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04/20/2011
Missione Natura to Costa Rica

I left Costa Rica a few days ago; physically, I am now in Italy, but my heart is still there, a captive of Cocos Island.

 

Cocos is a little island adrift in the Pacific Ocean, where legend has it there are hidden treasures. Setting out from Punta Arenas it takes almost two days to reach the island by sea. Along the way I expected stormy seas, but the Pacific was strangely calm, and with flat waters we were able to spot whales, dolphins, turtles and pelagic sharks. At dawn on the second day, Cocos appeared before me in all her splendour: a luxuriant jewel in the middle of the sea.

 

That morning, flocks of gannets took off from the great rocks at Manuelita to go fishing in the open sea, whilst a school of bottle-nosed dolphins, playing in the wave created by the bow of our boat, guided us to our moorings. Cocos is covered in dense forest, and exploring it was no easy feat, but what struck me most was the life underwater.

 

At Halcyon, a dive site discovered by Jacques Cousteau, we swam down a rope line that took us to about 30 metres below. The line is necessary, because the currents in that particular spot are so strong they can wash you away. Going down to -40 metres, we came across a kind of underwater precipice, where hundreds of sharks come up from the depths. A stream of hammerhead sharks swimming leisurely with the current. I stopped still, clutching a rock and holding my breath so as not to frighten them with the sound of my bubbles. A few curious ones came up close to see what I was doing there, while others allowed shoals of butterflyfish clean their skin.

 

It is said that hammerhead sharks are guided to Cocos by the magnetic fields of the volcanic activity that takes place in the depths of the sea. I didn't go down that far, but I did explore the depths with a little submersible. Closed inside a transparent perspex sphere eight centimetres thick, I managed to get down to 300 metres below the surface. For the first 70 metres, the water was warm and blue, then I reached a cloudy stream of cold water full of plankton, where you can see the great abyssal mobula rays. Down below 140 metres, the water became crystal clear once more, but at -200 m it gets dark. In actual fact, looking up, I could still detect the sun's glow. At -250 metres there is an escarpment that drops down, steep and straight, to 3000 metres. I went down to -300 metres, but life there is not particularly abundant: there are sponges that seem to be made of glass, white corals and the odd deep-sea fish.

 

At night, below the Manuelita reef, I watched the frenzied meal of some whitetip sharks. Dozens of them followed me like puppies, trying to take advantage of my diving torch to spot some prey. One unlucky trumpetfish did not hide quickly enough, and they caught it. The first shark grabbed it, a second bit it, then another, and another; in a matter of seconds, a ball of sharks in full feeding frenzy were fighting for their morsel of fish.

 

 

But Costa Rica offers more than just the sea; the cloud forest in Monteverde, a few hundred kilometres north-west of the capital San Josè, is magical. There I was lucky enough to be able to explore the canopy, riding steel zip-lines; one of these cables ran between two mountains, and it was over a kilometre long. From up there you could see the electric blue of the great morpho butterflies flying above the treetops.

 

Using the cables was great fun, but to see life in the canopy properly, you need to climb up into the tops of the tallest trees. To do that I used ropes, belays, descenders and harnesses: the same ones that came in handy when I happened upon a 40-metre waterfall and climbed down it, while looking for frogs in a stream in the forest at La Paz. During that exploration I saw treefrogs and multicoloured frogs, insects, snakes and coatis. Seeing snakes was one of my objectives, and in the Cahuita forest I found plenty. One that drove me crazy was a big common lancehead. He was lying perfectly still under a tree. When I came closer he sprang up. Rapid and lethal. It was no easy task convincing him to be filmed. The coral snake, albeit highly poisonous, was much more placid, and even allowed us to pick it up without too much trouble.

 

Things were altogether simpler with the sloths; they are slow animals. The only problem is spotting them in the treetops. One day in Playa Chiquita, just a few kilometres from Puerto Viejo on the Atlantic Ocean, there was a female two-toed sloth with her baby clinging on, as she sat serenely eating the leaves on a tree. I climbed up a nearby trunk so as not to frighten her. I sat perfectly still on the branch, hoping she would not run away, and to my surprise, not only did she not disappear, she grew curious and came closer. We looked each other in the eyes for a while… even the little one lifted its head from its mum's thick fur to take a peep. Having satisfied her curiosity, the sloth went calmly on her way.

 

 

Two-toed sloths look like dolls with long blond hair, whereas three-toes sloths are like living teddy bears. We found one tiny one, just a few months old, on the ground. Its mother had disappeared. I picked it up and entrusted it to the care of a sloth sanctuary.

 

Now I have a few days' rest here in Italy before I begin my next journey. INDIA here I come!

 

Vincenzo Venuto