Before we ever set foot on Isla del Coco, or Cocos Island, we spent an idyllic five-week stay on the mainland of Costa Rica, basing Elan, our 41-foot aluminum sloop at Golfito. From there we explored as much of the country as possible by foot, rental car, and dinghy, following an early March transit of the Panama Canal from the Caribbean.
The topic of Cocos Island came up repeatedly during our travels around Costa Rica. Fishers, scientists, park personnel, marina operators, few had seen it, but the island seemed to have a firm grip on the imaginations of many. Steeped in murky history as a favored stopover for pirates and whalers, attracted by abundant fresh water, wood, pigs, coconuts, and fish, the persistence of numerous stories involving buried treasure is perhaps inevitable. The most famous of these involves the “Treasure of Lima,” when Portuguese pirate Benito Bonito, Capt. James Thomson, and crew sailed off in the 1820s with the treasure they had agreed to escort out of Peru and allegedly buried it at Cocos.
We’d both decided to go to Cocos, but first we were determined to visit Costa Rica, so with adequate time left to catch the cyclone-free safe sailing window, the tiller went hard over to port after we dropped our line-handlers off at the Balboa Yacht Club dock. Without pause we motorsailed off in the calm, hot, late afternoon torpor and began the three-day trek northwest along the coast of Panama to the mouth of Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce, just past the border. We avoided the coast, motorsailing in mostly sunny, light conditions, with one night of torrential rain and lightning. The sporadic company of big bottlenose dolphins, frequent sightings of manta rays, and the capture and release of a 200-pound black marlin, two hours before sunset, made for a memorable second day. We bypassed Panama’s Isla de Coiba, a loose-security prison island where a voyaging sailor had been murdered by convicts several weeks before: four prisoners swam out and boarded after the couple unwittingly anchored overnight, the wife surviving after transporting the men to the mainland aboard the vessel at gunpoint.
Accompanied by a large group of dolphins, we enjoyed a close inspection of beautiful, palm-studded Isla Montuosa. We crossed the Costa Rican border and entered Golfo Dulce the third day around noon, making our way into the snug harbor of Golfito by sunset. Note: Be sure to get an exit stamp in your passports when you clear Panama so you don’t have to drive back by car to the border from Golfito to get one like we did (we had outward clearance from customs and the port authority, but somehow managed not to get the immigration stamp). The allure of Cocos IslandA far more tangible treasure on Cocos is the natural history of the island. All of the principal far-eastern tropical Pacific islands (the others are Clipperton, Malpelo, and the Galapagos) are of volcanic origin. However, the proximity of only Cocos (at position 5° 32′ N, 87° 03′ W) to the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) brings rainfall sufficient to support a tropical rain forest. The staggering average annual rainfall of 280 inches per year also feeds clear rivers and numerous spectacular waterfalls, many cascading hundreds of feet off sheer cliffs into the sea. Best of all, both the land and the surrounding marine environment out to five nautical miles from shore are completely protected as part of the Costa Rica National Park System, and the island is uninhabited except by a rotating crew of several friendly park ranger caretakers.
Sixty species of animals and 15% of the plants are endemic (they occur nowhere else in the world). Coconuts, despite the island’s name, are relatively few, as most of the palms are the non-coconut bearing Rooseveltia franklinia, named after enthusiastic four-time visitor FDR. With no fishing of any kind allowed, the surrounding waters teem with large numbers of fish (though only about 59 species have managed to colonize this isolated outlier), sharks, manta rays, spiny lobsters and other invertebrates, sea turtles, and marine mammals. The proximity of oceanic drop-offs to both the Chatham Bay and Wafer Bay anchorages makes normally rare sightings of yellowfin tuna, wahoo, whale sharks, and assorted dolphins and small whales relatively common while diving along the reef edge. The islets of Pajara and Manuelita are close to the best anchorages and hold fairly permanent aggregations of scalloped hammerheads sufficiently docile to safely dive among and observe close-hand (see sidebar). Voyaging to Cocos from the mainland
Cocos Island perches on a submarine volcanic rise connected to the mainland, a scant 300 nm or so southwest of the mouth of Golfo Dulce. This proved an irresistible stop for us en route to the Galapagos and South Pacific. Nevertheless, distracted by sailboat-speed billfishing experiments resulting in the capture and release of three sailfish and a 185-lb blue marlin while underway, and our keen anticipation, we very belatedly realized that we’d made a grievous error during the three-day passage. We had been low-rpm motorsailing into the prevailing light southwesterlies (five to 17 knots) most of the way, and running the radar, steaming lights, and other electronics all night, as well as during the last day of misty, low-visibility rain until the dark form of the island emerged from the gloom. We’d thought nothing of letting our unregulatable DC wind generator run to help ease the load of supplying all of those amps on the engine alternator. The distinct aroma of frying sulfuric acid as we approached Wafer Bay for check-in with the rangers, however, told us otherwisewe had seriously overcharged our two 8D batteries.
