Monday, October 31, 2011

Goodbye for Now - William Henriques

Goodbye to Cocos Island...for now.
Snapshot: Driving south of Jaco down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica along Rte. 143/34, driving south to Quepos in Guillermo’s battered Suzuki in which the windows only work half the time, driving south down the arrow-straight highway through miles and miles of palm-oil  tree orchards, lining both sides of the road. We come upon the palm oil processing plant on the right. Greasy brown smoke billows out of the stacks, and Guillermo slows to show me the palm fruit piled in the back of old, beaten, tractor-draw carts.

Snapshot: Sitting in the shade of the trees lining the beach in Manuel Antonio National Park, surveying the several hundred tourists milling about under the Costa Rican sun. The group from France to the left is packing up, they were caught drinking liquor and were asked to leave. Further down the beach there’s a boy doing back hand springs down to the water. A troupe of three white-faced monkeys appears in the trees overhead, on the hunt for open food containers near low-hanging branches and then moments later the inevitable pack of camera-toting tourists arrives, some dozen strong. 

Snapshot: Riding the bus from Jaco to San Jose, the bus is filled to capacity and then some. Can smell something fried – chicken, I think – and I’m listening to the soft murmur of voices and to the music blaring out of the ear buds of the larger women asleep in the seat next to me as I gaze out the window. Rain pounds down as the bus enters San Jose on Route 1, the Trans American Highway. Used car lots, industrial complexes, the San Jose International Airport, and billboards advertising McDonald’s Tica Burgers, Coca Cola’s 125 Anniversary, Kolbi, and EPA flash by. 

No, I’m not on Cocos Island anymore; I’m in that other world now, that world outside of the island. I long to go back, I yearn to return to the Wafer Bay Station. I miss the routine, miss the bleary-eyed walk up to the Big House under the overloaded coconut palms in early morning light for breakfast, Filander’s cheerful “Buenos Dias”, the heaping plate of pinto, the morning meeting. I miss Golfin’s 5:30 am whoops of delight that rouse me long before my alarm , and chess games with Roberto in the evening and the Cocos finches fluttering and twittering around the big house in an eternal quest for crumbs. I miss those clear nights, when I would walk out onto the beach and look up at the myriad stars and at the broad band of the Milky Way, a view unmarred by light pollution and the noise of traffic, only the occasional cloud passing overhead. I miss the steady rhythm of the waves rocking Cocos Patrol, the chirping crickets that would lull me to sleep, and the sound of crabs scurrying across the sand when I stood still for a moment on the beach. I miss the remoteness, the feeling of disconnected -ness and peace it was possible to attain. I miss living and working in, around, and with virgin wilderness. 

But thanks to the incredible generosity of Avi Klapfer, Alan Steenstrup, The Undersea Hunter Group and Sea Save Foundation, it’s only goodbye for now. I’ll be returning to the island aboard the Sea Hunter in mid-December, this time not in the capacity of a volunteer but as a diver. I will don my fins, mask, wetsuit , and tank to explore the submarine world that the park guards are working so hard to protect.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reflections From Cocos Island National Park Director - Geiner Golfin

Cocos Island, Pacific Ocean - Here we do not hear cars, it is not necessary to go to the store, a restaurant or a mall, I do not have to carry cash and I live in total harmony with Cocos Island.

I first arrived in October, the worst season for making the crossing, but even the strength of the waves could not dampen my desire to know this natural beauty. I remember that when I saw it for the first time, it felt like a dream come true.

I had spent much time immersed in marine biology textbooks at the National University, and now I was staring at a living textbook, it moved it shouted and it transformed me.  Last Tuesday, over the Internet, we learned that the island could possibly become one of the "Modern Seven Wonders of the World." But, we know that it already is.

At night when we finish the days work, we only here the rain falling, or the blades of a fan.  Silence is absolute. This is a quiet place.  There is no fear.  We can walk the trails without fear of assault or murder.  This is another Costa Rica. Here 300 miles from Puntarenas, the sunrises resemble the sunsets. The sun rises as we patrol the island.  The spectacle is unique and beautiful. The island remains black as the sun begins to illuminate the sea. This month we wait for the arrival of the fishermen.  We watch cautiously, they hide between the islets and cast their nets to try to poach the rich marine life found here.

It is incredible to think that below us are hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, manta rays and moray eels. It is a quiet day. The sun is shining, but there are also pockets of rain, this is because the island is located at an intertropical convergence. Being here is the dream of every nature lover. However, it is also hard work.

No one can get sick. The nearest hospital is a 20 hour boat journey. Best thing is to be in very good condition. The evening is falling and the sun illuminates the mountains...  

Being here, is my dream turned reality.

