March 13, 2013

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My safety stop is complete but something out of the corner of my eye distracts me. Still a couple of meters below me, our dive leader, Jaume Pericas is frantically pointing at something. At first I couldn’t work out what he was seeing. Had Jaume spent too much time underwater? Was he seeing an imaginary ghost of Moby Dick? Or did he simply want to ensure that I missed out on the scrambled eggs that so deliciously followed an early morning dive. It occurred to me that I could see something too but my mind was not registering. A dark silhouette seemed to cover the entire ocean floor as if revealing an ancient underwater city. But this was no fantasy, legend or mythical beast – this shadow was alive! A slow undulating mass of thousands and thousands of fish!

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For years scientists have tried to find a baseline for intact ecosystems. Places that through a combination of isolation and human determination have been kept virtually free of human interference. Even before I first began studying marine biology, I dreamed of visiting the ocean untouched – where richness, and sheer abundance resembled that of a past wild and untamed world. As the recipient of the Australasian Our World Underwater Scholarship for 2012/2013, I have had some unbelievable experiences diving and meeting experts in ocean related fields. Yet when an opportunity came up to visit one of the last pristine ocean ecosystems with the Undersea Hunter Group, I really had to pinch myself and make sure I wasn’t losing my sanity.

Packed with a mindset for epic adventure and what seemed like a small truckload of camera and dive gear, I took the intrepid journey from Australia to to Isla Del Coco (Cocos Island). Lying 550 km (340 miles) south of Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and 630 km (394 miles) from the Galapagos, Cocos Island is a tiny jewel nestled within Missions Blue’s Eastern Pacific Hope Spot. Declared a marine national park and UNESCO World Heritage Area, the Cocos Islands presents a microcosm where nature reigns supreme and animal and ecosystem are able to thrive relatively undisturbed.

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Amidst warm and hilarious company, I made the 36 hour ocean crossing to the Cocos. The 7:00 breakfast bell signaled our arrival, but I was already wide-awake and making a beeline for the back deck (only narrowly escapin collision with a startled kitchen hand). Before me was an island that prior to this day, only existed in the world of my childhoods adventure novels. Impenetrable tropical rainforest and cloud forest where punctuated by rugged outcroppings and escarpments. Streams passing through sharp ravines and gorges found their freedom in over 60 spectacular waterfalls that cascaded to the clear turquoise ocean below. There are even treasure maps here pointing to hidden stashes of gold and jewels from 17th century pirates.

 

While treasure hunters hope for gold and silver, I came to Isla del Coco in search of a different kind of treasure – the sheer explosion of life that can only be appreciated once saturated in seawater! Lucky it wasn’t too long before I was leaping into Pacific Ocean in my Waterproof 7mm and taking me first glimpse of Manualita Coral Garden. Located on the protected east side of Munualita Island, Manualita Coral Garden was the first dive of the trip and within the first five minutes, I had already seen exquisite coral gardens, bluefin trevally and razor surgeonfish hunting among the vibrantly coloured sponges and rocky outcrops. Clouds of blue striped snappers danced into my field of vision and I even caught a glimpse of the rock star of this region – the majestic scalloped hammerhead.

Born of an eruption which spewed molten magma along the Cocos and Pacific tectonic plates, Cocos Island has its heritage, at least in part, to thank for its popularity with the sea creatures – both cryptic and colossal. The island’s raw and rugged volcanic topography continues below the surface creating a variety of rocky terraces to deep water pinnacles and sea mounts. Lying between converging ocean currents, upwelling transports nutrients into the shallow waters attracting plankton in high numbers. Small fish come in to feed which in turn draws the mesopredators; the groupers, mackerel and tuna. Last but certainly not least come the celebrities of the sea – the sharks. Living here in their hundreds, these top predators feast on a Smörgåsbord of fishy delights and in doing so regulate the variety and abundance of species, keeping our oceans healthy.

It was partly my fascination for sharks that attracted me to Cocos. Everywhere you look you see them parting the crowds of fish like silent ships parting the sea. During the day, it’s common to observe Galapagos sharks, silky sharks and even if you’re lucky, the tiger shark. But night dives on the sheltered side of Isla Manuelita are where the real drama unfolds. Using a combination of eyesight, smell and electroreception, swarms of literally hundreds of white tip reef sharks frantically scan the bottom for bleary-eyed reef fish aroused by the commotion. At one point almost 20 sharks jammed themselves into a gap in the rocks. They were stuck!! It was if they were saying “bugger, not again guys, this is so embarrassing!” After a furious amount of wiggling and thrashing (throwing sand and rubble flying), shark dignity was restored. While each individual swam free, chaos took on a whole new meaning for me that night!

After a scrumptious dinner and a good nights rest we were our way to Bajo Alcyone –  a prime site for seeing pelagic visitors. “Why don’t you put a mask on,” yelled one of my fellow dive buddies as a rouge wave hit the side of the dive tender and doused my entire body in cool salty water. Spluttering, I choked down a cough and wiped the stinging spray from my eyes. With a wicked grin on his face, Avi Klapfer assured us that the merciless deluge was a good sign – the creatures of the deep like crazy current and crashing waves!

