Adventures In The Cocos Islands - Part 1

By Christian Bendfeldt aka. El Buzo

Bienvenidos! Welcome! I am Mark and would like to welcome you onboard Okeanos. For the next 10 days we will do out best to make your stay with us a pleasant and safe one. Our crossing towards Isla de Cocos will take a day and a half and for those that have never endured an open ocean voyage we suggest you start taking seasickness medication. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to your crew. While he started presenting his crew you could just wander who Mark was. This "American Hoosier" had been sailing these waters for over 1 year. His laughter was strong, deep, and contagious, and his enthusiasm was ever present. Even though his Spanish was simple, the crew respected him. Mark would be our host, dive master, entertainer, voyage manager, and Jack of all trades for days to come.

The sweet sticky feeling of sea breeze was aphrodisiac like and the cool refreshing flavor of my rum and Coke were reminders of the good things to come. Salud! Salud! (Cheers, cheers,) Tzing..! Tzing..! where the sounds that came out of our glasses after the toast. The sky had turned into a bright orange canvas, typical from this time of the year and the group was slowly gathering on the different decks looking at the spectacle of this bright red sun loosing the battle against the huge robe of the night. Greek mythological Titans had formed from the clouds to witness this ephemeral duel that has taken place since the beginning of time. The background noise from the twin diesel engines would share our dreams, thoughts and conversations for long hours to come until the sudden sound of silence would announce our arrival. At a distance thunderstorm lighted the background and light showers were waving us good bye from the dock.

Cocos Island had been on my dream list for some time now and being so close to me I had never put my mind in just doing it. Going to Costa Rica from Guatemala is cheaper (I don't understand why) than going to Cozumel, so the excuses were drying out. Late June I called my college buddy and compadre Miguel, who is married to a "Tica" (the nickname we people in Central America refer to a female Costa Rican) and dropped the idea on his table. After a few seconds he said yes and he offered to call his in-laws that night. Next morning I received his call and he just says… it done! He had contacted the Okeanos Aggressor office in Costa Rica and had "miraculously" found space on the trip leaving Nov. 2. Some days later I found out that his wife had been pushing for a trip to visit her parents for some time now and he had accepted that first week of November. He now had an excuse for spending the next 10 days diving in Cocos with me, instead of a week at his in-laws. Swell guy. We arrived to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, after a very short one and a half-hour flight from Guatemala. After going through immigration, Miguel had planned a short visit to a business associate but that was canceled on the last minute so we decided to go straight up to the pick up point at the Amon Plaza Hotel in San Jose.

Costa Rica is a wonderful Country but I myself, being a Central American, have always felt they are very snobbish and they don't like being considered Central Americans. They have a great public education system, great national parks, no military forces and a solvent democratic tradition not seen anywhere else in Latin America but are heavily in debt. It's like your neighbor that drives a car of the year has a huge house, the kids attend private school, but it's making ends meet just to pay the minimum monthly installment on the credit card. Costa Rica is very much "Gringo" oriented and safe and has become the residence of many ex-pats and businesses so you'll hear English often. It offers the best Eco-tourism infrastructure of all the Central American countries and it's still small (4 million people in all C.R). Overall this is a beautiful country and you should plan a visit, sometime.

We left San Jose on an A/C shuttle bus following a westerly route on a trek that would take us some 2 hours on a winding road. Puntarenas is a sleepy fishing port on the Pacific Coast that has been rattled by tourist over the years. Hostels, Bed and Breakfasts, Plantations, Eco-farms etc. have been opened to cater this swarm of visitors in search for comfortable yet rustic accommodations. Embedded in the gulf of Nicoya, this town is not considered a deep-sea port and tides and currents play an important role on the naval traffic. We would have to wait a while for the next high tide to lift anchor and depart towards Cocos.

