My plan for India had changed significantly by the time I…
I had already been in Costa Rica for a week when I walked through the doors of Hotel America in Heredia to join some fifty other volunteers for orientation. A few people I had already met as most of us had been taking a Spanish course at Intercultura for the past week. The atmosphere was a mix of trepidation and excitement as we filed into the conference room. It had been a long wait, some nine months since applying, and none of us knew exactly what volunteering would involve. But we were all happy to finally be doing what we came for. After the customary introductions by the International Student Volunteers representatives our special ISV t-shirts were passed around and we were split into our groups to meet our project leaders.
The next day it was off to our projects. My group was off to Gulfo Dulce. Which is not far from the border with Panama on the Pacific side. We piled our packs into the back of the minibus and settled in for the six-hour drive. Well, what was meant to be a six-hour drive. Unfortunately we got a flat tyre on the way. But the unforeseen stop gave us a chance to enjoy some of the beautiful Costa Rican scenery and some coconut water too. Somehow even in the middle of nowhere on a dusty road you can find a street vendor selling coconuts. Just one of the quirky things that you come to love about a country.
That afternoon we arrived at what would be our home for the next two weeks. Unlike the other project groups we would not be separated and living with different host families. We would be sharing cabins. Our accommodations were simple, no hot water, but the location was stunning. Wedged between almost untouched jungle and the waterline of the gulf El Chontal Cabinas and Campground is basically paradise. El Chontal is the base camp of the Centro de Investigación de Cetáceos. After picking our beds and settling in it was time to learn a little bit more about each other and the project. Of course the best way to get to know a bunch of strangers is to make a fool of yourself in front of them. At least that was our project leader’s thinking. He had us play a little game. The aim of the race was for each member of the team to run out and spell their name in the air -using their bum- and make it back to the start line. I lost for my team. But honestly, how can you compete against someone with a three-letter name?
After we’d finished laughing at each other we got to hear about what our volunteer work required of us. Our project was aimed at turning the gulf and it’s surrounds into a national park protected area. We would do this by assisting with local research on two indicator species; dolphins for the gulf and poison dart frogs for the rainforest. The research involved creating a database of individual animals, where they were found and recording their behaviour. This was to be done mostly through our photos and video. Dolphins have very distinct notches on the back of their dorsal fins and poison dart frogs have dissimilar markings. In both these species those markers can be used like fingerprints to identify individuals and thus get a much clearer view of population numbers. We would divide into two teams and our time would alternate between going out on the boat and trekking through the jungle. We’d also get a couple of days off over the two weeks as well.
I awoke on the first workday very excited. We were heading out on the boat to see the dolphins! The boat was moored in Puerto Jimenez. About a 40-minute drive from our accommodation. I expected the taxi ride to be pretty standard. That is until we came to the bridges… rusting structures with little more than woven metal slats over beams crossing Cayman infested rivers. Even after the two weeks I was still a bit apprehensive every time the taxi driver edged the van across one. But we managed to get to Puerto Jimenez in one piece.
It was a quaint little town on the water with all the basics; supermarket, ATM, some shops and an Internet café with cheap access where we sent our emails home and backed up our photos. Our Captain was waiting when we arrived at the dock. Our excitement was palpable as we carefully climbed into the rocking vessel.
Our Captain took us for a quick tour of the gulf before heading to a deserted patch of beach which was to be our on shore look out and base for the next two weeks. In what would become a daily ritual we searched the beach for some long branches to lash together a shelter frame to attach a piece of tarpaulin to give the lookouts some shade from the sun. Two or three of us stayed on the beach at a time watching for dolphins swimming past while the others would be on the boat trying to capture the identification snaps we needed for the database. Unfortunately during my times on the beach I didn’t spot any dolphins but there was quite a bit of other wildlife. Crabs scuttling across the sand, birds flying overhead even stingrays flinging themselves skyward only to belly flop back into the water.
It seemed a characteristic of the gulf’s marine life to spend a lot of time out of the water. Over the two weeks I saw flying fish that would suddenly appear in front of your eyes and glide through the air, needlefish that propelled themselves up to 100 feet across the water surface on their tails, more belly flopping stingrays, and massive tuna jumping just like dolphins. But the most impressive aerial display by far came during the last few days of our project. A massive pod of some 200 spinner dolphins were hanging around just outside the gulf [video]. Their name comes from how they jump through the air in a spinning motion. I don’t think I’ve ever been so humbled by nature in my life than being surrounded by that pod. It was awe inspiring. Apart from the spinner dolphins we seemed to stumble on the same bottlenose dolphin pod quite often. I have some amazing footage of them swimming right beneath my feet at the front of the boat [video].
It was this group that gave me my favourite photo from that trip. It was a complete accident too. When I looked down at the playback on my camera I just laughed. I couldn’t believe how perfect my timing had been. I loved my time spent with the dolphins. It was truly a life changing experience. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing these animals at home and happy in their natural environment. But hiking through the rainforest on the alternate days was also an experience I would never trade.
We started off hiking days by suiting up in our long pants and gum boots then slathering ourselves in insect repellant. The entrance to the rainforest was like stepping into another world. Dark and oppressive. Not much light filtered down from the thick canopy above. I’m not the best hiker. I spent most of my time bringing up the rear of our little group. Slowly testing my footing in the thick red mud of the trail. Our goal was to spot poison dart frogs and then catch and photograph them for identification purposes. Somehow being the slow poke was an advantage as I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. “Frog” went the sound out. I may have spotted the frog but I gave over the chance of catching it to the quicker members of my team. Once caught (By gloved hands. No skin contact allowed) the little guy was posed for his photographs and then put back where we found him to go on his merry way. We were looking for three different types of poison dart frog but I only saw the green and black variety during my treks.
Since it was the end of the dry season we didn’t see many frogs but we did learn a bit about the forest and the cool plants and animals that could be found there. A night time tour was offered for trekking the path. But, since the main goal was to look for spiders I decided to give it a miss. Seeing the photos of the tarantula afterwards made me glad I’d skipped it.
The day to head back to Heredia came far too soon. I enjoyed the project immensely and I still regard volunteering as one of the best things I have ever done. I met some truly amazing people along the way that I will never forget.
Special thank you to my volunteer friends that gave me permission to use a couple of their photos for this post.