Isla del Coco, Océano Pacífico. - Aquí no se escuchan carros, no hay necesidad de ir a la pulpería, a un restaurante o centro comercial, no tengo que andar dinero, vivo en total armonía con la Isla del Coco.

Llegué en octubre, época de mal tiempo para navegar, pero ni la fuerza de las olas del mar, amainaron mi deseo de conocer esta belleza natural. Recuerdo que cuando la vi, por primera vez, sentí que un sueño se había hecho realidad.

Tanto tiempo metido en textos de biología marina en la Universidad Nacional y ahora estaba frente a un libro vivo, que se mueve, que grita y se transforma. El martes pasado, por Internet, nos dimos cuenta que la isla está postulada para ser una de las siete maravillas del mundo. Pero, saben una cosa, ya lo es. Lluvia y abanico Aquí, en las noches, cuando terminan las labores del día, solo se escucha la lluvia al caer o las aspas del abanico. El silencio es absoluto. Es un sitio tranquilo. El miedo no existe. Se puede salir a caminar por los senderos sin el temor de un asalto o asesinato, ésta, es otra Costa Rica.
Aquí, a 555 kilómetros de Puntarenas, los amaneceres parecen atardeceres. El sol sale mientras patrullamos los alrededores de la isla. El espectáculo es único, hermoso. La isla se ve negra, mientras el sol ilumina el mar. En este mes, esperamos a los pescadores. Hay que tener cuidado. Algunos se esconden en islotes y tiran sus redes para llevarse otra de las riquezas que tiene, su vida marina.
Amor a la naturaleza

Es increíble pensar, que debajo de nosotros hay tiburones martillo, tiburones ballena, mantarayas, morenas cebra y ranisapos de Commerson. Hoy (ayer), llegó un barco llamado Fénix, con varios estudiantes ingleses. Es un día tranquilo. Hace sol, pero, a veces, llueve, esto se debe a que la isla está ubicada en un sitio de convergencia intertropical. Estar aquí es el sueño de cualquier persona amante de la naturaleza. Sin embargo, también es un trabajo sacrificado.

Nadie se puede enfermar. Salir de aquí representan más de 20 horas viaje en barco. Lo mejor es estar en muy buena condición. La tarde está cayendo y el sol ilumina las montañas... Vivir aquí, es mi sueño hecho realidad

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cocos Island: Law #8436 - William Henriques

Tonight's sunset - Day Seven Without Rain
Seven straight absolutely gorgeous days here on Cocos Island. Seven days without a drop of rain; “It’s not normal,” says Manuel. The small stream that runs onto the beach has dried up, and the water is so low in River Genio that it barely spills over the top of the dam just below the Genio Casade. For an island that receives an average of 275 inches of rain, seven straight days feels downright drought-like.

But I’m not complaining. I’m sitting in the beachside pavilion after the day’s work is done, with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing softly, and a gentle breeze is rustling the coconut palms and wafting the scent of cut grass into my face (the doing of Manuel’s weed whacker), and that golden, low-angle light reminiscent of a late 1980’s western film illuminates the early evening. Life is good.

I’m leafing through my borrowed copy of Costa Rican Law 8436, the Law of Fishing and Aquaculture (a robust 140 page affair), and comparing it to the English translation I found on Google, trying to make sense of the situation here in the park. The key piece, Golfin tells me, is Article 9.

Here’s Article 9, copied exactly :
Artículo 9. Sobre la pesca y vigilancia en areas protegidas. Prohíbense el ejercicio de la actividad pesquera con fines comerciales y la pesca deportiva en parques nacionales, monumentos naturales, y reservas biológicas. El ejercicio de la actividad pesquera en la parte continental e insular, en las reservas forestales, zonas protectoras, refugios nacionales de vida silvestre y humedales, estará restringido de conformidad con los planes de manejo, que determin para cada zona el Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía (MINAE), en el ámbito de sus atribuciones. Para crear o ampliar zonas protegidas que cubran áreas marinas, salvo las que apruebe la Asamblea Legislativa de conformidad con las leyes vigentes, el Ministerio deberá consultar el criterio del INCOPESCA, acerca del uso sostenible de los recursos biologicos en estas zonas. La opinión que el INCOPESCA externe deberá estar fundamentada en criterios técnicos, sociales y económicos, científicos y ecológicos, y ser emitida dentro del plazo de treinta días naturales, contados a partir de la fecha de recibida la consulta. La vigilancia de la pesca en las áreas silvestres protegidas indicadas en este artículo, le corresponderá al MINAE, que podrá coordinar los operativos con el Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas. Se permitirá a las embarcaciones permanecer en las áreas protegidas con porción marina o sin ella, en los supuestos de caso fortuito y fuerza mayor, mientras duren tales situaciones.

