Photo: Surgeonfish amid a school of yellow snappers

Surgeonfish amid a school of yellow snappers

Photograph by Enric Sala

A Message of Hope

Thursday, October 1, 2009 / 10:31am Posted by Enric Sala

We have returned to mainland Costa Rica, after three amazing weeks at  Cocos Island and Las Gemelas seamounts. What have we learned?

We learned that Cocos National Park has the largest biomass of predators measured to date on Pacific tropical marine ecosystems. At Las Gemelas, we found a complex underwater mountain system harboring an amazing ecosystem with rich biodiversity, including deep sea corals, sponges, crabs, sea urchins, starfishes, sea cucumbers, and deep sea fish. However, the abundance of large fishes such as groupers at Las Gemelas was smaller than at the same habitats within the protected Cocos Island National Park. Despite strong illegal fishing pressure within the park’s waters, Cocos is still an extraordinary place of unique global value. As we showed in our online videos, the frontline protection is largely due to the consistency of daily efforts of the Cocos park rangers from ACMIC (Área de  Conservación Marina Isla del Coco), the Costa Rican Coast Guard, and the conservation organization MarViva.

Together, armed with a handful of small boats and great determination and passion, they patrol the park, deter illegal fishermen, and confiscate illegal fishing gear before it can cause more harm day after day. We’ve accompanied them on several occasions, and were amazed by their passion, professionalism and complete dedication. Sun or rain, day or night, they conduct their work tirelessly. People do not realize how hard this work is.

We assume the smaller abundance of large fishes at Las Gemelas is due to fishing, because we found many fishing lines tangled on the seamounts. The good news is that there are still many smaller fishes, so predators could recover if given the opportunity. In the next months we will have more information extracted from the videos we took from the DeepSee submarine, including how many new species we found.

The facts are there in the numbers: there are more fishers than protectors, and as with many MPAs the world over, we witnessed that current efforts need further support.

The good news, and the message of hope, is that Cocos Island National Park, the Costa Rica Coast Guard, a few conservation organizations including MarViva, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, PRETOMA, Fundación Amigos de la Isla del Coco, CIMAR, plus other research institutions and several donors are working hard to preserve this jewel of the ocean. They are an example for all Costa Ricans and  the world.

The Pirates Cove

Monday, September 28, 2009 / 01:48 pm, Posted by Avi Klapfer, Undersea Hunter Group

Through the years, many visitors to Cocos Island have carved their names into large stones on the beach at Chatham Bay. Here’s something unusual, two dots and two arrows. Who do you think made these peculiar engravings on the rock?

Pirates. Absolutely. Somebody was here many years ago, standing here at this stone on Chatham Bay. He carved these markings. He’s long dead by now. They probably took the treasure, buried it at the next cove, and left other markings on a rock there for someone to decipher.

We don’t know exactly where it’s pointed, but it looks like the headland over there and Manuelita Island. And in fact, several decades ago people found an actual treasure chest in a cave on Manuelita that’s only exposed at low tide. The chest was hanging on a chain in the back of the cave. People have spent lifetimes searching for the pirate treasures thought to be buried here at Cocos, but that’s the only chest found yet that I’m  aware of.

Chatham Bay would be one of the best places to land if you were carrying a heavy load. The problem with this island, though, is that it’s  ever-changing. When you ride around it in a boat, you see so many landslides. The landscape is constantly evolving. You hide a treasure on Cocos Island, and then the island hides it from you.

There was a big rock near here that also had markings for treasure. It eluded people for many years, until they dug under the rock and found letters and names that were written upside down. They figured out that the rock had actually rolled downhill, and they were following the wrong clue.

Now, of course, we know where the real treasure is at Cocos Island. It’s under the water, and we find it every time we come here.

Video: River of Sharks

Monday, September 28, 2009 /  10:32am Posted by Enric Sala

The night belongs to whitetip reef sharks, which sleep by day but patrol the seafloor after dark near Cocos Island.

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Video: Into the Abyss

Sunday, September 27, 2009 /  09:08pm, Posted by Enric Sala

With the DeepSee submersible, Enric Sala, Sylvia Earle, Jorge Cortés, and other expedition scientists probe depths beyond the reach of scuba divers at Cocos Island and Las Gemelas seamounts.

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When We Fished Here by Hand

Sunday, September 27, 2009 / 09:43am, Posted by José "Pepe"  Luís García

Twenty years ago, I was fishing tuna out here near Cocos Island in a small Costa Rican boat. There were a lot of fish for the fishermen back then. There weren’t many people coming here—only five or six fishing  boats, small-liners to fish tuna. Really small. People didn’t like to come here, because it was so far away. There was no GPS then, no deep sounders. We had only our compass and a sextant to get positions.

Normally, we came out here together, two or three boats. When we came, we placed only small fishing lines with 50, 60, 70 hooks, because we hauled in everything by hand. Now everything is hydraulic, you put miles  and miles and miles of fishing line in the water. And to recover it, you just push a button and keep the line coming in. But back then, you needed to work the line by hand. There were only eight of us on a boat: Captain, chief engineer, and crew. We all worked really hard.

We came to catch tuna. In those days, the tuna we took were bigger than me: two meters long and 150, 200, 225 pounds. We sold the fish on the market in Costa Rica, at the dock in Puntarenas. And there were lots of fish in the fishery, not like now. Sometimes we caught sharks, too. The difference was that in the market, they took everything, all of the shark, it wasn’t wasted. Not like now, just the fins—they took the entire shark and the fins.

It was hard to come here, hard fishing, hard to go back. Every four or five trips, something happened, a broken engine, something. That’s why we didn’t come alone. Every now and then, we’d smell smoke. Everyone would head below decks. Maybe it was something electrical, the cables, and the engine was done. The only people to call were the other boats.  We’d pass a line, and they’d pull us, tow us all the way home.

On one of the trips our engine failed. We passed the line to another boat and they started towing us. Eight hours later, they called us:  “Hey, hey, hey, we need to stop. Our engine is very hot! We need to  stop.” By then, our engine was a little bit better. So we shifted the line from the bow to the stern and we started pulling them. We kept switching back and forth, every few hours, all the way back to port. It took us 54 hours to get home! Now we can do the trip in 30 hours.  Unbelievable.

