Swimming with Sharks: The Pacific Voyagers Project

© Conservation International/photo by Mónika Naranjo González

Editor's note: CI-Samoa’s Schannel van Dijken is currently sailing across the Pacific with the Pacific Voyagers project to raise awareness about ocean health and reconnect with his Polynesian heritage. In today’s post, he recounts a recent visit to Cocos Island off the Costa Rican coast, an important site for CI’s marine work in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape. Read his previous blog post.

Expectations are a funny thing. Everyone on board our sailing canoe Gaualofa had their own expectations about what Cocos Island would be like; all of these were surpassed within the first few days of arrival. That was the magic of this place.

The island appeared as a large dark rock in the middle of the ocean in the clear morning sunlight — a very inviting sight after 18 days at sea. The wind, perhaps sensing this, pushed us toward it at a steady 7 knots.

As we got closer, I was impressed by the number of boobies and frigatebirds we passed — there were obviously good feeding grounds around here. And so there should be, given that Cocos Island is one of many wildlife sanctuary parks created by the Costa Rican government, protecting all terrestrial and marine wildlife within 12 nautical miles [22 kilometers] of the island. CI had a leading role in this effort, and continues to support effective management of Cocos Island ecosystems.

The results of these efforts are clear: Here is an intact island ecosystem where populations of species have essentially been left alone to keep their own checks and balances without the perturbations of man. Over the next couple of days, the Pacific Voyagers fleet would witness firsthand just how well nature can do without human interference.

In my attempt to describe a place worthy of its own nature documentary, I can only share highlights and vivid memories of what we experienced there. We dived and snorkeled in clear waters and through dangerously narrow rock cracks. We prepared an umu (earth oven) and kava ceremony for the island’s park rangers. We walked inland to waterfalls with amazing views, and lazed in cold freshwater pools. We hung around the ranger station collecting coconuts, and intermingled with other va’a (sailing canoe) crew members.

Every day, Cocos gave us something new to experience; every day we learned something new about the island and each other. I think it was for this reason we decided to stay here longer than expected.

Every time I entered the water, I saw sharks — mostly whitetips sleeping on the bottom, but also Galápagos, hammerheads and the occasional tiger shark. This is a good sign of a healthy ecosystem, where top predators are in abundance. And that’s not all I saw — I snorkeled with feeding schools of yellowfin tuna, as well as large schools of marauding bonito tunas and trevallies. I saw the occasional spiny lobster running along open sand, and spotted eagle rays vacuuming the seafloor, as well as a wide variety of tropical fish species. Fish seemed to thrive; habitat was healthy.

On the second day in Cocos, a few of us were lucky enough to witness a spectacular force of nature. After finishing a dive off the Isla de Manuelita, we spotted seabirds flying in a frenzy above what looked like boiling water, a sign that a school of fish was being trapped at the surface by circling predators.

Swimming towards this excitement, we were encompassed by the methodical clicking sounds of common dolphins. Some of the sharks and tuna came in close to check us out, swimming among small bits of flesh and scales. Being alone in open water with such large predators — and watching them hunt firsthand — was an invigorating and scary experience, and not something I will soon forget.

A few minutes later, the bait ball re-emerged, and this time we were right on top of it. A school of around a thousand bait fish moved like a living organism or a lava lamp, blobbing in and out as sharks and tuna took turns punching through it, taking lunging gulps and creating swirls of open sea amongst the tightly huddled fish in their wake.

I was nearly hit by the largest yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) I have ever seen (dead or alive) as it came roaring out of the ball. It was so close that I felt its force of water movement as it rushed past, eyeballing me as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

At first, the prospect of trying to go inside the ball was furthest from our minds — shark food, no thank you — but as the predators got their fill and started to hang back, we witnesses grew in confidence. I took a breath, went down, circled the ball for a bit and then punched through. The fish opened up and enveloped me like a cloud. Scary, brilliant and thrilling.

That was the magic of Cocos Island. As days went on, we Pacific voyagers learned about the rangers’ daily fight to keep poachers out, the daily patrols, the shed of confiscated fishing gear — they even had an elaborate 25-meter (82-foot) bridge made solely of confiscated and discarded fishing gear — and their education of the large number of dive tourists and boats that visit Cocos each week. The island was as much a part of them as they were a part of it. I dedicate this blog to these rangers in honor of their devotion.

After a week in this haven of fresh water and greenery, it was time to collect what coconuts we could, fill our water tanks with sweet fresh water and depart for the high seas again. Next stop: the Galápagos Islands, one of the most famous protected areas in the world and the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The sail there will take approximately four days — just enough time to digest Cocos Island and re-asses our expectations for this new set of islands that await.

Schannel van Dijken is the marine program manager for CI’s Pacific Islands program. Read other blogs from him and his fellow voyagers on the Pacific Voyagers website — and keep an eye out for upcoming posts from his journey here on CI’s blog.