And in English:
Fishing  with commercial purposes and sport fishing activity in national parks, natural monuments and biological reserves is prohibited. Fishing activity in continental and insular areas, in forest reserves, protective zones, wild life and wetlands national refuges, will be restricted according to the management plans that The Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) (by its initials in Spanish) determines for each zone.  In order to create or extend protected zones that cover marine areas, except for which it approves the Legislative Assembly according the current laws, the Ministry will have to consult INCOPESCA criterion about the sustainable use of the biological resources in these zones The opinion of INCOPESCA will be based on technical, social and economic, scientific and ecological criteria, and should be emitted within a thirty days term, starting from consultation’s reception date. The fishing activity in the indicated protected wild areas will be monitored by MINAE and coordinated  with the National Service of Coastguard. The vessels will be allowed to remain in protected areas due to Force Majure cases, while such situations last. MINAE and INCOPESCA will be able to jointly authorize, the transit or anchorage of boats in protected areas, when natural conditions strictly require it.

Rather dry, but there are a couple of important pieces to this article: 1) It establishes that any form of fishing in national parks is illegal. 2) It gives the funcionarios (MINAE employees) the authority to monitor protected waters, while accompanied by the Costa Rican Coast Guard.

I kept flipping through the book, and on page 94, I found Title X: Crimes, Offences, Penalties, and Remedies. Chapter I: Offenses and Penalties. Article 131 gives INCOPESCA (Costa Rican Institute of Fishing and Aquaculture) the power to implement and enforce fines and penalties. Article 132 gives the Coast Guard the authority “arrest and confiscate property, equipment, gear, or fishery equipment used to commit crimes and offenses against the fishery legislation.” And then Articles 136-153 delineate in detail the penalties for various offenses (type of fish caught with, type of equipment, un-licensed fishermen, etc.).

So to summarize up to this point:
Fact 1: Fishing in national parks is illegal.
Fact 2: The park rangers and the Coast Guard have the authority to make arrests and confiscate equipment.
Fact 3: There are penalties for every violation imaginable involving “fishing activities”.

Despite Article 9, the presence of fishing boats within the park limits is continuous

But the Cocos Island patrol finds boats within the park on a daily basis, and nothing happens. It’s as if the law doesn’t apply out here on Cocos Island, and the fishermen are somehow immune. But talking with, Pablo, our resident Guardacosta, after dinner tonight, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.

Unless patrol catches fishermen in the act of hauling or setting lines, Pablo explained, the park officials can do nothing. “Fishing activity” is prohibited, but the presence of fishing boats in national parks is not. And when patrol hauls long lines out of the water? There is no identifying marker on the lines, no name or number associated with it. And since there’s no physical link between the boats Patrol chases away and the lines it hauls out of the water, the fisherman, technically speaking, are not violating the law. The park authorities are powerless to impose any sort of fine or punishment on the fishermen simply for being in the park.

Furthermore, Pablo explained, the park is severely understaffed. Even if the law did allow the seizure of the boats and the arrest of the fisherman on board, nothing could be done with the current number of funcionarios and Guardacostas on the island. Regulations dictate that five Guardacostas must be present before an offending boat can be boarded (a necessary action to arrest the fishermen and seize the boat), but the Costa Rican Coastguard only sends out one or two members at a time.

On top of the anemic numbers, the park also suffers from a lack of equipment. There is no patrol boat that can hold five people, let alone the six or seven that would realistically take part in a boarding operation. As of this moment, there’s only one patrol boat in service right now, Cocos Patrol, and four is a tight fit. Cocos Patrol 1, the other “patrol boat” in the water, has been waiting for its registration papers from the mainland for 30 months. And now, because it has been sitting in Wafer Bay for so long, inactive, it has engine problems.

For 6-8 hour patrols, four people aboard Cocos Patrol is a tight fit

An ineffective law. An understaffed ranger station. And the wrong equipment. The illegal fishing will continue for as long as this trio continues to plague Cocos Island National Park.

But the winds of change are blowing. I can feel a sense of urgency, an infusion of fresh energy among the funcionarios; they’re sick of the system, and they’re "stirring the pot". But they need help. They need their message pushed out into the world. They need help pressuring the government to change the law, to make it stronger and more effective. They need better equipment. And this is where those of us “outside the system” - outside of the government and outside Costa Rica can help. Make a donation. Spread the word.

As Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ranger Profile: Filander Avila Calderon

Position: Guardaparque - Kitchen Coordinator
Age: 42 Years
Numbers of years as Guardaparque at PNIC (Parque Nacional Isla del Coco): 11 years
Off-Island Residence: Grecia, Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

I’ve already spoken several times to the supreme quality of the food here at the island - in particular, the coffee and morning pinto. But to put a face to the food, I present any and all readers with this exquisite chef, Filander.