Now that I know about the sharks and the tuna, how they’re getting fished out, I’m glad to bring people here to the island to see the fish instead of coming out in a fishing boat to catch them.

I have three kids back home on the shore. They’re all following this expedition on the blog, and all their teachers and school friends are too. They’re very excited about what we’re doing out here. My oldest tells me she wants to be a doctor. And the second one wants to be a scientist, a biologist, maybe a marine biologist like many of the people out here on the expedition. But when I ask my youngest, he still says  “Papa, when I grow up, I want to drive a fast skiff on the water, just  like you!”

Turtle Tracks and Long Lines

Saturday, September 26, 2009 / 02:27pm, Posted by Allan Bolaños Quirós

PRETOMA works with turtles. Four years ago, we started tagging turtles at Cocos and the tiny islands nearby to see if they stayed around or just passed by. We found out that, most of the time, they stay around the island—they’re residents here.

One thing that worries PRETOMA is that the tuna fishery is also catching turtles, sharks, and so many different species. So we’re trying to help protect this area and to show people how important it is for marine wildlife. We need to know more; we don’t know everything—we’re still learning.

How many turtles has PRETOMA tagged and why?

Right now, we’re tracking 12 turtles. It’s something new: We began with sharks, but we’ve seen that Cocos Island has a large sea turtle population, so we’re interested in following this population along with the sharks that we’re monitoring.

Have you seen anything during this expedition that surprised you, or that you’d like to follow up on?

Yes. The videographers filmed sea turtles mating. I’ve seen this outside in the open sea, but I didn’t think they did this here near the island. It’ll be helpful to find out if they lay eggs on the two beaches here at Cocos. We’re tagging them with additional markers to give us more information about this. It’s something I only just learned of from the videos being made here now—we wouldn’t know if it weren’t for this expedition.

You work closely with a number of fishermen working the waters just outside the park. Have they seen changes in their catch in recent years?

Yes. They know there is a big problem. They know there’s overfishing. You don’t need to be an expert to know that the population of fish is declining. Every day, it’s less and less and less. And that’s why there’s so much pressure on the island’s protected waters. It’s the only place where fish can reproduce and keep the rest of the population, you might say, half-healthy.

The pressure on the island’s marine life populations now is tremendously high because outside there’s almost nothing. There are too many boats with a thousand hooks, with a hundred lines, miles of lines outside pushing their way in. It’s a fight between some fishermen and coast guard and park rangers trying to protect the park and the future of the fishery. So yes, overfishing makes a difference here, and the fishermen know it makes a difference. But they need to keep alive, they have bosses, and they need money to keep living. So the push to fish both inside and outside the park keeps growing and growing.

Who fishes here?

You can see big tuna boats from Taiwan and lots of other countries. Costa Ricans are also coming out to fish the waters, but there are many other countries fishing here now.

Have you seen any encouraging changes in the park or the fishery?

I think the sort of work we’re doing now, that shows people in Costa Rica and in other countries what’s going on, can only help. I bet most people don’t even know what’s really happening in the open sea. The kind of programs and videos we’re making now will show people the reality of what’s going on in the ocean, things they need to know.

My hope is that people will see this and learn that we are in trouble, that the sea is in trouble. People can make a difference, make better choices, but only if they see what’s going on.

Slideshow: Cocos - Forest Primeval

Friday, September 25, 2009 / 04:46pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

The team shares photographs from a hike through Cocos Island’s rain forest, from Wafer Bay to Genio Falls, then up and over a ridge to Chatham Bay.

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The Gentle Giant

Friday, September 25, 2009 / 09:36am, Posted by Octavio Aburto

Despite their big mouths and their amazing size—up to 15 meters—whale sharks are harmless to humans. They feed on zooplankton, larvae of several species, and small species such as crabs, shrimp, and jellyfish. They are attracted to seamounts and offshore promontories such as Cocos, because currents bring their food to these sites.

With its huge body, a whale shark can be the perfect home for some tagalong species. Remora fish usually are seen in large numbers and on several parts of the whale sharks: their tails, their bellies, and near their mouths. While remoras feed on the shark’s leftovers, it is unknown whether whale sharks receive any benefits from the presence of the remoras.

Even large groups of mullet snappers, fish often more than a meter in length, look small beside the magnificence of a whale shark.

Whale sharks migrate hundreds of kilometers every year. Even though it is extremely difficult to monitor their travels, it has been shown that the dot patterns on whale sharks differ among individuals, like human fingerprints. Using the patterns on the left side of the sharks, it has been possible to create a growing catalog, which is shared among several local monitoring programs around the world to help track their movements.

Video: Illegal Lines: The Toll on Cocos

Friday, September 25, 2009 / 08:44am, Posted by Enric Sala

At the Wafer Bay ranger station on Cocos Island, defenders of the park’s protected waters—including staff and volunteers with Costa Rica’s national park service (ACMIC), the Costa Rican Coast Guard, MarViva, and PRETOMA—fight an uphill battle to safeguard marine life from rampant illegal fishing.

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Video: Turtle Dance

Thursday, September 24, 2009 / 08:44pm, Posted by Manu San Félix and Leandro Blanco

Green turtles gather near Dirty Rock, Roca Sucia, off Cocos Island's north coast.

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Are We Killing Cocos?

Thursday, September 24, 2009 / 09:09am, Posted by Enric Sala

The last three days, we have witnessed firsthand what’s killing the oceans. It was like waking up from the most wonderful dream to the crudest reality.

We spent two weeks experiencing nature at its best in Cocos Island National Park. Every dive we saw large schools of predators such as hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, mullet snapper, and bigeye trevally. Every night, we witnessed ferocious hunting by a pack of 100 whitetip sharks. We couldn’t believe that so much life could exist underwater.

The Jellies of Las Gemelas

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 / 04:43pm, Posted by Bruce Robison

Bruce Robison is a Deep Sea Ecologist and his research focuses on the biology and ecology of deep-sea animals. We spoke with Bruce about his observations so far on this expedition.

Tell us what your observations in the DeepSee sub reveal about the gelatinous creatures you study.

