Fortune hunters have long set their sights on Cocos Island as a repository for ill-gotten treasures. Pirates, buccaneers, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells have visited the island for more than three hundred years, purportedly parking their plunder on this remote outpost off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Some believe that the Treasure of León (Nicaragua), the Treasure of Lima (Peru), and countless shipments of gold and jewels stolen from Mexico by Spaniards (and relieved from the Spaniards by pirates) found their way to Cocos.
For Martha Watkins Gilkes and countless other divers, the true treasures of Cocos lie off its coastline. “Cocos is one of the few places I’ve dived where you’re pretty much guaranteed action with big pelagics,” Martha began. “Sometimes it’s large schools of hammerheads, other times white-tip reef sharks, a giant whale shark, or even swordfish. And of course there are always the dolphins—large schools riding the bow of the boat and frolicking in the water with you—something all divers dream of.”
Cocos is an uninhabited volcanic island that lies 300 miles southwest of Cabo Blanco, Costa Rica. Thanks to the isolation that made it a popular haunt for pirates, the island’s ecosystems—both marine and terrestrial—have remained largely intact; for this reason, it has been designated a national park and a World Heritage Site. The large numbers of tibu-rones in the waters off Cocos have gained it the sobriquet “Island of the Sharks.” (Indeed, Cocos has been immortalized in an IMAX film of that name, shot by underwater filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall; some believe that Cocos was also the model for the setting of the blockbuster novel and film Jurassic Park, and for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island!) The sharks and other pelagics are drawn to Cocos by the pinnacles surrounding the island, further remnants of its volcanic past.
Cocos Island. Crazy and Gentle Ocean
If one were forced to identify one “signature” piscine attraction of Cocos, it would have to be the island’s prodigious schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. Scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) can grow to lengths of 14 feet. Their namesake head shape is believed to aid the sharks in their quest for prey by distributing their electrolocation sensory pores across a broader surface area, and enlarging their nasal tracts. While other shark species will display schooling behavior, none school to the extent of hammerheads. (Studies conducted in the Sea of Cortez suggest that schooling behavior helps female hammerheads hover near their nocturnal feeding grounds; researchers have termed the behavior “refuging.”) While no one knows exactly why the hammerheads of Cocos gather in groups of twenty, fifty, one hundred, or more, everyone agrees that watching such a school glide above you at Alcyone or Dos Amigos Grande (two reliable shark sites) is not something you’ll soon forget.
The thrills of Cocos are not limited to just hammerheads and other sharks. Marbled stingrays, Pacific manta rays, and moray eels are commonly encountered there, along with large schools of horse-eyed jacks and yellow-fin tuna. Marlin and green turtles are also regularly seen. (Many species can be found at depths of sixty feet, though if you’re able to go deeper, you’ll likely see more.) “Diving at Cocos was the only time I’ve ever seen sailfish underwater,” Martha continued. “We were down filming when two large specimens were suddenly swimming at us. When they noticed us in the water, they threw up their sails and turned away. It was really mind-blowing to see that; it makes me even sadder now when I come upon them mounted on the wall.”
Cocos Island. You are welcome!
For Martha, the thrill of Cocos begins on the crossing to the island. “It’s a thirty-six-hour boat crossing, and each time I’ve gone it’s been one of the high points of the trip,” she enthused. “We’ve seen pods of dolphins and whales each time. I’ve seen dolphins many times in the wild, but to have one hundred dolphins riding the bow of the ship is a magical experience.” Several live-aboards—the Okeanos Aggressor and the Undersea Hunter —serve Cocos, and the program generally goes like this: “The mothership anchors in one of the island’s sheltered bays,” Martha continued, “either Wafer or Chatham. From there, inflatable boats take you out. There’s generally one or two morning dives, one or two afternoon dives, and the option of a night dive. The night dives are really wild thanks to all of the shark activity. I recall one night dive when there was a large group of white tips nestling under the coral heads, waiting to ambush baitfish. I noticed that one of my swim fins was dangling down where the fish were coming through, and figured that I’d better pull back, or I’d become part of the feeding frenzy! On my visits, I don’t do night dives every night. Most people are pretty worn out after the day’s dives, as the currents are pretty strong and the emotional aspect of diving in waters like Cocos is exhausting. The adrenaline is pumping as you are filming such exciting, large marine life.”
Though the diving off Cocos is certainly first-rate, visitors will want to take a few mornings or afternoons to explore the island itself. Land visits are strictly controlled by the Costa Rican government to maintain the character of the island, but with a little planning, excursions can usually be arranged. “I’ve come upon few places as unspoiled as Cocos,” Martha added. “In nearly every bay you land, there’s rainforest with exquisite waterfalls. I think that hiking up the riverbeds leading up to the waterfalls is as exciting as the diving around the shoreline.” Cocos’ rivers and pools are home to freshwater fish, and make for a refreshing bathing interlude. Popular land stops include the boulders at Chatham Bay, where many of the island’s past visitors carved their names.
Cocos Island. Turtle
MARTHA WATKINS GILKES is the owner and operator of Fanta Sea Island Divers on the island of Antigua. She has been diving for more than thirty years and instructing for more than twenty years, and has frequently worked as an underwater model and assistant to international underwater filmmaker Stan Waterman. She is also an accomplished underwater photographer and writer, and has published A Diving Guide to the Eastern Caribbean (Hunter Publications) and Shipwrecks of the Caribbean (Macmillan Publishers). Martha has dived all over the world, including the Red Sea, South Pacific, the English Channel, and throughout the Caribbean and the Galápagos. In 1994 she was presented the Platinum Pro 5000 Hour Diver Award. In 1998, Martha was admitted as a fellow member of the Explorers Club of New York City; in 2002, she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, where she has served as president since 2004.
Are you ready? If You Go:
Getting There: Live-aboards depart from Punta Arenas, Costa Rica. Nearby San José is served by many carriers, including American, Continental, and Delta Airlines.
Best Time to Visit: Prime time is May through October.
Accommodations: There are two live-aboard options for visiting Cocos—the Okeanos Aggressor (800-348-2628; www.aggressor.com) and the Undersea Hunter (800-203-2120; www.underseahunter.com).
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