At the reefs of Isla del Coco

Latest update August 12, 2019 Started on May 14, 2019

Monitoring Coco's Island reefs for biodiversity and species count, and finding new species at new depths

May 14, 2019
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Dumb fish

We mostly think fishes are quite dumb. This is mainly a reflection of how little time we spend trying to understand the submarine world, and how little time we spend watching their behavior in a natural environment.

Now, maybe if we look even closer we might learn a thing or two about fishes, but at the end we can probably maintain our conclusion that they are not as bright as a primate, or even as smart as birds like the parrot or crow. But, are they?

Redouan Bshasy from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland discovered in 2006 that several species of grouper fish actually use cooperative hunting and to make it more impressive, the collaborate with other species of moray eels and fishes like Cheilinus undulatus.

Groupers normally hunt for fishes in coral reefs, but because of their size, prays take advantage of the smaller crevices in the reef to hide from the grouper, who now has zero chance to catch the pray by itself. And here is where things get smart.

The grouper goes away from the hidden pray, looks for a moray eel and then signals to the eel in a very specific way, so the eel leaves its home to follow the grouper who leads the eel to the hidden pray. The eel has a chance to get into small cracks so it will try to eat the pray for itself, but in case is manages to escape the eel, the grouper is ready and waiting. So there is no sharing of the pray, only a better chance for one of them to eat the pray.

This has led researchers like Carl Safina to believe that grouper fish could have what behaviorist call “Theory of Mind” which represents if an organism can put itself in the place of another organism and understand what it would do on a certain situation.

Cooperative hunting like this has not been recorded in the grouper population of Coco’s Island yet, but there is a clear interaction with white-tip sharks while they do their night-hunts, where it is possible that similar signals are used to direct sharks to suspected pray. We will only know more about this if we keep looking and studying this amazing wild life, hopefully with the help of underwater drones like the Trident from Sofar.

Illustration by local artist Isabelootag.

Hey If you ever need help to get to Cocos or to stay there longer. I have a fully equipped sailboat that can support you out there all with renewable energy. Check out my expedition at I would love to explore a collaboration!

Beauty and color

Participating as candidates for a grant-funded Trident from the S.E.E. Initiative is already aspiring quests to unexplored sites, routine expeditions to clean up fishing nets, and wonder on biologist and researchers.

It is slowly materializing from a dream, today in the form or an illustration by local artist Isabelootag that was made for the Flying to discover... post, with a Trident from Sofar swiming with a Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).

Awesome! You might be interested in following our project (, and we might benefit to set up a meeting sometime to meet and chat about our projects! We have been going down to Costa Rica quite regularly with our Trident.

Coco’s Island needs your help, and you need an account

Note: If you need bigger images you can click on this Twitter thread

As you can read about it in this Openexplorer post we are participating for a grant-funded Trident submarine drone which will help both the Island and it’s Park Rangers by allowing them more frequent dives in rarely explored such as the mesophotic zone.

For this we need to increase the amount of Followers for our Openexplorer Expedition, which can be done by just a click, but since Openexplorer is it’s own social network we would like to show you how to create an account so you can Follow us, as well as many other interesting Expeditions.

6 Easy Steps:

  1. Go to the top of this Expedition, and click on Follow
  2. This will show you the yellow screen where you are invited to Join
  3. Write your email account, and since you might not have an account, click at the bottom to create one
  4. Select a European region, or rest of the world and click Next
  5. Fill out your name and password, and city where you live
  6. The system sent you a validation email. Go to read your email, find it and click to activate your account.

That is it, you are ready. But wait, don’t forget to go again to the top of this Expedition and click Follow.

Now you can buzz around and happy, knowing that doing a couple of click will have a massive impact for the Island and scientific researchers from Costa Rica and all over the world who visit Coco’s Island.

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Flying to discover…

We are very exited about an opportunity that has appeared thanks to both this NatGeo Openexplorer Expedition but also with Greencore’s fundamental love for free software and open hardware.

A few years ago we started to follow a project around submarine drones called OpenROV, with the intent of bringing technologies such as the ones used to build flying multirotor drones, autonomous cars and boats, but to the oceanographic exploring community with scientist and makers included.

