The Pacuare River Eco Lodge is the perfect place to relax and experience the beauty of Costa Rica’s Atlantic slope. The lodge is situated in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains at the lower edge of the biodiversity “sweet spot” which begins at an elevation of about 500 m above sea level. The diversity of fauna and flora that can be observed from the comfort of the deck at the lodge is astounding. The atmosphere at the lodge is relaxing and serene from the moment you wake up to the moment you close your eyes and fall into the deep slumber that only comes after a day of fresh air and exploration. This video captures our first morning and the essence of a typical morning at the eco-lodge.
After enjoying our breakfast, we were treated to a hike and a swim in the river. It seemed like we took the longest possible route to get to the river because it is only about about 100 meters from the lodge; however, our goal was to access the river upstream of the lodge which took us on an uphill and then downhill hike that took about an hour and a half. This gave us access to a prime location where we could hop into the river with our life jackets and helmets and drift downstream with the current. As a bonus, when we were almost at the peak of our uphill climb, we were treated with a special encounter courtesy of our guide Daniel and Mother Nature. Watch this video to see what we found.
Trimbina Biological Reserve is managed by a Costa Rican based foundation that strives to provide opportunities for ecotourism, education, and research in northern Costa Rica. The reserve is a 345 hectare private reserve with over 9 km of trails that provide access to secondary and primary rain forest. I first visited in 2010 with Ecosystem Management Technician students from Fleming College. We conducted amphibian and reptile surveys on three different trails in the reserve. Watch this short video to learn more about the experience our students had. This video is now being used at the reserve to promote opportunities for students to gain field experience at Tirimbina.
Kate, Tess and I spent five days at the reserve and we had plenty of time to hike the trails during the day and at night. We had some great encounters. The video below will give you a good taste of what we encountered after dark.
I was surprised but somewhat happy to learn that the organization was still looking for people to engage in herpetological research in the reserve. To date, most of the work has been completed on mammals (with an emphasis on bats), butterflies, and birds. This opportunity is one that I am going to follow up on with the creation of a Tropical Field Herpetology course at Tirimbina. It will be offered during the fall and our objective will be to provide training and knowledge in field herpetology while conducting research at the reserve. Stay tuned for updates.
On our last day in Parismina, our timing can’t get any better. A hawksbill nest is due to hatch today and so in the glowing light of late afternoon, we join Carlos at the hatchery. A small crowd of locals and tourists gathers to watch as Carlos removes each hatchling from the nest, counting them while Tess puts them one by one into a bin. There are 116 quarter-sized hatchlings. Carlos carries the bin out of the hatchery and places it on its side about 35 meters from the surf. Tess helps each hatchling out of the bin and we all watch in wonder, eager to snap photos as our little celebrities scramble to the sea. The odds are not in their favour, but we’ve done what we could. Buena suerte, tortuguitas.
It’s our third day in Parismina and we’ve taken it easy to ensure we are ready for our second night patrol. We have just finished dinner when I get a phone call from ASTOP coordinator Vicky Taylor. She’s distressed. Turtles have been dragged off the beach and left upside down at the far end of the patrol area near Laguna Perla. Tonight’s patrol guides, Irvin and Ruis, and two police officers are rushing there to apprehend the poachers and rescue the turtles. They’ll travel by truck to save time but will not be back to lead the patrol. Vicky asks if I mind stepping in as patrol leader with Tess and Kate. Although I haven’t lead a patrol in four years, I am excited for the opportunity and assure Vicky that we will handle anything that comes our way. Little do I know that this would be one of the most interesting nights I would ever have on the beach!
At the Leatherback Shack, I check our equipment and we start our patrol promptly at 7:30 pm. We take a break at the 3 km marker just as we had the night before. The sound of breaking branches and voices catches our attention and a man appears on the beach only a few metres away. We say nothing and our unexpected companion doesn’t either. He turns and returns to the shadows. A few minutes later, three men emerge from the darkness and head north on the beach without saying a word. We head south to continue our patrol but Kate looks back and notices someone flashing a light near where we had been sitting. I flash my light back and the mystery person responds. Suspicious they are poachers, we decide to backtrack and find out who this person is but once I arrive at the location where the light was flashing I don’t find anyone and get no response when I call out. I turn, join Tess and Kate, and we continue down the beach.
We reach marker 3.3. The tracks of a turtle emerge from the sea but do not return. We suspect the turtle was lifted by poachers. Drag marks through the vegetation to the road behind the beach confirm our suspicions. Clear pock marks from the previous night’s rain confirm that the turtle was taken after we had passed by on the previous night’s patrol. Later we find out that this is one of the turtles that Irvin, Ruis and the police officers are saving at Laguna Perla.