We know that diversity in the tropics is generally very high. But some of the things that are seldom measured are the relative abundance and composition of the animal groups that we refer to as gelatinous animals or jelly plankton. There are relatively few opportunities to assess these animals because, for the most part, they are delicately constructed.

They have gelatinous bodies, so when nets are dragged through the water, the nets turn the jellies into so much mush. Then at the end of the net tow, the cod end is poured out and there are some fishes and some shrimp and maybe if you’re lucky a squid or two. And this big layer of goo on the top—that is an indistinguishable mass really—that used to be gelatinous animals. There’s no way to identify them or to count them or to have any idea of what they represent in the ecosystem.

So I’ve been pleased to see that there’s a great diversity of gelatinous animals here. On one dive we saw five different kinds of comb jellies. That reinforces our suspicion that diversity in the gelatinous plankton here around the island is also very high. And that also reflects a healthy ecosystem in the park, an ecosystem that isn’t too badly damaged, because its diversity is still intact.

Abundance may have changed through a variety of human influences, but the basic components of a healthy ecosystem are still here. We know that a diverse ecosystem is a stable ecosystem. The greater the species diversity you have within a system, the greater its ability to respond to stresses and to bounce back from perturbations. So the signal that we’re seeing here is that, yes, there’s considerable diversity here. That gives us confidence that the system can bounce back.

From your standpoint, what are some of the most extraordinary things about this expedition to Cocos Island and Las Gemelas?

All of us have areas of expertise, and we can gratify our curiosity and interest about those particular kinds of animals. But in addition, because this is an integrated expedition, we’re also able to learn about all the other animals that may not be our particular specialties. So in addition to looking at fishes and invertebrates that swim through and that are attached to the rock walls and the sandy seafloor, we’re also able to look out into the water column around the submersible as many of the pelagic animals drift by us.

So one of the best parts of this, in addition to working on the things that I like best, is to be able to put together an overall picture of the different kinds of animals that are part of these ecosystems. I’m seeing animals that I don’t usually get to study. I’m an open ocean deep sea water column kind of scientist, those are the animals that I’ve focused on. Yet here we’re addressing the animals associated with the seafloor and the rocky walls that comprise the sides of the islands and the seamounts here. So I’m getting to go back to a time earlier in my career when I learned about all those animals as well. Fortunately, it’s all coming back quickly. But so much has been learned since I began studying benthic animals that there’s plenty to catch up on.

I started out studying fishes. Then as I began working in deep water, I began to study cephalopods, and then I began to study gelatinous animals, simply because all of those animals were there as well as my fishes and I could not ignore them.

So being able to work with Rick Starr in particular, and dive back down and look at these fishes, and to see the great diversity of not only shape and size and color and form, but also the behavior patterns and the ways that they interact, has really been satisfying and fun—to see these fish communities in all of their detail.

Are there any thoughts you’d like to share with young people who are following the expedition?

One of the things that I learned in school that I didn’t expect to learn was that it’s possible to have a job that’s really enjoyable and fun. One of the best lessons about an expedition like this—where we get to do exciting, important things in interesting, far-off places—is that when you wrap it all together and you go to sea with a bunch of good people, science is really fun.

It’s compelling. It’s challenging. It matters. It’s everything you hope a job can be. And in the midst of all of this, more than once, you look at the person in the sub with you, the person in the boat with you pounding through the swells off to a dive site. Or just standing outside in the wind and the rains having a good time and thinking that you put in a lot to get here. But then you say “All of this, and they’re paying us too!”

Science is an exciting career. It has a lot to offer, physical and mental challenges. And for some people, that’s a combination that can’t be beat.

Video: A Lethal Web

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 / 08:57am, Posted by Enric Sala

The Costa Rican coast guard calls with news: They’ve discovered illegal fishing lines in protected waters just a few miles from Cocos Island—something that happens with alarming (and increasing) frequency. The team hurries out, and is dismayed by what they find.

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Bioluminescence: Fireflies in the Dome

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 / 01:22pm, Posted by Edie Widder

We’ve been making these spectacular dives, and they’ve all been magnificent. But I’ve been lucky enough to score the night dives, which are my favorites. At the end of each dive, we turn out all the lights, and we come up through the water in total darkness except for the bioluminescence that we’re stimulating.

The pilot releases the ballast. The bubbles come up and form a bubble field above the dome, and they tickle all the luminescent plankton in the water. The pilot also activates the thrusters, and they swirl up out of the thrusters, just like when you throw a log on a campfire and the embers swirl up out of the campfire. Only these are blue embers. And they’re swirling all around the dome.

So we’re in this magic little three-person planetarium that is this swirling field of stars. There’s this really bizarre effect: You get a field of little lights, like the Milky Way. Then the euphausiids come in, the krill, and they have brighter lights. They’re like fireflies flying through the dome, some kind of optical illusion.

We reach up and try to touch them. We know we can’t, but it just seems like they’re right there. It’s just the most magical, magical show you could ever imagine.

Why do these creatures bioluminesce? What’s the advantage for them?

Bioluminescence is actually really common in the ocean. Most people don’t know this, but if you go out in the open ocean environment offshore, 80 to 90 percent of the creatures in the upper thousand meters of the ocean make light. They use it to find food, to attract mates, to defend themselves against predators. The little plankton that we’re seeing right now—the copepods and euphausiid shrimp and possibly dinoflagellates—they’re flashing to protect themselves. It’s a defense mechanism.

But there are others that use light to attract mates, and to lure food to them. In the deep sea there are things such as angler fish that have luminescent lures to attract food. And there are a lot of things that have built-in flashlights to be able to see out into the darkness.
It’s an amazing adaptation, and a lot of animals have it.

Video: Four Men, 500 Hooks

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 / 10:03am, Posted by Enric Sala

The team joins a fishing vessel some 25 miles south of Cocos, beyond the no-take zone surrounding the island. Hard work produces scant results in these heavily-fished waters.

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Video: Dive at Dirty Rock

Monday, September 21, 2009 / 01:30pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

A few members of the Ocean Now team go for a morning dive at Dirty Rock near Cocos Island.

