The Search for Lake Cocos
by Peter Tyson
October 11, 1998
"[T]hat which contributes most to the Pleasure of the Place is, that a great
many Springs of clear and sweet Water rising to the top of the Hill, are there
gathered as in a deep large Bason or Pond...."
—Lionel Wafer, surgeon of the Batchelor's Delight, on a visit to Cocos Island
in the late 1600s
"Some of our men, who had landed to wash and amuse themselves, found their way
up the hill east of the water-course, and saw into the interior, which they
described as a lake, or large sheet of water."
—Sir Edward Belcher, captain of the Sulphur, during a Cocos stop in 1838
Mt. Yglesias from afar.
A lake on Cocos Island? No such thing today. One look at the rugged interior,
as I got on my climb up Mt. Yglesias (see "Assault on Cocos"), leaves you
wondering what these writers of yore could possibly have been thinking of.
It's akin to suggesting a lake high on Gibraltar. Yet there is a place in the
center of the island called Los Llanos (The Plains). Could this be the bed of
a former lake? I wondered. Could the island's periodic landslides have drained
the lake and altered the topography sufficiently to leave no trace of it?
Yesterday morning, I set out on a daylong trek across the island to seek any
evidence for a lost lake.
We reassembled our old team from the Yglesias climb: the biologists Claudine
Sierra, Roberto Plaza, and Alvaro Farias, and myself. Avi Klapfer, owner of
the Undersea Hunter, also joined us. Our goal was to hike from Wafer Bay on
the north coast to Yglesias Bay on the south. (We had planned to hunt pigs for
Sierra's research, but the park ranger who would do the hunting chose not to
come.) On the way, we would pass through the Plains, where signs of an ancient
lake might lie. We would also pass through parts of the island that few, if
any, had ever seen. A map from the 1920s that I use as reference declared the
part of the south coast to which we were headed "uncharted," an alluring word
if ever there was one. Even Sierra, who has covered more of the island on foot
than perhaps anyone else alive, had not visited the area.
After a large breakfast aboard the Undersea Hunter, Klapfer and I motored
over to Wafer Bay to join the others. As ever, the myriad waterfalls spilling
out of the heights made for an impressive sight. Wafer, furthering his
argument for a lake, wrote that the top of "the Hill" subsided inwards "quite
round; and the Water, having by this means no Channel whereby to flow along,
as in a Brook or River, it overflows the Verge of its Bason in several Places,
and runs trickling down in many pretty Streams." I could see how someone
standing on the deck of a ship below might think that all those waterfalls,
many of which appear to fall from the same height, might be draining a lake
out of sight over the brim.
Peter Tyson high over Yglesias Bay.
As we set off into the forest, a rainbow arced over Wafer Bay. An auspicious
sign, I thought, but for what? A successful hike? An answer to my query? We
crossed the Rio Genio and ascended a ridge that ran due south into the
interior. Soon the rain began, and by the time we reached the Plains, it was
drenching. We saw the first of six wild pigs, along with a bed of agave-like
plants they had heaped into a pile. Sierra estimates that the pigs dig up 10
to 20 percent of the island each year, and I could believe her. The soil
across much of the Plains was turned over as if by a farmer preparing his
That despite the rocky substrate. The Plains was so rocky that the roots of
giant fig trees had nowhere to go but out to the sides like fire hoses flung
on the ground. And the Plains were flat as a plate for a good mile. Could this
be the bed of an erstwhile lake? I asked Sierra, even though I knew her
answer; I could see it for myself. "How could it be?" she said, surprised at
my question. "Los Llanos drops off on all sides." Indeed, the Plains were more
a Plateau, raised like an island amidst the surrounding Wafer Bay watershed. A
large puddle might have existed here, but no lake.
When we left the Plains behind, we entered the "uncharted" territory of my
1920s map. There were no trails, no landmarks that Sierra could use to find
her way through more of what my map labeled as "dense tropical forest and a
thick undergrowth of tall grass, vines, shrubs, and bramble bushes." I asked
her how we'd find Yglesias Bay, which lay on the other side of a 1,300-foot
mountain. "Common sense," she said, and then added, "which we don't have a lot
of." But I knew she did, and over the next few hours I watched her work
skillfully with the two tools we had to ensure our release from the confines
of the forest: a compass and a laminated topo map of Cocos.
