Cocos Island (Spanish: Isla del Coco) is an uninhabited island (except for the permanent ranger station) located off the shore of Costa Rica (to be distinguished from Cocos Island, Isla de Cocos, Panama in the Pearl Islands). It constitutes the 11th district (one of 13) of Puntarenas Canton of the province of Puntarenas. It is one of the National Parks of Costa Rica. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 550 km (340 mi) from the Pacific shore of Costa Rica, at 05°31′08″N 087°04′18″W. With an area of approximately 23.85 km² (9.2 mi²), about 8×3 km (5×1.9 mi) and a perimeter of around 23.3 km, this island is more or less rectangular in shape.
Surrounded by deep waters with counter-currents, Cocos Island is admired by scuba divers for its populations of Hammerhead sharks, rays, dolphins and other large marine species. The extremely wet climate and oceanic character give Cocos an ecological character that is not shared with either the Galapagos Archipelago or any of the other islands (e.g., Malpelo or Coiba) in this region of the world.
Present status and international distinctions
Cocos Island was declared a Costa Rican National Park by means of Executive Decree in 1978. Cocos Island National Park was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. In 2002, the World Heritage Site designation was extended to include an expanded marine zone of 1,997 km². In addition, it is included in the list of "Wetlands of International Importance".
Cocos Island was short-listed as a candidate to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature by the New Seven Wonders of the World Foundation. As of June 2009 it is ranking second in the islands category.
Thanks to the breathtaking marine life in its waters (see Fauna section below), Cocos Island was named one of the best 10 scuba diving spots in the world by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and a "must do" according to diving experts. For many, the main attractions are the large pelagic species, which are very abundant in this unique meeting point between deep and shallow waters. The largest schools of hammerhead sharks in the World are consistently reported there. Encounters with dozens if not hundreds of these and other large animals are nearly certain in every dive. Smaller and colorful species area also abundant in one of the most extensive and rich reefs of the south eastern Pacific. The famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited the island several times and in 1994 called it "the most beautiful island in the world". These numerous accolades highlight the urgent need to protect Cocos Island and surrounding waters from illegal large-scale fishing, poaching and other problems (see Threats section below).
The only persons allowed to live on Cocos Island are Costa Rican Park Rangers, who have established two encampments, including one at English Bay. Tourists and ship crew members are allowed ashore only with permission of island rangers, and are not permitted to camp, stay overnight or collect any flora, fauna or minerals from the island. Occasional amateur radio Dxpeditions are allowed to visit.
This island is popular in pirate lore as well. It is said that over 300 expeditions have gone in search of treasure such as the hoard of Benito Bonito, the Treasure of Lima, and many others. Some incidents of small caches have been discovered, leading many to believe the stories of vast pirate treasures to be valid.
Geology and landscape
Cocos Island is an oceanic island of both volcanic and tectonic origin. It is the only emergent island of the Cocos Plate, one of the minor tectonic plates. An Argon–Potassium radiometric determination established the age of the oldest rocks between 1.91 and 2.44 million years (Late Pliocene) and is composed primarily of basalt, which is formed by cooling lava. The landscape is mountainous and irregular and the summit is Cerro Iglesias at 575.5 m. In spite of its mountainous character, there are flatter areas between 200–260 m in elevation in the central part of the island, which are said to be a transitional stage of the geomorphological cycle of V-shaped valleys. With four bays, three of them in the north side (Wafer, Chatham and Weston), Cocos Island has a number of short rivers and streams that drain the abundant rainfall into them. The largest rivers are the Genio and the Pittier, which drain their water into Wafer Bay. The mountainous landscape and the tropical climate combine to create over 200 waterfalls throughout the island. The island's soils are classified as entisols which are highly acidic and could be easily eroded by the Island's high rainfall on the steep slopes, were it not for the dense forest coverage.
The climate of the island is mostly determined by the latitudinal movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone which creates cloudiness and precipitation that is constant throughout the year. This makes the climate in the island humid and tropical with an average annual temperature of 23.6 ºC (74.5 ºF) and an average annual rainfall of over 7,000 mm (275 in). Rainfall is high throughout the year, although lower from January through March and slightly lower during late September and October. Numerous oceanic currents from the central Pacific Ocean that converge on the island also have an important influence.
Cocos Island is home to dense and exuberant tropical moist forests. It is the only oceanic island in the eastern Pacific region with such rain forests and their characteristic types of flora and fauna. The cloud forests at higher elevations are also unique in the eastern Pacific. The island was never linked to a continent, so the flora and fauna arrived via long distance dispersal from the Americas. The island has therefore a high proportion of endemic species.
