Cocos Island and the Great Turtle Race
As the Great Turtle Race winds down (the winner has already crossed the finish line), Todd Steiner, Executive Director of Sea Turtle Restoration Project and Turtle Island Restoration Network, sends this story as a follow-up to the post we ran last week:
[White-tip sharks hug the reef. All photos courtesy of Todd Steiner.]
In November 2007, I was fortunate enough to assist Randall Arauz, STRP’s Central American director and President of our sister organization in Costa Rica, PRETOMA, on an amazing research expedition to Cocos Island, Costa Rica, to tag and take genetic samples from sharks. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Located 340 miles from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Cocos Island is about halfway to the Galapagos. I was stunned by the beauty of the volcanic island itself is beautiful with over 200 raging waterfalls, and boasts unique fauna and flora, many species of which occur nowhere else in the world. I knew intellectually that the combination of currents, geology, regulations and isolation (it was a 36-hour voyage in each direction to reach the island) had created a premiere paradise for sharks and other species. Yet, when I took my first dive into the clear blue waters, I was stunned by the abundance of life—especially the giant creatures that are so rare today in every other place I have dived.
I felt like I was peering back into the ancient past and seeing the oceans as they must have been for thousands of years ago, before wildlife populations were devastated by overfishing. For me, it helped fill the intellectual void between talking about what we have lost and understanding how incredibly full of life the seas must have once been everywhere.
Every one of the over twenty scuba dives was a “Jacques Cousteau experience,” getting to observe up-close hundreds of white-tip and hammerhead sharks, hundreds of marbled, devil and spotted eagle rays, green turtles mating and feeding, and schools of countless numbers of fish! Over seven days of intense diving, our team managed to tag nine hammerheads and take genetic samples from forty white-tipped reef sharks.
But even here at Cocos, threats loom. Though the island was declared a Costa Rican National Park in 1978 and a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1997, and no recreational or commercial fishing is allowed, lawlessness was evident. We witnessed a helicopter inside the reserve (from one of scores of tuna purse seiners in the eastern Pacific which scoop up approximately 550,000 tons of tuna each year), and everywhere there was evidence of industrial longline gear snagged on the reefs.
The data from this expedition will allow us to better understand movements of these magnificent predators between the Galapagos, Cocos and Malpelo islands off the coast of Colombia, and advocate for a regional management strategy of these unique centers of marine biodiversity. And we immediately sent a letter to the President of Costa Rica calling for better enforcement inside the Park.
The Cocos are protected because the tiny island is “owned” by a country willing to set up marine protected areas. But the giants pelagic species such as leatherback turtles, whales, sharks, swordfish don’t stay put but migrate thousands of miles through the open ocean.
To illustrate the giant migrations of one of these species and educate the public to the threats, we have teamed up with other organizations and scientists to sponsor THE GREAT TURTLE RACE. We invite you to watch leatherbacks race across the Pacific, while learning how you can help save the oceans. I invite you to watch the race at www.GreatTurtleRace.com.
We need marine sanctuaries that allow biodiversity to flourish and recover that create swimways for the magnificent giants that migrate in and out of the sovereign waters of nations. As daunting as this is, I returned from the trip with renewed vigor to restore the ocean’s abundance so that future generations can benefit from the beauty of our underwater blue planet that still exists in some places - and can spread if we just give it a chance to recover from the abuses of overfishing and pollution.
A few lucky scuba divers will be able to participate in the March 2009 shark tagging expedition. For more info, visit our Shark Tagging Expedition page.
Sea Turtle Restoration Project & Turtle Island Restoration Network
If you want to dive deeper into the current state of public opinion on leatherback turtles, check out a recent NY Times blog post which ends with: "Does the world need leatherback turtles? Most likely not." Sea Turtle Restoration Project posted its response on their blog.