The first versions of this submarine drones where a bit clunky but clearly showed all the possibilities of having a much larger audience explore and observe the ocean. The new version is called Trident, and you can observe in the video how it just flies underwater while sending in real time, high quality and stable video.

“Teachers buying their chalk”

International readers might not know this phrase, but it refers to how it is common for monetary resources to be allocated to educational projects, so teachers have to normally buy their own supplies for the educational activities with their students.

In the Island, the scene for diving equipment is a bit more gray and dire. Almost all of the reef monitoring that we feature in this Expedition is done using private equipment. Just like the Island forest feed the reefs and the other way around, a symbiotic relationship has developed kindness and spirit of cooperation with private tourism, which donate resources to make this possible.

If not for this, reef monitoring would only be possible in a small number of visits through the year, or via specific expeditions by visiting researchers.

S.E.E. Initiative

A number of corporate sponsors have gathered around the Science Exploration and Education Initiative to donate Tridents to applicants, to which we are now a part of.

Having one of this amazing drones will allow Rangers and visiting Scientist:

  • Night exploration: Bull Sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) have been visiting the Island since 2006 where they have been decimating Turtles and Silky Sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) to the point that both are now rare. In the last few years, attacks to humans have made necessary to prohibit any night dives (except for specific scientific reasons). This, we think has lowered the chances for species discovery as we can only be under for less than half a day. We are also interested in doing ultra-violet phosphorescence studies of the reef corals and other species, since this has not been explored in the past in this environment.
  • Boat hull inspection: As nature is an absolute priority on the Island, the inspection of the hulls of boats is very important to determine the level of dirt and contamination a visiting boat might expose to the Island.
  • Longer, frequent reef monitoring: The planning and frequency of the expeditions is mostly determined by the schedules of visiting tourists, and dive times limited by the diving gear. Having an unmanned drone will allow for less gear, lighter boats, and very frequent visits to the reef, specially parts that are infrequent or restricted to tourists.
  • Mapping: At Greencore we have been builing a +140 Xeon cluster for image processing, in preparation for doing aerial photography and then convert it to 3D precision maps of the Island, available under free content licenses like Creative Commons. To our surprise this opportunity might shift our priorities so that we start underwater mapping before the aerial one.

But this is the one new that has created a sparkle of anticipation for Rangers and Researchers:

  • Unfrequently-explored depths: The current diving gear has allowed most of the exploration to happen at around 20 meters, with a maximum of 35 meters. Sometimes there is a chance to hire piloted submersibles with depth ranges of about 100 meters to 450 meters, so there is a huge gap in the explored depths of what is called the mesophotic zone. A quick recount with the rangers brings to memory a handful of +100m dives, but none at the 35m-100m range, so this is an amazing chance for species discovery.

Now, wait?

For us we still have a lot of things to show the S.E.E. Initiative that there is a need to have this amazing equipment in the number #4 site ranked among Marine Protected Areas, to demonstrate ways we plan to use it, to build a program for free training and certification for Rangers and Scientist, and to start integrating it to future research programs on Coco’s Island.

What can you do?

We need more followers for our expedition, so we could appreciate it if you click the Follow button at the top of the Expedition and if necessary follow the steps to create an account in the Openexplorer social network from NatGeo.

In The Field

Back to mainland

The cycle of in-and-off the Island has been interrupted for our Park Ranger Moisés Gómez due to a very important training that Sinac has coordinated for him.

For us following the Expedition this means about 25% less content that what we expected for this month, but also allows us to repair an underwater camera which has a better quality than the one we are using, but has a damage in the controls so we hope to be able to do a quick maker style fix to it.


To win the battle for the health of this planet it is very important that tools which have been used for decades by illegal fisheries and poachers, get to the hands of the Scientists who are studying our environment but also for the Park Rangers who study as well as protect the natural resources.

Long range and low power devices like TheThingsNetwork and easy to use microcontrollers are changing the game so much that it is not enough to make, and encourage the maker community to build devices useful for scientists and rangers, but it is important to teach them how to program their own, understand how code works and to have them work with hardware. You have seen on our Openexplorer expedition how we have started this by teaching Park Ranger Moisés to program an Adafruit CircuitPlayground Express board using the block language Makecode by Microsoft.