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Technology of Jules Verne's Dreams to Scan the Sea

Sunday, September 20, 2009 / 02:48pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

A few evenings ago, after working through a long day and much of the night, someone put on the old film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and we huddled in the Hanse Explorer’s den to watch it. Jules Verne’s novel, written more than a century ago, predicted so much of this: Suits with air tanks for breathing and working underwater, a remote volcanic island in the tropical Pacific, hidden seamounts, an array of sensors for scientific data collection, and a futuristic, high-tech submersible with big windows designed to take people places none had ever seen before.

But between the Hanse Explorer and the Argo, we’ve brought a remarkable array of state-of-the-art technology tools to the tasks of understanding and documenting the Cocos and Las Gemelas ecosystems.

Of course, there’s the DeepSee submarine, mounted on the Argo until unveiled, hoisted into the ocean, and driven into the abyss. The DeepSee’s transparent, spherical Plexiglas passenger compartment is a giant eye that seats three for four-hour, 1,400-foot journeys to new frontiers of human observation. What a difference a quarter-mile can make—from the known, the visible, and the familiar to the mysterious unseen unknown.

DeepSee has gear for bringing back more than its awestruck passengers. The sub’s intense lights illuminate depths at which sunlight barely glimmers. A video camera mounted in front records everything that scrolls before the sub. Twin lasers cast beams in parallel lines ahead, one foot apart, to give scale to wondrous creatures and landscapes. And DeepSee’s mechanical arm and bucket make it possible to retrieve samples from below, so that marine biologists topside can begin to address questions such as: Is this species new to science? Is that sponge or coral or urchin unique to Las Gemelas—or perhaps even to just one of the two seamounts, themselves distinct and separately evolved ecosystems?

In addition to pilot safety checklists for before, during, and after every dive, the sub also has an array of failsafe systems to ensure its crew returns from the crushing depths they visit. The sub is always kept “positively buoyant,” which means that if it isn’t driven, it will slowly drift upward until it emerges at the surface. Both passengers also know—basic training—what to do if a pilot is somehow incapacitated, in order to accelerate the ascent.

Scientists on the Hanse Explorer wield some sophisticated technology of their own. Alan Friedlander and Brian Zgliczynski have brought environmental sensors to Cocos, to record water conditions such as temperature and salinity at several depths over time. They’re placing these at carefully selected locations around the island. The data they capture will be crucial to understanding how conditions change here during larger climatic cycles, such as the transition to and from El Niño. They’ve also brought pop-up tags, which they plan to attach to sharks. These broadcast their position to satellites when the creatures approach the surface, helping unravel the mysteries of long-range shark migration.

Allan Bolaños Quirós of the Costa Rican NGO Pretoma, working to protect wild sea turtles, has brought tags and transmitters to attach to several of these gentle giants. And Kyler Abernathy brought along a custom engineered Crittercam (described in a recent post on the Ocean Now blog) to capture a shark’s eye view of Cocos.

The marine ecologists use geographic information system (GIS) software to record their finds, utilizing the same navigational satellites that enable our ships to navigate here across hundreds of miles of open ocean without a hitch. Meanwhile, from above, the GeoEye 1 satellite collects new ultra-high-resolution imagery of Cocos Island and the surrounding waters to support the team’s work, courtesy of GeoEye. And Google Earth updates its Ocean Expedition layer daily as we share new information, so that anyone with Internet access can follow the progress of our investigations on their breathtaking digital globe.

Finally, the digital media and communications tools we’ve brought to tell the Cocos and Las Gemelas story would do Captain Nemo proud. Filmmakers Manu and Leandro both have Sony EX-1 digital camcorders with brilliant underwater lights and elaborate deep-dive custom-built waterproof housings delivered just days before the expedition. They have enough rechargeable battery packs and digital storage capacity to complete as many as six or more dives each day—the number they sometimes take to keep pace with Enric Sala, our expedition leader and resident ‘dolphin’. Enric and Octavio Aburto both have high-resolution digital cameras with high-intensity lights and large underwater housings.

Everyone brought laptops.

I travel light, with two tiny Canon SD1100 IS point-and-shoot cameras, an Olympus Stylus Tough-8000 point-and-shoot that’s waterproof to 30 feet, and two MacBook Pro laptops for writing, collecting photos, and producing short videos. My Hughes INMARSAT satellite transmitter has worked like a charm, and given me a good excuse to sit out under unfamiliar stars on the top deck of the Hanse Explorer many nights during the expedition. Without it, none of this would be reaching you from remote Cocos Island.

Oh, almost forgot—we brought our scuba gear, too…

Jules Verne predicted that, when people were ready to use them wisely, the futuristic technologies Captain Nemo wielded would become available to humankind once more. As we live Verne’s dreams, we can only hope our reverence for the natural wonders of Cocos and Las Gemelas would satisfy that high standard.

Crittercam Films Cocos Through Animal Eyes

Saturday, September 19, 2009 / 01:09pm, Posted by Kyler Abernathy

The Crittercam is an animal-borne imaging and data collection device. More simply, it’s a camera with various environmental sensors that we put on animals temporarily to learn about them and record their behavior in times and places where humans can’t go—or where if we did go, it would disturb the animals’ natural behavior.

We’ve deployed Crittercam on 53 different species to date. We’re hoping to add to that total at Cocos. Our first hope here is to deploy Crittercam on the hammerheads that Cocos is famous for—the iconic sharks of Cocos Island.

It’s well-known that hammerheads come to Cocos: People are drawn here from all over the world to see them. But not that much is known about their behavior. The so-called “cleaning stations” where divers go to see them have been observed quite a bit. But when sharks leave those cleaning stations, where do they go? What do they do? Those are big mysteries still, and the kinds of questions that Crittercam could help resolve.

If we can attach a Crittercam on a hammerhead safely, we hope to get video that provides some answers. Does it swim away from the island? Is it feeding? Is it socializing? Does it interact with other sharks? Does it interact with any other marine organisms?

