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Welcome to Cocos Island

Destination: Puntarenas

Opening my sleepy eyes on the top bunk this morning was a bit disorienting. The world rocked gently back and forth, and the ceiling seemed awfully close to my face. As I peeled back the curtain to the porthole window, a foamy wave slammed against the glass -- just like in the movies. Aboard the Sea Hunter I had no obligations or responsibilities, no cell phone to answer or email to check. Hundreds of miles away the real world just didn't seem to exist.

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Looking forward to a day of doing absolutely nothing, I stayed in bed until the triangle "chuck wagon" bell rang at 8:00 a.m. An impressive breakfast buffet was laid out in the dining room: assorted fresh fruit and toast, cereal and scrambled eggs, and typical Costa Rican rice and beans, or gallo pinto. Beside the coffee machine were all the ingredients I needed to create "magic coffee," a special recipe I invented: coffee, hot chocolate powder, milk, cinnamon, honey and splenda.

Despite the waters being uncharacteristically calm (the crossing was only going to take 32 hours instead of the usual 34 to 36), I noticed that a few people hadn't turned up for the morning meal. Upstairs I found several nauseous guests resting outside, where seasickness is felt considerably less than indoors. Being around sick people made me feel a little ill myself, so I retired to the common area and tried not to think about it. With nowhere to be and nothing to accomplish, I took the day to learn about Cocos Island.

In the study, I found a small library dedicated to the national park. According to PBS, "Cocos boasts more sharks per cubic yard of water than perhaps any other place on the planet." It is basically nature's version of an automatic car wash for scalloped hammerheads: prehistoric creatures drawn here to mingle with cleaner fish that pick parasites from their bodies. In 1997, UNESCO recognized its vast biological value by making Cocos Island a World Heritage Site.

The summit of an extinct volcano, Cocos' biodiversity stems from a series of steep underwater mountains known as seamounts. Ocean currents collide with these seamounts, sweeping nutrient rich waters upward toward the surface. There, they mix with sunlight to create an ideal habitat for plankton. Fish consume the plankton, and large pelagic travelers like sharks and rays feast upon the fish.

Cocos Island's history above the surface is even more interesting than its geological past, and I could have spent hours pouring over spellbinding tales of pirates and buried treasure. It is well documented that pirates made base here as far back as the 1500's, taking advantage of both the island's fresh water and remote location.

In 1820, during a time of political unrest, the Roman Catholic Church in Peru entrusted a vast sum of gold to Captain William Thompson for safekeeping. According to legend, Thompson set sail with the fortune on his ship, the Mary Dear, along with several men of the cloth. After murdering the clergymen, he teamed up with notorious pirate Benito Bonito and hid the cache, the Treasure of Lima, on Cocos Island. Exactly where is a secret that the duo took to the grave.

The prospect of finding the Treasure of Lima has inspired countless expeditions since. Searches -- now forbidden because of their destructive nature -- resulted in little more than the discovery of a WWII airplane wreck in the mountains.

Wanting to share my newfound knowledge with anyone who would listen, I worked my way around the ship introducing myself. One of the most knowledgeable passengers I met on board was Oda, a coral scientist from the University of Costa Rica. Here to discover and research new species, Oda knows just about everything there is to know about this integral part of Cocos' underwater ecosystem. Difficult as it may be to get a shark diver riled up about coral, I hung on to her every word as she described her passion. "Certain species spawn during the night at precisely the same moment," she said, "and their phosphorescent sperm glows like a massive cloud of stardust."

If aquatic sperm dust isn't enough to get a person interested in coral, then I don't know what is. Next I learned that our trip fell right in the middle of El Nino -- when sea currents fail to dredge nutrients near the surface. This greatly reduces the amount of plankton, fish and wildlife normally found here. Worried, I asked the crew if this would affect our trip. While we might not witness an underwater Alice in Wonderland this time around, I was told Cocos Island never fails to deliver something surreal.

Satisfied with this answer, I worked my way upstairs for the sunset. Nothing but water and sky could be seen in all directions, and the clouds glowed purple and pink over the horizon. With just a few hours left in the crossing, a brown boobie with a bright blue beak anchored itself on the railing beside us. I stretched out my hand beside it and the bird climbed on my arm. This was even more fun than yesterday's dolphins.

Its talons felt strange on my skin, but not painful. Although the bird was almost as large as my torso, it weighed very little. Everyone took turns holding the bird until it got to my Brazilian friend, Marcos. It inched close to his face -- as if to say "welcome to Cocos Island" -- and flew off into the distance.

Welcome to Cocos Island in Pictures

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