The island has 235 known species of flowering plants, of which 70, or nearly 30%, are endemic. A good comprehensive study on the flora of the island is provided in the journal Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. Also, 74 species of ferns and fern allies (lycopodiophytes and pteridophytes, see), and 128 species of mosses and liverworts (bryophytes, see), 90 species of fungi and 41 species of slimemolds have been reported. Nevertheless, more exhaustive investigations are expected to reveal many more species. The island has three main plant communities. The coastal forests extend from the seacoast up to 50 meters elevation. Purple Coral Tree (Erythrina fusca), Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera), and Pond-apple (Annona glabra) are the predominant trees, with an understory of ferns, shrubs of the Rubiaceae and Solanaceae families, sedges and grasses, and herbaceous plants of the Leguminosae and Malvaceae families.
The inland forests extend from 50 to 500 meters elevation. "Palo de hierro" or huriki (Sacoglottis holdridgei), "avocado" (Ocotea insularis) and the endemic Cecropia pittieri are the most common canopy trees. The trees are festooned at all levels with epiphytic plants, including as orchids, ferns, bromeliads and mosses. The understory includes sedges such as Hypolitrum amplum and various species of ferns and tree ferns including Cyathea armata and Danaea media. The endemic palm Rooseveltia frankliniana is also common.
Cloud forests are found at the highest elevations, over 500 meters. Melastoma spp. is predominant.
The general vegetation of Cocos Island has greatly changed since the island was first named and described by Europeans. Captain Wafer, who visited the island in 1685 and whose name was given to the landing place, describes extensive coconut groves extending inland into the interior of the island. It is very unlikely that these groves developed naturally, and it seems evident that pre-European man must once have cleared considerable areas in the ravine bottoms and interior plateaus and ridges, utilizing the clearings for coconut plantations of substantial extent. It has been posited that these plantations were used to provide fresh liquid and food for pre-Columbian voyages (balsa rafts using guara navigation) between Guatemala and northwestern South America. After the Spanish conquest and its consequences, these voyages ended and the tropical jungle recovered the land that had been laboriously cleared by early human hands.
The island has over 400 known species of insects, of which 65 (16%) are endemic. The greatest diversity is found among the Lepidoptera and Formicidae. Over 50 species of other arthropods have been described (spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and isopods).
Two species of lizard are found on the island, an anole (Anolis townsendii) and a gecko (Sphaerodactylus pacificus); both are endemic. No amphibians have been reported.
Nearly 90 bird species have been reported. The island and neighboring rocks are home to large nesting colonies of migratory seabirds, including the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Red-footed Booby (Sula sula), Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor), White Tern (Gygis alba) and Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus). Seven species of land birds inhabit the island, including three endemics: the Cocos Cuckoo (Coccyzus ferrugineus), Cocos Flycatcher (Nesotriccus ridgwayi) and Cocos Finch (Pinaroloxias inornata).
The island has five land mammal species, including pigs, deer, cats and rats. All these land mammals were introduced by humans. The Costa Rican government has vowed to control the populations of these animals, as they are harmful to the local ecosystems.
The rich coral reef, volcanic tunnels, caves, massifs and deeper waters surrounding Cocos Island are home to more than 30 species of coral, 60 species of crustaceans, 600 species of molluscs and over 300 species of fish. These include large populations of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), giant mantas (Manta birostris), sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) and sharks, such as Whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) and Scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini). The largest of all species of fish is also present, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).
Other large marine animals include humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), and sea lions(Zalophus californianus).
There are also reptiles; hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea).
Discovery of Cocos Island and early cartography
J. Lines (Diario de Costa Rica, May 12, 1940) cites Fernández de Oviedo who claims that the first discoverer of the island was Johan Cabeças. Other sources claim that Joan Cabezas de Grado was not a Portuguese sailor but an Asturian. D. Lievre, Una isla desierta en el Pacífico; la isla del Coco in Los viajes de Cockburn y Lievre por Costa Rica (1962: 134) tells that the first document with the name "Isle de Coques" is a map painted on parchment, called that of Henry II that appeared in 1542 during the reign of Francis I of France. The planisphere of Nicolás Desliens (1556, Dieppe) places this Ysle de Coques about one and half degrees north of the Equator. (See also Mario A. Boza and Rolando Mendoza, Los parques nacionales de Costa Rica, Madrid, 1981.) Blaeu's Grand Atlas, originally published in 1662, has a colour world map on the back of its front cover which shows I. de Cocos right on the Equator. Frederik De Witt's Atlas, 1680 shows it similarly. The Hondius Broadside map of 1590 shows I. de Cocos at the latitude of 2 degrees and 30 minutes northern latitude, while in 1596 Theodore de Bry shows the Galapagos Islands near 6 degrees north of the Equator. Emanuel Bowen, A Complete system of Geography, Volume II (London, 1747: 586) states that the Galapagos stretch 5 degrees north of the Equator.
The island became part of Costa Rica in 1832 by the decree No. 54 of the Constitutional Assembly of the free state of Costa Rica.
