Volunteer Divers at Cocos Island National Park Help Collect Data for the Creation of the Cocos – Galapagos Swimway

In 2007, I traveled backwards in time.

As I dove below the surface of the water at Cocos Island, two giant and curious sea turtles gracefully greeted me.  By the time I reached 30 meters below the surface, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of hammerhead sharks, another ancient species whose ancestors outlived the dinosaurs.  While I adjusted my mask, scores of marbled and eagle rays flew by me.

Green turtles, Cocos Island. (c) Shmulik Blum


In my 40 years of diving, I have never seen such an abundance of underwater life!  I imagined I was looking back into a prehistoric eraa time before commercial fishing operations began strip-mining vast areas of the sea.

I was first drawn to Cocos by the need to recover the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle: an amazing species that also conjures up superlatives— it’s the largest living reptile, diving as deep as the great whales, and navigating across entire ocean basins.

Blue and gold snappers. (c) Nonie Silver, SeaTurtles.org

My colleagues and I at Turtle Island Restoration Network and MigraMar knew leatherbacks migrate past Cocos to the Galapagos. We hypothesized that if leatherbacks used this route maybe other species did too.

With the help of citizen divers who continue to accompany us on Cocos Island Research Expeditions (https://seaturtles.org/cocos/), we have now confirmed that at least 5 endangered species are swimming back and forth.

Whale shark, Cocos Island. (c) Edwar Hereno

We also know why Pacific leatherbacks are going extinct— industrial fishing, which continues to empty our oceans of marine life, is decimating their population.

In our hands are two incredibly diverse biological hotspots. The Galapagos Islands, inspiration for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and Cocos Island, so incredible that famed explorer Jacques Cousteau called it the most beautiful island in the world.

Both National Parks are so vastly important that the United Nations declared them World Heritage Sites. These Parks are also major economic engines, attracting hundreds of thousands of nature lovers and divers from all over the world.

But the small marine protected areas that surround these islands do not provide the necessary protection for migratory species like turtles and sharks.

Today, this 400-mile underwater superhighway, the same distance between San Francisco and LA, remains unprotected; forcing migrating species to run a gauntlet of millions of hooks set by longline fishing operations.

Cocos – Galapagos Swimway (c) MigraMar

This is a place where sharks are killed for their fins and sea turtles drown in nets. This is a location facing intense commercial fishing operations that are pushing species toward extinction. Yet, this single ecosystem is separated onlyby political borders.

The science, economics, and the need to reverse the threats to our endangered ocean are calling out. It’s time for us to listen and take action.

Turtle Island Restoration Network has proposed a novel solution: the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway. It will be the first protected corridor for turtles and sharks connecting the national parks of two sovereign nations.


This Swimway falls within the overlapping regions of Costa Rica and Ecuador’s exclusive economic zones, allowing a giant swath of critical habitat to be protected by a single bilateral agreement.

It will be the world’s FIRST marine protected area that links the economic well being of two nations, and the first 95,000 square-mile safety zone for migrating species.

We are laying the scientific groundwork for the creation of the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway, and we have been working with partners and governments in Costa Rica and Ecuador to begin to create the political will.

Eagle ray, Cocos Island. (c) Nonie Silver, SeaTurtles.org

For 30 years, Turtle Island Restoration Network has combined science with grassroots advocacy. If you are a scuba diver, please consider joining us on a Cocos Island Research Expedition. You will join the thousands of volunteers we have trained and mobilized to help us save hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and other marine species through hands-on conservation and policy change.

We believe in the power of people to protect our blue-green planet.

Please join us in support of a new conservation paradigm for the world…the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway.

Shark Week 2018, Wildlife

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Meet the Author
Todd Steiner is the founder and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. Previously, he was director of the Tuna Dolphin project, which was responsible for bringing to public view the tuna industry’s impact on dolphins and other marine species. He has more than 30 years experience in environmental protection and education. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. He holds an MS in Biology and lives in Forest Knolls, Calif.