We left Moisés with a homework to take the board to Coco’s Island and share it with other Park Rangers, and also to build an educational system to control a research salt water tank, to read from a water level sensor, to display this information using the ring of lights (called neopixels) and activate the pump via the buttons on the Playground.

To this objective we now report to had a complete failure in the sense that the satellite Internet links on the Island are so degraded that it is not possible to load a complex and rich web page like the Makecode programming environment via the Internet.

For the next trip we are already setting up a laptop that will use an advantage of working with Open hardware and software, so it will have a fully contained Makecode development environment that will work by itself without the need for using the Network.

On the other hand, Moisés has rapidly become versed in what can be done with hardware such as a Circuit Playground and have been exchanging ideas back and forth about sensor we need to build for our smart forests, smart oceans, and for the Island.

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Who are you?

When humans meet, a typical thing to happen is to ask the other person's name, and this way we can identify every human as an individual, call them by their name but also associate the personality, face and culture with this individual.

One of the key parts with the collaboration with the Park Rangers from Coco’s Island and Greencore Solutions, is to add more technology in the parts that either make things easier for the Rangers or if it adds valuable information for conservation efforts. With today’s post we will talk about an ongoing project that might be able to help in both ways.

We are starting to analyze images coming from the Island with the lowest delay possible, even with the low bandwidth and high failure rate of the satellite Internet links, currently doing manual species identification. But we are also improving this process by adding a part of Artificial intelligence called computer vision which is already being used in a variety of consumer products as well as solutions for smart cities. With out commitment to developing Smart forests we are applying this tools and knowledge to identify not only the species that we are looking at, but when it’s allowed by physical markings to also identify each individual, to know it’s history and whereabouts, complementing other tools such as acoustic/radio/satellite tagging.

For the biology of the Island this has a particular scientific value when we talk about Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) as Computer Vision is already being used in Galapagos. So if we are sharing populations between the Islands, we will know by name which ones make the travel and when they do it.

We hope to use computer vision to identify individuals with the following species:

  • Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus)
  • Tiger Sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier)
  • Cetacea such as Whales and Dolphins
  • Rays (Myliobatidae, Mobulidae, Dayatidae, Urolophidae, etc)

Some species with hopes to identify in the future:

  • Ringed birds
  • Hammer Sharks (Sphyrna lewini and Sphyrna mokarran)
  • Turtles

For the moment we are collecting images from this species and others. If you have images that can be published by a free content license, please let us know.

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Reef monitoring

This are some of the species we found in today’s monitoring:

Image 1, Sharks and rays: Carcharhinus albimarginatus (Silvertip shark), Taeniura meyeni (black-spotted fantail ray), Mobula tarapacana (Horned ray) and Trianodon obesus (Whitetip Reef Shark)

Image 2: Bothus mancus (Tropical flounder), Sphoeroides lobatus (Longnose puffer), Pentaceraster cuminigi (Panamic cushion star), and Lutjanus viridis (Blue and gold snapper)

Image 3: Elegatis bipinnulata (Rainbow runner), Caranx melampygus (Bluefin trevally), Lutjanus argetiventris (Yellowtail snapper), Acanthurus xanthopterus (Yellowfin Surgeonfish) and Zanclus cornutus (Moorish Idol).

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This is a great expedition. Excited to be following along.
Thank you David, please let us know if you'd like to see specific content, and be sure to share the Expedition on social network and colleagues.

Researching Microplastics

Today we find ourselves with researchers from Universidad Nacional of Costa Rica or UNA, looking out for Microplastics in Snapper fishes as well as lobsters.

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Low battery…

Due to the remote location of the Island, we started to see some parallels with a future colony on Mars or a present research station on Antarctic, and it is that every gram transported to the Island has a cost, and every gram that is waste has to make the travel back to mainland.

One problem that has escalated slowly through the years is that of batteries. With Greencore Solutions we are looking for alternatives to batteries in many day to day devices, such as light signaling (“chispas”) used when the boats are anchored inside Chatham Bay, and also for this emergency signaling device used in safety vests. This device has an electrode that switches on the light for rescue purposes when it feels the device has entered the water.

