Message in a bottle saves 80 migrants adrift off Costa Rica

Adrift and abandoned at sea with their boat's engines no longer working, more than 80 Latin American migrants were saved after resorting to that old fall-back - a message in a bottle.

Adrift and abandoned at sea with their boat's engines no longer working, more than 80 Latin American migrants were saved after resorting to that old fall-back - a message in a bottle.

A total of 46 Ecuadoreans and 40 Peruvians were rescued over the weekend after they popped their written cry for help into a plastic bottle and attached it to one of the drift lines of a fishing vessel. Later that evening the captain of the boat noticed the bottle and contacted rescuers who reached the migrants as their boat was beginning to sink.

"A little bit longer and all would have died," Patricia Alpizar, a spokeswoman for Costa Rica's environment ministry, said.

The migrants had apparently left the Ecuadorean port of Puerto Montañita early last week with the intention of illegally entering the US, possibly through Guatemala. But when their boat developed mechanical troubles, the crew changed over to another ship and abandoned their human cargo to drift without power or communications.

The drifting vessel was spotted by a passing fishing boat, Rey de Reyes, close to Cocos Island, 300 miles south-west of the mainland of Costa Rica.

The fishermen contacted the Costa Rican authorities but the coastguard's boat was reportedly unavailable to put to sea. It was later that evening that the fishing boat's captain noticed the bottle and the migrants' plea for help. Their message read: "Help, please help us."

The migrants, mainly teenagers, were eventually rescued on Sunday morning by MarViva, a group which works to preserve Cocos Island. They were being cared for on the island yesterday while the Costa Rican public security ministry dispatched a boat with a doctor, immigration officials and emergency food supplies.

Francisco Estrada, director of MarViva, said that the crew of the vessel, professional people smugglers, had taken all the communication and navigation equipment when they abandoned the migrants. "Incredibly, it seems that the boat's crew took the equipment and so these people, who had no sailing experience, wrote the message and placed it inside a bottle," he said.

The Costa Rican government says it has contacted the governments of Ecuador and Peru in the hope they will send boats to the island to pick up their nationals. The island is closer to the Ecuadorean Galapagos Island chain than it is to mainland Costa Rica. There are no boats near the island with a capacity to take the migrants to Costa Rica, the authorities said.

Cocos Island is believed to be the world's largest uninhabited island. It has been declared a United Nations world heritage site and is famed for its scientific use in confirming many of Charles Darwin's theories on evolution and species adaptation.

The island was discovered in 1526, and before Costa Rica took control in 1869, Cocos was used by pirates to bury stolen treasure. Legends say much of that treasure is still there.

MarViva was founded by a Swiss donor in 2002 in an effort to prevent poaching on and around Cocos Island. Equipped with three boats, the group has patrolled the waters around the island since July 2003 on behalf of the Costa Rican government. It also patrols the waters around Panama's Coiba Island.

While both countries have pledged to preserve the islands, neither has the funds or resources to do so.

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