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Cruising Notes Costa Rica, Cocos Island

By doina — last modified May 24, 2005 01:01 PM

Published: 2005-05-24 13:01:38
Countries: Costa Rica , Panama

Cocos Island lies some 400 difficult miles off Costa Rica and are approximately 600 miles away from the Panama Canal exit in Balboa. At the time most boats attempt this journey, from February to June, the area gets haunted by the ITCZ, bringing squalls, rain and lots of thunderstorms. Coming from Panama or the Isla Perlas, one has to pass the Cabo Mala, which has a seriously bad reputation for strong currents, unpredicted winds up to 35 knots and a fair bit of shipping traffic.

On our 60 foot sloop MIZ MAE, we wanted to do the trip from Balboa to Cocos Island by mid April 2005. We were warned by Karsten, the Danish representative for the Bluewater-Cruising clubs in Panama, to give Cabo Mala a wide berth. Well, the wind was favourable approaching the cape and we had 1,5 knots of tail current. Not being able to resist the temptation we cut the mileage by 40 nm and passed the cape at 18 miles distance. The wind increased to 30 kn SE and died down to almost nothing 3 hours after we left the Cabo Mala on our starboard beam. Karsten was right, and if we would have got the current against the wind, this would have been extremely rough.

It took another 3 days of almost constant headwinds, thunderstorms and motor sailing against a W-SW in very lumpy seas before we reached Cocos Island. On approach we found a lot of fishing boats on the 1000 meter line. These are long liners and not too dangerous to sailors.

You are only allowed to pick up one of the compulsory moorings at Chatham Bay on the western side of the island, or at Wafers Bay on the northern side. There are 5 moorings at Chatham and 4 moorings at Wafers Bay. Both bays are very exposed at times and though the rangers claim that the number of moorings is sufficient, there would be trouble if you find all moorings occupied on your arrival. There are 3 large dive-tour boats operating in the area, also using those moorings, plus a vessel of the fisheries department, watching the 12 mile fishing-exclusion zone. There is a ranger station listening to VHF channel 16 in both bays and you are very much obliged to call them upon arrival.

The rangers came on board to check us in and happily allowed us 4 days to stay. I am sure we could have got more, but we were en route to Galapagos. It seems no difficulty to even be allowed to stay longer and we were never asked for a permit. However, there is a cost attached:

US$25/boat/day (depending slightly on boat length)

US$10/fee per diver on board (snorkelling is free)

US$25/day/person park admission fee

Included in those fees is the use of the mooring and a ranger to drive your dive dinghy or go diving with you if you wish so. Also there is any amount of fresh water and showers available to the sailors at the very friendly ranger stations. Magazines and newspapers are much appreciated ashore. There is no alcohol allowed to the rangers. Going ashore in Chatham Bay ranger station, keep to the northern, right hand side of the ranger house and avoid the little buoys marking various rocks. Good luck!

We stayed 4 nights on a mooring at Chatham Bay. In spite of the very dense, green vegetation, numerous waterfalls and an almost constant cloud over the very top of the island being witnesses to a lot of rain, we never got any rain. With all the sunshine needed, we thoroughly enjoyed diving with the many turtles, hammerhead sharks, marble and eagle rays, tons of small fish and countless reef sharks. Clear water at 29 degrees makes you want to stay forever. A truly fantastic dive site under the back drop of a Jurassic Park landscape. In 12 years of circumnavigation, this was one of the very best dive sites we have ever seen. Even right under the boat in 12 meters of water, the diving is exhilarating.

But also ashore this island is home to many endemic species, colourful birds, lovely hikes and of course home to many stories of forgotten treasures hidden in one of the many volcanic crevices. Be careful not to wonder too far off the trails or you might fall into one of the plentiful holes or caves. The rangers will always keep a watchful eye on you and don't mind to show you their fantastic island.

Going to Cocos Island can be very hard work, even for larger boats. And some of our friends heading that way this year even had to give up. The fees are high, but if you can get there, you will never forget this amazing island and the stunning dives.

Lilly Vedana, Thomas Müller

Yacht MIZ MAE in April 2005