We’ll show some advances to the “chispas” in the future, but for this emergency signaling devices there is a change: we remove the battery all-together from the device, with a salt water battery that uses the ocean as electrolyte.

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Welcome by invasive species

If this picture was taken in mainland Costa Rica, this would be an amazing view. But here in Coco’s Island, the White Tail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is an introduced species and by eating young seedling before they become trees they are altering the ecosystem and therefore considered and invasive species and a threat to biodiversity. We know that they where introduced after 1899, since they where not mentioned in the accounts of the scientific expedition by Robert E. Snodgrass and Edmund Heller, and where not introduced at the same time as feral pigs and goats by captain James Colnett in 1873.


Unloading gear and supplies

As conservation is the main objective for the Island, there is no maritime dock for easy loading and unloading of cargo and people from ships. As we know from the accounts of Robert E. Snodgrass and Edmund Heller when they visited back in 1899, about than 120 years ago:

“Chatham Bay, on the northeast shore, is well protected from the oceanic swells, and affords good anchorage in fourteen fathoms half a mile from land. At the middle of the shore of the bay is a sand-beach, on which an easy boat-landing may be made, for in quiet weather the surf is low.”

For this reason we leave Okeanos Aggressor II in the distance, while unloading cargo and personal in small boats. Then you can see how we transport our cargo back to the cabins.

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Chatham Bay

Here we are at Chatham Bay. There is a lot of work ahead in the day, starting with unloading and unbacking…

… But first lets take a moment to appreciate where we are.

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Almost there…

Coco’s Island is more than 500 Kms from Puntarenas in mainland so travel by boat takes more than a day so preparations for being in the Island are taken seriously, so before leaving the boat Okeanos Aggressor II which transports the Rangers, we receive the usual security briefing.

We take our firsts glances to the Island at this beautiful dawn.

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As part of project with the Hatoyama Initiative, several of the organizations supported by SINAC, are having a receiving a training in flying multirotor style drones.
The Hatoyama Initiative was created mostly with external sponsoring by the Japan Government to improve the cooperation between Park Ranges and developing technological transference. According to documents from SINAC the objective is to

Fortalecer las relaciones de amistad y de cooperación entre Japón y Costa Rica y promover los esfuerzos del Gobierno de la República de Costa Rica para enfrentar el cambio climático con especial énfasis en la adaptación y mitigación del cambio climático así como el mejoramiento en el acceso a la energía limpia.

In this in hands session we received training for basic flights using professional drones with 8 rotors, capable of payloads of to 5 kilograms, allowing to augment the drone’s capacities using scientific instrumentation and custom robotics. The flying skill obtained by the Park Ranges will also enable us to use drone technologies in future collaboration projects with Greencore Solutions, who are planning to use multi-spectral cameras to monitor forest growth and health, thermal cameras for monitoring invasive species, and for building much better 3D maps of the Island.

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Expedition Background


Coco’s Island is a National Park of Costa Rica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a biological cauldron, know for it’s biodiversity, it’s endemic species and for having the cloud forest that exist at the lowest altitude anywhere in the world.

The Island is an extremely remote place and is only inhabited by the Park Rangers that study and maintain it, and for a handful of researchers and even fewer tourist, both allowed only for short periods.

Reef monitoring is an almost daily task for the Rangers, who do manual species count in short dives limited by depth and the type of diving gear and having to spend time planning the immersions and boat resources which also assist in fighting illegal fishing.

To start our travel

Before we leave for the Island, our travel starts in the central valley of Costa Rica where Ranger Moisés Gómez is part of a training by Greencore Solutions where he receives an introduction to programming and microelectronics, in which after a few training session will allow the Ranger community and science researchers to design and build their own sensors and technological tools to make the job more efficient and to save resources.

In this session we planned several collaboration projects between Greencore and Coco’s Island with time to spare for using a CircuitPlayground from Adafruit, and using the programming language Microsoft Makecode we managed to connect a relay to control electronic devices such as lights and pumps, to read from a float sensor use to control the water level in fish tanks but also to measure tides and flooding events to prepare better for climate change.

The content for the class has been published under a content license that promotes sharing and collaboration called Creative Commons, so feel free to take this training as well in the following link:

Introduction to Programming for Park Rangers


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