Nature Reigns at Cocos
by Peter Tyson
September 27, 1998
Life began again at precisely 2:14 a.m. this morning. That's when I woke with
a start to the sound of what I first took to be a fire alarm. It was the
signal that the Undersea Hunter's engine was shutting down. We had arrived at
The previous 32 hours—the time it took us to pitch, roll, and yaw to the
island from Puntarenas—had been a species of death for me. I moved about
the boat like a walking corpse, a drowned seaman swum up from Davy Jones'
Locker for a final envious look at those still breathing. Out of my
sarcophagus of a cabin for a few bites at mealtimes, then back in, lid closed,
blackness. I slept 22 of those 32 hours, courtesy of the Triptone anti-
seasickness pill I popped every 10 hours or so. When awake, I could not sit
upright for more than five or ten minutes before the need for a horizontal
position became a desperate one. It was but bitter solace that a few of my
highly experienced companions looked as cadaverously wan as I.
Delicious was it, then, when I heard the engine die down to silence and
noticed that the boat no longer heaved about like a drunken sailor. I was up
before dawn to delight in the return of my old self and in the vista that
opened off the bow.
We were anchored in Chatham Bay. The notorious Chatham Bay, where untold
numbers of swashbucklers, buccaneers, and assorted ne'er-do-wells had dropped
anchor and often each other in efforts to secure the many treasures supposedly
buried here (see Legends and Lore). I tried to imagine pirate ships set
against the background of rearing jungle cliffs, wheeling seabirds, and
distant misty peaks, but I failed. It was too peaceful, too natural. Nature
Red-footed booby and chick.
And how. I spent the hour or two before breakfast watching frigatebirds and
red-footed booby birds congregating by the hundreds over Manuelita, a sheer-
faced islet along which we were anchored. I could see downy booby chicks
waiting in nests high on Manuelita's gray walls while their parents plunged
into the sea nearby, trailing a line of bubbles before emerging with fish in
their beaks. Leaning over the side, I smiled at dozens of reef fish sidling up
to the boat as if hoping for handouts. Far off, a whirlwind of birds spun over
a spot at the bay entrance—a baitball likely underway.
If it was alive above the surface, it was positively teeming beneath. While
the Halls and their film crew made a series of dives to test their equipment
and scout potential sites for filming over the coming weeks, Peter Kragh, our
Danish-born divemaster, took me on two dives on either side of Manuelita.
Eighty feet down on the first, I watched a spotted eagle ray rooting in the
sand just as the Halls had captured in IMAX (see the spotted eagle ray in
View the Undersea World). A randy marble ray—it is mating season—flapped its graceful wings straight for me in midwater before realizing I was
not a potential mate; then it angled down and away. On the reef below
Manuelita, I gently touched the ash-gray dorsal surface of a whitetip reef
shark, which calmly swam away amidst a dozen or so of its kind resting on the
sandy bottom. Kragh ushered me over to a coral head. There, in almost perfect
camouflage, sat a scorpionfish. Kragh told me later it was only the second
he'd seen in some 400 dives at Cocos.
Cocos at dawn.
Later, after lunch, we did a drift dive on the west side of Manuelita, and it
was more of the same. At Howard's request, we scouted for cleaning stations,
where hammerheads and whitetips slow to allow reef fish to pick parasites off
their bodies. We found none of these stations, nor did Howard and his team on
the other side of the bay, but we seemed to see everything else. Parrotfish.
Moorish idols. Yellowtail surgeonfish. Blue-striped snapper by the gross.
Lobsters. Puffers. Trumpetfish. Rainbow jacks the size of bed pillows hovered
over small schools of whitetips cruising the reef like packs of teenagers at
the mall. One hundred and two feet down—our deepest depth—Kragh pointed
out a shy zebra moray guarding its coral crevice.
And not a single human-made object in sight. No garbage, no pieces of rusted
metal, nothing to suggest anyone had ever been here. Nature reigns at Cocos.
Tomorrow we'll head for Bajo Alcyone and Dirty Rock to look for one species I
didn't see today: the scalloped hammerhead. Howard hopes to secure more
sequences of hammerhead schools, which at these sites can reach into the