I asked him some questions last night as he finished the kitchen cleanup, giving the counters a final wipe down and putting the last of the leftovers away in the refrigerator, and he was more than willing to chat for several minutes. I’ve done my best to paraphrase his responses accurately, and I’ve tried not to take any creative liberties.

As the Kitchen Coordinator, what are your duties?

It’s my duty to provide three quality meals each day to the average 15-18 people who live at the Wafer Station. I get up around 4:30 every morning, and am in the kitchen by 5:00 am, and then my day usually ends around 7:00 pm when I finish the kitchen cleanup. I also keep track of the pantry inventory and sort through the shipments of provisions. As with all the other funcionarios, I have certain maintenance duties too; in my case, I’m responsible for maintaining a clean kitchen and dining area.

Do you have any hobbies?
I love to cook. When I’m here, it’s all I do. When I’m home, I enjoy spending time with my family, and resting. I guess you could say that walking is one of my hobbies, too. I really love walking in the woods around the station whenever I can get a spare moment.

What was your work before becoming a funcionario?

Ah, that’s a complicated answer. When I was really young, around eleven or so, I started working. My first job was working for a cobbler, where I spent several years learning to make shoes out of leather - I specialized in cowboy boots. After that, I worked in my family’s clothing factory. Eventually, my brother and I got sick of that work, and so we took a job at an export warehouse. I was the guy checking each shipment to make sure all the merchandise was accounted for. After that, I landed a job with the Undersea Hunter Group, out of Puntarenas, and I worked on board their various boats for three years as a sous-chef and cabin steward. I made friends with some of the Guardaparques who worked here at Cocos Island, and when a position in the kitchen opened up, they asked me if I wanted the job. I agreed, but first I came here to work as a volunteer in the kitchen for two months. They had to see if I was going to be the right fit with the community of funcionarios and volunteers that lives here, and they wanted to make sure I could handle the daily stress of preparing quality meals for so many people.

What’s your favorite part about living and working here at the island?

I love the forest, all the trees. There’s one tree that I particularly love, called Palo Hierro. It’s endemic to the island, and it’s just beautiful. I also love walking in the forest along the path to Chatham. I think that’s probably my favorite piece of the island, that trail that goes up behind this building and over the ridge to the Chatham Station.

Filander's favorite tree

What is the most important work you do here?

The most important work that the Guardaparques do as a collective? Our first priority is stopping poaching by the fisherman from Puntarenas within the park’s boundaries. But in order to do that , we need a happy, well-functioning team. That’s where I come in, the most important part of my job. I try to prepare good food to keep the team’s spirits up and their bodies healthy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reseaching Hammerhead Sharks and Need for Expanded Protected Areas

How "Stuff" Gets to the Island - William Henriques

Snapshot: First morning at Cocos Island. Woke up at 5:00 am aboard the Undersea Hunter and something was different; the motor had stopped, and there was an unusual amount of activity - thumps, bumps, and voices. Climbed up the companionway from the crew’s quarters where I was stowed and looked curiously out the window of the main salon (view partially obscured by rainwater streaming over the porthole glass) at a steep, emerald green shore rising up out of gray water under a leaden sky. An unfamiliar man wearing an army green rain poncho was occupied passing plastic crates down to to a rubber launch tied to Undersea Hunter’s starboard side.

The cook stepped out of the galley and said something in Spanish (at this point my Spanish was limited to Buenos dias, gracias, and the words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), pointing urgently back down the companionway at my bag, and then to boat tied up alongside. I got the gist: Time to go. I donned my raincoat, pushed my overweight pack up the ladder into the main cabin, pulled myself up after it, then shouldered my pack and stepped out into the rain.

Two more rangers were in the boat were busily arranging the crates, filled with vegetables. I was put up front, on top of the meat coolers. My pack went below the lettuce. Just another item on the morning’s delivery list - that’s what I felt like, unable to understand a word of the conversation going on around me. Fragile. Handle with Care. This Side Up. I sat in the bow of the dinghy, thinking: what have I gotten myself into?

With the shipment loaded and the new volunteer on board, the rangers cast off and motored across Chatham Bay, through the Challe Straight between Agujas Point and the enormous hulk that is Manuelita. The rain stopped, and I could see early-morning blue sky through a tattered hole temporarily ripped in the cloud-ceiling. Hundreds of magnificent frigatebirds and red-footed boobies soared overhead, as we passed through Weston Bay and rounded Presidio Point, entering into Wafer Bay. We motored towards the beach and as the coconut palms came into focus, a river mouth appeared and we made for it, nudging up into the sand of Wafer’s riverside landing, and then a swarm of people descended on the boat, hauling crates to the waiting tractor and trailer, and Esteban led me to the Casa de Voluntarios and showed me to my room and then left me alone with the words: “Breakfast is at 6:30.”

