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Blog Posts by: Sandy Mason

These are skills I never thought I would need: the ability to drop an empty bucket over the side of a ship and have it hit the water at the perfect angle to immediately fill, so it can be pulled hand over hand back over the rail and poured over a head full of shampoo; the ability to spread my own back with sunscreen without missing a spot; the capacity to sleep for an hour or two at any time, day or night -- and rarely more. Also the ability to tie a clove-hitch knot, which is the simplest thing in the world when someone explains it and somehow impossible when the rope is in your hands alone. All these things are important, living on the boat.

MarViva I

But on to more serious matters: Yesterday was the first Coiba marine patrol since the implementation of the new fishing laws. We left in the afternoon on MarViva III. It was clear; as we moved northwest off the main island we passed other, smaller, bodies of land -- the islands Rancherita and Coibita. On patrol were two MarViva crew (Stanley Canales, the boat captain, and Miguel Delgado) as well as Rodrigo Rodriguez, Coiba's chief park ranger, and Rolando Ruiloba, the director of the park, from Panama's environmental agency (ANAM). We spent the way out talking about Coiba, the new fishing laws, and the collaboration between ANAM and MarViva, which has so far been seamless.

And a good thing, because there is clearly a need for it. The park rangers say that with the gradual closure of the prison camps emboldened fishing boats flocked to Coiba's shores. There was every manner of fishing -- commercial and artisanal, shrimp trawling, gillnetting, longlining, shark finning, diving for conches -- and in a few months an incredible amount of damage was done. It was only with the depletion of resources and the beginning of the patrols, the rangers say, that the boats backed off. There are far fewer now and the rangers hope to keep it that way.

La Isla de Coiba is the largest island in the Central American Pacific - approximately three times the size of Manhattan, or twenty times larger than Coco´s - and only 12 miles off the coast of Panama. It is the site of the Central Pacific´s most extensive coral reef system; a feeding and calving ground for blue whales, humpback whales, orcas and tropical spotted dolphins; and home to sharks, manta rays, billfish and tuna. Four species of threatened sea turtles nest on Coiba´s beaches. Crocodiles patrol its mangrove-lined shores. On the Panamanian mainland the island is famous, but not for its biological richness. For the past century the word "Coiba" has inspired fear.

Coiba Island

Until last year Coiba was a federal prison. Panama´s most dangerous convicts were sent here - dangerous either to society or to the prevailing political regime. The jail was dispersed, with prison camps at various points around the island, and further dispersed because, according to legend, the prisoners were given leave to roam the island at night... while prison guards and timid inmates locked themselves in. Violence was a fact, not all of it perpetrated by man; in addition to the crocodiles, 15 species of snake, including lethal fer-de-lance and coral snakes, live on Coiba.

The prison population gradually dwindled as the twentieth century came to a close, but still The Panama Guide (Second Edition, 2001) warned visitors that "due to the continuing presence of the penal colony the safest place to anchor is off the biological station located on Punta Machete on the northeast tip of Coiba... The police are very friendly and if you want to go on any island trails one of them, equipped with weapons, will go as a guide and protector." Of Jicaron, a smaller island in the Coiba archipelago (in addition to Coiba the group includes eight smaller islands and 40 islets), the guide writes: "This island, separated from Coiba by a wide channel has strong currents which make it safe from any lurking fugitives. No one lives here and the beauty of the lush landscape can take your breath away. We rated Jicaron as the most wildly beautiful stop in Pacific Panama."

We're back in Golfito for a few days to restock, shower, and get information about Cocos Island out to the wider world. Today we held a joint Oceana/MarViva press conference at the MarViva base. A bus brought the audience of journalists and cameramen from San Jose.

Xavier told the story of Cocos, which by now is familiar to sGolfitoome of us but no less impressive. It basically runs thus: Until very recently Cocos was a wilderness apart. It was a haven for pirates and the occasional whaler, but otherwise unvisited and unknown. In the 1970s, however, nearshore fisheries were rapidly depleted and fishing fleets began to frequent the island in force. Costa Rica declared Cocos and 12 miles of the surrounding ocean a national park (1978); UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site (1997), but the designations were meaningless in practice, industrial fishing continued on a large scale, and one of the planet´s most extraordinary marine treasures slipped into decline. It was only with the creation of MarViva and collaborative patrols, in 2002, that things began to change. And change they did.

As Xavier said, "The ongoing work around Cocos shows that professional partnership and loyal cooperation between governments, private companies, and NGOs gives results very quickly. In three years MarViva has done a number of important things here, and if we could copy and paste this approach in other parts of the world it would be one very good way to change the situation in the oceans."

Back on the water again. Each morning I wake up at 6, forget I´m sleeping in a bunk and bang my head when I sit up. It was hard to leave Cocos but good to be moving, and there is much ahead.

Yesterday we passed a sea turtle. It is the first I´ve seen and from a distance we thought it was trash -- a dark object floating in a perfectly still, translucent sea. When we were closer we could see more clearly the turtle´s dome of a back, with a single ridge running down the center, which is a feature of the juveniles of some species. Our best guess was that it was a black turtle.

We left Cocos. We sailed northeast with the island behind us, gorgeous, streaming water as if it had just lifted itself from the sea. The clouds pile above it.