For sharks such as hammerheads, we use a fin-clamp to attach the Crittercam. It’s non-invasive and very quick, basically two arms attached at the front with a spring hinge. It closes on the dorsal fin, so the camera rides along on the fin filming out over the shark’s head. After a set period of time recording, and at least an hour or so before nightfall if that comes first (so we have a better chance of retrieving it), the clamp springs open and the camera floats to the surface, leaving the shark completely unharmed. A radio beacon in the Crittercam helps us track it down wherever it’s bobbing in the surf.

There are other species here that are equally unknown—their biology, their natural history. So maybe we can also find  a silky shark, a Galapagos shark, a silvertip shark, maybe even a tiger shark. They may not be quite as famous as the hammerheads here at Cocos, but they’re just as mysterious and just as important to the ecosystem and I think we could get some really interesting information.

Field biology and working with Crittercam are really exciting. I love being in the water, being near these animals. It’s a lot of hard work: We’re up at 3:30 in the morning to get out on the water before dawn, sitting out in the rain, staying up late working on equipment. But it all becomes worth it when you get that beautiful encounter with the animal, when you get the Crittercam deployed and you get it back, and you see that amazing video—seeing things that no one has ever seen before. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

I came straight here from a trip to Baja California, where we deployed Crittercam for the very first time on Humboldt squid. This is a squid that gets to be five or six feet long. (That’s a lot of calamari!) But we weren’t really sure if they could carry Crittercam. It was the first invertebrate we’d ever put a camera on. They’re very soft-bodied animals. We just weren’t sure how well it would work, and how they would behave wearing this hard object attached to them.

So it was exciting, but the outcome was very uncertain. We got some good deployments, we got the video back, and we saw some of the most amazing footage of the way the squid interacted. We got visuals of these squid hanging in mid-water in large groups. Nothing I’d really even envisioned before. So just as it’s done many times in the past, Crittercam provided us with a view of the animal’s world that we had not ever imagined.

I’m hoping we can do something like that here at Cocos.

A Galaxy Within a Galaxy

Friday, September 18, 2009 / 08:37pm, Posted by Kristen Green

Describe your first dive at Las Gemelas, which was also your first dive in a deep submersible.

It was a little surreal to realize that all of a sudden, you’re at 300 meters for the first time, enclosed in the submersible, and seeing these incredible things that you would see at an aquarium—but you realize you’re actually at the bottom of the ocean, watching it in real time.

How is it different from scuba diving, being down that deep?

In some ways, I think it’s a mix between looking through a scuba mask and being in an aquarium, but then you realize you’re actually in a place you’ve never been before. You’re trying to compare it to something that you have seen, and you’re looking around, seeing the deep habitat, seeing fishes that look unfamiliar that you would never see at scuba-diving depths. It’s pretty exciting!

What was the most striking thing you saw on your dive?

The bioluminescence, absolutely. Seeing that coming up in total darkness—sitting at the bottom of the ocean in total darkness, and then as you started to move seeing these little animals start to produce light out of nowhere, and feeling like you’re within in a galaxy within a galaxy. I’ve never seen anything like that. That was something I could not prepare myself for, and never expected.

What’s it like inside the sub?

It’s pretty comfortable. You’re sitting there in this dry, enclosed space, looking out and seeing the bottom of the ocean for the first time. Wearing the jumpsuits they have you wear when you go down in the sub, it’s like diving in your pajamas.

Is it disorienting?

You can see daylight on a day dive, you can see the surface. It looks lighter at the top to a certain depth. But then at night, you can’t. It’s a little disorienting, because you really don’t know which way is up. You see some currents go by and you can kind of tell which way the water’s moving. But at that point I was so enthralled by what was going on outside that I wasn’t really thinking about which way was up.

How did you get here?

I was in the right place at the right time. My advisor, Rick Starr, has done a lot of submersible work. I’m a graduate student with Rick’s group at Moss Landing Marine Labs, and I’ve worked for him on different projects for a long time. He invited me to come out on this research cruise with him. So I’m fortunate to be here with all these incredible, renowned ecologists.

Anything else you’d like to share about the Ocean Now expedition?

So far, the week or so that I’ve been here, I’ve never been surrounded by so much marine biology in my entire life. I’ve never had that experience before. Not just in the outside environment. I’ve done a lot of fieldwork in my time as a graduate student. But I have the combination of the fieldwork here, the fun of just jumping in the ocean and seeing animals immediately, and then the constant science talk from all these biologists that have been doing it for 30, 40 years. To have that perspective from them, as well as to be seeing it in real life, has been a pretty incredible experience out here, and different from anything I’ve ever seen.

Kingdom of the Sharks

Friday, September 18, 2009 / 10:43am, Posted by Ford Cochran

It’s mealtime for silvertip sharks, which own this patch of blue just a stone’s throw off Cocos Island.

Colorful reef fish—red bigscale soliderfish and blue and gold snappers—are wise to stick close to hiding places in the rock with packs of white-tips on the prowl nearby.

This silvertip shark conjures a famous line from the film Jaws: "You’re gonna need a bigger boat."

Truth be told, with fishing threatening their future in much of the sea, these sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them. We have already hooked or netted at least ninety percent of them in the last 50 years. Perhaps they’re gonna need a bigger ocean.

Diving the Gemelas Seamounts

Thursday, September 17, 2009 / 04:32pm, Posted by Sylvia Earle

I’m here near Cocos Island five degrees north of the Equator in the eastern Pacific with two ships, the Hanse Explorer and the Argo. I’m on board the Argo, which has a beautiful little submarine called the DeepSee. On the surface, there’s a support boat that’s called the TopSee. (Every now and then, someone makes a mistake, and we call that a whoopsie. We have been at sea a while…..)

We’re all having a lot of fun out here, and accomplishing a lot of good scientific observations—actually, a few breakthroughs! We were able to go out to two seamounts that have never been looked at with a submarine before. You can’t dive them, because they’re too deep.

The only way they’ve been sampled before is by fishermen. There’s plenty of evidence of that, because during the four dives that we made on them during the past week, we could see literally miles of fishing line wrapped around and around and around these beautiful undersea mountains.

We even saw a big grouper that had a hook still attached in its mouth, and a long line that had been there so long that growth was on the line. He was an awfully skinny grouper, because I think he had trouble feeding. It really breaks your heart to see what happens when derelict fishing gear causes problems for the creatures here. Not just those immediately caught, but those that suffer beyond the time of the fishing.

