by: Fernando Cortes, National Park Service, Costa Rica. copyright: National Parks Foundation, Costa Rica

A tiny dark speck on the horizon grows slowly; sea birds appear gradually and hint of the possibility of land nearby; dolphins frolic alongside the boat and guide the way; and the tone of water slowly changes from a deep blue to a tantalizing turquoise. Little by little steep black cliffs, fringed by a dense green vegetation and split by thundering waterfalls, come into view.

Transparent water suggests a submarine world hosting coral reefs, sharks, lobsters, manta rays and brilliantly-colored fish. The excitement mounts as your vessel finally arrives at Cocos Island National Park and the discovery begins.

Cocos Island, located 600 km. off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, is one of the most beautiful jewels in the Costa Rican National Park system. It is also one of the most important due to its biogeographic uniqueness and its high number of endemic species, those occurring nowhere else in the world. Of the principal islands of the Eastern Tropical Pacific (Cocos, Clipperton, Malpelo and Galapagos), it is the only one that receives sufficient rainfall to support a tropical rainforest.

And since Cocos is a oceanic island, it has relatively few species, some having their origin as far away as the Indian Ocean. The isolated environmental conditions of the island hove favored the evolution of many endemic species and a simplified tropical ecosystem compared with similar ones on the continent, and make Cocos a unique natural laboratory for scientific study particularly in the field of evolutionary biology.


Cocos Island was known to mariners and cartographers at least as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was first mentioned as "Y'sle des Cocques'' on a map by Nicholas Desliens in 1541. The island appeared on other maps and in various publications during the following centuries.

The abundance of fresh water, wood, pigs (introduced in 1793), fish and coconuts (also introduced), made this small island a favorite stopping place of pirates and whaling vessels. The names of various ships carved in the rocks at Chatham Bay are reminders of these early visitors, some date back as far as the 1600's.
The island also has a rich folklore of buried treasure. According to one of the more popular legends, the "Treasure of Lima" was buried on the island in the 1820's. In 1888, August Gissler was nominated governor of the island with a concession to search for treasure. His efforts ended in failure and finally in the early 1900's he and his wife left, discouraged. Over 300 similar expeditions have been organized, none of which appears to have been successful.
Without a doubt, however, the real treasure of Cocos Island lies in its wild beauty an the uniqueness of its flora and fauna.


Cocos Island has a circumference of about 23 kilometers (12 km.long by approximately 5 km. wide) and a land area of 46.6 square kilometers The highest point, Cerro Iglesias (600 meters above sea level), is located on the western portion of the island. Since most of the coast is very abrupt and rugged, only two buys, Chatham and Wafer, both found on the northern end, are safe for anchorage.
Cocos' steep cliffs are remnants of íts volcanic origin, and the entire island is composed chiefly of lava flows of labocorite and andesite. The islets observed around the island are of columnar basalt. They serve as important nesting areas for marine birds like the Boobies, Seagulls and Noddies.

The origin of its fauna is mainly eastern Pacific, Galapagos and Central American mainland, but several groups, including some corals, are of Indo Pacific origin very few species are related to the Atlantic-Caribbean province.
At least 60 species of animals are endemic to the island, several of which are on the endangered species list.
Fortunately, the abrupt topography and the remoteness of the island have inhibited the establishment of permanent settlements therefore avoiding the destruction of the natural flora and fauna.

Fifty-nine species of fish, ninety-seven molluscs, fifty-seven crustaceans, two lizards and seven land birds have been reported. The island has seventy-four species of birds, including three that are endemic: the Cocos Island Flycatcher, (Nesotricus ridgwayi). Cocos Island Finch, (Pinaroloxias inornata) and the Cocos Island Cuckoo (Cocyzus ferrugineus). One of the most startling beautiful of all the birds that visit the island for nesting is the "Espíritu Santo" (White Tern) a small white species which often hovers in the air just a few feet above one's head, totally unafraid of visitors.

The flora of Cocos consists of 155 vascular and 48 nonvascular plants, of which about 15% are endemic. Several trails on the Island permit visitors to penetrate the enchanting forests of giant, moss-draped trees, dripping bromeliads, colossall tree ferns, svelte palms and tangled vines.

Many unanswered questions about the natural history of Cocos remain for example it is unknown if some of the fish populations live there permanently or migrate into the area periodically. Although current research is continually contributing to our knowledge of the island, basic information of the land and marine biota is needed. Understanding the natural history of the island, park planners and managers will be better equipped to protect the island.


Preserving the biological diversity of Cocos Island is the primary objective of the National Park Service, but this goal is being thwarted for various reasons.
Threats to tho preservation of the native species of Cocos come directly from the introduced plants and animals and indirectly from the economic crisis of the country.
The present environmental conditions of the island are, for the most part, unaltered. At the beginning of this century, however, a series of human settlers on Cocos Island made several unsuccessful colonization attempts. Their arrival marked the introduction of several species: feral -pigs, goats, rats, cots and white-tail deer. Of these, the pigs present the greatest threat to Cocos' fragile ecological balance. They roam around the island, causing damage by altering the natural vegetation, especially the under story. The pigs affect the distribution of many pants by spreading seeds and destroying root system. They uproot vegetation thus accelerating soil erosion; the heavy rains wash this soil to the rivers and out into the bays, thus endangering the corol reefs by suffocoting them with sediments.

Coffee plants have also modified the island's ecosystem by replacing much of the under story vegetation of the Genio River, at Wafer Bay. The extent of this damage and the long-term effects of these introduced species have not been determined.
Remedial programs for problems such as these require substantial funding. However, recent outbacks in the National Park Service budget affecting all areas in the system have made it nearly impossible to give proper priority to these projects. Costa Rica's sever economic crisis has made it difficult to provide a team of park guards to maintain and protect the island. The National Park Service fears that in the future funds won't be available for the expensive boot journey necessary to transport personnel and supplies back and forth to the island.

The inminent threat of destruction to Cocos Island's delicate ecological balance and the loss of potential scientific research due to the difficulty of financing boat travel pose serious problems for the future of this unique area:
Funds from outside sources are urgently needed to aid the National Park Service in protecting and maintaining Cocos Island National Park. A true biological treasure such as this once discovered must be preserved as part of Costa Rica's natural heritage for present and future generations of the world.


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