An Island unto Itself

The crew of Ocean Watch is crazy about Cocos Island. "Herb's Watch" from the April 15, 2010, CW Reckonings

Herb McCormick| |The tiny Costa Rican island called Cocos ** - ** a National Park over 200 miles from the mainland ** - ** is an offshore paradise well off the beaten track.| To be perfectly honest, until about a month ago, I'd never heard of Cocos Island, a remote scrap of offshore real estate measuring less than ten square miles some 250 nautical miles off the coast of Costa Rica. But on a dive boat in the Galapagos Islands, it was a primary topic of conversation; everyone aboard had either been there or was dying to go. The world-class diving was reputedly off the charts.

And since it was almost directly on the rhumb line for our next leg from the Galapagos to Costa Rica on our ongoing expedition Around the Americas (www.aroundtheamericas.org), there was no reason not to make at least a quick visit to have a look. Less than a fortnight after learning about Cocos, on an eerie night at 5º N, the tiny outpost in the vast North Pacific suddenly hove into view. We stood off until daylight, then made our way into a small cove called Chatham Bay and picked up a mooring - the isle is a Costa Rican National Park and the only inhabitants are the park rangers who rotate in and out on a monthly basis and maintain the sparse facilities.

Herb McCormick| |As this snapshot of the chart plotter suggests, don't trust your electronics when visiting Cocos.|

It took approximately five minutes for Cocos to make a very lasting impression. For as soon as the boat was safely parked, I was over the side and into the crystal-clear water. And there below me, hovering along the sandy bottom some 60 feet down, was a quartet of white-tipped reef sharks directly under our 64-foot cutter, Ocean Watch. The clarity of the aqua made it appear as if they were about 10 feet away.

I was back on the boat in about five seconds. Suddenly, a cup of coffee seemed like a really good idea.

Actually, sharks, particularly the vast schools of hammerheads, are one of the reasons divers descend on Cocos in vast numbers. That was just one of the things we learned later that morning when a friendly trio of rangers came aboard to say hello and collect a visitor's fee to access the park and the amenities at the ranger's station, which included showers and Wifi ($25 per person, plus a nominal fee for the mooring). The one other boat in the anchorage that day was a live-aboard dive boat from the mainland (which also brings the rangers to and fro). But the rangers said many international cruising boats visit Cocos each year, usually staying for 3-4 days to snorkel, dive and hike through the island's lush, primeval interior.

Herb McCormick| |**Ocean Watch is a tiny speck over the author's shoulder after a sweaty hike up Cocos Island. **|

We only had a day to spare, but we made the most of it, launching the kayaks, taking a long snorkel along the rock wall near Chatham, and scrambling up the hillside to take in the awesome views from on high. There's supposedly pirate treasure hidden somewhere, and many previous visitors have carved their names on the shore-side rocks, including a rather notable Frenchman named Jacques Cousteau. He called it "the most beautiful island in the world."

Personally, I'd have to say that point is highly debatable. But we loved our brief stay at Cocos. As we left that evening, bound for Central America, it occurred to me that every offshore passage could use a pit stop in paradise somewhere along the way.