It’s 5 a.m., and the stillness rouses you. You slide out of your bunk and rush out on deck to find your boat anchored at ChathamBay. The water below is bright turquoise and green, full of life and the flitting shadows of creatures of all sizes.
The island, a foggy blur of green and rock, juts out of an endless expanse of ocean. You are seized by a feeling that this is how it’s supposed to be, that this is nature, unrestrained and sublime.
Welcome to Isla del Coco.
Costa Rica’s ‘Treasure Island’
Isla del Coco, also known as CocosIsland, remains virtually untouched above water thanks to its geographic isolation. The Pacific island lies 535 kilometers and an often stomach-churning 36-hour boat ride from the west coast of Costa Rica.
Cocos has long been enveloped in mystique, spurring pirate tales and legends of hidden treasures since its discovery in 1526. Since then, it has been visited by pirates and whalers, treasure hunters and prisoners, and, more recently, divers, park rangers and fishermen.
Many of these visitors left their mark, literally, on an expanse of enormous engraved rocks strewn across ChathamBeach and its surroundings. The inscriptions of names, dates and ships date back to the late 17th century and sometimes give off an eerie radiance.
Costa Rica claimed the island as its territory in 1869, but not until 1949 was this constitutionally declared. In 1978, under President Rodrigo Carazo, CocosIsland became a national park, avoiding the construction of a planned hotel and casino there.
Its unique biodiversity earned Cocos a declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The following year, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance included the park on its list of Ramsar sites.
These days, the island is participating in a contest to become one of the world’s new Seven Wonders and is currently ranked third in the island category, according to public votes cast at www.new7wonders.com.
With treasure hunting prohibited by law on the island since 1992, what draws visitors to Cocos nowadays? Most would be inclined to say diving, diving and diving.
In the dive universe, Cocos is a top, world-class destination.
“I have dived Australia, Vanuatu, the Red Sea, Galapagos, the Caribbean … but I always find the Isla has something unexpected. You never know what you’re going to find, and there’s nothing better underwater than that feeling,” says Onditz Calparsoro, a former dive master on Cocos who recalls once leading a group of divers in the company of three curious whale sharks that emerged from behind a school of hammerheads.
The waters around Cocos house one of the world’s largest concentrations of the timid and cartoon-like hammerhead shark, as well as blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, silky, Galapagos and silvertip sharks, the enormous and gentle whale shark and even the occasional tiger shark. Other underwater beauties include eagle and marble rays, humpback whales and orcas, frogfish and the red-lipped batfish, which looks like it’s wearing too much makeup.
If you are wondering whether any of these creatures bite, rest assured they won’t. Not a single shark bite has ever been reported on Cocos. Marine species find all the nourishment they need in Cocos’ waters and have about as much interest in tasting divers as you do. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go around touching or taunting the animals – you never know when they might be having a bad day.
Isla del Coco National Marine Park extends 12 nautical miles around the island. It shelters so many large marine species because it is exposed to multiple marine currents and is the only emerging point on a submarine mountain range, offering protection in its underwater nooks. Many species go there to complete crucial stages in their life cycles, such as reproduction or feeding.
Certain sites, known as cleaning stations, are shark spas, where the creatures sit still as smaller fish clean the gunk off their backs.
Though not all visitors step off their boats to look around, the island has much to see on land.
Stretching over 24 square kilometers, Cocos boasts a cloud forest at its highest point of 634 meters (2,080 feet) on Cerro Yglesias – an eight-hour hike through pristine jungle, where you can still drink the water from the streams. On a sunny day, the view from Cerro Yglesias is majestic.
For those not up to this strenuous uphill hike, there are shorter hikes around Wafer and Chatham bays, the two main bays where anchoring is allowed.
While boats can moor at these bays – named after Welsh pirate Lionel Wafer, who visited the island in 1685, and British Capt. George Vancouver’s ship, the HMS Chatham, which visited in 1795 – no docks exist on Cocos. This means that if you plan to visit, you should prepare to get soaked.
Large vessels have mooring sites at both bays, and visitors may approach the shore on smaller boats or inflatable dinghies.
Wafer Bay houses Villa Beatriz, the lovely wooden park ranger station, a dining hall, volunteer living quarters, an office, warehouse and greenhouse. Wafer enjoys 24-7 electricity, phone and Internet service. From the bay, a one-hour hike leads to a waterfall and swimming hole on the Río Genio.
Chatham Bay is home to a small, threebedroom vigilance post, powered by an oldschool generator turned on a few hours a day. The house is a short distance from the water and ChathamBeach, a crescent of white sand that becomes visible at low tide.
The waters here are a playground for tiny juvenile reef sharks.
A magnificent one-hour hike separates Chatham from Wafer, offering spectacular views of both bays and a walk through what used to be a Costa Rican prison colony in the late 19th century, where only pastures remain.
The island usually is home to about 15 people at a time, most of them park rangers, volunteers, researchers or conservationists. Visitors are not allowed to sleep on land and must spend the night onboard their vessels.
The Isla del Coco Marine Conservation Area reports approximately 3,500 visitors to the island per year. Most travel on liveaboard dive ships operated by two companies, Okeanos Aggressor and Undersea Hunter Group, both based in the western San José suburb of Escazú. Both ships depart year-round from the Pacific port city of Puntarenas.
The 110-foot Okeanos Aggressor, part of the worldwide Aggressor Fleet, has been operating at Cocos for 20 years. Though its trips are geared toward experienced divers, non-diving ocean lovers are welcome onboard as well, according to Calparsoro, who works at the Okeanos office in Escazú’s Plaza Colonial shopping center.
