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View from porthole View from my porthole during the crossing.
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 Cocos.

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 reigns here.

Red-footed booby and chick 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 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 hundreds.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

Photos: (1,3) Peter Tyson/NOVA/WGBH; (2) ©Michele Hall.

Hammerheads or Bust (Sept. 23)
Get Used To It (Sept. 25)
Nature Reigns at Cocos (Sept. 27)
The PIG and the Process (Sept. 29)
Hammerheads Sighted (Oct. 1)
Assault on Cocos (Oct. 3)
The Director's Cut (Oct. 5)
Swimming with Whitetip Reef Sharks (Oct. 7)
The Magnificent Seven (Oct. 9)
The Search for Lake Cocos (Oct. 11)
Courtship of the Marbled Rays (Oct. 13)
Of Booby and Beebe (Oct. 15)
Taken by Surprise (Oct. 17)
"This is Cocos, This is Cool" (Oct. 19)

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