Of course it’s been a dream of mine to travel to the far away Cocos Island for many years! They say there’s hidden treasure, Jurassic Park was filmed there (!!!) and it’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and a hotspot for amazing shark diversity and WORLD CLASS DIVING!
Ah, but see, this is not why we’re going there right now. Right now a small group (led by the ever inspiring Dr Sylvia Earle - Mission Blue) of ocean advocates, scientists and celebrities are packing their bags to meet tomorrow in the town of Puntarenas in Costa Rica because decision makers are once again failing sharks and there really isn’t that much time left to sit back and watch bad decisions destroy our oceans.
But the long and the short of it is, everybody knows we need to be protecting sharks. (If you’re still on the fence about this, just Google ‘are sharks endangered?) Just like back in the day when everybody knew we needed to ‘save the whales’. The problem with sharks is that they create bad press for themselves by … well, by being sharks!
And as we flock to live the coastal dream and more and more people enter the water swimming, surfing and diving we encounter these animals, and yes, sometimes things go wrong (read: sharks do what sharks do and bite) and suddenly we throw all common sense out the window and make decisions where money speaks the loudest. Be it for tourism (the on-going Australian shark cull being a great recent example of idiotic behaviour by educated individuals) or as is the case in Costa Rica, trade and politics.
Costa Rica is and has been a world leader in conservation for many years (being one of the nations to fight hard for the inclusion of their hammerhead sharks in the CITES Appendix II) but the last six months has seen the light dim on this glowing example of shark understanding and protection.
You’ve certainly heard of shark fin soup (again… if not, Google!) so you know this tasteless, wildly nutrient lacking but somehow status-enriching gloop has become the biggest threat to these incredible apex predators. It is not allowed to fish sharks for their fins in Costa Rica… unless… unless… you have a complicated and science okayed NDF – Non Detriment Findings (harder to Google, so link here: CITES - NDF Stuff)
Costa Rican authorities managed to wangle this exceptional NDF and hey presto shark fins got exported to Hong Kong end of last year and another exception is active as I write for more exports… Some of which may or may not have been caught around the amazing marine reserve of the Cocos Island.
And so the splitting of hairs begin, claims that the sharks were bycatch and therefore not illegal… but as the Tico Times so eloquently states:
‘No one wants to see a dead animal go to waste. But the extraordinary value of shark fins – highly prized in Asia for making shark fin soup – is an inevitable temptation for fishermen. Conservationists say allowing exceptions to what should be tight restrictions on the shark fin trade, boosts that temptation...’and ‘even if those sharks were caught unintentionally, as officials claim, a process known as bycatch, CITES mentions bycatch as one of the top threats to hammerhead shark populations worldwide’ and also ‘poverty-reduction is also a poor excuse for enabling the shark fin trade, where exporters earn up to four times the amount fishermen are paid for fins.’ So, yes. It’s complicated. But it’s also fantastically simple. Sharks are important for our ocean’s wellbeing. Our oceans wellbeing is important for our planet’s wellbeing. And this is our home. Good planets are hard to find.
So here we are, in Costa Rica, getting over jet lag to get on a boat and go explore, document and share stories from a magnificent underwater wilderness that is threatened by our inexplicable need to feed our egos and our status with a soup made from fins that have no nutritional value for the human body.
And I’m going because it’s not just about sharks and shark fin soup, or the eating habits in Asia. It is about a world gone mad for status and material wealth and losing touch with being kind to ourselves, each other and the planet.
Approaching Cocos Island all these dreams seem to be true - dolphins leaping alongside our boat, the emerald smudge on the horizon revealing itself as a rainforest encrusted rock straight from a storybook; deserted coves, waterfalls cascading straight into the warm pacific and birds circling overhead. I'm a wilderness addict. Having grown up on a remote expansive horse farm in South Africa, I seek out places devoid of human influence.
The I AM WATER team is working on an ambitious awareness campaign entitled 'The Last Wilderness', a journey charting freedivers interacting with whales, sharks, rays and other large marine life - exploring the relationship between man and aquatic animal. Cocos did not disappoint - in 5 days of diving we had the privilege of encountering hammerhead, white tip, tiger, ragged-tooth and Galapagos sharks.
We played with curious dolphins, swooping eagle rays and impressive schools of jack fish encircled us. As a first timer I was enthralled. Freediving the structures around Cocos Island captures the imagination and inspires the soul, challenging deep swim throughs at 25+meters against a raging current leaving us breathless and amazed. But a wild and untouched place remains a dream.
We also swam through floating islets of trash, we saw sharks with lines trailing from mouths, and hundreds of kilometers of long lines clutter the storage room adjacent to the marine ranger station.
How far must I travel, how deep must I dive to find a place we have not disturbed? Dr Sylvia Earle cannot either contain her joy to be back at Cocos, neither can Professor Jorge; they have been coming here for many decades.
As we come up gasping at the wildlife, they smile ruefully and remind us of what used to be... not to depress us, no. We are all optimists, believers in hope. But we must remember why we are here. We are here because it’s not just about sharks and shark fin soup, or the eating habits in Asia. It is about a world gone mad for status and material wealth and losing touch with being kind to ourselves, each other and the planet.
Watch a short clip from our incredible Cocos Expedition with Fusion and Mission Blue.