... Cocos Island ...
Pirates, Diving and Natural Treasures
by Infocostarica staff

Located 500 kilometers south of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Cocos Island rises like an emerald in the midst of azure blue seas. Its exotic beauty, remoteness, thriving sea life and a mysterious history of pirates and hidden treasures have lured adventurers and fortune hunters for the last one hundred years. In the last few decades it has become a haven for divers from all over the world who are keen on discovering its impressive variety of marine wildlife.

The island is roughly 24 kilometers in diameter and was formed during a volcanic upheaval about two-and-a-half million years ago. Four peaks dominate the island, the highest of which is Cerro Yglesisas, at 2,080 feet or 634 meters. Cocos has two large bays with safe anchorages and sandy beaches: Chatham is located on the northeast side and Wafer Bay is on the northwest. Just off Cocos are a series of smaller basaltic rocks and islets. The largest satellite is Isla Manuelita. Cocos island is of great interest to scientists due to its biogeographic uniqueness and its high number of endemic species, those occurring nowhere else in the world.

Costa Rica took possession of the island in 1869, but it wasn’t until 1978 that it officially became a national park. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, and included on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 1998.

History

Most historians believe that the island was discovered by Spanish navigator Johan Cabezas, after 1531 and prior to 1542, when the island first appeared on a map by Nicholas Desliens where it was called Ysle de Coques. In 1685 buccaneers, led by Captain Edward Davis, sacked the city of León in Nicaragua. They chose Cocos Island as the site to hide their treasure, thus beginning a tradition that continued for centuries. During the 17th and 18th centuries it was a refuge for pirates and many wanderers of low repute. Many valuable treasures have reportedly been hidden on the island, among them the Lima Treasure, consisting of tons of gold and silver bars and gold sheets that were meant to cover church roofs, and the treasures of William Davies, hidden in 1684, and Benito Bonito, whom they called "Espada Sangrienta" (Bloody Sword), hidden in 1869. In the late nineteenth century a German adventurer named August Gissler established a short-lived agricultural community. The Costa Rican government named him Governor of the island on November 1897, but because of the very harsh conditions on the island and no working links to the mainland, Gissler failed in his attempt to maintain the colony for long. August Gissler remained on Cocos Island for 20 years, methodically searching for the legendary treasure. He finally returned empty handed to New York where he died in 1935. To date, it is estimated that more than 300 expeditions have attempted to find treasure, but without any known results.

Flora and Fauna

A thick rainforest mantle covers the rugged island terrain of 2,400 hectares, where it is frequently overcast or raining in torrents. Average annual rainfall is betwwn 5,000-8,000 mm. Waterfalls abound, of which there are up to seventy of varying sizes during the peak of the rainy season. The island also supports a verdant, high-altitude cloud forest. Rare for a small island, this is made possible by dramatic topography, abundant rainfall and surplus water stored in the porous reservoirs of the island itself. Scientist have identified 235 species of plants (70 endemic), 362 of insects (64 endemic), 2 of endemic reptiles (the Norops townsendi lizard and the Spaerodactylus pacificus salamander) 3 of spiders, 97 of birds (3 endemic), 57 of crustaceans, 118 of seawater mollusks, over 200 of fish and 18 corals. The waters around the island abound with white-tipped sharks, giant hammerhead sharks, tuna, parrotfish, mantas and crevalle jacks. Deep ocean currents bring cooler, nutrient rich waters up Cocos' steep underwater topography, where it mixes with warmer surface waters to support an amazing ecosystem.

Diving

The clear warm waters around the island are regarded by many as offering some of the best diving in the world. Schools of hammerhead sharks and the occasional but majestic whale shark make for an almost surreal underwater experience. Other creatures include white-tipped and silver-tipped reef sharks, hawksbill turtles, grouper, snapper and frogfish. Most diving around Cocos Island takes place in deep water with strong currents and an abundance of sharks – not a trip for novice divers. A typical day of diving at Cocos starts at 7:00am with breakfast, followed by a couple of hours of diving, snack, diving, lunch, diving, snack, night dive, dinner and then to bed – daily for a week.

A select group of diving operators offers regularly scheduled visits to the waters surrounding the island. Departing from Costa Rica’s port town of Puntarenas, the journey to the island takes approximately 36 hours. Most trips last about 10 – 12 days and prices range anywhere from $2,800 –$3,600. This usually will include transfers from San Jose to the vessel, accommodation in twin, double, or triple cabin with private facilities, all meals, tanks, weights and dive guide. Note that the Costa Rican government charges an additional park access fee of $245 per week of diving.

Prospective visitors to the island need to request a permit from the Coco Island Conservation Area, tel: (506) 258-7350. A small group of park rangers guard the island and surrounding waters permanently. Accommodations are not available, although visitors may hike around the island.

In Costa Rica, Cocos Travel (www.divecocos.com) is the only outfitter specializing in dive trips to the island. Other operators can be found on the web at: www.usdivetravel.com, www.underseahunter.com and www. divingtravel.com.