Returning to Cocos Island

It’s been 3 years since I’ve set foot on Cocos Island.  Since I was here last, I’ve been to the high Arctic, Africa, and the far east on photographic adventures, but as well as my land projects, I’ve had the chance to develop my underwater photography “skills” around the world on other projects that focus on underwater habitats.  In truth I wouldn’t call myself an underwater photographer, I would say it’s a tool that I have in my toolbox for getting the photographs that I need.  In many of my projects, the underwater world is the main focus and by default I end up taking my camera into the depths with me.

Some sort of Doctor fish that I've never seen here before has moved in with the warmer waters.

After the 36 hour crossing to Cocos Island, I jumped right in and on the first day realized how much I’d learned since I was here last. Not to mention the fact that I’ve got newer improved equipment which can make all the difference in the world.  Aside from all of that, just getting to come back to Cocos Island is a enormous privilege.  Cocos is prime shark habitat, and is an important part of my project to show various Central American locations as vital breeding grounds and nurseries for juvenile sharks.

Of the many difficulties that always present themselves on these trips, the one that I’ve run into now is the extremely warm water temperatures that have come with the El Niño year.  Many of the shark species that are ultimately dependent of Cocos Island have had to move elsewhere for the year, and are either too far away or too deep where the water is cooler.   As a freediver, I have not yet been able to dive to two hundred feet without tanks, and I’m guessing I won’t be able to any time soon.  To be honest, to dive to 40 or 50 feet with the camera that I’m hauling around inside an enormous housing is a challenge.

In place of the sharks that are often seen here, the word is that tiger sharks have moved in, I’ve yet to see one for myself, and seeming how I’m pretty much alone out there with my kayak, I’m not sure I want to see too many of them, and yet at the same time, I’d love to see them.  In truth I’ve never been in the water with a tiger shark, though I’m pretty sure I was followed by one in my kayak at two am last time was here , they don’t exactly fit into my project anyways, unless of course a bunch of tiger sharks start breeding here.

I guess we’re getting a preview of what this place will look like shortly after global warming and rising sea temperatures escalate a bit futher.  Cocos Island will no longer be the place for hammerheads, but other species will move in to take there place.  I just hope there is somewhere that they can go that is equally benificial for their lives.

A juvenile of the ever present white tip reef shark - If only I could get this shot with a tiger shark!

One benefit to the lack of sharks is the lack of poachers, with less sharks here, there are also less fishermen bent on finning them.  Yesterday on patrol we saw only two boats where as last time I would easily see a dozen a day.

While out on patrol in heavy seas, we were hit by a torrential downpour, and for me, the rain is one of my favorite things.  We didn’t get much done, but I thouroughly enjoyed my time at sea watching the sea birds navigate the storm.  (I write in a hurry now because I leave for the other side of the island in 20 minutes)  Coming in from our daily patrol in the darkness and raging storm was one of those things I wish I could capture on film but I know there is no way to really translate the feeling to a camera.  I sat with 5 guards on a 3 man boat, all heavily armed against the poachers.  We navigated the rivermouth in high seas and total darkness, all the while inundated with the rains that only the tropics can produce in such bone soaking magnitude…  More later, for now I need to get moving!

Sea Birds Navigating a tropical downpour in high seas

Sea Birds Navigating a tropical downpour in high seas


About Ben Horton
Highly influenced by his love of travel and adventure and his constant search for something new, his imagery is vibrant with fresh and creative energy. Raised in Bermuda, Ben Horton has spent the majority of his life traveling and seeking out new adventure. Ben is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Young Explorer award for research on Cocos Island involving shark poaching. This led to becoming a photographer for National Geographic, and has allowed Ben to continue his passion for adventure. Follow Ben on Instagram

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