The rugged, utter solitude, the waterfalls plummeting from the jungle into the sea, and gentle, pastel-colored sunset began to assuage our self-recrimination somewhat as we motored around to the better holding ground of Chatham Bay after checking in. Closer inspection revealed hot, dry batteries, fortunately of conventional lead-acid design, which I refilled with little hope they could be nursed back to health. Here we were at an isolated outpost, a mere three days into a 4,000-plus-nm journey, and we were already in a pinch. Head ranger Joaquin Alvarado kindly advised us to relax, but my rudimentary Spanish prevented me from understanding exactly why.
The sudden appearance of the Sea Hunter, a long-range luxury charter dive boat operated from Puntarenas by American Keith Andersen, bordered on miraculous from our viewpoint. Our concerns served as a perfect introduction, and Keith immediately put us at ease by saying that if we needed new batteries he’d radio back to their other boat, the Undersea Hunter, due out at the end of the week. Also, we were welcome to buy as much diesel as we’d like from him before our departure on the 430-nm passage to Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. He continued with a thorough review of the major dive spots around the island, filled our scuba tanks for free as often as we could empty them, and developed all of our film for a nominal fee. We couldn’t believe our good fortune, and upon querying Keith further learned that several other live-aboard dive boats willingly sell diesel to the small number of South Pacific-bound voyagers they encounter at Cocos.A week of adventure
As it turned out, the batteries strangely vomited electrolyte from some cells more than others as they discharged and recharged over the next few days. We kept topping them up, careful to remove the acid from the battery box lest it cause a sure disaster by leaking out the bottom and corroding through our aluminum hull. The multimeter indicated an abnormal though marginally acceptable difference between individual cell voltages. They were wounded, surely, but had somehow survivedwe nursed another 20 months of service from one and 28 months from the other before replacing them with gel cells, adding a second bank, and installing a regulated AC wind generator and upgraded monitoring system in New Zealand. Chastened, we could return our attention to the adventure at hand.At this writing we’re half way through our circumnavigation, and have yet to experience anything quite like Cocos Island. We dinghied into the beach at Chatham Bay and discovered dates and names of ships and crew dating from 1797 to 1994 engraved in the rocks, from unknown 18th and 19th century seamen to Dove, and even a sailor we’d spoken to the previous evening via ham radio. The unblemished, pristine surroundings, with only the sound of waves gently slapping at the shore, emphasized that we were experiencing surroundings virtually identical to those of all the voyagers before us. We ascended the steep footpath, zig-zagging up the grassy hillside above the bay for the panoramic view, with Elan and Sea Hunter the only visible specks of human origin. We then continued along the trail into the dappled, deep-green gloom and silence of heavy rain forest. White terns (Gygis alba) flitted soundlessly in the canopy, which sagged in places under the weight of resting frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens). We descended the trail along the Genio River to the ranger station, and Joaquin invited us into his rustic, comfortable home for cool lemonade.