Generally, though, it’s good news:

We have seen lots of fish, corals that are recovering from El Niño years when much of the coral dies. Here’s the thing: During the last strong El Niño, about 90 percent of the coral here at Cocos died. Jorge Cortés, the chief Costa Rican scientist on this ship, who has studied this area for many years, points out that if 90 percent of a rain forest died, people would be up in arms.  They would be so concerned! When 90 percent of the coral reef dies, people are concerned, but they don’t react with quite the same passion that they do when something on the land happens that everybody can see.

Underwater, our job partly is to demonstrate the problems that are occurring, and why it matters to everybody—why what happens to the ocean affects you wherever you are, and also how what we do affects the ocean in a way that is important for us to understand. The ocean gives us the oxygen we breathe. Most of the oxygen we inhale comes from the sea. The water that falls out of the sky largely originates in the sea. So you don’t have to be living by the sea to be living by the sea, because the sea really governs life, everybody’s life. It’s really important for us to understand that, so that we can do a better job of taking care of the ocean that takes care of us.

Slideshow: Island of Waterfalls~Continued

Thursday, September 17, 2009 / 08:40am, Posted by Ford Cochran

Leandro Blanco, one of the two professional videographers on our team (after a 30-year career as an airline pilot), invited me out for the afternoon to shoot locations on Cocos. The island is renowned for its hundreds of spectacular waterfalls, and he’s determined to film some of them for the documentary he and Manu San Felix will make about this expedition.

Watch Video

Video: Cocos Revealed

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 / 04:58pm, Posted by Leandro Blanco and Manu San Félix

In this video Leandro Blanco and Manu San Félix present a revealing look at the amazing sea life at Cocos Island, including an appearance by the extraordinary frogfish.

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First Glimpses of Las Gemelas

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 / 01:17pm, Posted by Edie Widder and Bruce Robison

Dr. Edie Widder and Dr. Bruce Robison are working aboard the Argo with Sylvia Earle and other marine scientists, along with the ship’s owner, Avi Klapfer, and crew. They have just completed the initial dives on Las Gemelas seamounts in the DeepSee submersible.

WIDDER: We were fortunate enough to make the first dive on Las Gemelas. To see a seamount that no one’s ever explored before was just a fantastic experience. And of course when you go down into something like that you have no idea what you’re going to see. It could be spectacular. It could be really disappointing; it was spectacular.

ROBISON: We were very surprised at the diversity of animals we saw, and also the abundance of animals—all sorts of fishes and invertebrates all over the rocks. It was in places very colorful. Many of the rocks were covered with a whole variety of different kinds of creatures.

WIDDER: Besides all the beautiful invertebrates and vertebrates, the fish, there was fishing line everywhere, just covering the rocks. In fact it was a little bit unnerving, because you have to watch that the submersible doesn’t get caught in those fishing lines. But it was very interesting to see how much fishing line was out there, recognize how many fish had been removed from that habitat, and wonder what it would have looked like had that not happened. Because it’s lush, it’s beautiful, but there should be a lot of groupers out there (for example) and we saw only a few. It’s still a very, very special place, and it was just astonishing to see the diversity of life, the abundance of it, the color of it, the variation of form. Every square inch of those rocks was covered with life.

ROBISON: Even though there was plenty of evidence that this area has been heavily impacted by fishing, the seeds of recovery are clearly there. Under the right circumstances, this deep seamount could bounce back and regain the kind of diversity and abundance that it clearly had in the past.

WIDDER: For example, all these little red fish you see on the screen (see third image below) are the food source for groupers. So there’s plenty of food. If they’re just left on their own, they’ve got a very good chance of recovering.

As scientists, what are some of the questions you ask, and observations you have to make, when you begin to investigate an unknown site such as this?

WIDDER: This first question is just ‘what’s there?’. That question always leads to more questions, because once you find what’s there, then you wonder what’s supporting what’s there, what’s missing, and how do these things all mesh together into the great whole that we see out there. What constitutes this ecosystem? What is needed to keep it healthy? What has impacted it in the past, and what will impact it in the future?

ROBISON: We’re also looking for patterns in the structure of the way these animals are distributed. What are the sorts of community groups that occur together, and which ones are separate? We seek to understand the zonation – which kinds of animals occur at which depth ranges. Or the different kinds of habitat they have to live in: Is it rock? Is it sand? Is it a combination of both? What kinds of animals live in each kind of habitat?

WIDDER: And those aren’t easy questions to answer, because we’ve only dove on two of the seamounts out there, and we’ve already seen a remarkable difference, and in ways that aren’t obvious right now as to why those difference occur.

Costa Rica Saved Its Most Precious Treasure

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 / 07:51am, Posted by Enric Sala

Cocos Island captured our imagination before our expedition; in the middle of it, it is capturing our hearts. Cocos is a National Park, a World Heritage Site, a marine protected area where fishing is not allowed, with the goal of preserving its unique marine life. We have seen many sharks on every single dive, shallow or deep, and many schools of from hundreds to thousands of fish. The predator biomass here is among the largest in the world. It is actually difficult to believe that there can be so many fishes and so many predators.

Above water, Costa Rica is famous across the world for its magnificent parks, the biodiversity of its cloud forest, and its commitment to protecting nature. The country of Costa Rica has set aside a very high percentage of its land for wildlife protection and eternal public enjoyment. People need to know and understand why, below the sea, Costa Rica is every bit as much a natural treasure.

Cocos is the most emblematic marine protected area of Costa Rica, and I would say of all of the Americas. Not only does it protect the marine life that lives within its boundaries—12 miles around its shores—but it is also a key stepping stone for species that migrate large distances in the Eastern tropical Pacific, such as endangered turtles and sharks. These species use biological corridors—underwater highways for marine species—to move between feeding and breeding grounds. This migration may be as monumental as that of the wildebeest in the Serengeti, only unseen.

The marine protected area around Cocos provides many benefits to Costa Rica and the world. In addition to the ecological benefits within its boundaries, it brings important tourist revenues, it provides a haven for species to reproduce and replenish nearby fishing grounds, and it provides unique scientific and educational opportunities.