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We hit the water and waited on the bottom for the show to begin. Out of gloom, they appeared, first one, and then another and then another, until over 200 hammerheads filled my entire field of vision. Not unlike an exfoliation massage and spa, female scalloped hammerheads travel hundreds of miles here to take advantage of the barberfish cleaning stations. This great migration ranks among those such as the wildebeest of the Serengeti and caribou of the Artic and seemed to continue indefinitely. There was no time to take your eyes of the surface and I truly thought my arm (attached above my head to my Light and Motion video housing in) was going to drop off. A sign of a pretty spectacular dive no doubt!

Yet my voyage of discovery did not finish there and before I knew it I was being shuttled over to the Undersea Hunter Group’s DeepSee Submersible where I would be treated to an experience of a lifetime. The chance to head down to three hundred meters in a submarine custom designed to increase public interest in dark abyss while paying for crucial scientific research.

The deep sea is the least explored place on earth. It is the last frontier of unknown and unanswered and yet ironically, it makes up 90 percent of the living space on the planet! Animals that survive here have adapted to less oxygen, very little sunlight, infrequent food, and temperatures that chill the most hardy of creatures. Anticipation and excitement flooded my body as I made my way into the passenger seat. What splendor and spectacle lay beneath the light zone? What secrets and mysteries would the depths reveal?

DeepSee’s acrylic sphere provides a 360 degree field of vision and completely disappears when submerged. At 70m the light was dissipating dramatically and before we knew it a large ray of some sort was gliding effortlessly towards us. “It’s a mobula ray,” exclaimed Captain Filipe Chacón Rodriguez. According to Filipe, mobula’s are very inquisitive and sure enough the ray glided straight towards the Sub doing a graceful sweep over the dome.

Our first stop was on the sandy bottom where deep sea crabs and thread fin bass lurked in dark hidden crevices. Heading over the edge of the shelf, deepwater cup corals, stylaster corals and octocorals formed a garden of strangest corals I’d ever seen. Dropping further into the gloom past ledges and overhangs we came to the most unlikely creature – the jellonose fish (Guentherus altivela). Apart from its depth range and appearance (flabby body and bulbous snout), little is known about this animal – a reminder of how much we still have to learn about our deep oceans. Our descent continued until we saw the depth gauge read 307.2 m. Ahhhhh. After a very restricted chair dance in the sub, I tried to take in the feeling of isolation being at this depth provides.

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Back on deck, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the park rangers about work at Cocos Island. Despite my VERY broken Spanish, I discovered that park rangers live here for months at a time safeguarding protection in the Cocos Island National Park (encompassing an area up to 19 km around the island). Declared initially over 35 years ago, the Park’s abundance and richness reinforces what we already know about our ocean– if you protect and enforce that protection, life within the ocean will thrive.

Threats of overfishing, especially the indiscriminant destruction caused by the practice of long lining, still pose a serious threat to the Cocos. “As long as there is a market for shark fins the fisherman will circumvent the law to try to fish,” said Randall Arauz, a conservationist and ocean advocate at the Costa Rican Conservation Organization, PRETOMA. Talking to Randall makes me sad, but at but at the same time invigorated for change. Surely if we can renounce once highly popular activities such as smoking cigarettes we can also put an end to the senseless slaughter of sharks in the name of culture and tradition.

Mission Blue is working to increase protection for Cocos Island and throughout the Eastern Pacific Hope Spot. In September 2009, Mission Blue’s founder Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala, and a team of marine scientists gathered in Costa Rica to raise awareness, provide key scientific data to inform policy, and inspire political leaders to preserve fundamental underwater seamounts. As a result of their efforts, President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica declared the new Seamounts Marine Management Area, which encompasses a 9640 km2 protection zone and includes the Gamelas Seamounts (potential deep sea layover points for migrating species).

At least 5 min had pasted since I initially saw that monstrous swirling conglomerate of snappers and jacks. Turns out that Juame was not going crazy after all and certainly without his gesturing I would have missed a sight that will stick in my memory forever. While some might have felt intimidated by the superlative display, I tried to absorb the feeling of smallness and insignificance. Perhaps it was a reality check, reminding me of peoples place within, and importantly, not above the natural world. Just like those fish we humans are intimately connected and reliant on the ocean for our survival. But unlike those fish, intelligence and foresight impresses in us the ability to look after and maintain our seas for future generations. Cocos Island remains a pristine ocean ecosystem as a result of protection. Lets get on board and help Mission Blue conserve more of our ocean wildernesses.

Special thanks to the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and its many sponsors, the Undersea Hunter Group, Jayne Jenkins and Anthea Ibell for helping me organize this wonderful adventure.

By Yoland Bosiger, 2012/2013 Australasian Rolex Scholar / Our World Underwater Scholarship Society

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