But, what have I learned about Cocos Island other that it's part of the same underwater ridge system that extends from the Galapagos, goes through Malpelo Islands in Colombia and ends at Costa Rica? The story starts during the early Spanish exploration era when a sailor called Juan Cabezas first laid eyes on it on the year of our lord 1526 as he would have said. The first cartographic reference came from a French Map a little over a decade after its discovery. Named "Ile de Coques" or Shell Island it was wrongfully translated phonetically by the Spaniards as Isla de Cocos or Coconut Islands. Over the centuries the name stuck.

Cocos Island claims to be the largest unpopulated island in the world (one internet-clip said 24 square km and another said 70 square km but I would go with the first number). Over the centuries It was known to be the temporary refuge of sea scoundrels and pirates and a trustworthy provider of fresh water for en-route boats, if you where able to find it. Being literally in the middle of nowhere, constantly surrounded by fog or dense clouds and at 300+ nautical miles southwest of the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, it takes navigation skills plus some 30+ hours to do the crossing on the nice modern ships of our time.

Cocos is one of the few places on earth that still rains more than you can imagine. I didn't investigate this deeply, so don't take this as a fact, but remember reading a report with something outrageous like 5000mm-8000mm of rain a year (16-27 ft). The northern shore has one large waterfall and the south shore has two that pour this fresh liquid asset into the sea. Early explorers just wondered how big the lake had to be since the waterfalls never dried out. Over time they discovered that there was no reservoir or lake and the water was simple rainwater in tremendous amounts. The complete island is covered with thick tropical rainforest and ships seeking refuge can still find it on Chatham and Wafer Bays on the Northwest coast and Iglesias Bay on the southeast side. This natural paradise has served as inspiration to stories like Treasure Island and more recently the remote island host of Jurassic Park. Considered the most important wildlife refuge of the National Park system of Costa Rica it was inducted to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1997. The remoteness, the lack of infrastructure and the few visitors a year has preserved this natural beauty for over four and a half centuries.

The trip to Puntarenas was uneventful so my mind was set into the drifting mode. Images of scalloped hammerheads, Mobula and Marbled rays, white tips and silky sharks and, if I was as lucky as our Diver to Diver board friend Wrasse, a sailfish filled my gray matter. In the back of my mind were also images of the little stuff, the horrible and elusive red lip batfish, the beautiful harlequin shrimp, snails and slugs that I enjoy so much filled the mental picture I was building in a collage like manner. I had such high expectations about the marine life to be encountered that I was starting to worry if I was not becoming biased by the stories heard and read from divers that had visited this remote paradise before me. The only hint that was given to us by Mark was that the cleaning stations were receiving a lot of hammerhead visits and this could yield for very good photo opportunities.

We boarded Okeanos late afternoon. Painted in marine white, this boat has 120' in length and was built in 1972 at an Italian shipyard to indulge the wealthy tastes of a tycoon. During her maiden days she traveled through out the Mediterranean visiting the "in" places of the Jet Set, hosting champagne parties and serving as a sun deck to topless beauties. As time went by it became one of the first Aggressor franchise boats after it was bought and refitted in 1986 to make it diver friendly. Two years ago it had some renovations done and it's still in good shape even if age is starting to show off. Consistent with the Aggressor quality the boat has all the amenities of a 5 star hotel with the obvious limitations of space and some signs of wear and tear. Since it was re-designed with divers in mind, working and photo tables, dive platforms, filling stations are all well appointed. You can take the sun on the third floor deck (if the sun ever comes out and the rain stops) and the main salon has TV, VCR etc. The dining area is separated from the main salon and includes buffet tables and sitting areas. The cabins, even if they are small, are well appointed and decorated. The wet bar is in the upper deck, but contrary to other Aggressor boats there is no Jacuzzi on this one. For diving, two inflatable boats are deployed for the short rides between the sites and the anchored boat. Night dives are the only time you dive off directly from the platform.

Dong! Dong! Dong! announced that dinner was served. After some short introductions the group had finally assembled and an international review of divers conformed it. The boat was 2 spaces short of being full and Swiss, German, Austrian, Guatemalan and Americans filled the dinning area and started sharing travel stories, diving adventures and jokes.

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