The Color of Blood

No Place for Landlubbers
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Although Cocos is a national park, Costa Rica forbids land-based activities there, thus the only people who venture forth are divers. Officials also keep those numbers low—to limit ecological impact—by sanctioning just three small live-aboard dive boats. The mathematics of getting to the island don't exactly woo the Winnebago set either—in my case, 36 hours at sea and 21 people aboard 37 meters of boat.

But when our group converges on the ramshackle port town of Punta Arenas on Costa Rica's west coast and spies the gleaming white Undersea Hunter amid the limping dinghies of the local fishing fleet, any concerns of Das Boot conditions dissipate. A smiling Costa Rican/British crew of nine welcomes us—five Germans, three Spaniards, two Italians, two Americans—and shows us the spacious saloon, the roomy cabins, the comfy dining room, the extensive video library. The alcohol. By the time we weigh anchor, the Germans and Costa Ricans are dancing in the saloon, the Spaniards and Italians are howling through a haze of cigarette smoke on the upper deck, and everyone is singing and quaffing Cerveza Imperial.

Green at the Gills
Then my stomach shows up. I spend the next 35 hours wrapped around my commode or burrowed beneath the blankets in my bed trying to escape the odor of chicken primavera seeping through the crack under my cabin door. I suck down $54 worth of Dramamine, Bonine, Triptone, and ginger pills, all to no avail. At one point I emerge from my room, green and glassy-eyed, and slink around the boat like a hardened addict looking to score. I keep to the shadows. "Randy!" I gasp to my cabin-mate, clutching his shirt in my shaky fists. "For the love of Jesus, man, find me something!" I start hitting the prescription stuff, Latin-sounding names with multiple prefixes and suffixes. Those, too, fail me. I fall into a turbulent sleep and have nightmares about merry-go-rounds.

The Undersea Hunter stops moving at 4 a.m., and when I stumble onto the deck at sunrise, caked in my own gastric juices and yammering incoherently, I fall prostrate before the mother of all calendar art: Cocos' jungle-covered walls rise suddenly from the ocean and into a misty shroud that lingers around the entire island. Hundreds of waterfalls—fueled by 27 feet of annual rainfall—burst dramatically from volcanic cliffs and spill into the churning surf. Boobies and frigate birds spiral in the sky. The air is warm, and Chatham Bay is calm.

A Resort-Resistant Island
A dilapidated skiff sputters toward us from shore carrying two haggard park rangers coming for the supplies we've brought them. They are the latest in a continuing circus of people who've tried to occupy Cocos for 400 years. Beginning in the 16th century, British, Spanish, and Portuguese pirates allegedly stashed $1 billion in treasure on the island. Early this century, Costa Rica tried depositing settlers here in the wind and rain, but the only evidence remaining from that effort are the feral pigs that run rampant through the jungle. Now and again, motley bands of treasure hunters pay big money for permission to scour the island for a few days. The last group, according to Probert, included a German psychic, a Yugoslavian cave diver, a restaurant owner from Daytona Beach, and two Russians armed to the teeth with metal detectors. "Things sort of fell apart after the cave diver got sucked into a cavern and disappeared," explains Probert. The guy finally reemerged—panicked, pissed-off, and refusing to dip his toe into the water again.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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