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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Like Here, Only Different , Part 1

I had in mind that I would not write about my wanderings far afield. These posts are supposed to be about Washington, but in my heart, they are about the natural world and the wonders in it.

My recent vacation to Costa Rica took me to a place that was beyond my expectations. I admit that I had often heard how wonderful Costa Rica is for nature lovers, but I did not get my expectations up. I did minimal research, confining myself to becoming aware of the bird forms via "Birds of Costa Rica" by Garriques and Dean, and the Travelers Wildlife Guide series book for Costa Rica. Other than that I prepared myself to make my discoveries unadulterated by preconceived thoughts.

I signed myself up for a Gap Adventure vacation called Project Costa Rica, 15 days visiting two of the big visitor attractions, Monteverde and Fortuna /Arenal Volcano. The first 5 days were to be spent doing volunteer work in a Sea Turtle conservation project on the south Pacific coast in a village called Matapalo. That was certainly in keeping with my desire to give back to the environment.

We were a group of six plus a guide/coordinator. After I spent Sunday wandering around San Jose visiting the limited sites of interest, we met for dinner and got acquainted. I quickly determined we were a nice balance of age and interest, male and female from US Canada and Malaysia. Our leader was a Texas ex-pat who had lived in CR for 2 years. My roommate was beginning an extended around-the-world sabbatical. She and I are of a very similar temperament and that last apprehension about the conditions of the next two weeks quickly disappeared.

Monday morning, we zipped over to the San Jose bus depot, and boarded our bus for the coast. After the police walked through ( looking for what???) we were off exactly on time. It was a beautiful , harrowing ride through coffee country, over mountains and down twisty hairpin turns. We arrived one-half hour early in the seaside town of Quipos. I decided that the bus driver was eager to watch one of the soccer matches involving the National team. We had a few minutes to visit the bank and take care of any last minute details before the van would pick us up to take us to Matapalo. I quickly determined that I would need a small towel , hairbands to act as sweatbands and some extra bug spray. It proved to be some of the best things I purchased, all would get a good workout in the days to come. It was easily 90 degrees at mid day and the saturation was just below that of a shower.

Matapalo proved to be a dirt road, a surfer camp, some small houses and cabanas, a pulparia and the Turtle HQ and dorm (affectionately called "The Cage") The conservancy patrols 5.4 Km of beach, watching and protecting Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. This is one of 5 species native to the waters on either side of Costa Rica and the only species not on the Endangered List. A pulparia is a community general store and center. Usually there is a " soda" associated with it. Sodas are open air diners where you can get basic food and drinks. Our rooms were above the pulparia and the soda was a happening place for the community with music into the wee hours. They also started work, like many Ticos, at 630 am.

It was not a quiet and peaceful venue.

Three of us crammed into the room which was barely 9x14 and housed 2 bunks and a regular mattress on a platform. At least we could stage our bags and perpetually damp clothes on the upper levels. The trick of fixing up the vital mosquito net was another issue. It became a sweaty knockdown , drag out battle which I replayed over several days. The shower only provided cold water. I am amazed at the fortitude of the pipes that in that hot steamy environment can maintain water in a near numbing temperature.

The work started right away with my first hatchery duty at 2am Tuesday morning. We did have a hatch and release and I spent a quiet 4 hours slowly watching the day come alive. A wonderful lightning storm off shore was almost mystical in its qualities. The clouds remained lit for what seemed an extraordinary length of time. I wish I had the presence of mind to play with my camera in that moment. At the time however I was nearing 24 hours without sleep and I was in a muddle of sensory overload. A slow dawn came with waves and clouds and a flock of swallows and swifts. I was eager to get off duty, to take pictures of the place I released the hatchlings. It was high tide at the time and we had no choice but to release the babies in the softer sand. They need "flipper time" in the sand to imprint with the smell of the beach, allowing them to arrive back in the future for mating at sea and nesting ashore. The resulting pictures are among my favorite of the trip

The days were long, the schedule exceptionally irregular, the food stunningly basic, sleep sorely lacking. I envy those who can fall asleep on a dime, I have never been that person. Diet consisted of rice and beans, or beans and rice, with a small topping of some vegetable or meat flavored sauce. With horror, one day it was canned tuna and that took me back to childhood. Sometimes a fresh tomato or cabbage salad made an appearance. I am happy I brought my vitamins with me and immediately doubled up my intake. The pulparia had a similar lack of fresh fruit or veg. I usually felt too grimy, too tired, to wet or simply too uninspired for a visit to the soda for more diverse fare. By the time my brain caught up to my desires, the tour of duty was nearly over.

Besides there is something about shared misery at three meals a day. It wasn't horrible awful, I was amazed at how tasty the cook could make some of the dishes. She presented plantains in many different ways. I learned the joy of plantains in Belize and found them in many varied forms here. Lemon and salt plantain chips cried out for a Diet 7-Up. Combined with the unrelenting activity, I easily lost a bit of weight on vacation.

