Cocos Island “Shark Island” new research and conservation project with TBA21
Posted on: June 11th, 2014

Cocos Island Expedition Final Trip Report by Ocean Ramsey
Ocean Ramsey

  • On May 12, 2014

Expedition to Isla del Coco with TBA21 and Ocean Ramsey.

Art-Treasure for Cocos Pelagic Conservation Project by TBA21


Cocos Island is an isolated tropical island in the Pacific Ocean 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica.  Cocos islands near-shore waters are an important aggregation site for Sharks and other Pelagic life.


This expedition was truly unique.  The expedition was funded and led by Francesca von Habsburg of Austria.  Francesca is a beautiful example of how people from all nations, backgrounds, and specialties can make a difference in the efforts for the conservation of marine protected species and areas.  I respect Francesca for not only expressing her desire to help sharks and other pelagic life but for really taking action.  The diverse group invited aboard the modern research vessel, The Dardanella, consisted of artists, curators, collectors, film crew, and scientists all working together for this collaborative and dynamic conservation project.

Every evening there were presentations showcasing the different approaches to ecologically minded projects and on going work in each individual’s area of expertise.  Every day we dove three to four times, recording the number of pelagic animals seen during those dives.  The date, time of day, duration of dive, tide, current, thermocline depths, sea temperatures, and of course the amount and species of all pelagic and large elasmobranchs seen .  As much as possible we attempted to record: gender, approximate length, number of individuals, specific markings, tags, other identifiable marks, and special behaviors like cleaning, mating, and general movements.  This information and format will integrate into the newly proposed “Isla Del Coco Pelagic Conservation Project by TBA-21.”

The conservation project will fund two local  Costa Rican marine biologists to specialize in collecting data on pelagic marine life around Cocos to be used to develop a long term and thorough conservation management plan.  This new project will also tag and survey juvenile sharks in Costa Rican coastal waters to determine if these are the pupping grounds for the adult sharks of Cocos Island.  The team will also tour coastal communities to give presentations to school children. Regular updates on the progress of the project will be posted to social media outlets to be shared on the international market to promote awareness and share current findings.  To learn more about these biologists and support their current work please visit:

We are also currently discussing the idea of developing new modern design tag technology, for less-invasive tracking and study methods, or temporary attach cameras to learn more about pelagic behavior.  This new design technology has the prospect of gathering data about the movement, species interactions, behavior, and lives of pelagic without the heavily invasive procedure and dorsal damaging effects of affixing current satellite tags.   My hope is that tagging and data collection methods will be revolutionized to be less invasive, therefore causing less stress on the animals , and simultaneously gathering more data.   Current discussions about technician collaborations are underway.  More engineers, designers, and specialists are being sought to contribute to this project development (Please contact us if you think you could contribute.)

Another unique highlight and essential element of the project was burying of modern day treasure.  Cocos island has been known for years to have hosted treasure buried somewhere within its depths.  The most famous, “The treasure of Lima,” was an inspiration for the project.  Francesca and the TBA21 academy commissioned modern artists to create one of a kind pieces just for this project.  Those one of a kind pieces were sealed in a capsule, a piece of art itself,  and buried somewhere in the island.  A coded map of the GPS point of the treasure, which will also be made into a piece of art, will be on exhibition at various galleries around the world and ultimately auctioned and sold at a gala to help raise funds for the Cocos Conservation Pelagic Project.   The gala will screen the documentary of the treacherous expedition and efforts that were required to bury the treasure.  The film will also share images and video of the beauty of the live treasure, the precious marine life below the waves.  More info about the buried exhibition at

The expedition started with a 36 hour crossing.  We searched for the super-pod of dolphins that had been sighted two weeks before of over 3000 individuals.  Instead of dolphins we found a tuna vessel with a helicopter chasing the smaller split pods of dolphins.  The helicopters will drop dynamite on the dolphins to slow them down or divert them away from eating the tuna.  We were within Costa Rican waters where this practice was recently banned.  We put the film crew in the tender with us and went out to catch evidence.  The vessel took off as soon it saw us coming with cameras.  It is disgusting and personally sickening to think of someone dropping dynamite on a pod of dolphins for an industrial tuna companies benefit or for any reason.

Upon arriving at the gorgeous island of Cocos we took a smaller tender boat around the entire island to get a feel for the size and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.   Gigantic waterfalls spilling out of lush thick tropical foliage on steep cliffs cascading down directly into the waves and sea below.   The island is alive with Red-footed, Brown, and Masked boobie birds.  Like other frigate birds in other areas of the world, the small fuzzy white hatchlings nesting in branches over the water occasionally fall into the water to be preyed upon by jacks and other large predators.    I loved visual appeal of the many hues of blue reflecting back over light golden sand, white sand, black volcanic rock, and coral gardens.  The island appeals to many senses, the perfectly warm air, the colors, the peaceful sounds of waterfalls, and waves washing over smooth stones or rushing into the base of creviced cliff faces.  Reef and rock out-croppings abound and it was around these and submerged pinnacles that we enjoyed our diving.