Calparsoro says experience doing night dives, deep dives and drift dives is recommended before taking the plunge on Cocos, where conditions tend to require some skill. However, the Okeanos staff – a hilarious and extremely friendly bunch – includes dive instructors ready to assist less experienced divers who may require more attention underwater.
Okeanos offers advanced diving and specialty courses, including drift diving, underwater photography and a certification to dive using nitrox, a nitrogen-oxygen gas mixture that allows for extended dive time and is commonly used on Cocos.
A typical day with Okeanos consists of four dives at different sites around the island, three gorgeous buffet meals, lots of snacks and a movie or two in the dive ship’s homey common area.
The company offers eight- and 10-day dive trips at prices ranging from $3,335 to $3,735. To promote national tourism, a rarity on Cocos, Okeanos offers a discount price of $2,335 for Costa Ricans and residents.
The Okeanos can be chartered for trips to other destinations in Costa Rica, depending on availability.
Costa Rican Javier Romero, who visited Cocos on Okeanos last year, described his trip as “the ultimate disconnect.”
“It was one week of true rest. You can’t work. You cannot check e-mail or stay up until 2 a.m. on Facebook. That is priceless for people like me. This type of disconnect is impossible unless you go diving someplace like the Isla,” he told The Tico Times in a Facebook interview from Spain.
For information on Okeanos, visit its Web site at www.aggressor.com. To make a reservation, e-mail [email protected] or call 2289-2261.
Undersea Hunter Group boasts a fleet of three handsome liveaboards that visit the island regularly, as well as a DeepSee submersible that allows visitors to experience the depths of Cocos without getting wet.
Undersea Hunter was founded by Israeli sea captains and explorers Avi Klapfer and Yosy Naaman. Since 1990, the company has focused on trips to CocosIsland, and its vessels also regularly visit the Colombian island of Malpelo, a 40-hour boat ride from Cocos.
The company directs its dive operation toward experienced divers and adventurers, as well as supporting major underwater film projects, according to sales manager Alan Steenstrup. For this reason, its vessels are readily available for charter trips.
Undersea Hunter recommends a minimum of 25 hours of experience underwater before joining a Cocos dive trip.
The only course offered onboard is nitrox certification.
The company offers four dives per day during its usually 10-day Cocos journeys. Three buffet meals and plentiful snacks are served daily, and nightly entertainment includes slide shows, movies, music and games in the ships’ impeccable common areas. Kayaks are also available for divers’ use.
Undersea Hunter’s 10-day Cocos excursion costs $4,495. Discounts may be available for Costa Ricans and residents. For more information, visit www.underseahunter.com. To make a reservation, call 2228-6613 or e-mail [email protected].
If you’re not a diver, you need not feel excluded; the Friends of Isla del Coco Foundation (FAICO) and the Organization for Tropical Studies have tailored just the trip for you. The organizations successfully launched an educational Cocos excursion last year aboard the luxury vessel Pacific Explorer.
This year, the eight-day trip will be repeated from April 25 to May 2, departing from the lavish Los Sueños Marina at Playa Herradura, on the central Pacific coast.
Unlike on the liveaboards, the goal of this excursion is to experience Cocos above water, to educate and raise awareness about the island through live experience, according to Alex Cambronero, FAICO projects manager.
Limited to 60 to 70 passengers, the trip offers informative lectures, videos, guided hikes to the island’s most famous sites and caves, snorkeling, kayaking, boat tours around the island and three top-of-the-line buffet meals per day. Two nighttime concerts are scheduled on the ship’s deck with noted Tico musician Humberto Vargas.
While the trip is mostly conducted in Spanish, staff can provide English and French translation and assistance. The voyage is suitable for people of all ages and physical abilities, as visitors can choose the activities they wish to sign up for. Children are welcome as long as they have adult supervision.
Cambronero, who traveled on the Pacific Explorer last year, says his favorite moment was “whenever the passengers commented that they managed to rest body and mind.
No phone calls, mobiles, e-mail or television. Just an absolute natural retreat of exercise and fresh air – you forget the world and can concentrate on your inner being.”
One advantage of the Pacific Explorer is that it is larger than most other vessels that regularly visit the island, making the voyage there smoother.
The cost of the excursion ranges from $1,995 for standard rooms to $2,395 for suites. A $300 deposit is required to reserve a spot. For more information, call 2257-9257 or visit www.cocosisland.org.
If you are fortunate enough to own your own boat, the Isla del Coco Marine Conservation Area reports visits from about 15 private sailboats, yachts and catamarans every year. Famous vessels have included Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s The Octopus and the Cousteau Society’s Alcyone and Calypso II.
Peak sailboat season on the island is February and March, as many vessels make a Cocos stopover before following the trade winds on their way to destinations such as French Polynesia or New Zealand. Boats must pay moorage fees that vary according to boat size, as well as a national park fee of $25 per day.
Volunteer on the Island
The Isla del Coco Marine Conservation Area welcomes volunteers year-round. The most useful skills for the island are medical expertise, nautical and mechanical knowledge and diving experience; however, anyone who wishes to help out will be considered.
Most volunteers rotate kitchen and cleaning duties and assist in trail management and tourism activities. Volunteers receive free room and board, travel to the island for free and enjoy Sunday activities such as diving, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking.
For information on how to volunteer, contact the conservation area’s office in San José at 2258-7295, or visit its Web site at www.acmic.sinac.go.cr.
The Cocos Island Conservation Project, a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Program, the French Fund for World Environment and the Global Environment Facility, is hosting a fundraising fair through Feb. 22 at Multiplaza shopping mall in Escazú, where information about the island will be available to the public.