National Geographic screened its new documentary Shark Island in San Jose, Costa Rica, this week. President-elect Laura Chinchilla, her cabinet, and 350 guests lined up to watch the world premiere of the film, which reveals the underwater beauty of Cocos Island—300 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast—and the threats to the protected waters surrounding it.
Goals of the event were to raise awareness among Costa Rican leaders of the global importance of Cocos and nearby Las Gemelas seamounts and of the benefits of marine protected areas, and to inspire the leaders to expand marine conservation in their country (already world-renowned for its pioneering efforts in ecotourism and the conservation of nature).
National Geographic Society Executive Vice President Terry Garcia, Trustee Ted Waitt, and I (a marine ecologist, conservationist, and the Geographic’s Ocean Fellow) were there for the Society, and were joined by Michael Rothschild of the Walton Family Foundation.
“We are honored to premiere this show here in Costa Rica with President Chinchilla and her cabinet, because we believe that Isla del Coco is a place of extraordinary global value,” said Terry Garcia prior to the screening. “We will broadcast our show internationally to reach hundreds of millions of people, to raise awareness, and to inspire viewers to care about Cocos Island and our oceans.” Shark Island will have its U.S. television premiere on the new Nat Geo Wild channel April 19, and this summer around the globe.
Cocos Island National Park is one of the most pristine locations in the Pacific, and one of the last places on Earth where one can still see schools of 200 hammerheads, or 100 whitetip sharks forming a river of predators at night. In September 2009, an expedition led by myself and Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle evaluated the health of this unique ecosystem that has been protected for more than 25 years, and dived in a submarine to underwater seamounts hundreds of meters deep that had never before been seen by humans. We found a world of extraordinary richness inside the protected area, but encroaching fishing pressure from outside, and illegal fishing inside the park.
Chinchilla, elected last month to replace outgoing President Óscar Arias when he leaves office in May, acknowledged that while Costa Rica is a leader in biodiversity conservation with more than a quarter of the country’s land protected in parks, less than one percent of its marine waters are protected. She said the documentary had an impact on her, and pledged to work toward increased marine conservation in the country.
The screening exceeded my highest expectations. My colleagues and I were honored that the President-elect brought her cabinet to view the film. I was deeply moved to see the reaction of many well-educated Costa Ricans, who were not aware of their extraordinary marine natural heritage and the threats to its survival. I believe that we inspired them to act.
Shark Island and the expedition on which the film is based are part of a larger research project in collaboration with Costa Rican government agencies and conservation organizations (including the country’s national park system, the Cocos Island marine protected area, the Costa Rican coast guard, MarViva, Fundacion Amigos Isla del Coco, Pretoma, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the Forever Costa Rica Project), with support from Google, the Oracle Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Waitt Family Foundation. The project aims to raise awareness, provide key scientific data to inform policy, and inspire political leaders to preserve some of the most extraordinary marine biodiversity on the planet.
To learn more about the 2009 expedition to Cocos Island and Las Gemelas seamounts, see our posts from the field on the Ocean Now site.
Images of President-elect Laura Chinchilla and of Chinchilla with Terry Garcia and Enric Sala by Manu San Felix