Lying 360 miles off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, there is an island shrouded in mystery, legend, and swash-buckling adventure that has fascinated observers for centuries. Found in 1526 by Johan Cabeças, a Spaniard, the island quickly became known as a stopping point for sailors, owing to the supply of freshwater and natural food resources (namely coconuts) that would replenish a ship’s supplies. Since 1869, the island has been under the protection of Costa Rica and has been attempted to be populated by humans for decades. These efforts were unsuccessful, as was the idea to turn it into a prisoner island. Eventually it was favored as a natural reservation and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Cocos Island is the tip of a great underwater mountain range that peaks only in this location, making it a diverse and fascinating ecosystem both on shore and in the water. The land is sanctioned as a national park and the waters are designated as a protected marine area by the federal government. Marine life is abundant and varied, surpassing even that of the Galapagos Islands (Cocos is part of the Galapagos archipelago) in its unique capacity for life. At least 1,700 species of marine creatures have been documented in the waters, some that cannot be found anywhere else in the world such as the rosy-lipped batfish and 26 other species of endemic fish. Tropical tides teem with gigantic moray eels, green sea turtles, colorful octopi, wide-spanning manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and scarlet Mexican hogfish, to name just a few. Images of the island may be familiar to those who have seen the Jurassic Park movies, as Isla Nublar is based off the majestic, tropical Cocos Island. It may have also been the inspiration for the setting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883).
Looking for Buried Treasure?
Solitary and lush with vegetation, the island was a safe haven for pirates searching for a place to hide their loot. The island is said to contain (or has contained) unmeasurable amounts of gold, silver, and precious gems since as early as 1665. While most of the rumored treasure has not been publically discovered, it remains a mystery as to how much valuable treasure remains hidden in the caves and crevasses of the remote island. The stories of pirate ships and chests weighed down with gold are varied in their credibility however most historians do acknowledge the validity of several of these legends. In the early 19th century, it is told that Benito “Bloody Sword” Bonito, a Portuguese plunderer, horded gold coins on the island. The estimated $300 million treasure has never been found and Cocos Island is its last known location. Not long after, the Devonshire Treasure is reported to have been stowed on the island as well. It is said to consist of 350 tons of Spanish gold, and maps have been discovered that claim Cocos Island as the hiding place although landmarks on the map are indecipherable today as most of them no longer exist on the island. The Lima Treasure is perhaps the most infamous of all. Rumors say it contains gold and silver bars, a jewel-studded solid gold statue of the Virgin Mary, and numerous other valuable items made of precious metals and gemstones. Many fortune-seekers have gone after this particular collection because it is likely to be the most costly of any treasure discovered in the 21st century. Not all of the stories are legend. A trunk filled to the brim with gold coins was found in May of 1856 by mercenaries escaping Nicaragua. If you are looking to find your wealth on Cocos Island, think again. Treasure-hunting is outlawed on the island. It does not, however, stop the curious from visiting to learn the rich history and witness the beauty of the island or snorkel in the temperate waves.
Plundering the Depths
While the stories of plundering pirates stowing gold and rubies on the island are fascinating, there is another kind of pirating that takes place on the island today. And it isn’t quite as amusing as tales of buried treasure. Illegal fishing has become a tremendous problem in the surrounding ocean, devastating the population of marine life. Turtles, reef sharks, and manta rays have most notably taken a severe blow from unsafe fishing practices in this protected area. These thieves bait the ocean with decomposing whale parts to then catch elusive, hungry animals such as whitetip reef sharks. They also utilize J-shaped hooks, which have been illegal in fishing practices since 2003. Patrols have picked up an estimated 350 km of fishing lines and over 8,000 hooks from the protected sea, only a fraction of what is most likely left to liter the water. It is difficult to catch (and then charge) these pirates with illegal fishing, as the law states a suspect must be caught in the protected zones actively fishing. Even if one is brought into custody, the court order takes at least 40 hours to reach the island from Costa Rica, allowing the suspect time to discard evidence. Times are changing, though. Those who fully comprehend the damage of illegal fishing off Cocos Island are working with legal matters to more successfully catch these criminals. Identification markers are now required on fishing vessels, allowing authorities to track and regulate. A state-of-the-art radar system is being installed to locate fishing boats as far as 70 miles off the shore of Cocos Island. These steps, while helpful, are certainly not cheap as the radar system alone costs over one million dollars. Oceans5, a collaborative philanthropist group, is aiding the bill. Founded in part by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the group provides financial support along with “strategic guidance” in protecting our oceans. Hopefully, these measures will put an end to illegal hunting in the protected waters, allowing the marine life at Cocos Island to thrive in its beautiful, natural state.