We came to Cocos because in Ocean Now we’re trying to survey and show the last pristine places in the ocean. Cocos may have suffered from warming events—such as the 1997 El Niño that killed many corals—and illegal fishing, but it is still very well preserved, thanks to the heroic work of park rangers, coast guard staff, and conservation organizations. I only hope it remains in good health, because a world without Cocos would be much poorer.

Video: Hammerhead Sky

Monday, September 14, 2009 / 03:56pm, Posted by Enric Sala

We just came back from an amazing dive! We were diving on a pinnacle. There were so many jacks around it, and hammerheads. The hammerheads came over us. It was really, really beautiful.

Then when we were in the boat, we saw all this movement on the surface. It was a “bait ball,” a school of snappers and other fish …  mackerel and tuna and sharks. It was simply amazing.

Then we went to another site and we saw the most beautiful fish, an orange fish that looks like a sponge. It’s a frogfish. It doesn’t have traditional fins. It doesn’t swim. It has transformed fins that are like feet, and it walks on the bottom.

Such a remarkable site!

Cocos is truly amazing. I’m so glad this place is protected.

Watch Video

Slideshow: Island of Waterfalls

Monday, September 14, 2009 / 02:36pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

Leandro Blanco, one of the two professional videographers on our team (after a 30-year career as an airline pilot), invited me out for the afternoon to shoot locations on Cocos. The island is renowned for its hundreds of spectacular waterfalls, and he’s determined to film some of them for the documentary he and Manu San Felix will make about this expedition.

Watch Video

Video: We Met Your Turtle!

Sunday, September 13, 2009 / 08:37am, Posted by Sylvia Earle

Yesterday was packed with action! There were two sub dives, one at 100 meters and one at 300 meters. I haven’t yet made my first dive in the sub, but I’m looking forward to that today.

The news is really wonderful. In addition to the sub dives, there were SCUBA dives. I made two of those, two nice long returns for me to Cocos to meet some old friends and find some new ones, too.

We found a turtle that had a tag on it, a satellite tag. A very friendly turtle, actually—it was a hawksbill that hadn’t apparently been distressed by its contact with human beings.  Pictures were taken. We gave it a big smile - and it gave us a turtle smile back - then took off into the blue!

Somebody somewhere is tracking that turtle. I hope that we find out who it is so we can let them know “We met your turtle!”

Today, Bruce Robison and I will be making a descent in the Deep See submarine. Our destination is about 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) down, in a place that has only been looked at a couple of times. We expect to find some new things, and again to see some old friends.

Yesterday, when Eddie Widder and Jorge Cortés first made their descent a sailfish came by. So unusual, to see a sailfish! It didn’t linger: it took off.

We don’t know what we’re going to see, either in mid-water or as we dive along the bottom contour.

This is a part of the Cocos Island area that is a little tricky to get to. It’s not where people have been going historically with subs. We’re looking for more good information to help establish how really special Cocos is.

Watch Video

Beneath the Surface

Sunday, September 13, 2009 / 06:31am, Posted by Enric Sala

The sky above little Chatham Bay reddens before dawn, and Cocos Island appears in silhouette, a shadow above the endless expanse of deep blue water. Only the mountaintop is visible above the waves, but the mountain extends thousands of feet below to the Pacific floor.

From this volcanic summit, shrouded in green, open ocean extends for hundreds of miles in all directions. Sailors and buccaneers, far from home, have welcomed its shelter and its freshwater cascades for centuries. But there’s more to Cocos than meets dry eyes.

Perched on the shoulders of the island, beneath the blue, life swarms here in a fertile ring. Deep ocean currents, deflected upward by the rising seafloor, bring nutrients to the surface, causing the waters around Cocos to teem with plankton and other tiny organisms. These anchor food chains that extend up through a wet menagerie of intermediate species to the predators for which Cocos is known to seasoned divers and marine biologists around the globe.

From the cliffs above or the deck of a ship floating beside Cocos, one might never know what lies beneath the blue. Only dolphins and the occasional shark fin breaking the surface disturb the horizon and hint at something more. But slip on a mask, dip your face beneath the water, and the richness of this ecosystem is right there to see.

Without dry land to signal their presence or importance, the nearby Gemelas seamounts support similar chains of life in secret. These seamounts are part of a deep underwater ridge that extends hundreds of miles south to the Galapagos Islands. Pelagic (open water) species such as hammerhead sharks may use that seamount chain as a marine highway to migrate between feeding and breeding grounds.

Science has much to see and learn about our planet’s underwater world. This much is certain: Microscopic marine life produces more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere; the ocean helps regulate the climate that makes Earth a wonderful place to live; and it gives us many millions of tons of seafood every year, among other services essential to our well being.

One day, you too might come to swim at Cocos, or at any seashore. Regardless of who you are, or where you live, the ocean and the sea life it harbors matter. Remember the waters of Cocos and Gemelas—and precious submarine places like them—with gratitude whenever you inhale.

Night Dive With White Tip Sharks

Saturday, September 12, 2009 / 10:09pm, Posted by Enric Sala

just got out of the water, a night dive. It’s 10 o’clock, and we were diving with 100 white tip sharks. They were swimming all along the bottom and trying to catch fish, getting their noses inside the rocks—a really amazing spectacle.

It’s really, really difficult to find the concentrations of predators that we have here anywhere else. This national park is truly one of the treasures of the Pacific Ocean.

Video: Night Dive With White Tip Sharks

Saturday, September 12, 2009 / 10:09pm, Posted by Ocean Now Team

In this video Enric talks about his night dive with 100 white tip sharks off the coast of Cocos Island.

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Wafer Bay

Saturday, September 12, 2009 / 05:33pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

I hitch a Zodiac raft ride with Allan Bolaños Quirós from the Hanse Explorer, anchored in Chatham Bay, southwest past green Cocos cliffs to nearby Wafer Bay. Allan monitors fishing activities for Pretoma, a Costa Rican NGO (non-governmental organization), and wants to pick up equipment and see friends at the national park ranger station, tucked behind palm trees and a cobble-strewn beach.

We tie up the raft and clamber across the sand to Wafer Base.