The route from Undersea's anchorage to Wafer Bay

(Photo courtesy of
Everybody and everything that arrives here on the island - funcionarios, volunteers, vegetables, frozen meat, gasoline, lightbulbs, and trash bags - shares the same experience. This is how it goes: when anything needs to get to Cocos Island, it must first travel to Puntarenas, one of Costa Rica’s main Pacific ports, located in the Gulf of Nicoya. In Puntarenas, said person or object is loaded onto one of the tourist boats that brings divers to the island for week-long trips. The Undersea Hunter Group runs the most trips out to the island, and so their boats are the ones most often used. After 36 hours and over 300 miles in the Pacific, the boat arrives in Chatham Bay. Early in the morning, usually between 5:00 and 5:30 am, a group of rangers will take the Mobula from the Wafer Bay Station over to Chatham, where they will pick up person, produce, or supplies. On mornings with large deliveries, the rangers take Megaptera (an old, battered police boat for hunting down drug runners) because of its much larger platform.

A large provision re-supply arrives in Megaptera

People come and go on a weekly basis. Hardly a diving boat arrives without a new volunteer or funcionario. When they arrive on the island in the early morning, they are escorted to their quarters by a funcionario. They’re told “breakfast is at six-thirty, the morning meeting an hour later,” and by the end of the day, they’ve blended right in.

Volunteers are stowed in the "Casa", which occupies the second floor of this brilliantly painted building (Office, Infirmary, Dive Room, and Guardacosta's quarters occupy the first floor)

Provisions - fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, canned and dried goods - are shipped out roughly every two weeks. The morning of a food delivery is a hectic affair. The whole station is roused by 5:45 and told to be down at the river. When the “supply boat” pulls alongside the bank, the horde descends, forming a human train to transfer the crates and boxes from the boat to the waiting trailer. The tractor and trailer drive the several hundred yards up to the river, and then the train forms again to off-load the trailer, delivering the food to the porch just outside the kitchen. All this before breakfast - a good way to work up an appetite. Station supplies and tools, (such as the wire cutters sent out several weeks ago) arrive with the shipments of food.

The trailer all loaded up

The kitchen porch all loaded up with produce

Gasoline and diesel arrive in 2-3 week intervals. Gasoline is transferred in 60-gallon, plastic drums to the Megaptera, which transports the drums to Wafer. From the Megaptera’s parking spot in the mouth of the River Genio, the gasoline drums are transferred to the lower bodega’s pumping station. Diesel never actually makes it to the island; it is transferred from the diving boats directly to the patrol boat. The patrol boat holds 300 gallons in its two tanks on board, and an additional 120 gallons are held in drums that are strapped to the deck.

Three recently arrived gasoline barrels, waiting for transport off of Megaptera to the bodega

And that’s how “stuff” gets to the island. No need to do a whole new post on how “stuff” leaves the island; the only things that leave the island are trash, recycling, funcionarios, and volunteers. Late in the afternoon of the departure day, the “outgoing mail” is loaded up into the Mobula and sent out to the departing diving boat. 36 hours and 300 miles later, the diving boat arrives back in Puntarenas. Trash and recycling are disposed of, and volunteers and funcionarios go on their merry way.

Six days from now, that will be me. How time does fly.

Also in the Cocos Island News today: The Albatross and Chaday I were caught within the park again by today's patrol. That's the second time this week they've been caught. Grand Totals for 2011: Albatross - 19 violations. Chaday I - 13 violations.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cocos Island: Ranger Profile: Roberto Cubero

Position: Park Guard - Chief of the Sustainable Tourism Program
Age: 30 yrs
Number of years as Park Guarde at PNIC (Parque Nacional Isla del Coco): 1 Year
Permanent Residence: Santa Ana, Costa Rica

For the past several weeks, Roberto and I have been dueling it out on the chess board after dinner. Well, “dueling” might not be the most accurate verb, because it insinuates that we’re relatively equal, and that fight is a fair one. Restatement: For the past several weeks, Roberto has been annihilating me on the chess board. But despite the guaranteed trouncing, I’ve found that the most pleasant way to spend an evening at Wafer Station is to play several games of chess with Roberto, salon empty and classical music playing softly in the background.

Anyways, here’s a little bit about Roberto, taken from an interview I conducted several nights ago. I’ve paraphrased his responses, and tried my hardest to convey them accurately, without taking any liberties.

