An Ode to Cocos Island, Circa 1987
June 1, 2017
The Mission Blue team is currently researching and tagging sharks in Cocos Islands. Learn more about our latest expedition.
By: Robert Yuhnke
Isla de Cocos is magnificent. I spent 6 days there in 1987 diving with an expedition. We were blown away by the richness and diversity of the marine life. I can recall on a bright cloudless day drifting at 70 feet above a wall that dropped into the abyss when suddenly the light disappeared. Turning up, I could barely make out the sun shimmering through a swarm of fish (perhaps tang) so dense that the water had turned dark. On another day my crew mates thought I was nuts for diving over the rail one morning for a half-mile swim in a bay where I watched schools of 12-foot white tips below me as I swam.
Day by day we circumnavigated the island. On the south shore anchored in a bay, we were invited on board the Halcyon by a skipper who had been with the Cousteau family on their first expedition to Cocos. They were the only other boat we saw during the entire trip. He invited us aboard to tour the boat which was a marvel of marine engineering. After the tour we sat together on deck, talking. We learned they were on Cocos as part of a global tour to revisit sites first documented by Jacques Cousteau to assess the degradation of the marine environment. The skipper, who had both been part of Jacques first expedition to Cocos, warned that despite how rich the marine life appeared to us, it had been decimated during the 11 years since their first visit to Cocos. He told of fish schools so dense that the crew needed only to drag a tee shirt from a dinghy to catch enough fish for meals.
Our expedition included the Director of Costa Rica’s National Park service. When asked about how this degradation might have happened, he told stories of Japanese trawlers fishing illegally within the then-12 mile economic zone. He personally had called on the Costa Rican Navy to run them off, but the navy could not post a permanent patrol around Cocos. He confirmed that fish stocks had diminished significantly since Jacques Cousteau had made his expedition to document the island’s marine resources.
The stories of these losses pained me deeply, leaving an indelible impression regarding how the devastation of life on the planet largely goes unnoticed. Like the story of the town of Salmon, Idaho, 1.5 million salmon once swam up the river, but now only a few hardy fish survive to make the run. If we had not encountered the Cousteau’s skipper and heard the story of what they found in the sea only a decade earlier, we would have had no way of knowing how much had been lost.
These stories need to be told. My grandchildren have no possibility of experiencing the wealth of life that I experienced in my youth. We are bequeathing them a depleted, but not yet dead planet. I wholeheartedly support Mission Blue’s work to preserve the remaining hot spots as refuges for marine life around our blue planet.