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The Two Captains


Latitude: 05-33.097N; Longitude: 087-02.528W
June 24, 2001
Chatham Bay, Isla de Cocos, Costa Rica

Our 364nm leg from Genovesa Island in the Galapagos to Cocos Island was as gentle a trip as we have ever had. The weather was mostly gorgeous and sunny, the water temperature steadily warming degree by degree enabling the 2Cs to shed clothes layer by layer. We haven't been in swimsuits underway since the Caribbean! The winds were light, 8-15 kts from behind us, and we sailed most of the way, resorting to the engine only in the wee hours of the night when our speed dropped below 4 kts. It was during one of these motoring sessions that we had our only boat mishap. With a hefty pow, the exhaust pipe flange blew clean off the engine dumping smoke and cooling water into the bilge! The good news is that Captain Don had been suspicious, and we were ready with replacement parts purchased when Captain Gwen was in Ft. Lauderdale last February.

We caught no fish. Every time Don would go to put the lure out, a booby would show up. On our first day out we had a seriously bad booby day. At 0630, just over the dicey part of our exit from Genovesa, a young booby hooked himself and was being dragged until we could reel him in. Fortunately it proved his upper bill was more wedged in the hook than anything, and Don was able to shake him off with a little judicious use of the pliers without major damage to his bill or the new lure. Last we saw him he was upright in the water shaking his head, obviously a little boggled from his experience. Unfortunately our next booby incident around midday didn't end so well. What we heard was a couple of thumps, and next thing a booby body dropped into the water at my elbow! Our best guess is that he flew into some rigging or maybe the wind generator and ricocheted off the mainsail. He landed head down and never moved. Very sad. For this reason perhaps we were much more tolerant of the pair of blue-footed boobies that rode through the night on our bow pulpit. The fact that they will stay there with the sail luffing and snapping amazes us. They were, however, unusually considerate, sitting with their business ends forward over the water!

We allowed ourselves to go very slowly the last day in order to approach Cocos in the morning light as opposed to midnight. This prudence rewarded us with a spectacular arrival. Around 4am the last bit of moon rose with a bright planet alongside, and dolphins paralleled the boat making comet-like vapor trails through the bioluminescent plankton in the dark water. The island was black and mystical, rising steeply to a cloud around the summit, and as dawn gradually broke it became greener and greener until it was a color so bright we couldn't believe it. Dodging the seasons back and forth across the equator, we'd completely forgotten what a dense tropical green could look like, although in truth I don't think we've ever seen an island this lush anywhere! Waterfalls actually burst from the sides and tumble directly into the sea! (Opening scenes of Jurassic Park were filmed here!) As we rounded the point into the Chatham Bay anchorage, hundreds of frigate birds circled the boat along with dozens of boobies, to the point camera work on the bow could be considered risky business! Ahead in the bay was just one boat, our friends Kathy and Bob on Briana. We picked up a mooring, had a bacon and egg feast and a short snorkel just to remind ourselves what warm water was, and had just dozed off in the cockpit when the park rangers showed up to do business. Before we knew it we were all arranged to do a dive that afternoon.

A little background. Cocos, plus a dozen or so satellite rocks and islets, is one of the premier diving destinations of the world. Belonging to Costa Rica, it is entirely a Marine Park and is totally uninhabited but for some park rangers and volunteers who reside in one of two stations, a small one here in Chatham Bay, the other larger base half-way around the north side of the island. There are no facilities ashore for tourists, so all must come by sea. The bulk of visitors to Cocos are scuba divers coming on one of two top-notch liveaboard dive boats, the 115' Sea Hunter and the Okeanos Aggressor (the latter at one time was skippered by my old Tropic Bird friend Dan Morrison.) The other vessels that trickle in are either cruising boats like ourselves, or fishermen, who, though they can't fish in the park waters, are permitted to seek shelter here. The fees for cruisers to be here are a bit steep, although not so steep as rumor had it. For us it costs $15/day for the boat plus $15pp/day for us, which is a total of $45 a day. About like being in a marina. For this you have a nice mooring (yes, we checked all its attachment points!), access to fresh water (they have a pipe rigged in a waterfall that carries fresh water out to an offshore buoy!) and an onshore laundry tub and showers, none of which we need on TII but which are welcome amenities for many cruisers.