At marker 3.6 we observe a half moon and a few moments later, at marker 4.1 we encounter a turtle and a local by the name of Carlo. Carlo is one of only two people in town who own a vehicle and had driven Irvin, Ruis, and the two police officers to Laguna Perla. We learn that he has been waiting for their return and watching over the turtle. Her behaviour indicates that she has just covered the nest and is now in the process of disguising it. Carlo insists that she has not laid any eggs so we hang back and watch, not wanting to disturb her. A second turtle begins to emerge but returns to the sea without leaving the surf zone.
I look north and see a third turtle emerge and head up the beach. She reaches a small embankment next to the vegetation and begins to dig a body pit. Our first turtle is still mucking about and I’m more and more convinced she is disguising a nest and not preparing to lay her eggs. Before I can have a closer look, two tourists from Italy and their guide Albert approach the third turtle. I take some time to explain what is happening and ensure they do not disturb her while she prepares to dig her nest. Kate and Tess arrive to tell me that the first turtle is now heading back to the water so we all run over and I check her for tags. She is not tagged but it is too late to tag or measure her as she is beating a hasty retreat to the water. Albert and the Italian contingent keep an eye on the third turtle while Kate, Tess and I return to the first turtle’s nest to try and find the eggs. Again, Carlo insists she did not lay but I begin to dig anyway. Progress is good and eventually the hole is as deep as my arm is long but I still haven’t quite located the eggs. Kate suggests digging a little to the right and sure enough, we find the eggs.
Tess and Kate put on gloves to handle the eggs and I excavate a little body pit for Tess so she can reach them. After a little instruction, Tess removes the eggs from the nest one at a time and passes them to her mother who counts them and places them in a plastic bag. I head over to check on our other turtle and she has started digging the nest chamber but will still be a few minutes before she starts to lay the eggs. Unfortunately, Tess and Kate are still busy removing eggs from the first nest when the time comes to collect the eggs from our new turtle. I enlist the Italian team and provide details of what will happen and what they will be required to do. Eager to help, they put on their gloves and I dig a body pit for the egg handler and get her settled into place. Kate and Tess continue to collect eggs and are just putting the 101st and final egg into the bag as our nesting turtle begins to lay her eggs. They join us. Everything is going smoothly now and we are enjoying the experience of watching an endangered marine turtle nest on the beach. I note that our turtle is not tagged so I prepare the tags and tagging pliers to ensure I’m ready once she finishes laying. She has produced a total of 91 eggs and begins to fill and disguise the nest. I successfully tag her front flippers and measure her carapace length and width while Kate records the data.
We now have 192 eggs in two plastic bags and the hatchery is over 3 km away: too far to walk with the eggs. I decide to relocate the eggs and make two artificial nests. Irvin, one of the guides working with the police to save the lifted turtles, jogs up looking for tags. Having rescued the lifted turtles, they are working a nesting one a little further south. I hand him our last two tags and he runs back to tag his turtle while I finish relocating the eggs and checking the data sheets. The police, Irvin, and Ruis return just as we wrap up and we all pile into Carlo’s little pickup truck for the journey back to town.
The little truck bumps along the dark beach road around coconuts, palm trees, and hanging vines. Our spirits are high. We have accomplished a lot on this second night on the beach. Irvin, Ruis and the police have successfully located the lifted turtles and set them free. They also encountered another turtle on the beach and collected 134 eggs to be taken to the hatchery. We successfully relocated 192 eggs and ensured that two turtles nested and returned safely to the sea. Without our presence, the outcome would have been very different for these turtles.
It was the best of patrols. It was the worst of patrols…For Tess and Kate, it was the first of patrols so it could actually be both!
It is 7:15 pm and we are at the Leatherback Shack preparing for the start of our 7:30 to 11:30 patrol. As required, we are wearing long pants, long sleeved shirts, close-toed shoes, and we have plenty of water. Our leader and guide for the night is Raphael, a 13-year veteran of the project and as we will discover, a great host and ambassador of ASTOP and Parismina. Our patrol begins and we walk south along the beach toward a lagoon known as Laguna Perla located 5.2 km from the Leatherback Shack. Markers are placed every 50 metres along the beach as a reference for patrols when recording data on turtles and nests. We use these to gauge our progress, which is slow but steady.
