Blog | Oceana USA

[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.