My first memory of Cocos as a young marine biology student is still clear: realizing the boat had stopped and walking to the bow at dawn to see the island for the first time. There it was — 240 hectares (593 acres) of tropical rain forest in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, waterfalls flowing down to a sea that changed from deep blue to emerald.
Born and raised in Costa Rica, it was nearly impossible for me not to be intrigued by Cocos Island. Everyone knew about it, but almost no one had been there — at least no one that I knew. As a kid, I remember wondering about the common stories I had heard about pirates hiding treasure on that distant island surrounded by sharks.
As I grew older and entered college, I became a volunteer with the National Park Service with the hope of being sent to Cocos. It took three years of work and a great deal of luck, but in February 1996 I was finally able to coordinate my class schedule with a volunteer opening.
During my five weeks on the island on that first trip, I remember being impressed by two things. First, its marine biodiversity was evident during every second I spent snorkeling there; I saw a range of creatures, from corals to lobsters to sharks. The second thing that astounded me was the numerous fishing boats that were allowed to anchor just a few hundred yards from the shore. As remote and diverse as that place was, it was far from untouched.
In 2005, I became involved in Cocos Island conservation efforts through my work in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape project led by Conservation International (CI). Together with multiple government agencies, NGOs and other stakeholders, CI’s marine program has been engaged in multiple projects in the region, including shark and coral reef research, marine protected area (MPA) enforcement, stakeholder participation and capacity-building programs.
Recently, Costa Rica has made great advances in its conservation efforts and commitment to Cocos. Since my first visit, the waters of Cocos Island National Park have been increasingly patrolled for illegal fishing, and new scientific research has shown that coral reefs in Cocos recover from stress faster than other more degraded coastal coral habitats. (Today, hammerhead sharks are known to move between Cocos, Galápagos and Malpelo islands, and Cocos is considered the point with the largest fish biomass per hectare in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.)
As a result of these conservation efforts, the Costa Rican government has been responsive to the urgent need to better protect the marine ecosystems in and around Cocos Island and neighboring seamounts — and has created a new MPA that wraps around Cocos Island and expands the area under protection to a total of more than 11 million hectares (27 million acres). This is great news for Costa Rica, the world’s oceans and for thousands of kids who can keep dreaming about one day visiting this unique place on Earth.
Marco Quesada is the project coordinator for CI-Costa Rica. To learn more about the new Cocos Island protected area, read our press release.