Deemed as “the most beautiful island on earth” by the legendary oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau, and for its richest flora and fauna had become the inspiration of Steven Spielberg’s Jurrasic Park, Cocos Island is a multicolored tropical nature where treasure hunters are still convinced that it was here that the treasures were buried by the famous pirates Henry Morgan and William Dampier. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson even took “Treasure Island” as a prototype.
Surrounded by deep waters with the northern equatorial counter-current, Cocos Island is an island of volcanic origin located in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 km from Costa Rica. The landmass is designated as a National Park by the Costa Rican government since 1978 because of the unique ecology of the island and its surrounding waters. As a tropical island, Cocos has a very charming green landscape. Not to mention the beauty of the underwater world of the national park which is admired by many divers. The property belongs to a marine conservation network called the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, (also includes World Heritage properties in Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama). Its remote location and conservation efforts contributes to the safeguarding of evolutionary processes, which are the basis of the notable richness and abundance of land and marine life forms. The biologically highly diverse property constitutes one of the best conserved marine tropical waters where it is rated as a world-class diving destination to view not only diverse marine ecosystems, mostly pelagic such as sharks, rays, tuna, and dolphins but also, the most diverse coral reefs.
Cocos Island is covering an area of 202,100 hectares with a surface area of 2,400 hectares supporting the only humid tropical forest on an oceanic island, and the remaining 199,700 hectares protect various marine ecosystems of the entire Eastern Tropical Pacific. With no permanent inhabitants other than Costa Rican Park rangers, access by civilians is extremely limited; tourists and ship crew members are allowed ashore only with permission of island rangers, and are not permitted to camp, stay overnight, or collect any flora, fauna, or minerals from the island.
Cartographers and sailors have given the island different names since its discovery in the 16th century. Among the Spanish-speaking natives, the island is now known as Isla del Coco (Coconut Island). Cocos Island is featured heavily in many stories of pirate lore and buried treasure. The story begins in 1526, when the Spanish pilot Johan Cabeças first discovered the island. Sixteen years later, it appeared for the first time on a French map of the Americas, labelled as Ile de Coques (literally “Nutshell Island” or simply “Shell Island”). The Spanish misunderstood the French name and called it Isla del Cocos (Island of the Coconuts), which proved suitable enough since the island is finely flourish with a thick set of coconut trees. Over the next century, the island became an oceanic truck-stop, where ships of all stripes could rest and take on freshwater, firewood—and coconuts. Whalers stopped there regularly until the mid-19th century, when their industry in the region collapsed due to overfishing. Captains with missions ranging from exploration to administration of justice dropped anchor in Chatham or Wafer bays, the island’s main harbours. More than any, however, pirates made Cocos Island their home. The Golden Age of treasure-burying on the island took place in just a few years on either side of 1820. It all began in 1818, when Captain Bennett Graham, a distinguished British naval officer put in charge of a coastal survey in the South Pacific aboard the H.M.S. Devonshire, threw up his mission for a life of piracy. He was eventually caught and executed along with his officers; the remainder of his crew being sent to a penal colony in Tasmania. Twenty years later, one of the crew, a woman named Mary Welch, was released from prison bearing a remarkable tale. She claimed to have witnessed the burial of Graham’s fortune—350 tons of gold bullion stolen from Spanish galleons. (A recent estimate put the treasure’s present-day value at $160 million). Moreover, she had a chart with compass bearings showing where the so-called “Devonshire Treasure” was buried. Graham had given it to her, she said, just before he was captured. As much for her intimate knowledge of the island as for the chart, an expedition was mounted to hunt for the treasure. In the decades since she had been there, however, the lay of the land had changed so much at the hands of visiting sailors that many of her identifying marks, including a huge cedar tree near which she had once camped for six months, had disappeared, and the expedition recovered nothing. Another pirate supposed to have buried treasure on the island was the Portuguese Benito Bonito, who began terrorizing the west coast of the Americas around 1818. Though Bonito was hunted down and executed, his treasure was never retrieved. Another best-known of the treasure legends tied to the island is that of the fabled Treasure of Lima. In 1820, with the army of José de San Martín approaching Lima, Viceroy José de la Serna is supposed to have entrusted treasure from the city to British trader Captain William Thompson for safekeeping until the Spaniards could secure the country. Instead of waiting in the harbour as they were instructed, Thompson and his crew killed the viceroy’s men and sailed to Cocos, where they allegedly buried the treasure. Shortly afterwards, they were apprehended by a Spanish warship. All of the crew except Thompson and his first mate were executed for piracy. The two said they would show the Spaniards where they had hidden the treasure in return for their lives, but after landing on Cocos, they escaped into the forest and were never recaptured. Several early expeditions were mounted based merely on claims by a man named Keating, who was supposed to have befriended Thompson. On one trip, Keating was said to have retrieved gold and jewels from the treasure. German adventurer August Gissler lived on the island for most of the period from 1889 until 1908, hunting the treasure and claiming a small success of finding a few gold coins.
Cocos gained notoriety during the colonial era as a haven for pirates and as a place for their supposedly buried treasure, which was never found despite the efforts of hundreds of expeditions. But since Cocos has been a World Heritage Site in 1997, treasure hunters can wave their chances of scavenging the island for treasure goodbye.
To this day, Cocos Island has always been known for its tales of brave pirates and their hidden treasure. The story still piques the curiosity of treasure hunters from around the world because it is estimated that a billion dollars’ worth of fortune has been buried there. Whether it is true or not, however, the greatest wealth of the island lies hidden in its natural resources. Cocos is the tip of an ancient volcanic mountain isolated by the surrounding Pacific. Many of the species found here evolved after their arrival, changing into distinct forms that are found nowhere else in the world. The blue-turquoise water is extraordinarily clear and makes a great habitat for an abundance of marine life, making this island one of the most extraordinary places in the world for diving. It also has beautiful evergreen forests and numerous impressive waterfalls. Its unmatched natural beauty and rich biodiversity is a prosperity in itself. The treasure is the Island.