It is now 8:00 pm and we sit down to take our first break at the 3 km marker. We rest and Raphael shares a story of a strange spirit he encountered one night while on patrol with volunteers. He also tells of an unexplained large illuminated object that flew from the coastal forest and into the ocean a few hundred metres off shore. Both stories may stir up some uneasy feelings in volunteers but we are not fased, which is likely not the reaction Raphael had hoped for. We continue south and observe a “half moon” — a track from a turtle that emerged from the sea, crawled up the beach, decided not to nest, and returned to the water. These tracks are often crescent shaped, hence the name half moon. After examining the track and determining that it was from a green turtle that safely returned to the ocean, we continue on our way with a little more hope and expectation of our first marine turtle encounter.
Tess is very curious by nature and always looking to get her hands on something interesting to examine. She absent-mindedly grabs a coconut on the beach to have a closer look and before she can do anything about it a generous quantity of coconut milk poured out and onto her shirt. Tess learns that coconuts can rot and that rotten coconuts smell like rotten flesh! With her nose held high, Tess marches down the beach and her foul smelling shirt wafting the scent behind her. Kate, Raphael and I need little motivation to stay upwind!
We are now at the end of the Parismina beach with Laguna Perla behind us and the Caribbean Sea in front of us. It is 9:00 PM and Tess heads to the ocean to rinse off her shirt. Unfortunately, the salty sea water does little to reduce the potent smell of rancid coconut milk. Putting it back on becomes a real challenge as we decide it is time to head north and complete our final pass of the beach before the end of the patrol. Heavy rain begins as if a tap was turned on and the only person with a poncho is Raphael. We are now soaked to the bone, Tess stinks, and we have yet to see a turtle. We continue, digging deep to keep our spirits up and our minds focused on the task at hand because there are turtles out there somewhere and we are determined to find them!
By 10:15 the rain has subsided, Tess has wrapped the sleeves of her shirt around herself and draped the shirt down the front of her body to create a contemporary, stylish Gwen Stefani crop top look with her foul smelling shirt. I look ahead and see what appears to be a turtle emerging from the sea. I crouch low to get a better look at the dark profile against the backdrop of the crashing waves and there is no doubt. We have our first turtle! It is a green turtle and we wait quietly a safe distance away to ensure she is not disturbed by our presence. She makes her way up the beach and approximately half way to where the beach merges with the coastal vegetation, she begins to turn and head back to the water. Our turtle has decided that this is not the right place or time for her to nest. As she slowly makes her way to the water, we approach for a better look. Tess and Kate get really close. They touch her carapace (shell) and marvel at her size and single-minded focus to get back to the sea.
10:45 and the rain begins again. We walk another kilometer and observe two figures standing on the beach up ahead in the distance. Neither one is using a light and they appear to be looking at something on the beach. We approach cautiously and discover that it is the 10 pm shift and they are watching a turtle dig a body pit. Marine turtles dig a body pit prior to digging the actual egg chamber to help them get the eggs deeper into the sand, which will ensure the nest is not too hot during incubation. This turtle, like the former, ultimately decides she will not nest and makes her way back to the water. Again, Kate and Tess approach, touch, and watch with great interest as turtle number two merges with the waves and eventually disappears into surf.
Everyone in Costa Rica seems to have two names. They have a given name. For example, Raphael, Carlos, Jose and Ruis are the names of some of the patrol guides that work for ASTOP. When we check in before starting our patrols, we can have a look at the patrol schedule to see who we will be going out with. The names on the schedule are Pays, Pito, Nega, and Pelon who by the way are Raphael, Carlos, Jose and Ruis! These are their nicknames and it takes a while to figure out who’s who because not everyone uses the same name for everyone else. The location for checking in before beach patrol is called the Leatherback Shack which is also known as the Casatilla (small house) so even the buildings have nicknames.
This year, when I visited with the Ecosystem Management students from Fleming College I had a couple of nicknames. The first, was derived from the way the students and I looked when we walked through town. My home stay mother, Etelgive (pronounced Eh-tel-heevā), thought I looked like a rooster with little chicks so they called me Gallo con Pollitos. That one did not stick since I was not always with the Pollitos so I would just be Gallo. Etelgive gave me another name and it seems to be sticking: Piqueño which means small or little. The more humorous or paradoxical the nickname is the more likely it will be used. So for now, when I am called to sit down for a meal, I listen for “Piqueño”. Having an official nickname is a good sign that you have been accepted by the community and I definitely feel more and more comfortable catching up with people each time I return.
Few visitors to Costa Rica are aware of the over 3,000 year old Guayabo acheaological site on the southern slope of the Turrialba volcano. A site where a culture we know very little about constructed aqueducts complete with water filtration and reservoirs. They lived in conical structures anchored by large stones transported from the nearby Rio Lajas and Rio Guayabo. They built cobble stone roads and tombs for ceremonies and festivals we know almost nothing about. They occupied the site for almost 2,500 years and then disappeared sometime around 800 AD before the arrival of the Spaniards.