With our legs smeared with mud and our shirts soaked with half rain, half
sweat, we climbed up and down one steep, slippery slope after another,
grasping thin tree trunks for balance and trying to avoid a species of grass
that left wounds like paper cuts on any exposed flesh. Whenever we gained a
ridge, it was tempting to follow its quasi-level surface. But then Sierra's
arm would shoot up, pointing out our heading, which inevitably led down or up
rather than along. Every now and then, sensing something close behind me, I'd
turn to see a fairy tern flapping silently a few feet away, its marble-like
black eyes throwing out a challenge to me. The Costa Ricans call this dove-
like white bird "Espiritu Santo," the Holy Ghost bird.
The lower stage of the waterfall above Yglesias Bay.
Throughout all this, water showered from the skies, dripped from leaves,
bounded down streambeds in innumerable tiny cascades. Sir Edward Belcher, the
other proponent of a Lake Cocos, wrote that "the quantity of water we had
noticed in streams, waterfalls, etc., and which were not much augmented by
heavy rains, or by the stream in our immediate vicinity, must be supplied from
this lake. No rains could preserve the volume and equality for twenty-four
hours." Belcher did not need to see the lake for himself; all evidence before
his eyes pointed to its existence.
Gaining the summit of the long-awaited 1,300-foot peak, we dropped to the
ground amidst a garden of moss-draped tree ferns and ate a lunch of ham
sandwiches, chocolate, and water. Afterwards, we climbed into the loftiest
trees we could find for a glimpse of Yglesias Bay far below. It looked so
close, and yet was so far. Felipe Aviles Briceno, the park ranger, had warned
us not to try to reach the bay via the famous waterfall; we'd find ourselves
at a vertical drop of several hundred feet. So, rested from our short break,
we headed straight downhill towards the coast.
That's when things got hairy. The mountainside was so steep that every step
became an act of extreme delicacy and precision. Once I lost my footing and
slid 30 near-vertical feet down the remains of a landslide before somehow
stopping myself. Another time, to get below a bluff, I had to shimmy down a
tree trunk like a fireman down the pole. I chose a diagonal path down the
hill, because rocks dislodged by those above me kept zipping past my head at
high speed. By the time we reached the river below the waterfall, our legs and
arms were a tracework of bloody scratches.
But the falls made it all worth it. The lower of the two stages, it poured
over a lip of lava and free-fell 200 feet into a deep pool. It reminded me of
Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite, with its self-generated wind whipping curtains
of water off to either side, staining the surrounding escarpment black. This
same "wind" blasted water out from the base of the falls, making it impossible
to look in that direction while swimming in the pool, as we did. I was afraid
those hurricane-force gusts might snatch the contact lenses right off my
Belcher was probably describing this very waterfall when he wrote that "the
magnificent S.W. cliffs and waterfalls, like silver threads, leaping from the
richest and varied tints of green that can be imagined, would put a painter in
ecstasy." While shoring up his claim for a lake, Wafer, too, might have been
thinking of this cascade when he wrote that "in some places of its
overflowing, the rocky Sides of the Hill being more than perpendicular, and
hanging over the Plain beneath, the water pours down in a Cataract, as out of
a Bucket, so as to leave a Space dry under the Spout, and form a kind of Arch
Soaking from a day in the rain, we enjoy a fire while awaiting our ride home.
While we waited for a panga to pick us up at Yglesias Bay, we built a bonfire
of palm fronds, the only reasonably dry material around. We huddled around it,
eating dried fruit and butter cookies and listening to the crash of the surf.
Perched on a fallen trunk, I watched boobies dive for fish right into the curl
of incoming waves. Overhead, the light of day dimmed, giving the breezy leaves
of the coconut palms rising over our heads a silvery cast.
Wafer and Belcher were mistaken, in my humble opinion. There was never a lake
on Cocos. Belcher's men were either delusional or lying, and neither Belcher
nor Wafer saw a lake. It was simply the only way to explain so much water
flowing off such a small island. I might have reached the same conclusion had
I not traversed a good portion of the island since I arrived here two weeks
ago. But Wafer was right about one thing when he wrote that "together with the
advantage of the Prospect, the near adjoining Coco-nut Trees, and the
freshness which the falling Water gives the Air in this hot Climate, [the
waterfalls make] it a very charming Place, and delightful to several of the
Senses at once."