The rangers who work here are the only people permitted to stay overnight on Cocos. They live here full-time in—if you don’t mind the solitude—a verdant paradise.

One of their chief duties is to patrol, to the degree possible, the 12-mile belt of protected water surrounding Cocos and seize any gear used to fish sharks and other sea life illegally. The rangers’ trove of contraband includes miles of fishing line, piles of ferocious hooks, thousands of floats, and a flotilla of small impounded boats with big, fast engines.

In one of the more inspired architectural accomplishments anywhere, the rangers have even created a suspension bridge entirely from confiscated floats.

Before we leave, the rangers offer us some fresh-as-it-gets coconut milk, with the nut knocked from the palm, macheted open, and ready to drink in seconds. Cool and delicious!

Controlled Chaos

Friday, September 11, 2009 / 07:58pm, Posted by Enric Sala

I woke up this morning, pulled the curtains of my cabin up, and there it was, the lush and green Cocos Island. An island green from the sea to its top, full of trees with gnarled roots clinging to the rock, adorned with spectacular waterfalls falling directly into the sea.

After a briefing by the Cocos National Park rangers, we were in the zone of focused preparation readying diving and photo gear. The Deep See submersible did a test dive while the rest of us went diving on a ‘shallow’ to test our equipment. There were many hundreds of goatfish and yellow snappers, and dozens of white tip reef sharks lying there on the sandy bottom.

Cocos has been a National Park for more than 30 years, and it’s easy to see the results. The morning dive was supposed to be low-key, but it was actually much better than most dives in most places. The fish abundance here is really high. We can’t wait to start with our crazy diving schedule tomorrow morning: three dives during the day and one at night. It feels so good to go to bed totally exhausted after a full working day!

A Pacific Crossing

Friday, September 11, 2009 / 01:07 pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

Isla del Coco lies more than 300 miles across the Pacific from Costa Rica’s western ports, a bit more than 30 hours' journey for the two expedition ships. The Argo sailed from Puntarenas. We on the Hanse Explorer departed from nearby Puerto Caldera.

During the long transit, the team passes the hours assembling and testing gear eating (pleasant surprise: the food on the ship is really good—not that I craved meals much after the seas got choppy Thursday morning), checking out each other’s work and watching documentaries about the marine life at Cocos. Here, everyone’s sacked out in the Hanse’s lounge Wednesday night for a Jacques Cousteau film shot at the island more than 20 years ago.

Watching the film, we all marveled at their team’s 'matching' designer silver wetsuits. Even the sleek underwater jetpacks were color-coordinated! The marine life was every color of the rainbow. And now we get to see it up close and in person.

Dolphins Lead the Way

Thursday, September 10, 2009 / 01:45pm, Posted by Ford Cochran

Sky, sea, and the distant speck of the Argo are all we can view from the Hanse Explorer through most of the crossing Thursday.

But the captain waves me up to kneel at the bow and see that we aren’t alone. Just below, swift and playful dolphins are surfing the ship’s bow wave cavorting in the foam and generally enjoying life as they hitch a ride toward distant Cocos.

Putting Out to Sea

Thursday, September 10, 2009 / 09:53am, Posted by Enric Sala

I'm Enric Sala, leader of the Ocean Now expedition to Cocos Island and Las Gemelas seamounts.

We've enjoyed several wonderful and busy days in San Jose, working with our Costa Rican colleagues, partners and other marine conservation experts about what we hope to learn and document about the underwater treasures offshore.  After months of preparation, I can't wait to see them with my own eyes!

Half of our science team is on the ship Argo, destined for the Gemelas with its Deep See sub a prominent fixture. I saw Sylvia and the others off at the Argo, then headed south to the place where the Hanse Explorer was anchored, awaiting our arrival.

We've brought a mountain of diving and filming gear aboard, found our cabins, met the captain, had a safety drill. Forty hours, I'm told, to Cocos Island. We're ready, more than ready, and we set sail now.

Please dive with us and discover the wonders of Cocos and Gemelas as we do.

Yours for the Ocean,


Bound for the Blue

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 / 10:13am, Posted by Ford Cochran

I hope your summer (or your Southern Hemisphere winter) has been as marvelous as ours. We’ve been reviewing the extraordinary images, video, and data gathered by the team in the southern Line Islands while laying on plans for our next expedition to document the last pristine ocean ecosystems on the planet.

Today, that expedition is at hand.

National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, and a team of leading marine scientists from Central America and across the globe are gathering in Costa Rica. Destination: Cocos Island—Isla del Coco, ringed by some of the most shark-rich waters anywhere—and the submerged and all-but-unexplored summits of the Gemelas (“Twin Sisters”) Seamounts.

This time, I’m bound for the blue, too: I’ll be sending back the latest direct from the ship, and tweeting our progress as we go. Sign up and sign on!

If you dive, you’ve probably heard of Cocos. Renowned ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau called it “the most beautiful island on Earth.”

Cocos is legendary for its schools of hammerheads, plus its white tip reef sharks, whale sharks, dolphins, tuna, marlin, turtles, and manta rays.

Rising seawater, cold and nutrient-rich, helps creatures flourish off Cocos’ shores. Rife with large marine predators, many “pelagic” or migratory, Cocos is a Serengeti of the sea.

Above water, Cocos is shrouded in rain forest and cloud forest, bedecked with waterfalls, alive with endemic creatures. Even if you’ve never pulled on a pair of fins, you already know this lush volcanic island. Scholars have argued that Cocos helped inspire both Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Real pirates hid real treasure here.

While Cocos has helped define the world’s image of an untouched island paradise for centuries, the Gemelas seamounts have lurked, mostly unseen and unknown, beneath hundreds of feet of seawater. But marine creatures know them as fertile and important waypoints on their wanderings. These rich feeding grounds may be critical to the survival of many of the migratory predators that pass through them.

We aim to document the inhabitants of these aquatic ecosystems, with an eye to establishing new scientific baselines for intact seamounts.

Two research ships. One manned submersible. An intrepid team. The whole month of September. Don’t get stranded on shore: Stay tuned in, sign up for our email updates, listen for our tweets on Twitter, and swim along with us!


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