Perez, Maribel Lopez and Eduardo de Ana (Guayo) -- now with Oceana -- led the effort!) in 2002 to enforce protection of the Eastern Pacific Marine Conservation Corridor, which includes the waters around a string of five islands off the Pacific coast of Central America. A few hundred miles directly out to sea from here is Cocos Island, the marine pride of Costa Rica, one of the richest biodiversity hotspots on earth, and the next destination of the Oceana Ranger. More on Cocos in the next update.

It begins to rain as Sandy gets the satphone working

With tourist arrivals and awareness of Golfito's unique ecological bounty both rising, it seems likely that the town will not remain remote and unknown for long. There are rumors of new airport construction and the installation of a mega-marina. The difficult thing will be for the town to grow and thrive without sacrificing the abundance and quality of the marine life that makes it so special. In the meantime, Golfito is a strange and beautiful place -- a bundle of tin-roofed houses by the bay, backed by jungle, fifty foot yachts moored next to man-powered canoes.

As regards the Ranger expedition, preparations for the boat are underway. We are lucky to have secured some incredible technology, including a satellite system that will hopefully let me transmit these updates at sea, and I spent a long afternoon yesterday trying to get the thing to work -- which, thanks to very patient support from Oceana's own IT whiz, Beth White, and an obliging gentleman at the satellite phone store, we did. So presuming we can replicate the conditions of the MarViva parking lot aboard a moving vessel in the middle of the ocean, all will be well.