Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pacuare Reserve, Costa Rica

Our last major stop in Costa Rica was at the Pacuare Reserve, a privately held sanctuary on the Carib Coast.  Our friends Scott and Julie run a non-profit organization Ecology Project International, (EPI) which we have supported over the years.  They send high school students from the US and Costa Rica to this reserve to help with the Leatherback Sea Turtle Nesting Program.  They have been trying to get us to come here for years, and finally we made it.  Boy are we glad we did because it was a fantastic experience!

The reserve has about 6km of coastline and is one of the prime Leatherback nesting areas in Costa Rica.  Last year the reserve recorded over 1100 Leatherback nests.  There turtles are critically endangered, so this is a very important spot for them. 

As volunteers, our primary duty was to go on night patrols and help the research assistants.  This involved walking 4 to 8 miles along the beach looking for turtles that had come up to nest.  If we found a turtle the tag data would be noted, or new tags put on if there were none, measure the turtle, etc.  We would capture the eggs in a bag and relocate them to a safe spot.  This involved lying behind the turtle holding the bag under them to catch the eggs.  Sounds great, but then imagine it is pitch dark, pouring rain, or you are getting eaten alive by mosquitos or sand flies.  Even under these conditions it was quite a thrilling experience.  After the turtle departed we would camouflage the track.

The reason for hiding the eggs and camouflaging the track is to deter poaching of the eggs.  The eggs are eaten by humans and believed to be aphrodisiacs.  One clutch of eggs can bring the equivalent of 2 weeks wages, so poaching is a popular local pastime.  Due to its location, guard patrols, and other practices the Pacuare Reserve has relatively little trouble from poachers.  That being said we did lose one nest while we were there, which is extremely frustrating as you might imagine.

Being early in the nesting season we were not sure if would be lucky enough to see any turtles.  We went out on the first night, and behold not 100 meters from where we left was a turtle!  These are huge animals, with shells that measure about 1.5 by 1.0 meters, and weigh at least 400kg.  They really are massive!  We helped collect the eggs, Zane got to hold her rear flipper so we could see the eggs being laid.  It was quite exciting. 

After she left we walked not 200 meters down the beach, where to everyones amazement there was another!  This time Glenn got to hold the egg bag, which means getting up close and personal with the turtle, so that was quite an experience.

Over the course of our 12 days there we ended up seeing about 8 to 10 turtles each, and never stopped being impressed by them.  It was great walking along the beach at night ( a bit less so in the pouring rain).  We saw shooting stars and even a bit of moonlight.

The staff at the reserve was fantastic.  The research staff was very friendly and helpful.  We were impressed with the dedication of the guards, who would notify staff when they found a turtle and mark the nest and read the tags of nobody could make it there.  Even the folks building new buildings and the cooks would go out at night hoping to see turtles.

During the day, between naps, we would explore the reserve and work on projects such as sign making, painting, bike repair, shelter contruction, etc.  The reserve has plenty of wildlife besides turtles.  In fact when we arrived (by boat) the first animal to greet us was a massive Croc - no swimming in the lagoon!  The reserve also has the only known nesting colony of Agami Herons in Central America, which are quite secretive and very beautiful.  We saw monkeys every day, and many frogs, lizards, and a few snakes.

At the end of our stay a group of students from California arrived, so it was great to see how the EPI program really works.  All the students went on night patrol, and they were all lucky enough to see at least one turtle.

We were sorry to leave the reserve by looked forward to dry and clean clothes.  Even leaving the reserve was an adventure.  We took a boat on the canals to a point where we met a truck to take us into town to catch a bus to San Jose.  Unfortunately just outside town there was some road construction, and no vehicles were passing.  The driver called for a taxi to meet us on the other side.  To get there we had to haul our luggage approx 100 meters through a banana plantation.  As we discovered, bananas are not grown on nice flat fields, but each row is separated by deep ditches to drain the water away.  We made our way through, and some local students were kind enough to help the ladies over the big jumps.  On the other side the school girls rewarded themselves by taking pictures of themselves with Zane.  We got to town and caught the bus, which was delayed going over the mountains as mudslides were still being cleared from the road.  We also stopped to take on passengers from a bus that had broken down. 

Finally arriving in San Jose, we are tired but happy to have had an amazing experience at Pacuare Reserve.

Next stop, Quito Ecuador.

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