Two of my favorite dive locations around Cocos Island are called “Manuelita” and “Dirty Rock.”  The dive sites hosted more fish than I could count.  I loved being swarmed in the huge schools of jacks and snappers flowing around me blacking out the sun and encasing me in a moving liquid bubble.  Abundant butterfly and blueline snapper made eye catching colorful flags of yellow highlight framing around the massive boulders and coral outcroppings.   Marble rays glided by so elegant and silent.  I had to constantly turn to keep track of the number of white tip reef sharks present on each dive.  White tip reef sharks are a benthic dwelling shark , one of the few species that can rest on the seafloor by using ram-ventilation to pump water over their gills to breath.  They casually cruised about from one resting spot to another all over between cracks and crevices, in the open flat sands, often piling together on top of one another like a pride of lions.  Some white tips and marble rays, relatives of each other, even piled together.  Most white-tip reef sharks were identified to be female and several looked possibly pregnant.  We do not know when or where they birth here but mating and many scars have been observed.

I love going scuba diving at night.  In my lifetime I’ve managed to do a few thousand night dives and can now say that the night dive at Cocos island is my now favorite night dive to date!  Swarmed by over two-hundred white-tip reef sharks and some of the biggest jacks I have ever seen.  The predators use the divers lights to help them hunt for certain fish in the reef.  The massive jacks, throngs of sharks, and even eels are very active nocturnal hunters.  Everything is thriving, fast, and alive! I am in the middle of a huge school of predators and I cant help but feel like one of the pack as I turn my night dive and the whole school floods to check the area I am now illuminating.  Every direction I turned there were more sharks than I could see. There’s an excitement and hurried feeling as everyone (the sharks, eels, and jacks) race to sniff out their favorite snack.  Many people are surprised to find that sharks are picky eaters and each species has its preferred prey item.   On this trip I watched a Guineafowl (yellow spotted) puffer being swarmed by dozens of sharks and yet seemingly invisible despite being a perfect “bite size yum-yum-yellow” and well out in the open, remained untouched.

The schools of Scalloped Hammerhead sharks around Cocos island are one of the most iconic highlights about diving Cocos. The Hammerheads observed at Cocos looked thick compared to ones back home in Hawaii, Bahamas, and other places of the world I’ve seen them.  However, their skin was damaged and they carried many parasites.  The hammerheads came in close to be cleaned by the Johnrandallia nigrirostris (Barberfish) and Holacanthus passer (King Anglefish.)  This area is a critical aggregation site for pelagic to be cleaned and possibly for other behaviors like mating and certainly for feeding.  The hammerheads rely on the fish and the fish rely on the corals and outcroppings and currents carrying nutrients and sharks bearing copepod “snacks.”

Global climate change was a major topic of discussion through out the trip. Tba-21 will have a presence at the upcoming UN conference. Concerns about thermocline depth changes and its effects on marine life and currents could be a very plausible thing.  Certain species of sharks and fish prefer the colder waters below the thermoclines but with rising sea temperatures and changing weather patterns this could hypothetically change the behavior and lives of these animals dramatically.  So the question is, how can we get involved; what changes can we make to address the many issues in marine conservation, especially relative to sharks and other pelagics.  Addressing perception is the first real change that needs to be achieved.  Coming aboard the Dardanella with a diversity of divers of all different experience levels and project plans there was initially moreover a fear, and admitted lack of behavioral knowledge of sharks from the vast majority of the participants.  Through education into the behavior and body language of sharks, their sensory systems, and importance, I happily helped guide this fear towards an understanding and respect for the animals.  Diving and seeing sharks first hand turned the shared knowledge into a fascination, appreciation, and greater desire to help conserve them. There’s nothing quite like having a shark swim up to you and look you in the eye.  While it may sound scary for some, for most that have experienced it while diving it is an incredible experience that words cannot do justice.  Sharks have such beautiful eyes and each species is so different.  When you lock eyes with a shark there is no more denying that they are intelligent, not the malicious man-eaters they so undeservingly portrayed as in mass media.

The next thing to address is data and the methods of gathering knowledge about the animals movements, and behavior.  It is critical to expand this knowledge and understanding to better protect pelagics.  It is also equally imperative that the findings be shared locally and internationally to help people better understand them.   Sharing of knowledge is essential to growing support and making bigger change.

