We’ve been two days sailing the Pacific Ocean; now she lies ahead of us: Isla del Coco, Cocos Island – uninhabited and more than 500 kilometers from Costa Rica, the mother country. Our divers’ hearts all soar …
Suspense is mounting on the sundeck of the Argo. The biggest ship belonging to the Undersea Hunter Group – 40 meters long, room for 18 guests and 14 crew members – approaches the island slowly, almost hesitantly. On board, an excited murmuring of joyful anticipation can be heard. Many of us have been waiting a very long time for a chance to visit this remote patch of earth that restricts visitors to 3000 per year. Cocos Island, just 24 square kilometers in size, attracts adventurous souls and lends wings to their imagination. For generations, the story has been handed down that after carrying out raids all the way from Mexico to Peru, the pirates buried their treasure here, between rainforest and cloud forest, among jagged cliffs, gaps in the rock hung with lianas and sandy bays. Countless treasure hunters have set out to find that treasure. The story of the island is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous work, Treasure Island. These days, Isla del Coco is a nature reserve, designated a national park in 1978. But we never got to do treasure hunting. For all the mysterious promise of the rocks jutting out of the water, we visitors are dead set on discovering delights not to be found on land: The waters around the island are among the most beautiful diving spots in the world.
Diving is a purely daytime activity because most sharks are in hunting mode at night
Our skipper, José Mendiola, lets the small boat slam into the troughs between the waves. “I’m still practicing,” he says with an apologetic grin – it’s only his second week. Before that, Mendiola plowed the waves fishing for tuna, so he still has to get used to human passengers. Now he’s steering the dinghy with its eight dive passengers away from the Argo and across to the first dive spot, a steep rock close to the main island. The wind whips spray and rain into our faces almost the moment we wipe them dry. “That’s Coco for you, every day a surprise,” is all Mendiola says. I’m beginning to feel a little seasick – or maybe it’s just the excitement. Another two meters closer to the rock so that the undercurrent doesn’t get a grip on us later. I can’t help feeling that the rock was quite close enough already – the waves are thundering against it. “Ready? Three, two, one!” dive guide Juan Manuel Camargo Urrego yells into the wind. With a back roll, we eight neoprene figures slide into the ocean.
The silence of the deep is broken by crackles, creaks and crunches. Parrotfishes nibble at brown-and-white coral as they pass, yellow-and-white butterfly fish swoosh by – these waters are as busy as any Manhattan intersection at rush hour. Camargo Urrego, 44, from Colombia, shakes a small silver rattle to gain our attention and points ahead with his arm outstretched. We stare into the blue, straining to see what he’s . Suddenly, a silhouette makes a brief appearance just ahead of us, then sways mightily first left, then right. It’s three meters long and has an oddly flat head with eyes protruding at the side – a hammerhead shark. Slowly, the curious creature turns away to one side and like lightning, tiny butterfly fish flit over and start nibbling at its skin. As though in a trance, the predator stays perfectly still, its mouth slightly open, as if it were enjoying a full-body treatment.
Camargo Urrego steers his group sedately away from the shark cleaning station and out onto the open sea. Visibility is barely ten meters here, so the tingling sensation in the nape of my neck is all the stronger when these creatures suddenly appear from nowhere: Above and below us, hundreds of hammerheads whoosh past by. For a brief reverential moment, the mechanic breathing sounds of the oxygen devices fall silent. “Pura vida,” says Camargo Urrego with a grin, as we all gather beside the dinghy once more – to divers the large shoals of hammerheads the island’s greatest attraction for divers.
It’s always a pleasure to show visitors this fascinating animal kingdom – a gift almost – ,says Camargo Urrego. He is responsible for his guests’ wellbeing not just under water but on board, too, and since an accident in winter 2017 in which a young woman died after being attacked by a tiger shark, that responsibility has been of particular importance. Dive instructors, government and tour operators were left unsettled by the incident. The dive safaris have now improved their safety precautions as recommended by shark expert, so that these days, dives take place only during the day because nighttime is when most sharks are in hunting mode. White flippers are also prohibited because they contrast starkly with their surroundings, thus attracting the animals’ interest. Also, two dive guides now also join the group under water to keep them together – even if some of the people on board regard such precautions as excessive. He knows no fear under water, says Jim Harris, a Texan pensioner who has just entered his 517th dive in the logbook. Shark attacks on divers are extremely rare; surfers and swimmers are far more vulnerable, he says. Geiner Golfín Duarte, 41, knows the statistics that reveal an increase in shark attacks on human since the 1980s. “This is also because people are moving further and further out into the oceans,” say marine biologist Duarte, who works on the island as a ranger. He works with nine other national park rangers to ensure that humans – those on site, at least – wreak as little damage as possible to nature. The greatest problem is the illegal fishing: “Colossal ships haul tons of tuna and sharks out of our seas.” The fishermen don’t even respect the protected waters around the island, although here, the fishing boats tend to be the smaller local boats. Duarte and his colleagues do patrol the island daily, however. A radar capable of detecting ships located nearby was added to the equipment a few years ago. This puts a lot of fishermen off, but social media are even more effective, says Golfín Duarte. “The fear of being seen on the web as a lawbreaker.” The threat of having their photo taken usually does the trick. But even so, there’s still room for improvement, the ranger says, pulling on his fish-hook bracelet, deep in thought.
It’s not just the forest and underwater world, but also the products of human greed that are protected: In 1997, UNESCO declared the island a World Heritage Site along with the tunnel systems delved in the heavy clay by many treasure hunters. The most coveted object is what is known the “Lima Treasure,” which is said to have been stolen by William Thompson, a Scottish captain, in the early 19th century and then buried on the island. Gold coins, precious stones, statues, total estimated value: over 100 million euros. One August Gissler from Remscheid in Germany was reputedly the most dogged treasure hunter. He lived on the island – intermittently – for 17 years from the end of the 19th century, and President Rafael Yglesias Castro even appointed him its governor in 1897. Hoping to uncover an enormous treasure, he and his wife, Mary, along with many settler families dug here for gold and precious stones. In his entire time on the island, adventurer Gissler found a mere 33 doubloons in the sand. He died a pauper in New York in 1935. Neither before nor after Gissler, has there been any proof of more treasure being uncovered on the island.
One last time, the Argo’s small dinghy takes us out to the loveliest underwater spot: Manuelita, a large rock off the main island. The water’s surface is smooth as a mirror today, and the sun is glittering on the bow wave. Skipper Mendiola is in a good mood. We will be descending to the depths one last time to see the underwater wonders of the island. Once more, our divers’ hearts beat a little faster. A tornado comes swirling up from the dark depths to the surface and turns out to be a cloud that soon encircles our group: a cloud of mackerels. Thousands of eyes gawk, silvery bodies sway, small mouths open and shut – a veritable divers’dream has come true. The legendary natural scientist and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) called the Isla de Coco “the most beautiful island in the world.” What a smart man!