Diving requires having all your own gear, including dive compressor. Fortunately, since ours is still down from the failed hose in Galapagos, the Sea Hunter was here and the very friendly captain filled all our tanks for us. Then, as he was leaving on Monday, he went one step further and lent us a fill hose for our compressor. The other hitches with diving here are we must be accompanied by a park ranger and we have to get there in our own dinghies. This puts us at the mercy of the rangers' schedules and restricts our range to how far we can practically get by rubber duck. However for $4/day it's a good deal as you get a guide and, as all the dives are drift dives, a chase boat that tows the dinghy along after you.

The diving had been great. Similar to the Galapagos, the waters are thick with fish, with 3-5' foot white-tip sharks as common as trumpetfish in the Virgins and lobsters carpeting the rock faces (which may well be a main reason we have to be shepherded by rangers!). Unlike the Galapagos the water is warm enough for skins only and the visibility is a clear 70', but there is still very little coral, which we have since learned is thanks to the disastrous El Nino of 1987. On one dive - Roca Sucia - we had dolphins leaping around the dinghy topside and several schools of hammerheads swirling around the underwater formations. Lot of marble rays and turtles too. We've seen four huge Manta rays, but every one of them was from topside. It seems they like to glide just inches below the surface with their wing tips curling into the air! I did managed to get in with one briefly on snorkle and we hope we got a photo of another at least 12' wide! The downside of this paradise is the amount of rain they receive -- 280" a year. There's a reason it's green! Given that, it's been relatively nice weather during the time we've been here, with only one full day of rain and but two days of nasty roll! The rangers say the best time of year is November through January.

Briana left Thursday for the Galapagos, leaving us all alone ...for about four hours, the Okeanos Aggressor arriving to fill the void of the departed Sea Hunter. Friday afternoon, Kaylor the park ranger picked us up in the drizzle for our last dive and took us back to Isla Manuelita, which is just north of Chatham Bay. This time we dove alone, Kaylor having an ear infection; we deduce we have passed inspection as divers. We had some misgivings about returning to Isla Manuelita, the site of our first dive, but they were washed away by the best critter turnout of all. Many, many MANY hammerheads, and QUITE CLOSE, too! Two divers are clearly less intimidating to them than four or six! It raises the question of who is watching whom? There were actually more hammerheads on this dive than the ubiquitous white tips! We must have seen ten marbled stingrays, swimming this way and that or on the bottom, and five very large green turtles, three of which were circling together (mating?) and two swam right up to us curiously. For a grand finale....no, not the infamous whale shark,..sigh...BUT that elusive underwater manta ray! We surfaced to find Kaylor and Gabriel shivering in the rain, so we brought them home for hot chocolate (their choice). It was the one time there were no English speaking rangers in the group, but it went just fine. Don had fun showing them his engine room and the computer charting, but they were most impressed with the solar panel installation.

