Cocos Island National Park, Costa Rica, is home to more than 200 species of fish, including white-tip reef sharks, above.

Photograph by Dmitry Miroshnikov, MyShot

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  • Remote and pristine, Cocos Island National Park sits in the Pacific Ocean, 550 kilometers (340 miles) from Costa Rica.

    The biodiversity of Cocos Island, sometimes called the “Little Galapagos,” is rich: 235 plant species, 400 insect species, five species of reptiles, and 100 species of birds. Its waters have three species of sea turtles, 50 species of mollusks, more than 30 species of coral, 60 species of crustaceans, and 250 species of fish. Some of those fish include yellowfin tuna, white-tip and hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, sailfish, and giant manta rays. Among the marine mammals found at Cocos Island National Park are humpback whales, sea lions, and bottlenose dolphins.

    The diversity of marine life is the result of climate, exposure to diverse ocean currents, and geology—the region’s caves, tunnels, and reefs. The climate is tropical and wet, and the island receives more than 6 meters (20 feet) of rainfall every year.

    Cocos Island was used by pirates to stash treasure from the 1600s through the 1800s. Pirates and other visitors had a lasting, detrimental effect on the environment. They introduced non-native species, both accidentally and on purpose. Plants such as coffee and animals such as pigs, rats, and goats have harmed the island’s native species and delicate habitats.

    In the 19th and 20th centuries, overfishing was a big threat to the ocean surrounding Cocos Island. The fishery was driven in part by a growing demand around the world for seafood like tuna and shark fin soup, a delicacy in many Asian countries. 


    Cocos Island was made a national park by Costa Rica in 1978. It was established as an official marine protected area (MPA) in 1982. The MPA covers 2,095 square kilometers (809 square miles). Cocos Island National Park is managed by Costa Rica’s National Ministry for Energy and the Environment.

    The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The site was expanded to include the marine area in 2002.


    Cocos Island National Park is a marine reserve. This means it has strict limitations on how people can interact with it. It takes about 30 hours to reach the island from mainland Costa Rica, and tourists and scientists are not allowed to camp or stay overnight. In fact, they can only come ashore with approval from park rangers.

    No one is allowed to take any organism or artifact from the park. Fishing and hunting are not allowed, and people are barred from looking for fossils or buried treasure. (Remember, Cocos Island was used by pirates, although there is no reliable evidence of any buried treasure.)

    Environmental Goals

    Despite these restrictions, conservationists face several challenges in protecting Cocos Island National Park. Illegal fishing, also known as poaching, is the largest threat to the habitats of the MPA.

    Sharks are poached, often to supply the main ingredient for shark-fin soup. Large tuna are also poached in the reserve’s waters.

    Another fish subject to illegal fishing is the dorado. Dorado, also known as mahi mahi, is a large fish native to the waters surrounding Cocos Island. Although all fishing is prohibited in the MPA, small boats still routinely catch hundreds of the fish. The bycatch of dorado fishing can be dolphins and sea turtles.

    A lack of funding has hindered protection efforts. The MPA is too large and too remote for the Costa Rican Coast Guard to patrol all the time. The government of Costa Rica has even been accused of doing little to stop illegal activities.


    Cocos Island National Park promotes research and technical studies of the area, as well as recreational use. The Cocos Island MPA protects the environment and the economy of Costa Rica.

    Scientific Use

    National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, and a team of marine scientists visited Cocos Island in September 2009 to document the marine ecosystems there.

    Sala and Earle visited the MPA as part of the Pristine Seas expedition. Pristine Seas is an exploration, research, and conservation project that aims to find, survey, and help protect the last healthy, undisturbed places in the ocean.

    The waters around Cocos Island are some of the most shark-rich in the world. Pristine Seas divers routinely swam with white-tip sharks, whale sharks, and hammerhead sharks. Scientists monitored shark behavior, documenting how they hunted for food such as mackerel, for instance.

    The Pristine Seas expedition also studied the unexplored Gemelas Seamounts. This underwater mountain range is not part of the Cocos Island MPA. The marine biologists discovered that while the Gemelas Seamounts are full of organisms like sponges, corals, and sea stars, larger fish such as grouper are less abundant than they are in the nearby MPA.

