|By Kelsey Lisi, Aaron Shepard, and the Costa Rica Trip Students
Twelve Allendale Columbia students conducted scientific inquiry while immersed in regional culture and Spanish language during an intensive 10-day trip to Costa Rica during AC’s May Term session in the final weeks of the 2018-2019 school year. The experience took place in the region between San José and the Caribbean coast and was organized by the AC Center for Global Engagement and the AC Invent Center for STEM and Innovation.
We began our journey at the Ecology Project International (EPI) campus in San José. From there we traveled to the Tirimbina Biological Reserve where we spent two days exploring the rain forest, conducting scientific inquiry, and learning about native species. Our next destination was the Pacuare Reserve, a nearly 2,000 acre tropical forest with six kilometers of beachfront. Pacuare is one of the most important leatherback sea turtle nesting sites in Costa Rica. We were fortunate to take part in three nights of turtle census work, during which we encountered several females that had come up on the beach to dig their nests and lay eggs. Some of the students were able to take measurements and act as “midwives” by collecting the eggs in a plastic bag for relocation to a safer area.
On the return trip to San José, we stayed one night at Casa Calatea, a community–supported neighborhood hostel high up on a forested mountainside. Here we enjoyed delicious food and an amazing view that included howler monkeys and toucans. The next day we traveled to the village of Cahuita, with its eponymous national park, where we went on a snorkeling expedition. We had a tasty lunch at a local diner before continuing our journey back to the EPI campus in San José. Our final full day in Costa Rica included a visit to the active Poás volcano and a tour of the Toucan Rescue Ranch, a rehabilitation facility for numerous wild animals such as toucans, sloths, owls, and monkeys.
As chaperones, we found the experiences we had to be life–changing, and can only imagine the impact it had on the students’ lives. They were an inspirational group who are forever bonded by their unique experiences on this trip. You can read their impressions below.
Blog Post 1
During our trip to the Pacuare Reserve in Costa Rica, we excavated a previously relocated leatherback sea turtle nest. Researchers excavate the nest after sixty days to see if there were any survivors who had hatched but had not been able to reach the surface and to collect the egg remnants to determine hatching success of the nest. When the nest was relocated, the team dug the nest to a matching depth to the original nest, which is usually about 80 centimeters deep!
The researcher found seven living leatherback sea turtle hatchlings which we were able to exhume and release for the long journey to the ocean. Although it was tempting to carry the sea turtles to the water, the turtles had to make their own journey to the water so they could pick up chemicals and environmental clues which will help them to return to the beach when they are of breeding age.
Since we couldn’t carry them to water, the group was assigned individual turtles to follow them on the sand to ensure that they make it to water. Along the way, the turtles were met with debris such as sticks and trash, sandy hills, and vicious crabs hoping to make a meal out of them. The turtles made the approximately 30 meter trek from the nest to the ocean in about 20 minutes. During this time, we were their cheerleaders and their guardians. Some of us chose to take the time to name our turtles; others viewed the journey as a race and started to cheer for their turtle to win. Marlin Bassett said, “I felt really protective of the baby turtles as they moved toward the water.”
All seven of our turtle hatchlings made it to the ocean and were carried away by the waves after submerging. This experience gave us hope for the future of sea turtles and the marine environment. Hopefully in twenty years we can see our turtles return to the beach to lay their own eggs and ensure the success of the species. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that made our trip so memorable.
Mrs. Lisi collected some responses from our reflections that afternoon. There were many words and phrases to describe this experience and the trip including magical, powerful, thankful, incredible, and fortunate.
Blog Post 2
During our trip to Costa Rica, we spent nights 4-6 on Pacuare Reserve. We had 4 hour shifts nightly for turtle censuses, at either 8pm or 12pm. Both of us (Marlin and Greg), were given the opportunity to be up close to the Leatherback Sea Turtle while it laid its eggs. At around 1pm on night 4 Marlin saw the massive Sea Turtle, while Greg saw the Sea Turtle on night five around the same time. Even though we both worked with different turtles our experiences were very similar. Only females lay eggs and they come ashore on the beach to do so. She will dig a hole in the sand about 70cm deep with her massive flippers, and lay around 80 eggs. What’s unique about Leatherback Sea Turtles, is that they first lay their fertile eggs, and then on top of the hole infertile eggs. This is done to protect them from predators, and shield them from the elements such as heat. Their eggs unlike any other reptiles are very soft in the beginning, so they don’t break while falling into a 70cm deep hole. If you were to look at the dug hole from the side, it would have a unique shape similar to a boot.
We both had the opportunity to hold this ancient dinosaurs flipper while it laid its eggs into her hole. Before she started to lay her eggs we had to place a large plastic bag under the cloaca so we could collect and relocate the eggs to a safer location, away from poachers. Our main job during this activity was to try and count the eggs that she laid as well as moving the flipper out of the way so other people could observe the amount of eggs that she laid. We both felt how strong she was even by just holding her flipper. Although we tried to move her flipper sometimes it became apart very quickly that once she decided she was moving her flipper, she was moving it and we had no way to stop her. She continued laying eggs for about 10-15 minutes depending on the turtle. When she was done laying, we had to quickly remove the bag before she started filling the hole back up with sand. We then handed over the bag to on-site researchers, so they could relocate it to a safer place which has a higher egg hatch rate. It would then be monitored and checked after 60 days. Data would be collected on the amount of hatched and unhatched eggs.
This made us feel humbled and gave us an overwhelming amount of respect for the Sea Turtles. They have been alive longer than us and have experience far greater than we could ever know. Especially with the problems of pollution and poaching even the effect of global warming it is truly amazing how this animal survives each day and makes this trip to lay its eggs. It makes us hopeful for future generations of life watching the eggs, knowing they will likely hatch and go on to become adults. Thus changing the lives of people like us.
Blog Post 3
On our second day at Tirimbina, we had a midday snack led by our trip guides, Katherine and Catalina. It consisted of the sampling of eight tropical fruits. These were Cocoa beans, Guava, Sour Guava, Passionfruit, Granadilla, Starfruit, Pejivalles, and Mamey Sapote. We ate the pejivalles with mayonnaise, which tasted similar to very dry squash. Starfruit and sour guava were dipped in salt to enhance the flavor. Overall, our favorite fruit was the granadilla (4 orange masses), which had a similar feel to the passionfruit. It was quite sweet with a tang, and its innards were protected by a styrofoam-like barrier. The granadillas were simple and fun to crack open, as we pushed our thumbs into its side and ripped it in half.
For the duration of the trip, we ate rice and beans for practically every meal. However, it was prepared differently each time and even through our various locations, we never repeated a meal. It altered between the separation and combination of these two dishes. There was also consistently a variety of sides, such as plantain chips, shredded cabbage, chicken, fish, beef, mashed potatoes, diced vegetables with corn, mango, watermelon, pineapple, and papaya. We also had many different fruit juices each day, including Passionfruit, Hibiscus, Watermelon, and Cas.
Our favorite meal was at our stay in Casa Calatea. We stayed here for one night after our three days at Pacuare, which was similar to a giant tree house. The staff made us an incredible dinner, which was made up of very tender chicken, mashed potatoes, diced vegetables with corn, plantain chips, and a very good, sweet coconut dessert. It was in a dark brown bar shape and combined coconut pieces with sugar and butter.
Learn More About the Center for Global Engagement