Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2013

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Corrie Searls '14, an art history major from Minneapolis, at the site of her dream internship last summer, Christie's auction house at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. Photo by Karsten Moran

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Beneath a Shark-Filled Sky

Beneath a Shark-Filled Sky
The island's park service rangers have built an entire bridge out of buoys, fishing line, hooks, clips and wire mesh confiscated from illegal fishing boats.

In the waters around a fabled treasure
island, an ecologist finds a trove of life

Text and photography by Varun Swamy '01


In 1820, the Spanish viceroy of Peru made a fateful decision.

The Expedición Libertadora army, under the command of the famous General José de San Martin, was approaching Lima in its drive to end Spanish rule of the country. Fearing that treasures of the Catholic Church would be lost in the revolt, the viceroy and Catholic clergy entrusted the trove to a British trader for transport to Mexico for safekeeping.

But the objects, which included jeweled stones and life-size solid-gold statues of Mary holding the baby Jesus — estimated to be worth a total $250 million in today's dollars — proved too great a temptation. According to various accounts, the captain and crew turned pirate, killing the accompanying guards and clergy and sailing north and west to a spot on the map known as Isla del Coco. There, it is said, they buried the treasure in a cave for later retrieval.

The pirate ship was soon apprehended by a Spanish warship, and the entire crew except the captain and first mate were executed for piracy. In exchange for their lives, the two agreed to lead the Spanish to the stolen treasure. Upon arrival at the island, however, they managed to escape into the forest and were never seen again.

Hundreds of attempts were made during the 19th and 20th centuries to find the Treasure of Lima and other treasure supposedly buried on the island. All ended in futility.

Located 340 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Cocos Island, the only emergent portion of the eponymous Cocos tectonic plate, represents a 10-square-mile blip in a million-square-mile canvas of submerged sea mountains. Sixteenth-century French map makers originally labeled it Île de Coques for the nutshells or coques of a tree particular to the island. In the more recent past, the island provided the inspiration for the fictional Isla Nublar (literally “cloudy island”), the setting for the novel and movie “Jurassic Park.” Because of a quirk of geography, the peaks of Cocos Island remain permanently shrouded in a layer of clouds.

Today the island is uninhabited by humans except for a small number of park rangers. The entire island and the waters surrounding it out to a three-mile radius constitute a national park and marine conservation zone protected by Costa Rica's environment ministry. It is to this remote nature preserve that I ventured earlier this year.

For the past several years, my research has focused on how the hunting of large animals has affected the lowland Amazon forests of southeastern Peru. I compare sites that have intact animal communities against areas where the large vertebrates have been hunted to elimination. One of the most difficult aspects of my work is finding undisturbed areas of tropical forest to serve as reference sites that represent the “normal” condition. The same holds true for marine ecosystems, which have been devastated by decades of overfishing that specifically target top-of-the-food-chain predators such as sharks and bluefin tuna.

This past summer, I made my way to Cocos Island from Costa Rica (a 36-hour voyage) to explore the island's waters, one of the last remaining pristine marine ecosystems in the world. I was actually on vacation. As an experienced amateur scuba diver (who studied marine biology as an undergrad and originally got certified in 1999 by crusty Coast Guard instructors in the Lott Natatorium), I had long dreamed of visiting what Jacques Cousteau described as “the most beautiful island in the world.”

During a sublime week of diving, I experienced a spectacular undersea world. At the same time, I was constantly reminded of my research challenges and the fragility of natural ecosystems in the face of modern human society's never-ending demand for ?natural resources.

Astonishing abundance

On my second morning at the island, the Sea Hunter, our live-aboard, purpose-built 115-feet vessel, is docked at Wafer Bay, now referred to as “WiFi Bay” because of the free wireless Internet signal broadcast from the park ranger station on this side of the island.

Cocos Island looks beautiful and mysterious, its highest peaks shrouded in mist. The sheer rock walls are covered with lush green foliage — trees and mossy carpets, interspersed with steep waterfalls. One could almost visualize a dinosaur straight out of Jurassic Park emerging from the interior onto one of the exposed peaks and emitting a thunderous roar at us down in the water.

On our first day we glimpsed tantalizing samples of the marine life that has made Cocos a diving mecca: marbled stingrays, spotted eagle rays, spiny lobsters, king angelfish, guineafowl puffers, trumpetfish, scrawled filefish, spotted boxfish, green sea turtle; large schools of convict surgeonfish, blue and gold snappers, yellowfin tuna and crevalle jacks. But the undoubted highlight was the astonishing abundance and diversity of sharks: whitetip reef sharks, blacktips, silvertips, silky sharks, Galapagos sharks and the local star attraction — scalloped hammerheads. These varieties of sharks pose no threat. Their jaws are too small to take on marine mammals like sea lions and dolphins, not to mention scuba-diving terrestrials.

