Osa Conservation – Costa Rica Part 2: The Adventure Begins …….

Nothing quite prepares you for being in the rainforest in Costa Rica. The heat and humidity is almost overwhelming to start with. My visit was at the beginning of the rainy season, but the area had actually experienced quite a lot of dry weather up to my visit and this continued through the week I was there. We often had rain in the afternoon or evenings, but on the whole, the days dawned bright. The humidity is incredible and your body compensates by sweating profusely…. lots of water to be taken on board and it was only after a few days that I started to get used to it.

The sounds and smells of the rainforest impregnate your soul…. it is a multi sensory experience that will never leave me. The jungle is never quiet. During the day, the air is constantly punctuated by the screech of macaws, the gull-like calls of the toucan and the incredible roar of the howler monkeys! When I first heard that guttural roar, I was astounded. It sounded like a dinosaur was going to  emerge from the foliage. I recorded this on my iPhone from my bed! Imagine waking up at 5am to that!! (Turn the volume up!)

We also had a bird that liked to give us a 5am alarm call in the morning…..

Our accommodation was basic but I really liked it. Laying inside my mosquito net at night, our shared, bunked room was semi-open to the outside, so sometimes when I went in and turned the light on, bats would flit through, catching the moths attracted to the lights. The sounds of the rainforest permeated your sleep, sucking you into its wonderful world of sounds and smells. Natural light and our wild alarm call woke us in the morning and most people were up early. In this environment, your cycle follows daylight. It is dark by 6.30pm and most of us were in bed early, making early rising easy. Sitting with a drink, listening to the rainforest come alive in the morning is so special.

There were many wonderful people at Piro. Many are young students… some only just older than my kids. They are carrying out research projects as part of degrees, Masters or PHDs. There are also volunteers, who visit the centre to participate in some of the conservation projects. This could be for as little as a week or  longer. I was welcomed in, like part of the family, and that is very much how the centre feels. Everyone was friendly, welcoming and passionate about the work they were doing for Osa Conservation.

My first day out was pretty action-packed. Still reeling from my journey and trying to really believe that I was actually there, Andy took me out into the rainforest, with fellow researchers Ruth, Hilary and Eleanor. Much of Andy’s work in Peru was in the treetops setting arboreal Bushnell trail cams. To do this, a rope line has to be set high in the trees. He catapults a small cord line light into the branches, trying to get it to loop over a strong branch. This cord is then used to take up a larger rope for climbing. This initial process can take much of a day, depending on how quickly they can get this original cord up. These cords are then left in place for future climbs. Andy deemed it important that I discover what a 30m climb into the rainforest canopy was like… and I was definitely up for the challenge! Kitting me out in all the climbing regalia , I wondered how I was going to get myself up, let alone the tonne of kit I was wearing. It was incredibly hot and humid.

I was not nervous at all… I am not frightened of heights, but had never done anything like this before. You climb up by having a special slider and a loop for your feet. You slide the slider up the rope, then push up on the loop and repeat…. it is quite hard work!

I had expert, Ruth. next to me. She helped Andy do the arboreal work in Peru, so is an old hat at it! I slowly progressed higher and higher and was dripping in sweat. The heat and humidity make any kind of physical exertion that much harder. The photos are not very complimentary, but do prove I made it all 30m up into the canopy…. quite an experience!

Excuse the poor camera work, but I attempted to take a little video up there, but somewhat difficult when you are dangling 30m up a tree!

Coming down was a bit more hairy, as you thread the rope through a special unit that has a figure of eight. I had a few stomach-churning moments when I went down a little too fast! It took considerably less time to get back down. Then it was Ruth and Eleanor’s turn. They are both climbing instructors, so a breeze for these youngsters!!

Still recovering from that experience, we left the girls to it and Andy and I headed off into the forest to set some Bushnell trail cams. Andy and his team would do this 4 or 5 times a day, to set the cameras…. and they set 60 cameras. I really appreciated the immense dedication that this takes.

I had brought 4 trailcams out with me and, thanks to Bushnell, these will remain with the team to be used in the work they are doing. I was only there a short time, but we set them on some tracks and I would retrieve the cards before I left.  These cams will remain here and Eleanor and Andy will keep me updated as to the creatures they capture!

As we headed back, Andy said he wanted to show me something special. We were walking through primary rainforest, where huge trees reach up almost into infinity. I could not see the tops. Photos do not show the enormity of these specimens.