Another major highlight of this trip for me personally was my first ever submersible dive! 300 meters below the surface, in a private 3 person submarine bubble, I had the very rare opportunity to observe the life over the edge of the drop off of Cocos Island.  I was in absolute awe, the whole experience felt so surreal.  Without light there is no color and as we sank I watched the spectrum of colors disappear as we dropped deeper and deeper into complete darkness.  Watching the hint of sun disappear slowly I was excited to see the life below the light, in “inner-space.”  The clear spherical design of the submersible allowed me to view creatures I’d never be able to see on scuba, tec, or rebreathers.  An adorable Jelly-nose fish which looks like part mouse, part fish, part shark with an eel like body and an ray of feathery spines flaring out.  Then there was a bat fish, with false eyes on its back waddling around like a cross between a duck, frog, and kangaroo.  There was one really shocking finding at 300 meters; seeing a plastic snack trey on the seafloor right next to a bunch of special deep water fish species.  It was sad to see that our choices on land really go so far as to impact even this remote place and deep water marine life.  That human consumption and waste is so far spread is disturbing and hopefully this realization is also motivating towards efforts to continue to be more conscious about our actions and their negative effects on the ocean and its inhabitants.  We ventured back up a bit to 200 meters and stopped just above the shelf at a deep water cleaning station and turned the lights off, with barely any ambient light we could see just the silhouettes of fish, as a larger one approached we used a red light, that the animals are not bothered by, to illuminate the face of two very large and curious groupers.  A huge mobula ray glided past covered in remoras.  The whole experience was incredible and an eye opener to the far reaches of human impact.

Heading back to port from Cocos required a 36 hour crossing.  With the help of local expert Nico Ghersinich we charted wind, currents, sea surface and depth temperature to predict the eye of the “Central American Dome.” A unique high pressure current system that causes major upwelling of nutrients such as krill.  While the open ocean can sometimes seem like a desert, major upwellings like this can produce a lot of nutrients attracting large groups of marine animals.  This area is notorious for attracting blue whales, the largest animal on the planet!  Sighting of blue whales have been recorded year round by shipping vessels.  We set our course and kept a look out.   The sea surface temperatures rose and the shifting eye of the dome spead over 50 square miles heavily during our crossing so the whales were likely feeding deeper. The vessels bow disturbed flying fish and we observed our escorting frigate birds using this reaction to their hunting advantage.

Back in port we met with Mision Tiburon founders and marine biologists: llena Zanella and Andres Lopez.  They shared their current projects and findings and discussed the changes in the new project proposal.   Two very dedicated professionals who have a passion for helping sharks.  They have networks with the university and the national park management team to help educate rangers.  Please check out and support their work at:

I flew back to the capital of Costa Rica and met with the group  “Costa Rica necesita tiburones vivo” (Costa Rica needs sharks alive.)  The group was collaborating with Pretoma, another conservation group that has done a lot for other marine conservation projects.  The newest campaign “Yo no como Tiburon” (I don’t eat shark) aims to get people to stop consuming shark meat in restaurants.   Sharks are apex predators, with already low numbers.  Current fishing trends show that sharks are not a sustainable fishery so Protema and “Costa Rica necesita tiburones vivo” have joined together to help raise awareness.  I did an interview for the national morning news show Buen Dia Channel 7 to speak about the campaign, the new conservation project, my work, and the expedition to Cocos island.  Please like and support the facebook page of Costa Rica needs live sharks ( and check out for more information.

The expedition and trip to Costa Rica are now over but the projects are still just developing and growing.  I can’t wait to hear about the findings of the Cocos Island Pelagic Project over the next three years, the technology integration, and the traditional observational method findings.   Cocos island is an amazing place to see large numbers of sharks and many species.  I hope more people visit and become inspired and involved. My personal goals in the next few years are to help this and other global programs continue to develop.  A new project for myself, Water Inspired, and anyone else interested is the International shark project that will also launch in a few months.  More info on the ISP and more amazing sharky moments to come J


A very special and humble mahalo nui loa(thank you so much) to Francesca von Habsburg for inviting me to be a part of this expedition, for caring about the environment, and for taking action in a unique way to help marine life and inspiring others to care too.  Special thanks and gratitude to the crew of the Dardanella, you guys are incredible and hilarious!  Many mahalos to Nico Ghersinich for being an incredible divemaster, and local expert guide.  Nico’s the guy to contact if you want to see the best of Cocos or calculate your chances with blue whales in that area.  His website:  Huge thanks to Markus for also inviting and hosting me, for always having a great enthusiastic water-love attitude, and for being my “end of the dive buddy” because Markus has the best air consumption of the whole group so we could really really maximize each and every dive.  Thank you to the whole TBA21 academy crew for their time, energy, efforts, and friendship through out this journey, I enjoyed learning so many new things from you all.

Mahalo and Aloha to you for reading, sharing, and ultimately supporting marine and shark conservation.





Water Inspired Lead Shark Specialist, Conservationist, Biologist, Research Diver, Photo/Videographer, & Dive Safety Officer. PADI MSDT# 197766. DAN Emergency 02 & AED, 1st aid & CPR Instructor.





“In the end people will only protect what they love, and only love what they understand . . .”  Sengalese environmentalist Baba Dioum


“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” – Mother Teresa









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