Costa Rica is a small country, so it wasn’t a huge coincidence that Joaquin’s nominal boss, Dr. Jorge Jimenez, had been my housemate when we attended graduate school together in Miami. Wendy and I had just caught up with my old friend in San Jose, so even with our bad Spanish, we were able to entertain Joaquin immensely with all of the freshly revived reminisces of Jorge’s escapades before he became an eminent scientist and respected book author. As we laughed and twisted our tongues, Cocos Island finches (Pinaroloxias inornata), which live only there, flitted around the porch like common sparrows.The days flew by, none without strong memories becoming engulfed in a school of foraging yellowfin tuna while snorkeling along the wall of Isla Manuelita abundant spiny lobsters crawling boldly in the open, protected by the sanctuary anchoring Elan in 78 feet to scuba dive the shallowest point of Alcyon Shoal, an underwater peak offshore of the east coast of the island (location 5° 30.594′ N, 87° 01.953′ W)…hiking up the Genio River through towering rainforest to the magnificent waterfall at the head of the valleythe gang of colorful tropical fish that awaited galley scraps night and day around Elan’s hull in Chatham Bay. Intensely pegging your adventure meter like this can quickly rebalance the fun account after those inevitable interludes in the boat yard.Keeping it safe
A serious incident occurred one gray, mist-enshrouded day that reminded us of Bill and Simone Butler’s survival account following the sinking of their 36-foot sailboat Siboney (Our Last Chance Sixty-Six Deadly Days Adrift, 1991, Exmart Press. Whales smashed their hull west of the Galapagos. They described drifting tantalizingly close to Cocos Island after a considerable time afloat in their inflatable liferaft, carried slowly eastward by the North Equatorial Countercurrent. The temptation to swim for it was strong. Well-founded fears of the sharks that had been aggressively circling and bumping the raft and unknown local current velocities, eventually won out over a shot at quick salvation from the strong possibility of drifting to their deaths. They made the right decision to remain aboard until their rescue much later close to the coast of the mainland.We’d seen Sea Hunter doing some odd maneuvering well offshore and thought they might be treating their well-known customers of the week, famed underwater photographer Jack McKenny and a team using new rebreather units to closely approach and photograph large marine animals, to some views of whales or of a ball of baitfish surrounded by predators. A visit to Keith that evening, however, found him a still visibly shaken diver. He had become momentarily disoriented just off the wall at nearby Isla Manuelita and was quickly whisked out to sea at depth before his diving companions noticed anything amiss. The dive boat operators couldn’t follow bubbles because rebreathers don’t issue any. Twenty minutes and an untimely, visibility-limiting rain shower passed, and light levels and hopes were in a nosedive. Nearly an hour passed before Keith’s mate miraculously spotted a tiny black speck on the horizon, which turned out to be the head of the missing diver, saved with little time left from near-certain death as he was swept offshore. Keith emphasized the need to exercise extreme caution while diving on the steep outer promontories around Cocos. Stay in contact with the walls and anchor line, or risk a fast, potentially one-way ride out to sea. Bill Butler would almost certainly have perished had he attempted to swim to the island. This may also underlie the unexplained disappearance of a tourist at Cocos in 1989.
The only sharks we saw were white-tip reef sharks and scalloped hammerheads. The white-tips are notoriously sluggish and non-aggressive throughout the Indo-Pacific unless provoked or exposed to large amounts of fish blood. Hammerheads can be dangerous, but intensive questioning uncovered no known incidents involving divers that quietly observed those at Cocos Island. Fishing, spearfishing, or disturbing any marine life whatsoever is strictly prohibited, eliminating this potential source of eliciting trouble. Thus, despite the abundance of sharks at Cocos, normal precautions like not swimming at night, watching your dive partner, and maintaining contact with the bottom or vertical walls during dives should suffice. Don’t make the mistake of picking up the odd crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci). This will likely result in painful punctures from the sharp, venomous spines, capable of penetrating many types of dive gloves.
On land, watch for the numerous overgrown pits left by the many treasure hunters over the years before establishment of the park and a moratorium on prospecting activities (all of which were unsuccessful). The island hosts no snakes or other dangerous reptiles. You may startle a feral pig or one of the smaller number of goats and deer in the forest. If possible, keep the rangers abreast of your movements and intentions.Pure magic
The week flew by, and it was time to set sail for the Galapagos. We bid a fond farewell to Joaquin and his ranger team and paid our park fees. The sun was low by the time we stowed the dinghy, hoisted the full main as a standard safeguard against power failure, and began motoring around the abrupt cliffs of the northeast corner of Cocos in light, fluky southwesterlies. A loud thump sent me diving below to have a look at the engine, followed quickly by Wendy’s shout that the water temperature was rapidly increasing. We shut down the engine; Wendy alertly put the tiller hard to starboard, but the bow hovered in the dead air, unable to decide whether to fall off safely to port and open water or to slide over to starboard and the sheer rock wall 30 yards away. Wendy worked the tiller and the main sheet until the right puff of wind finally pushed us slowly in the direction of safety. By the time the engine had cooled down it was pitch dark, and we’d worked our way back to Chatham Bay under sail. We anchored and got a good sleep before changing the broken water circulating pump belt the next morning and making a successful departure.
We didn’t know then that we were headed for a long, safe, deeply gratifying South Pacific sojourn, free of significant gear problems and major crew errors, with good fortune and whatever else occasionally shielding us from our oversights and shortcomings. We had a pleasant passage to the Galapagos, and enjoyed a week of communing underwater with playful, inquisitive sea lions and basking in the cool sunshine with stoic, dignified penguins. Yet nothing since has dimmed the exquisite, completely unique memories of Cocos Island. And of all of the folks we’ve met, only one other boat had ever been there. Maybe we’ll see you there next time throughwe wouldn’t think of missing it.