March 4, 2013

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Aquarius Habitat

Surrounded by deep waters and strong currents, Cocos Island has long been admired by scuba divers for its wealth of marine life. Large pelagic species are very abundant in the cool productive waters surrounding Cocos and divers often see large schools of hammerhead sharks, dolphin, tuna, and schools of snapper. Jacques Cousteau visited Cocos several times and raved about its incredible beauty. Cocos Island was declared a National Park by the Costa Rican government in 1978 and in 1997, UNESCO designated Cocos a world heritage site. In 2002, the surrounding waters were included under that protection. Despite its status as one of the most important marine conservation sites in the world, Cocos is still under pressure from illegal poaching of sharks, tuna, and other marine species.

In 2011, expedition team members Kip Evans and Shari Sant Plummer joined conservation visionary and SEA board member Ann Luskey to assist in the tagging of endangered sea turtles around Cocos. On board were scientists Odalesque Brielly, Jeffry Madrigal, Captain Sean McGuinees, his wife Christine, their daughter Eliza and the entire Sirenuse crew. Also with us were Ann’s children Charlotte and Jordan, and Jordan’s’ friend Elsa.

Shari Sant Plummer describes her first morning at Cocos Island:
“In the sunny morning on the back deck of Sirenuse, Coco’s reveals itself with a lush green mountain landscape, striped with cascading waterfalls, and populated with thousands of red and black footed boobies. I was anxious to jump into the tempting “agua azul”, but before we could get our flippers wet, we had to meet with the park rangers and get our briefing on the park rules. Coco’s has a really informative (and pretty hilarious) video to educate visitors. It shows what not to do by mock enacting the crime. For example, a couple sneaking shells into a back pack, throwing seeded fruit (invasive species) and plastic garbage on a trail, and stealing starfish by concealing it in a wet suit while diving. Thankfully the Costa Rican government has recognized the value of this pristine environment, and continues to educate and enforce the park rules that keep it this way. But sweating in the sun, glancing toward the ocean, I was like a kid at the threshold of Disneyland. Just let me in!

Our first dive…
We immediately got into the action on our decent, tons of fish around the rocks, sharks on the bottom and swimming along the wall, and our objective, sea turtles. Jeffrey from the Costa Rican NGO Pretoma, is attempting to capture and tag the turtles. It didn’t take long to find one! Catching it was not so easy, but our experienced team knew just what to do. Once they had the turtle on the boat, Kip and I turned our attention to the giant school of jacks next to us. Another pair of turtles showed up as we headed back toward the wall doing a kind of dance around each other, turned out to be a couple males saying hello.

Meanwhile, the sub adult female green turtle, now known as “Shelly” was being tested and tagged. Weighing in at 48 kilos, she is a beautiful turtle, and everyone on the boat got involved in her visit. Jeffery took tissue samples, and the kids all helped in recording her size, weight and other vitals. She was released where we found her less than an hour after her capture, and with Pretoma’s research, we hope to learn more about her, and her species in the months to come.

A dive to remember…
The current is strong enough to pull your mask off your face, and your regulator out of your mouth, so we need to do a fast decent down the mooring line, 96 feet to the rocks, the top of a seamount. Find a place to hang on and be careful of the cutting barnacles, sea urchins and eels that live in the rocky crevices, and don’t get caught in the current or you will be swept out to sea. This is all part of our morning briefing from Park Ranger Steven on or next dive, Alcyon!! We are enduring all of these risks to get close to one of the most bizarre and magnificent creatures in the ocean, the elusive hammerhead shark!

We find the spot by GPS, and I jump in following Steven, the dive doesn’t disappoint! My red lens blew off my camera housing, as I used both hands to pull myself down the mooring line! Steven stops to point out the obvious, hammerheads cruising the waters all around us. I loop my arm around the mooring line and manage to take quick photo then keep descending down. Once at the bottom, we swim over to the rocks to find a place to hunker down and just wait for the action. Immediately we see the big beautiful hammerheads cruising the edge of the seamount. Veiled by a thermocline (caused by the cold upwelling meeting with the warmer surface water) they appear like a mirage until they get close, real close. I’m hanging on at the top of the drop off next to Kip and trying not breathe too much so as not to scare the sharks off and ruin the shot. Schools of jacks are ever present, and the rocky surface is home to hundreds of types of marine life. We spotted green morays, octopus, snapper, soldier fish and puffer fish just to name a few. White tip reef sharks sleep on the sandy bottom just a few feet under you. In one spot I counted nine resting white tips. Because we are at almost 90 feet we can’t stay long, only about twenty minutes, but every second is breathtaking! As we ascended back up the mooring line and I saw a school of hammerheads swimming beneath us, there were ten, fifteen, twenty – they just kept coming! My time was up though and I had to follow my fellow divers to the surface.

There is a kind of euphoria that I feel after coming up from a dive like this. It’s such a privilege to be able to see this underwater world. Like a trip to outer space, but better because it’s full of life! I can never understand the time and money spent on searching for life on other planets when we have barely explored this one!

Ocean trawlers are able to scrape the surface of seamounts as deep as 500 feet and remove the endemic benthic communities, along with fish that could be over 100 years old! And yet ocean scientists don’t have the resources, the subs, or the budget, to figure out how this part of our own ecosystem functions! I wonder about our ability to change the current destructive trends on the planet, when there is an obvious lack of common sense.

Cocos Expedition from Kip Evans on Vimeo.

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One Comment

  • Ann Luskey says:

    Cocos is a GEM of an island. A magical place full of beautiful creatures, crystal water falls, and lush green forests. I will make every effort to return.
    For all of you divers out there…it is not to be missed, and Along with the Sylvia Earle Alliance…Pretoma and Turtle Island Restoration Network are doing great work out there.

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"With knowing comes caring." - Dr. Sylvia Earle