As the Chief of the Sustainable Tourism Program, what are your duties?
As the Chief of the Sustainable Tourism Program, my duties entail coordinating and supervising tourist activity around the island. When a boat of divers arrives, I give an introductory presentation and collect the park fee. I monitor the numerous dive sights to ensure that diver activity is not having an impact on the island’s marine ecosystems. Really, I’m in charge of anything that has to do with diving; I’m responsible for checking all of the moorings in Wafer and Chatham Bay, and also for keeping the hulls of Cocos Patrol and Cocos Patrol 1 barnacle-free. But diving-related activities aren’t my only responsibilities. I guide visitors on the various hikes around the island, and I’m part of the “transfer team” that ferries the deliveries of produce, gasoline, volunteers, and funcionarios from the boats to the island. Then there’s my least favorite task, processing all the paperwork - permissions, waivers, etc - related to the diving boats. And like everyone else at the station, I’ve got certain responsibilities in regards to the maintenance and upkeep of the station. As one of the rangers most frequently on the island’s trails, I end up doing a lot of the trail work.

Roberto is one of the go-betweens for the Park and the diving boats. All of the communication and coordination is carried out over the radio.

Do you have any hobbies?
I’m an outdoor kind of guy. I like to surf, mountain bike, and kayak. Out here at the island, I do a lot of scuba diving as part of my work, but I also enjoy free diving. I can hold my breath for two minutes, but I’m trying to push that limit. I’d like to be able to stay under longer than that. I’m also a big birder, and a recreational photographer. Recently, I’ve started playing chess again. I used to play a lot, but then I stopped for three years or so until a couple of weeks ago when Vinicio challenged me to a game.

What was your work before becoming a funcionario?
Before I got the job as a guardaparque, I worked as a naturalist and outdoor guide. My work took me all over Costa Rica, but most often I found myself in the Arenal area in the north, or around Corcovado National Park, along the Pacific Coast in the south. I spent a month here at Cocos Island as a volunteer, and afterwards I got a call from Golfin with a job offer. Despite the lower pay and the prolonged time away from home, working at Cocos Island, well, let’s just say that it’s not the kind of opportunity you turn down.

What’s your favorite part about living and working here at the island?
Favorite part of the island? Well, two things. First, Roca Sucia. I love diving at Roca Sucia; it’s absolutely beautiful, by far my favorite dive. And second, Chatham Bay. I love the geography of Chatham Bay, love the view from the trail above Chatham Bay. The distinct lines of the landscape, accentuated by Manuelite, combined with the clarity and color of the water, ah, man, it’s just buenisimo. Pura vida.

What is the most important work you do here?
The most important part of my work is controlling and reducing the impact of visitors on the pristine and wild marine ecosystem around Cocos Island. Illegal fishing is an enormous threat to the marine life in the park, but so too are careless divers. The most important part of my job is ensuring that the divers that come here to the park are educated about responsible and safe diving practices, so that they have a minimum impact.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cocos Island: Photo Essay: All in A Day's Work at Wafer Station - William Henriques

A Day in the Life of Wafer Bay Station

Vinicio is the station's office man, processing administrative paperwork and anything else that comes his way: inventory, daily patrol reports, and the various permissions required by the dive boats.

Filander prepares the perfect meal.

Beatrice and Daniella are painting the inside of the lower bodega.

This four wheeler is being shipped back to the mainland for repairs because the shaft that drives the rear axle has snapped. It was lifted on board Megaptera by four funcionarios. It will be transferred to one of the diving boats by crane and carried back to Costa Rica.

Victor disposes of some recently pruned lime tree branches.

Even though he worked through lunch and is eager for some chow, Bryan takes the time to rinse off the snorkel gear in fresh water after spending the morning cleaning the hull of the Mobula (One of the island's transport launches).

Guillermo fashions a new plug for the stern of FAICO III, another one of the launches.

Golfin, the park's head, hard at work in the shade of the beach-side pavilion.

And then, of course, there's the daily patrol:

Our resident Guardacosta Pablo, takes the helm of Cocos Patrol during today's patrol.

Below the white cross (representing the position of the Cocos Patrol) is the island as it shows up on radar. Above the white cross are two red blips; these are the fishing boats we caught within the park on today's patrol. We initially picked them up on radar when they were six miles off shore, and we chased them out of the park. At thirteen miles, just a mile outside the limit, the two boats cut their engines. We circled around them, taking down the boat names and hull numbers.

Yes, some things never change. The ever present poaching vessels.

The Albatross - Already caught within the park 17 times this year

The Chaday I - already caught within the park 11 times this year

The crews of the two boats lounged on the decks in the sun. Some took videos or pictures with cell phones and cameras. Others simply stared.

