December 18, 2012

The Last Weekend

There are some incredible places in this world. Just do a quick Google search for “Amazing Nature Photography,” and you will be flabbergasted by the sheer volume of photographs that make your heart stop with their beauty. And those are just the photographs, which, we know all too well, do not do justice to the real sight. I think most of my love for biology stems from that child-like awe inside of me that bubbles up whenever I see another landscape or beautiful bird or creepy, iridescent beetle.  So, when I have the privilege of encountering such places and things in person, it is almost too much to handle.

Corcovado National Park is one of those places. Located on the Osa Peninsula in the Southwest of Costa Rica, this park is one of the largest remaining areas of tropical lowland rainforest in the world. It has been described in many ways by biologists and nature lovers all over the world. However, the best word that I can think of to describe this place is alive. Overflowing with life.

The beach at Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula in the Southwest of Costa Rica

The beach at Corcovado

We had perfect weather for our trip to the park – clear blue skies and sun. We stayed in a nearby beach town called Puerto Jiminez and decided to pay some extra money and hire a guide named Alvaro to take us into the park. Solid decision. Alvaro was the best nature guide I have had in Costa Rica, and of all the Ticos I have met in these four months, he is one of my favorites. He is short, shorter than me, and just full of excitement and energy and love for life. Since there were only six of us friends on the tour, we had the opportunity to get to know him pretty well, and, by the end of the day, he was joining in with all of our silly jokes and pranks.

Our tour began with a very long walk along a huge, empty beach in order to reach the entrance to our trail through the rain forest. This beach was of the “This belongs in a motivational poster” variety, and I spent most the walk just reveling in the waves and sand. I also ended up walking alongside Alvaro for a while, and had the chance to ask him about his life. (Sidenote – this conversation occurred entirely in Spanish. Learn to speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation with a new acquaintance? Check. Cue victory sip of coffee or juice or other drink of choice.) He told me about how he grew up on a farm in Costa Rica, surrounded by the rainforest. He said the forest was his life, and he knew it so well that becoming an expert tour guide was only a matter of learning the English names of animals. I asked him where he had studied to learn English and he laughed and pointed at a tiny resort that we happened to be passing at that moment. “I didn’t take English classes,” he told me in Spanish. “I worked at a resort and I learned English by being around English-speaking tourists.”

A poison dart frog in the tropical lowland rainforest of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica

A lovely little poison dart frog

That amazes me. That he could learn to speak English so well and clearly from simply spending time around English-speakers who came to his country is incredible. But that’s the thing about language – you really can just pick it up. It takes focus and endless practice and plenty of embarrassing mistakes, but language is one of those things that our brains can absorb without formal education and homework and exams.

I’m not sure whether I believe anymore that some people are just bad at learning language. Maybe some are better than others, but I’ve met enough Ticos who have taught themselves English from TV shows, music, books, or video games that I’m becoming increasingly confident that anyone can learn a language if they dedicate themselves. And of course, taking classes really helps.

A monkey rides its mother's back in the tropical lowland rainforest of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa RicaBack to Corcovado – Alvaro is an expert. When he said the forest is his life, he was not joking. As he took us away from the beach and into the rainforest, he easily noticed and pointed out animals, naming them for us in both Spanish and English. We saw Spider monkeys, Squirrel monkeys, White-faced Capuchin monkeys, an ant eater, Coatis, Scarlet Macaws, a green and black poison dart frog, lizards of all sizes and shapes, and even tiny little bats, sleeping on the underside of a huge leaf. I’ve never seen so many different animals in such a short span of time. Corcovado easily lived up to its reputation as the “most biologically intense place on Earth”. I felt like a little kid in a chocolate shop – everywhere I turned there was something else exciting to see.

On our way back out of the park, Alvaro took us walking along the beach this time, to enjoy the sun and waves. As we walked along, someone noticed a black thing on the sand. We crowded around it and saw that it was a tiny dead baby turtle. My heart sank as we looked around and saw the beach littered with dead baby turtles, obviously fried by the sun. They had chosen the wrong time to hatch, and the heat had been too intense for them to make their journey from the nest to the ocean. Suddenly, Alvaro called to us from further up the beach. “Quick, there’s live ones!” We all ran to the hole in the sand, where Alvaro had begun digging up baby turtles from the nest and handing them to us.

A baby turtle on the beach at Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa RicaA baby turtle’s journey from its nest to the ocean is one of the most difficult and exhausting things it will do in its life. The moment it hatches, the turtle must begin crawling across what is, proportionally, an endless span of sand and obstacles. Predators threaten the babies as they wiggle towards the sea, and, on days like this one, they also have to contend with the heat and the sun. The turtles must make this journey – it is necessary in order for them to build important muscle strength that they will need to navigate the rough ocean waves.

If you see turtles wiggling across the sand, you are not supposed to carry them to the water because you will deprive them of the chance to build their muscles. However, on this day, the turtles did not stand a chance if they tried to crawl on their own. The sun was too hot and too many turtles had already died in the sun, so we decided to give them, at the very least, a fighting shot. We grabbed every live turtle we could find and carried them to a place closer to the water where the sand was cooler and wetter. We poured our water bottles on them to cool them off and held umbrellas over them, and cheered at them as they slowly came to life, realized where they were, and began making their way towards the ocean.

Just watching those babies struggling to find the energy to scramble towards the waves was downright exhausting. I was jumping up and down, yelling random words of encouragement in both Spanish and English, and cringing with every setback as they painstakingly crawled forward. And slowly, but surely, the babies began reaching the water and disappearing into the waves! The odds were against these little guys – they hatched in the middle of a sandy stove. They were weak and overheated when we found them, but I can only hope that at least a few of them successfully navigated the waves and made it, alive, out into the open ocean to begin their very long, happy turtle lives.

I feel privileged to have been allowed to visit a place as beautiful and natural and alive as Corcovado. It is so encouraging to me that places so untouched and thriving still exist in the world. I hope we can continue to protect such strongholds of nature, where millions and millions of lives – plants, mammals, birds, insects – are intertwined and interdependent. What a perfect way to spend my last weekend in Costa Rica.

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