I have visited the Mayan ruins at Copal and marveled at the extent of that civilization but something about the El Guayabo site is more captivating. The lack of knowledge about the city and people who lived here is likely the hook that makes this place so appealing. The collapse of major cities, cultures and civilizations is repeated throughout history and the patterns leading up to the collapse are generally the same. Humans, like virtually all species, alter their environment and consume resources until their populations get too large and then nature re-establishes the balance. I do not know if that is in fact what happened at Guayabo but I do know it is going to happen in the near future unless nature takes a different turn. If our nature as a resourceful and “wise” ape holds true, nature may take its course in the form of a change in our behaviour. I wonder what changed in the behaviour and actions of those who inhabited El Guayabo that lead them to abandon their city?
“Laughing at someone else’s misfortune.” This came to mind about two thirds of the way through my day of travel to Costa Rica. It came to mind because I figured that if people were aware of the events of the day so far, they would certainly be laughing at me! Here’s a quick rundown for you:
01:30 – woke, out of bed, dressed, final check of luggage and travel documents
02:00 – hit the road, start making way to Pearson International Airport
03:00 – stuck in traffic on the 401 just west of Whitby
05:00 – through security and to gate in preparation for boarding at 05:40
Not bad so far. All is well and going according to plan. It gets better!
06:30 – board plane, flight departs on time
09:20 – arrive at Miami International Airport, make way across airport on foot and by rail
10:40 – boarding commences but halted after “First Class and Priority Passengers”
11:00 –mechanical issues on plane, passengers off plane
11:50 – directed to new gate, make way across airport by foot and by rail to new gate
12:10 – arrive at new gate, “relax”, wait for boarding to begin at 13:00
13:30 – flight departs from Miami on route to San Jose, Costa Rica
14:20 – (time change -2 hrs in Costa Rica), arrive in San Jose
15:30 – rental car acquired, begin travel to Siquirres – 109 km from San Jose
17:20 – still making way out of San Jose (travelled 8 km), make wrong turn
17:30 – getting back on “track” but stopped on “old” train track
This is about two thirds of the way through my day folks. The train tracks looked very old with a lot of grass and vegetation growing along them. I was stopped in a line of cars waiting for a light to change when I heard the distinctive sound of a train whistle to my left. I turned and sure enough there was a train coming down the “old track” and if I remained in my current position, the train, the rental car, and I would become one! Think quickly. Pop transmission into first gear, gun the engine and pull into the oncoming traffic lane which was empty at the time. Train passes by behind me and disaster is averted. It is at this time that I thought the folks who were in the surrounding vehicles and on the street may be “Laughing at my misfortune”.
17:35 – back on “track” and off the track heading to Siquirres
18:20 – finally on Hwy 32, making my way through Braullio Carillo National Park
It’s dark, cloudy and raining. The road is winding with steep drop-offs and there are a lot of large commercial vehicles making their way to Limon from San Jose and a lot of cars, some with slow and nervous drivers, making their way to the Atlantic coast. It was an interesting drive and it required my full attention to say the least!
Now, it’s decision time. I am at my destination about 4 hours later than expected and I have a choice: 1) get settled, stay in and get some rest, 2) get changed and head out for a 3 – 4 hour night hike with Brian. Those of you who know me know exactly what I did. I crashed and went to sleep…Kidding! This was the only night I had to visit with Brian and see his reserve so I got changed and hit the trails by 20:50.
21:06 – Brian finds a male glass frog Teratohyla spinosa, a new species for me
We continue our hike observing a wide variety of frogs and I listen to Brian intently as he describes his work to acquire a reserve in the cloud forest, conduct research on a salamander species previously known only from one specimen, and continue to work toward the conservation and restoration of Costa Rica’s amphibian populations. We observed several species of what Brian refers to as “dirt frogs” formerly of the genus Eleutherodactylus but now split into several families and genera.
22:03 – search for the critically endangered Lemur Frog, Agalychnis lemur, and find an egg mass from a red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas
22:07 – Brian spots a pair of lemur tree frogs in amplexus
Amplexus is the term used when a male frog is clasping a female during mating. Not only did I observe this critically endangered species for the first time in one of only two locations that it can be seen in Costa Rica (one of three in the world), I was observing them in the process of ensuring that more would soon join the population!