On the way out we pass another longliner coming iDirty rockn. This is the second we've seen since we've been at the island. The first had pled engine trouble as an excuse for anchoring in the bay; it's a common story and there is no way to confirm it. Last night the MarViva patrollers pulled in a six-mile longline that had been set in park waters. Still, this is nothing. The park rangers and MarViva staff say that three years ago, before they began their collective patrols, there were thirty to forty fishing boats in park waters at any given time. I can well believe it. It is impressive to see firsthand the continuous enforcement efforts, patrols that stay out all night through darkness and storms, and the continuous pressure -- any gap in the patrolling and the longliners will enter again. The new level of protection around Cocos is both dramatic and tenuous.

But what a difference it makes. Today, before we left, the film crew did a final dive. Juan Pablo reports:

"The site was called 'Dirty Rock'" -- a much-favored target for birds -- "and it is a little rocky island without vegetation of any kind. Underwater, the walls of the rock are fairly vertical and drop 55-60 meters. The form or the rock is a kind of pyramidal pinnacle, very steep at the start but which slopes gently toward the bottom.

This afternoon the filming crew took a break and the other divers onboard the Ranger -- writers and support crew -- went out to Manuelita. I don'tt know where to start.

It was late in the afternoon when we left. The sky was dark and the surface of the water breaking in swells and whitecaps. Hussein, who is patient in three languages, talked us through gear set-up and got us into the dingy. Aitor, a diver himself but too generous to put on a mask before every other person has had a chance, drove us to Manuelita across the waves.

We got our BCs on; we pressed masks to faces. We sat on the side of the dingy and flipped backwards, fins up.

White tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus)There is so much under the water! Too much to know where to look. The bottom was rocky, like a moonscape, cratered, scattered with boulders. Every few feet an otherworldly rock formation rose from the seafloor. There were fish everywhere. Schools of soldierfish (red fish with big black eyes), deep purple surgeonfish edged with gold, trumpetfish -- some bright yellow, others translucent with a scattering of neon blue spots at one end -- hanging in the water. It's impossible to tell which end of a trumpetfish is the front, an effective deterrent for predators and admirers alike, and more than once I found myself seeking eye contact with an indifferent rear. There were lobsters in crevices, anemones among the rocks, pufferfish (some yellow, some black/white and spotted), large elegant angelfish, butteflyfish... so very many fish. An occasional parrotfish would dart by, looking paranoid; with its heavy head the parrotfish doesn't seem to me made for rapid movement. And then there were groupers, larger fish that didn't move rapidly at all, didn't move at our approach, big fish mottled blue/green or brown/gray. They stared back, turned a superior and cynical eye.

More filming today. At nine in the morning we are on a MarViva boat, speeding out of the bay and around to the other side of the island. This boat is smaller and more mobile than the Ranger, larger and more stable than our little dingies, and MarViva has offered to transport the diving team from one site to another.

Miguel (a MarViva captain) steers, Mar watches the water. Every once in a while fins appear momentarily, or something jumps and lands with a splash. For a few minutes we have dolphins at the bow. The marine life at Cocos, even on the surface, is extraordinary -- but in this place it is the norm. The island itself is verdant and wet, quite literally dripping with water; it falls in threads down the island's steep green sides. Some of the waterfalls disappear into the forest. Others have carved long channels from the top of the island down to the sea. Cocos gets 280 inches of rain a year. There is so much water here that the park rangers who work on the island (they rotate month-long shifts) have constructed a hydroelectric dam to power their base.

The Ranger in Golfito

Cocos Island: A series of islands, really, one massive and countless miniature peaks that rise from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The main island is cloaked in forest. The smaller islets, of which there are many, all around the island, are little pyramids of jagged rock. Most have at least one hollowed-out cavern at the water line; when the sun hits them right they look like thatched huts with doors.

The islands are the center of a protected area that includes 24 square kilometers of land and 972 of water. The difficulty of access to the island kept it immune from human influence until the end of the twentieth century, when fishing boats, driven farther from shore by depleted fisheries, began to encroach. Cocos, however, has been lucky. The incredible number and diversity of species in and around the island have brought it international renown, and -- declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997, patrolled by MarViva and government park rangers since 2002 -- it has retained its character of wilderness.

MarViva

We're here! We are at Cocos. We first saw the island, a gray splotch on the horizon, yesterday morning, and by the afternoon we could see its rocky crags, the lush green hills, and two MarViva boats anchored in the bay. Everyone was excited. We had Juan Pablo (director of VOEA and one of Ranger's divemasters) high up on the masts to film, swinging in the rigging like a spider monkey. Our two temporary guests (Marcela, director of communications for MarViva, and Alex, from FAICO) work every day to protect the island but had never seen it, so for everyone on board -- divers, biologists, Costa Ricans, Europeans, and Americans -- this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

At the twelve-mile border of the marine park we passed a long-line boat, just sitting there. There was a crew of five or six, a tangle of green and black flags rising from the boat (they are used to mark the long-line buoys), and "Punta Arenas" -- the boat's home port -- painted on the stern. Marcela says that the boats always wait on the border for a moment to enter, or use their knowledge of currents to let their lines drift into park territory even while the boat is legally outside.

It's obvious enough why they would. No sooner had we entered park waters than two dolphins joined us at the bow. Marcela said, "This is how you know you're getting to Cocos."

We left Golfito last night around 7 and have been traveling southwest toward Cocos ever since. The ocean has been perfectly calm. Those among the new crew who have never spent more than an afternoon sailing (myself included) are learning what it means to live on a boat from the seasoned sailing veterans of the Ranger crew.

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