We stopped at the base of one epic tree. Andy pointed to a small hole in the base and asked me if I was feeling adventurous! He told me we were going to crawl through this small hole, as this tree was partly hollow and we could climb inside! He checked for snakes and ‘nasties’, before beckoning me to follow him. The ground was soft and dusty and I had to lay down on my belly to crawl into the hole. Andy was ahead of me and I could see him sit up inside the tree. I carefully crawled in and sat beside him. The smell was overwhelming and the heat and humidity seemed enhanced in this small space. Andy turned his red torch on and looked up. I will never forget the scene that met my eyes. Hundreds of bats were roosting inside this unique space. Lining all the walls, just cm from my face, they were twitching , clicking and vocalising and taking off, flying around the confined space. Not once did one touch me, but I could feel the breath of a breeze as their wings passed close to my face. The space extended far up inside the tree, getting narrower; there must have been hundreds in there. It is an experience that will remain with me forever and is one of the most memorable wildlife experiences I have ever had. We sat there, just watching for several minutes. Andy knew I would be greatly affected by this spectacle. This single tree supported a huge level of biodiversity…both inside and out and it forms a vital part of this precious habitat. Within minutes, it could be destroyed. It does not really hit you until you are there; these precious habitats have to be preserved. I was overwhelmed and deeply moved by the experience. We crawled back out of the space, into the light again…

 

Andy looked at me as we emerged… we didn’t need to say anything……

We headed back to camp for lunch and chance for me to get out in camp with my DSLR!

The camp is full of trees, many of which were fruiting. The species I was most wanting to see were the iconic rainforest creatures… the scarlet macaw, the toucan and the red-eyed tree frog. I had seen the macaw within minutes of arriving….. they are common in this area, but nothing beats the sight of these beauties flying through the skies, their shrill, raucous calls becoming a part of the everyday sounds of this area.  In the afternoons, they came into camp, but fed way up high in the trees. I managed to get a few distant shots…

Eleanor told me to watch out in another couple of trees… the fruits on this attracted the Chestnut (or black) Mandibled Toucan. I could hardly contain my excitement when a pair appeared and I moved around under the tree, trying to get a good shot. What stunning birds and really the iconic rainforest species!

You would think that that would be enough for one day, but I still had an evening experience with the Sea Turtle Conservation  Programme run by Osa Conservation. The sea turtle conservation program monitors the nesting activity, predation rates, and hatchling success of these incredible species. The staff and volunteers gather important population and reproductive data, while helping deter and educate poachers who collect turtle eggs for consumption or sale. Osa Conservation has been collecting data and working in communities to support outreach and protection of sea turtles for over ten years. Primary work has been located at the Piro Beach and Pejeperro beach, both of which are considered to be critical nesting sites on the Osa Peninsula. The southern beaches of the Osa Peninsula are visited primarily by two species of nesting turtles: Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas). Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are also occasional visitors. The wonderful volunteers, as well as Osa Conservation Staff, patrol the beaches in the early morning and at night. We were on a night patrol, to release the latest batch of hatchlings from the hatchery. The staff move nests of eggs to a safe hatchery, where they are checked and tended and then the hatchlings are released, giving them a vastly increased chance of survival.

We hiked through the forest, down to the beach, just as the light was beginning to fade. We had a group of young America students with us too. We had some 80 Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings to release and I couldn’t wait! Hilary explained to us the procedure and how she was going to draw a line in the sand from which we released the hatchlings. We then stayed either side to frighten off the predator hawks that were already gathering on the forest margins…

It was incredible to look in the basket and see all these new little lives, anxious to get out into the vast ocean. We were shown how to hold them carefully and place them onto the hard sand. Instinct drew them straight towards the sea…

Looking at the vast ocean that they disappeared into, you couldn’t help but appreciate the immense struggle that faced them to reach adulthood… and that is not taking into account the man-made pressure they face. Plastic waste is a huge issue for these turtles, not to mention getting caught in fishing nets. The work undertaken by this fantastic project has meant that there is an approximate 87% success rate to sea. This would be greatly reduced if left to predation, both in the nest and upon hatching. We had given these little guys the very best chance to start their lives.

To add that final touch to the evening, we were treated to an incredible sunset…. could this trip really get any better?….

You can find out more about volunteering for the Sea Turtle Project HERE