22:13 – Brian locates a lemur frog egg mass
His work to establish a population of this frog on the reserve has been exceptionally successful. The mating frogs, egg masses, and abundant tadpoles are all evidence of the hard work and dedication Brain has put into his life’s work. He’s 41 years old and he’s spent his adult life (20 years) working toward the conservation of Costa Rica’s amphibians with nothing but the determination and single-minded focus to follow his passion. One of the last frogs we encounter is a male red-eyed tree frog. We both agree that even the common and abundant species need to be appreciated and perhaps our appreciation of these common and abundant species is as important as our appreciation for endangered species. If we neglect what we see every day, we are destined to lose it.
00:15 – crawl into bed after being up for more than 24 hrs (remember the time change), fall asleep thinking that there couldn’t be a better way to end a horrendous day of travel, fall asleep thinking that few people would be “laughing at my misfortune” now.
Wisdom from Master Shifu shared with Po, the Dragon Warrior. Oh that Shifu, he’s full of wisdom! This statement resonated with me while I was watching Kung Fu Panda III with my son, James, and wife, Karen, at Century Cinemas in Lindsay this morning. My version of this same statement: “If you only focus on what you have mastered, how will you get better at the things you have not?” I was a painfully shy kid who was afraid of snakes. Not incapacitated by fear but certainly not comfortable with them. At the age of eight, that fear changed to fascination because I was pushed to overcome my fear and learn about the very thing that made me nervous.
Just before my eleventh birthday, I purchased my second snake. A corn snake from The Piranha Pet Store on Avenue Road in Toronto (now closed). She had to have been a wild caught snake because she was nervous and tended to bite. In fact, she bit me only a few moments after we left the store and I became fearful of her. My father would not let me give in to this fear. Every day after dinner, he would march me upstairs and I would have to get the corn snake out of her enclosure and handle her. I can still remember how I dreaded those “sessions”: Attempt to pick up the snake…Hesitate. Get bitten. Try and take her out again. Get bitten. Try again. Get bitten. Try again and eventually succeed. Getting the snake out was the tough part because that is when she, and I, felt most fearful and trapped. I learned, with practice, to reach in with one fluid motion and pick her up without hesitating which prevented her from focusing on any one thing as a threat. The hesitation is what got me bitten multiple times because once I stopped, she could focus on my hand and strike once I made a move toward her again. Once in hand, she was calm provided that I supported her and let her move relatively freely through my fingers. Of course, that’s when I discovered she had another quirk about her. She would occasionally just position her head beside a finger or wrist, pause, open her moth, latch on, and start chewing back and forth. Well, that just gave my father something else to push me through! While the snake was chewing, I would be talking to myself out loud. “Ouch, Ouch,…It doesn’t hurt, ouch, ouch, ouch,…it doesn’t hurt. Ouch, ouch.” My poor perforated fingers!
In a literal sense, overcoming my fear of snakes and getting bitten has given me the opportunity to encounter, capture and get bitten by all kinds of snakes including some amazing annulated boas, Corallus annulatus, in Costa Rica! Yes, I see the opportunity and experience of getting bitten by these snakes as a benefit. I know I’m strange but I’m not making any apologies for it! Suzanne Spina, a Fleming College Ecosystem Management student on an international field placement in Costa Rica in 2012, capture this video.
Overcoming my fear of snakes and my fear of getting bitten taught me that the reward at the other end of the fear is greater than remaining “safe” and fearful. I have over come my fear of snakes, public speaking, and perhaps most importantly I have overcome the fear of failure. We must spend more time developing skills and knowledge that we have not mastered. We must spend more time in the uncomfortable and frightening world of the unknown. The zone of growth and change! The trick is that it is completely and utterly unnatural for any living thing to gravitate to something that makes it uncomfortable. Recoiling from uncomfortable things and situations is what protects us from harm but it is the very thing that prevents us from real growth and change. Unfortunately, I believe our culture focuses too much on preventing young people from experiencing this feeling of vulnerability and discomfort because of the belief that it will affect their development. It does. It slows it down! We all have to face something challenging and frightening at some point and we need to deal with it. The sooner we learn we can get through it the better!
At home, I push my sons to move beyond their fear and learn to manage it. I want my Liam and James to learn to be able to cope in that zone of growth and change where things are uneasy but achievable. I want Liam and James to learn how to put themselves in that zone of growth and change on their own. To do that, I need to let them know when I am in that zone myself. I mask it well which makes them think I am never there. Note to self: tell my boys when I am nervous, why I am nervous, and what I am doing about it.Now that I am over my fear of snakes, I still put myself in that zone of growth and change. I still welcome the unease and heightened sense of awareness that comes with situations where particular attention to detail is critical. You can actually see it happening in this video filmed at the Pacuare River Eco-lodge. Watch carefully when I’ve got the Terciopelo, Bothrops asper, by the head and I’m taking measurements.
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