    Recreational Use

    Recreational activities are promoted by the Cocos Island MPA. Ecotourism is a major industry in Costa Rica, part of the developing world where most people work in the service industry. The service industry includes restaurants, hotels, resorts and spas, as well as fishing, boating, and sight-seeing businesses.

    Adventure sporting, such as zip-lining, scuba diving, and bungee jumping, is a growing industry in Costa Rica.

    Cocos Island is renowned for its scuba diving. The Costa Rican waters are usually warm and clear. The variety of sharks, dolphins, rays, and other marine life make it an ideal destination for divers and snorkelers. Cocos Island’s coral reefs are host to an array of brightly colored fish and crustaceans. The number of sharks makes it a popular destination for adventure sports vacations.

    Cocos Island National Park is one of the few places in the world where divers can swim with whale sharks. Whale sharks, the world’s largest species of fish, can grow up to 13 meters (42 feet) long and weigh more than 20 tons. However, these slow swimmers are no threat to people. They feed on tiny plankton, algae, and krill.

    Case Study: Cocos Island National Park
    Mackerel, and sharks, and coral, oh my.

    Dinosaurs Are Not a Native Species
    Michael Crichton set his novel Jurassic Park on the fictional Isla Nublar (Cloudy Island), in the Pacific Ocean west of Costa Rica. Cocos Island, the only island in the area with cloudy rain forests, was likely the inspiration for Isla Nublar. Although people have introduced non-native species such as pigs to Cocos Island, no one has introduced a velociraptor to the ecosystem. Yet.

    Cocos and Keeling
    Cocos Island should not be confused with the Cocos Islands. The Cocos Islands, also known as the Keeling Islands, are a string of coral reefs and atolls in the Indian Ocean. They are a territory of Australia. Just to make things interesting (or confusing), the Cocos Islands are almost exactly on the other side of the globe from Cocos Island, located in the Pacific Ocean far off the coast of Costa Rica.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    atoll Noun

    a coral reef or string of coral islands that surrounds a lagoon.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atoll
    biodiversity Noun

    all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    bycatch Noun

    fish or any other organisms accidentally caught in fishing gear.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    coast guard Noun

    branch of a nation's armed forces that is responsible for coastal defense and protection of life and property at sea.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    coral Noun

    tiny ocean animal, some of which secrete calcium carbonate to form reefs.

    crustacean Noun

    type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.

    current Noun

    steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

    Encyclopedic Entry: current
    detrimental Adjective


    developing world Noun

    nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

    dorado Noun

    popular food and game fish. Also called mahi mahi.

    economy Noun

    system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

    ecotourism Noun

    act and industry of traveling for pleasure with concern for minimal environmental impact.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    Explorer-in-Residence Noun

    pre-eminent explorers and scientists collaborating with the National Geographic Society to make groundbreaking discoveries that generate critical scientific information, conservation-related initiatives and compelling stories.

    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    funding Noun

    money or finances.

    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    hinder Verb

    to delay or hold back.

    island Noun

    body of land surrounded by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: island
    marine biologist Noun

    scientist who studies ocean life.

    marine mammal Noun

    an animal that lives most of its life in the ocean but breathes air and gives birth to live young, such as whales and seals.

    marine protected area (MPA) Noun

    area of the ocean where a government has placed limits on human activity.

    marine reserve Noun

    part of the ocean where no fishing, hunting, drilling, or other development is allowed.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marine reserve
    mollusk Noun

    large phylum of invertebrate animal, all possessing a mantle with a significant cavity used for breathing and excretion, a radula (except for bivalves), and the structure of the nervous system. 

    national park Noun

    geographic area protected by the national government of a country.

    non-native species Noun

    a type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area. Non-native species can sometimes cause economic or environmental harm as an invasive species.

    overfish Verb

    to harvest aquatic life to the point where species become rare in the area.

    pirate Noun

    thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

    plankton Plural Noun

    (singular: plankton) microscopic aquatic organisms.

    poach Verb

    to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.

    pristine Adjective

    pure or unpolluted.

    prohibit Verb

    to disallow or prevent.

    recreational Adjective

    having to do with activities done for enjoyment.

    reef Noun

    a ridge of rocks, coral, or sand rising from the ocean floor all the way to or near the ocean's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reef
    scuba noun, adjective

    (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) portable device for breathing underwater.

    seamount Noun

    underwater mountain.

    World Heritage Site Noun

    location recognized by the United Nations as important to the cultural or natural heritage of humanity.