Afternoons usually involved some labor and it was not helpful that is was 90 - 95 degrees out at the time. Everyone pitched in with the work, usually involving shovels, sand and bags, and made short work of the task.

It was then everyone to the beach where goofing off in the surf was the only way to cool down and perhaps remove the layer of funk. Some of the volunteers were actually there to surf and be beach bums. They grabbed their boards and went to the surfers camp down the way.

It was hard days with the hours sort of blurring into one another. Moments of free time, I spent reading or playing with my camera taking pictures of birds and plants. There was a trio of horses given to wandering about and a small herd of cattle who could surprise you at 2 in the morning, appearing out of no where as you sleepily headed over to the Hatchery. My Tuesday morning chore (30 hours without sleep but who is counting) was doing cow pie patrol in the front yard of The Cage. I suspected that I was the only one with livestock experience and fortitude so I self elected myself to do it.

Work at night on beach patrol involved walking a round trip of about 11 Km (more if you shuttled eggs) in the total dark. We looked for the tracks on the beach that showed where a female had come ashore. When found, the well camouflaged nest was searched for, excavated and the eggs returned to the hatchery where they would be buried and monitored. Eggs would hatch in about 40 days with the hatchlings spending the first 5 days underground while their shells harden. Data is collected under red light, which I know from my day to day work I am somewhat blind under. Glasses steaming from heat and sweat was an added bonus. It is a bit interesting collecting data with someone who speaks almost no English on a form written in Spanish. I muddled through with my grade school Spanish, always stumbling about in hearing the proper distinction between the words for sixty (sesenta) and seventy (setenta). We measured and weighed eggs and hatchlings.

It is an awesome feeling to see the hatchlings as they boogy flipper their way towards the waves, driven only by their instinct to do so. They seem so eager and hopeful.

It is not all wonderful in this land. Eating turtle eggs is still a tradition with some Ticos and poachers are present, particularly at the far end of the beach. On Friday night I had night patrol to the far end of the protected beach, marker 3.5 to 5.4 Km. I had been on two night patrols but nothing like this one.

We started out at 1015 pm timed with the tides. Low tide is optimal as this is when the females tend to come ashore and it is also easier to see the tracks and walk on the firm sand. We found one nest just at 3.7 Km. I shuttled them back to the next zone where there were others who could carry them forward to the hatchery. I moved back up the beach and saw red lights ahead and figured it was my partners. I got to where I thought they were but found a lot of confusing marks, some were clearly of a turtle(s) coming ashore, others of shoes. I knew the others were just ahead so I pressed on. I finally caught up at about 5Km and it turns out all the odd marks were poached nests.

Our leader, a small feisty scientist named Demaris was on the radio and marched us forward while she talked on the radio. When she was done she told us "Sit down on that log while we wait for police." The local Police and the Coast Guard ( Costa Rica has no Army but they do have a Coast Guard for Police and safety services, including wildlife protection) support the work of the conservation community.

The poachers , with their occasional lights could be seen far up the beach. We work strictly without lights except at the nest and then very little. We sat for well on 20 minutes when we saw the poachers coming down the beach. They crossed right in front of us, dressed in black, like we were. In the dark of the night, with barely a moon shine they appeared quite spooky, like black ghosts or Dementors. They knew we were there, we clearly saw them. They appeared to be three, two black figures, one smaller and white. It was only after a day I realized the white was a pair of bags being carried between the two. Fatigue, heat and the dark play crazy tricks on the eyes and mind. Lights on the off shore sea markers appear to fly close then zoom away. I can see how people see flying saucers while walking in the dark. Here space and distance collapse.

Finally it was relayed the the police could not come and so we started back. Before too long I spotted a turtle coming ashore, she was still in the wet low surf. We sat down on the low beach to allow her to move to high ground. Then, there they were , the poachers. They had gone off the beach and were now coming up behind us. Demaris quickly had us move up beach to sit right behind the turtle as she excavated her nest hole.

It was thrilling to watch the turtles effort. Demaris excavated the nest in time with the turtle and was able to create a slot and place a bag inside. This way she caught the eggs as the turtle produced them. If we had not sat on that log for so long, the poachers would have had this clutch as well. Together all the groups were able to bring in four nests that night . It is a shame to think that it could have been seven but a joy that it was one more. This was my first contact with an adult turtle and the only full cycle of come ashore and nesting I witnessed. The whole night was the weeks experience rolled into one huge event.

Saturday night, alerted by one of my co-travelers, we ran to the beach for a rare and staggering sunset.

Sunday morning we departed early wanting to catch the first hours at Manuel Antonio NP, just south of Quipos. I am happy to have had the experience of the Turtle Project. I would certainly consider working in a more dedicated scientific project such as this. Preferably a more isolated living situation in a field station given solely to the purpose. I believe the east coast has more protected and focused stations. It is for future consideration.

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