What better way to begin the second dive day than sighting the granddaddy of them all, the whale shark. This is the fourth whale shark I've seen in all my diving experience, and the sensation of seeing one of these gentle, plankton-eating giants of the ocean — a gorgeous one at that — never gets old. Estimating whale shark size is an admittedly imprecise science, but I'd hazard a guesstimate of 20-25 feet … plenty big! The scalloped hammerheads came closer today than during any of the previous dives. There's something about their sleek hammer-shaped head that makes them seem less threatening and sinister than the “typical” shark visage; they seem almost like puppies, simultaneously trepid and inquisitive.

We finish the day with our first night dive of the trip, to a site called “Manuelita Rock Garden.” The novelty of the night dive is the spectacle of numerous little (4-foot) whitetip sharks and black jacks hunting together, guided and aided by the divers' lights. It is mesmerizing and surreal, kneeling at the sandy bottom in a semicircle with our lights focused on the center, watching the swarming hordes of sleek whitetips, reminiscent of pack dogs, and the broader black jacks with their brooding expressions resembling hounds.

The value of sharks

The two most spectacular dive days include sightings of the utterly bizarre endemic Cocos batfish (with a face only a mother could love) and a menacing tiger shark on patrol. One morning dive represents the epitome of the Cocos Island dive experience — a descent against strong current, grabbing onto a rock ledge and holding on for dear life against the current and two-way surge. We are eventually rewarded with a picture-book scene, looking up at a sky filled with dozens of scalloped hammerheads, their unmistakable dark profiles perfectly outlined against the lighter blue water. Fantastic!

What makes the Cocos marine ecosystem so unusual is its intact food chain comprising all the trophic levels, particularly the apex predators, the sharks. The healthy shark population allows for the existence of the kind of fish biomass that is hard to comprehend — enormous numbers of jacks, snappers, tuna and other schooling fish. Areas close to but outside the marine protected area are greatly depleted in comparison, especially of sharks and other apex predators.

During a visit to the island one afternoon, I learn about the efforts of the Costa Rican National Park System to protect its magnificent biological riches and the serious challenges they face. An enterprising young park ranger named Roberto Cubero describes the difficulty in trying to stave off illegal commercial fishing. We are shown the enormous amount of confiscated gear from illegal longline fishing boats collected in just two months' effort — a large shed stuffed to the ceiling with sacks of fishing line, and several crates of fishing hooks and clips. A few minutes earlier, we had been walking on a swaying bridge across a stream. The bridge, he explains, was built entirely out of gear confiscated from illegal fishing boats — buoys, fishing line, hooks, clips, and wire mesh.

Vigilance and contradictions

On the journey back to the mainland I have an illuminating conversation with a Ministry of Environment official assigned to the Cocos Island marine conservation area. He describes the constant battle against the longline fishing boats that routinely violate the sanctity of the three-mile protected zone. He tells me they primarily target yellowfin tuna, but the longline hooks do not discriminate and hook a large number of sharks as well. According to him, if the line attached to the hook is made of metal wire, it is a clear sign that they are targeting sharks. If the line is regular nylon, the sharks can chew through it.

The park has three patrol boats to monitor the protected area. They also coordinate with the Costa Rican coast guard, which has larger and faster boats but whose mandate does not implicitly include enforcing the marine protected area.

A plan is in the works to create a 12-square-mile “marine management area” around Cocos Island in which only smaller Costa Rican longline fishing boats will be allowed to operate using a traditional fishing technique that includes a handmade dolphin decoy. This method nets almost zero by-catch. The plan also calls for increasing patrolling to keep out the enormous trawling vessels owned by foreign fleets (primarily Venezuelan, Panamanian, Brazilian, Chinese and Japanese). These fleets can harvest the equivalent of an entire year's catch by the longline fleet in a single event.

The traditional fishing technique is more sustainable but only if the fishing boats do not expressly target sharks — which they sometimes do. The challenge lies in working with the longline fishery to eliminate shark harvest for shark fins. An inherent contradiction in the regulations is that fishing boats are currently allowed to harvest entire sharks, ostensibly for shark meat, but the meat itself has very low value. Only the fins are worth harvesting, for the lucrative Chinese sharkfin soup market.

Another problem is the conflict of interest between the protected-area managers and the agency in charge of allotting fishing licenses and quotas. The agency is only partly a government entity. It receives most of its funding from the fishing industry.
It was clear to me that the Costa Ricans are making a sincere effort to protect their marine natural bounty, which ties in with their exceptional efforts in recent decades to conserve and manage their terrestrial biological resources.

The fabled troves of buried gold on Cocos Island are unlikely ever to be found. The real treasure lies in the waters that surround it. The dazzling abundance of marine life remains safe for now but will require constant vigilance to ensure that it does not fall victim to illegal commercial fishing fueled by the insatiable demands of present-day human society.

Varun Swamy '01 is a Charles Bullard Fellow in Forest Research at Harvard University, a research fellow at the Institute for Conservation Research at San Diego Zoo Global and a research associate at Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation. His current research examines human impact on forest regeneration in the lowland Amazon basin of southeastern Peru. He can be reached at varunswamy@gmail.com.



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