From May 27-June 4, 2017, a group from St. Andrew's-Sewanee School embarked on their second adventure with Ecology Project International, this time to Costa Rica, carrying many of the same students who had participated in last summer's trip to Yellowstone National Park, who were enticed by the opportunity to travel, learn, and conserve some of the planet's most precious ecosystems.
The first morning, we boarded the bus to set off for a section of the Tirimbina Rainforest Reserve designated specifically for scientists and researchers like ourselves. A biologist came to share his wisdom and passion about bats, which claim 21% of the world's mammals. 64 of the 1116 species of bats reside in Tirimbina alone. Our understanding of bats crept out of the vampire stereotype and into an appreciation for their talents in echolocation, construction, and reproduction. Some bats build intricate tents, using their thumbs and a leaf that is monstrously larger than their bodies, like a human ripping off a roof and folding it into a shelter that resembles a disposable paper plate you might find at a concessions stand. Bats also have a remarkable control over their reproduction; females can store sperm inside of themselves, choose when to fertilize their eggs, and even halt embryonic development in dangerous times. Tirimbina offered a plethora of biodiversity, perpetually sounding with territorial howler monkeys, warblers bopping their white tails in jazz jigs, poison dart frogs, red like sunspots, caymans with glowing orange eyes in the wetlands on the night hike, bullet ants half the size of your palm, flashing feathers of toucans, green macaws with their lifelong mates, a sloth slumbering in the top of the canopy, and many other biological wonders.
On our way to Pacuare, the sea turtle reserve on the Caribbean Coast, we stopped at a local high school, where the Costa Rican students sang for us, showed us around their school, and shared a delicious lunch. We boarded a boat in one of the canals to travel the remaining one hour to the Pacuare shore, on which we saw uncountable herons, lizards, iguanas, and more howler, spider, and white faced capuchin monkeys. Basilisks ran on top of the water, earning their nickname, the "Jesus Christ Lizard".
That night we performed our first sea turtle censuses, which involved wandering on the beach in shifts between 8pm and 4am in search of leatherback sea turtles. The moon lit the beach to secure our path in place of any lights of our own, since leatherbacks are sensitive to light and rely on it for their migration. In our half-way breaks, I'd stare into the ocean light until it became a billowing screen, a sheet with a flashlight behind, illuminating the thin spots and rippling the dark like muscles. The clouds hung over like gause, as if to dab the wounds of the environment, the sore empty nests where poachers have been, the pollution on distant shores, and they seemed to sooth the air, to welcome the leatherbacks home to our measuring tapes and open, curious hearts.
We patrolled with research assistants who devoted themselves to learning about and saving the leatherbacks. One day, we watched them excavate an overdue nest and crack open the eggs, trying to figure out why the nest had failed. Many of the eggs were infertile, others cooked in the hot sand. Our hearts broke with one of the last eggs, which contained a live sea turtle, who wouldn't have made it anyway, (1/1000 eggs produce hatchlings that make it to maturity) but to see one of these rare beings, pulsing so close to life, and then cracked open to deathening air, hurts. Suddenly the gravity of the work we were a part of became even more apparent, fostering newfound respect for the research assistants who dirtied their clothes with black sand and yolks in service to these incredible, endangered creatures. We witnessed many hatchlings climb out of their nests, and journey into the ocean where they would disappear for about 15 lost years. The charcoal babies, the size of your heel, spun like compasses to align themselves with the magnetic field that was to guide them in their journey. They seemed so delicate, tumbling over driftwood and being swept away by the current, but they are indeed mighty able to travel all the way down the beach, through the dangerous riptide, and into the deep ocean, all only on the energy that they were born with.
On our final night of sea turtle census, I was on the 8pm-12am shift, tingling with anticipation to see a mother turtle on the beach. Propelled by the passion to not only witness a spectacle of wildlife, but also to take part in research that would determine the survival of the species as a whole, Caden Graham, Aubrey Black, and I decided to undertake a second shift, for a total of 8 hours on the beach. Almost immediately after setting out for the second time, researchers down the beach notified us that they had a turtle and needed our help, so we picked up the pace. My heart sped up, awaiting the reward for my decision to turn sleep away for opportunity. We arrived at a 155 cm long mother leatherback laying her eggs. The nest she dug was too shallow for success, so we caught her eggs in a plastic bag to relocate the nest farther up the beach. We saved lives that night.
We concluded our trip with whitewater rafting and a stay at Bella Vista Ranch, where many of us watched the sunrise against the backdrop of mountains, a volcano, coffee plantations, and several silhouetted hummingbirds. Each one of us was empowered and inspired by our experience in the rainforest, at the school, on the coast, on the river, and on the roads in Costa Rica, and our minds continue to blossom with desire to preserve the beauty we witnessed, so that it will not remain only as a memory, but as an opportunity for the world to thrive in a master-weave of nature and human beings. We will continue to get to know the earth, love it, and preserve it for the betterment of us all.
View more photos from the trip.
Learn more about Ecology Project International.