As we turned towards the island, several of the fisherman raised their arms in casual wave, gesture of smug satisfaction that turned Maikel's normally serene expression sour.

We spent the next two hours trolling the water's where the fisherman had originally been looking for the lines Maikel suspected were there (the radar was picking something up in that location) but we came up empty-handed. When night fell and there were no more boats on our radar, Maikel pointed the bow back to Wafer.

Tomorrow, there will be no patrol because it's diesel delivery day. Unfortunately, no patrol doesn't mean no fishermen; it just means that today there won't be anyone to drive them away.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cocos Island: Everest - William Henriques

A Bigeye Scad noses the submarine
I watched this morning’s Channel Seven news with mild interest, more to practice my Spanish than anything else. The rain and resultant flooding continues across Costa Rica, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is sick, and there was a big cocaine bust somewhere on the continent. Really, I was more focused on the plate of pinto in front of me and the strong, hot coffee in my left hand. Emphasis on the coffee focus.

But my early morning caffeine reverie was broken abruptly by Golfin: “Listo por el submarino?” Ready for the submarine?

Whoa. That wasn’t out of the blue or anything. Did I hear him correctly? “El submarino?”


Pinto and coffee forgotten, I sprang to my feet and hustled down the path to the Casa, taking the stairs two at a time up to my room. Dry clothes...check. Camera...check. Dry bag for both...check. Then out the door and down to the river landing before I had a moment to catch my breath and process. A submarine dive! Two months ago? The thought was laughable, unthinkable, out of the question.

I was dropped off on the deck of the Argo by Michael and Roberto, who continued on to another newly-arrived diving boat to give their standard introductory presentation. On board, I was introduced to the operating team of the Argo’s submarine DeepSee by a tall man with curly dark hair and serious eyes by the name of Arik. One of the submarine pilots, he would be in the control boat on the surface for this particular dive. Jose Antonio was to be the support diver on the surface with Arik. Felipe, a submarine pilot in training would be the other passenger, and Eli would be our pilot. Firm handshakes and “Pura vida” were exchanged all around, then Felipe and I were ushered into Argo’s salon for the safety briefing and the signing of the Deep See’s release form.

Mount Everest rising up out of the blue gloom
After the debriefing, Felipe and I were handed black socks and light blue overalls with DeepSee embroidered in white across the back. We donned our submarine attire and took several pre-dive photos under the blazing sun, and then we stepped into the submarine. “Right hand on this handle. Left hand on this line. Feet on the seat. Now right hand on the seat back. Left hand on the other side. Now both feet on your seat, and sit down.” Very precise entry instructions, followed to the letter with utmost care. Better to avoid damaging any of the delicate equipment or electric wiring that would be keeping us alive and afloat over 200 feet below the water’s surface.

The hatch clicked shut and I felt the slightest pressure in my ear canals. Then submarine instruments whirred to life, digital displays flashed on, and we pulled away from the Argo, towed by the surface support boat. We weren’t going far from Argo’s anchorage to the east of Manuelite - only 5-7 minutes of tow time. Our destination was a dive site by the name of Everest - the summit of which is some 40 meters down, and the bottom of which is a whopping 80 meters below the surface.

Felipe, pilot in training (left) and Eli, our pilot (right)
On the way to the dive site, I was able to find out a little more about my companions. Eli is originally from Israel, and he’s been working for the Undersea Hunter Group for three years. He stumbled upon the job while traveling the Americas after finishing his obligatory military service. He thinks he’ll probably work another year or so as a submarine pilot, but once Felipe has finished his training, he’d like to return home to Israel. Felipe has been working for the Undersea Hunter Group for a year as a Dive Master, and he jumped at the opportunity to become a submarine pilot. “Four years ago, I dropped out of business school to get my Dive Master Certification. Everyone told me it was a bad idea, because there’s no future for a Dive Master - the pay is bad and the work isn’t steady. But here I am, training to be a submarine pilot. I never would have thought this was where my life was headed, but it’s worked out.” Having just completed his first month of basic training, this was his first dive ever in a submarine. He was positively ebullient.

After Jose Antonio finished the final surface checks of the exterior, we were clear to make the descent.
When the tow boat stopped, Jose Antonio leapt into the water with a snorkel, making final adjustments to the submarine’s exterior, and pulling the cover off of the three-inch thick acrylic bubble. Eli began releasing air from the submarine’s tanks, and we began our descent, waves slapping against the bubble, then up and over it, and then we were submerged and sinking down into murky darkness. At 30 meters, we passed through a dim green cloud of plankton (“A new development - not something we saw here at Cocos until recently,” commented Eli), and then the summit of the seamount appeared out of the gloom. A Mobula ray (Sicklefin Devil Ray) with an eight foot wingspan swam overhead, body rippling through the clouded blue (“Mobula’s in particular are curious about the submarine”). Schools of fish flashed around us, circling the summit - Bigeye Scad, Rainbow Runners, and Chubs.