Whalers stopped at Cocos Island regularly until the mid-19th century, when their industry in the region collapsed due to overfishing.
In October 1863 the ship the "Adelante" dumped 426 Polynesian ex-slaves on the island, the captain being too lazy to bring them home as promised. When they were saved by the "Tumbes", one month later, only 38 survived, the rest had already perished from smallpox. (See: 'Ata).
In 1897 the Costa Rican government named the German adventurer and treasure hunter August Gissler the first Governor of Cocos Island and allowed him to establish a short-lived colony there.
On May 12, 1970 the insular territory of Cocos Island was incorporated administratively into Central Canton of the Province of Puntarenas by means of Executive Decree No. 27, making it the Eleventh District of Central Canton.
The island's 33 residents, the Costa Rican park rangers, were allowed to vote for the first time in Costa Rica's February 5, 2006 election.
Piracy and hidden treasures
The first claims of treasure buried on the island came from a woman named Mary Welsh, who claimed 350 tons of gold raided from Spanish galleons had been buried on the island. She had been a member of a pirate crew lead by Captain Bennett Graham, and was transported to an Australian penal colony for her crimes. She possessed a chart showing where Graham's treasure was supposed to be hidden. On her release she returned to the island with a expedition, which had no success in finding anything, with the points of reference in the chart having disappeared.
Another pirate supposed to have buried treasure on the island was the Portugese Benito Bonito. Though Bonito was hunted down and executed, his treasure was never retrieved.
The best known of the treasure legends tied to the island is that of the Treasure of Lima. In 1820, with the army of José de San Martín approaching Lima, Viceroy José de la Serna is supposed to have entrusted treasure from the city to British trader Captain William Thompson for safekeeping until the Spaniards could secure the country. Instead of waiting in the harbor as they were instructed, Thompson and his crew killed the Viceroy's men and sailed to Cocos, where they buried the treasure. Shortly afterwards, they were apprehended by a Spanish warship. All of the crew bar Thompson and his first mate were executed for piracy. The two said they would show the Spaniards where they had hidden the treasure in return for their lives- but after landing on Cocos, they escaped away into the forest.
Hundreds of attempts to find treasure on the island have failed. Several early expeditions were mounted on the basis of claims by a man named Keating, who was supposed to have befriended Thompson. On one trip, Keating was said to have retrieved gold and jewels from the treasure. Prussian adventurer August Gissler lived on the island for most of the period from 1889 until 1908, hunting the treasure with small success of finding six gold coins.
Dangers threatening Cocos Island
The mostly unperturbed habitats are, however, under growing human pressure. Illegal poaching of large marine species in and around its protected waters has become a main concern. Growing local and worldwide demand for tuna, shark fin soup and other seafood is threatening the island's fragile ecosystems. The government of Costa Rica has been openly accused of passivity and even benefiting corruptly from illegal shark fin and other seafood trade to large markets, such as China and other Asian countries. The government has shown some willingness to protect the island's natural richnesses and prosecute poachers. However, efforts to effectively patrol the waters and enforce environmental laws face big financial and bureaucratic difficulties, as well as being prone to the corruption of local, national and international authorities.
Recent events show that large-scale illegal poaching keeps happening. Despite initial hope in stopping and charging poachers, who have been caught with abundant evidence, they have been quickly released under suspicious circumstances. Also, efforts to raise funds for protection have been dwarfed.
Marvin Orlando Cerdas, a judge with the local Puntarenas Court of Justice, obscurely allowed 22 poachers caught red-handed to escape the country.
Also under highly suspicious and allegedly corrupt circumstances, the District Attorney Michael Morales Molina, stopped the auction for public benefit of confiscated goods, immediately after the spokesman of the large illegal poacher ship "Tiuna" simply made the request.
Cocos Island in fiction
The book Desert Island proposed the highly detailed theory that Daniel Defoe used the Isla dell Cocoze as an accurate model for his descriptions of the island inhabited by the marooned Robinson Crusoe. However Defoe placed Crusoe's island not in the Pacific, but rather off the coast of Venezuela in the Atlantic Ocean.
Robinson's neighbouring Terra Firma is shown on the colour map of Joannes Jansson (Amsterdam) depicting the northeastern corner of South America, entitled Terra Firma et Novum Regnum Granatense et Popayan. It belongs to the early group of plates printed by William Blaeu from 1630 onwards. The properly called Terra Firma was the Isthmus of Darien. Crusoe's two references to Mexico are against a South American island as well.
The Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park centers on the fictitious Isla Nublar that is off of the west coast of Costa Rica. Isla del Coco may be the inspiration for this island. Supporting this argument is the Dreamworks Interactive game Jurassic Park: Trespasser (1998) which used Cocos Island's topography as a substitute for the fictional island on which it takes place. Also, "Isla Nublar" is intended to mean "Cloudy Island", and Cocos Island is the only island with cloud forests in the eastern Pacific.