Saturday we dinghied around to Wafer Bay for a hike to Cacades Genio (like the genie in the lamp!). The park provided us with a guide, a thirty-one year-old engineer volunteer from Spain by name of Luis Sanchez. He proudly displayed to us his first contribution to the park, a supension bridge over a river made of steel cable, turnbuckles and chain-link fencing! From the bridge the path led through true rainforest -- this is primary growth rainforest and this is a 2 million year old island! -- and up the river course itself. It was perfect for these old Trini-trained waterfall-keteers, (Snake would have loved it!) and the conversations in Spanish on the way up made for great camouflage for the 2Cs' lack of conditioning! There was a lot of evidence of the destruction wrought by the islands' feral pigs rooting around in the moist soil to dig up roots. We also saw some neat birds, both males and females of the endemic Cocos finch, as well as a white dove that hovered overhead like a hummingbird. Luis said the Spanish conquistadores took them for the "espiritu santo!" and they were so otherworldy and out-of-place, that we could understand the impression. All the way up the upper course of the river were secondary falls leaking down the sides of whole hillsides. Still the "cascades" themselves, when we reached them, were superb. I'd guess a 100'+ drop into a pool from two separate falls, and the water temp -- unlike Trinidad -- was mild. You will have to take our word for all this as we discovered at the falls, that I had left the chip out of the digital camera!

Back at the boat, our anchorage had swelled to included five Costa Rican long-line fishing boats. These are wooden craft about 30-45 feet in length, all brightly painted with crews of four to six people aboard. From the top stick up up to a dozen tall poles with garbage-bag "flags" rather reminiscent of the Baptist residences in Trinidad, only these poles are used to mark the long lines when they are deployed. When we left for the hike, the crews were congregating for a game of "football" on the low-tide beach. Don had given one crew a lift to shore, and inquired if it was possible to buy fish. "Mas tarde," they said. Well, upon our return the fishermen GAVE us a huge wahoo, a 40 pounder, already beheaded and gutted! When we pressed the subject of what we could give them in return, they opted for cold pills...they all had the grippe! Don worked away steaking the fish, but even after filling up the freezer we had so much fish left we gave the back half of it to the park rangers! It was definitely a more effective way of getting a fish than throwing all those lures in the water!

By dark there were more than ten fishing boats and by morning fifteen. There are only three other moorings in the harbor, so many of the boats instead of anchoring tied up one behind the other making a string! It made for a surreal night landscape for not only were the boats lit up themselves, but the marker poles each had strobes firing off! All this was quite educational for us as we learned quite a bit about how they fish, how long the trolling lines are (1000 meters, with 250 snap-on hooks along its length baited with squid) and what to look for as markers when we cross paths with them at sea. We certainly will feel more accommodating next time we encounter these guys in our course!

On our last day in harbor, Kaylor and Issaac came by to answer some questions for for a potential article about the Park. In Kaylor's six years as a Cocos Park ranger, he tells us he has never seen an assemblage of fishing boats in Cocos like this. Apparently fishing has not been good. Many Costa Rican boats have in the past edged in to Galapagos waters. Now, with the aid of the US Coast Guard, Ecuador is clamping down on this, and indeed several Costa Rican crews have been arrested. Kaylor does much of the offshore patrolling, and he's up all night making sure no fishing is happening within the eight-mile limit. Isaac told us, "Kaylor has many friends (sic) in Punta Arenas who would like to kill him!" which immediately answered our question of whether the fishermen regularly gave the rangers fish like our wahoo. It is hard to imagine that we almost didn't come here. It has been a special stop, not just for the beauty of the island and the superb diving, but for some nice bridges between interesting and different people. Today we prep the boat for our eastward trek back to Panama. We should be underway at sunrise.

Some Internet websites of interest:
Isla de Coco National Marine Park: islacoco@ns.minae.co.cr
mv Sea Hunter: www.underseahunter.com
mv Okeanos Aggressor: www.aggressor.com

Even more than in the Galapagos, the best way to visit Cocos is on a liveaboard boat. Actually, it the only way! Okeanos and Sea Hunter are both very top-notch ships, very oriented to high-tech scuba diving, but they do make some provision for shore excursions and kayaking etc. We are also told that the small cruise ships we saw in the Galapagos do a couple of tours each year that include Cocos. It is, however, hard for us to even imagine more than 20 people here at a time! It's justnot that kind of place.The only other way to spend time at Cocos, it to come as a volunteer, minimum commitment being a month. You can get information about volunteering from the Marine Park website.


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