A Mobula ray overhead

We continued our descent down the side of Everest, a steep rocky slope covered in delicate Stylaster corals. Moray eels gaped out of cracks in the rock, jaws working open and shut. Octopuses blended perfectly with their mottled surroundings of red algae and white coral, and only the texture of their tentacles gave their presence away to the experienced eyes of Eli and Felipe (I was oblivious until they pointed out the suction cup pattern). Brotulas fluttered amidst the corals. An incredibly shy fish, they attempt to hide whenever they feel threatened; the catch is that they feel secure when their eyes are hidden from the threat, and oftentimes half of their flat, undulating bodies protrude from the rock where they have taken refuge. As we neared the bottom, a lone king crab was perched among the corals. “Keep in mind that everything viewed through the bubble is thirty percent smaller than it is in actuality. That king crab looks fairly small, but in reality, it’s a least a foot in diameter. Probably bigger.”

This massive king crab is missing it's left claw, probably from a scrap with another crab

Once at the bottom, Eli guided the sub around to the “backside” of Everest, and we began to ascend slowly, ever so slowly, Eli skillfully guiding the hull within feet of the mountainside, but never making contact with the delicate marine habitat. Black coral, immense and shrub-like - three to six feet in height - swayed in the gentle current; Everest is the only place around Cocos where this black coral is found. We saw more Stylaster corals and Basket Star corals too - a kind of coral that closes into a tight, mistletoe-like ball in the day, but opens up into a spectacular star at night. Above us, a small school of Amber Jacks congregated around the summit, darting to an fro in search of a meal. Four black jacks engaged in a complex, writhing ritualistic dance. Passing in front of the submarine’s lights, the school of small, plain looking Creoles turned a brilliant red. And then the exclamation we’d all been anticipating: “Martillo!” Hammerhead sharks, a small school of 15 or so, moving through the water several dozen meters overhead.

Amber Jacks and Yellowfin and Bonitos tuna feeding above Everest
The presence of bonitos and yellowfin tuna on the hunt above Everest meant the hammerheads didn’t stay for long. Hammerheads are very shy around other predators - and they usually stay away from wherever the action is. In fact, the hammerheads (tiburones martillos as they’re called in Spanish) don’t come to Cocos Island to hunt. They come to the island’s various cleaning stations, where other species will rid them of parasites, and they come to socialize and mate. Large schools of females, some numbering over a hundred, will congregate, with the larger females (reaching up to 15 feet in length) swimming in the center of the school, and the smaller females around the periphery. The males (significantly smaller than the females) swim into this school of females and select a mate, looking for the strongest and largest. Naturally, the healthiest, most fit males make it to the center of the shark school first. Darwin’s survival of the fittest at its best.

A small school of hammerhead sharks passed overhead

We passed from Everest towards Manuelite to Bajo Everest and then on to Bajo Manuelite in search of more hammerheads, but they proved elusive. We did, however, encounter two Galapogos sharks, another Mobula ray, and two quirky fish called Roselip Batfishes, that half walk, half swim across the sandy bottom as bats crawling across a ceiling. By the time we had finished the dive we were underneath Argo, and as Eli began to fill the sub’s tanks with air the bottom disappeared and the hull materialized overhead. Moments later the acrylic bubble emerged from the water into the blinding white light of the sun, and Jose Antonio was guiding the sub back into the docking bay, padded heavily with white buoys.

A Galapagos shark appeared out of the murky blue for several moments

Climbing out of the submarine can only be equated to the imagined scenario of stepping out of a spaceship after some intergalactic voyage. It is at once a relief and an immense disappointment to be back in the above-water world that we know so well. It’s as if emerging from a dream, a wonderful dream, in which time seemed infinite and life so beautiful, but to wake up is to come to the painful realization that the dream world is fleeting and temporary.

The frenzy of life atop Everest

Yes, the dream is gone, but the feeling remains. I’ve been walking around all day cherishing the feeling of wonder and amazement, guarding the memories of the submarine world closely, to access on those days when I am far from here, desperate for beauty and hope.

Thank you to Sea Save Foundation, the Undersea Hunter Group, Alan Steenstrup, Cocos Island funcionarios, and in particular Geiner Golfin. I would like to also thank Avi Klapfer without whose generous support the Sea Save Foundation, "Cocos Island News" and my "DeepSea" adventure of a lifetime would not have been possible.