By Noah Botman
In July 2013, I was fortunate to travel to Costa Rica with my family to experience the incredible biodiversity in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
We spent a week visiting the cloud forests of Rio Celeste, Tenorio Volcano and Monteverde, followed by another week traveling along the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.
National Geographic has listed the costal forests of Costa Rica amongst the most bio-diverse on the planet. While we were able to spot some exciting species, many remained well hidden in the dense vegetation.
Amongst the species we observed, were friendly white-headed Capuchins, who get their name from their distinctive white hood and slightly larger and much more aggressive Howler monkeys. We were told that Howler monkeys often throw their own feces at people standing below to keep unwelcomed visitors at bay. Yuk!
We also saw some nocturnal geckos and colourful frogs, including the famous Red-Eyed Leaf Frog, which lives in trees, is extremely agile and is one of the best-known symbols of the country.
Once we saw an Agouti crossing the road right in front of our car, not far from Lake Arenal. It was very fast, darting across the dirt road into the thicket – way too fast to be photographed. On our way to the Rio Celeste waterfall we saw large tracks in the mud left by an elusive Tapir. Tapirs are smaller than cows, but their paws are larger, designed to gain traction on the soft muddy slopes of the cloud volcanoes.
From time to time we also encountered red Variegated Squirrels that we initially believed to be small monkeys, with their distinctive black stripe along the spine. Costa Rican squirrels are slightly larger and not quite as common as in Northern America – at least we did not see them in urban parks and backyards, like in Canada.
Our most exciting experience happened near Brasilito in the northwest corner of the Nicoya Peninsula. We had decided to explore a remote beach called “Playa Minas”. The beach was totally deserted, as we arrived around 10 am that morning. We walked along the shore and were swimming, when suddenly we heard people calling in the distance. It startled us. We had not noted anyone else on the beach and did not understand what could possibly be happening.
As we approached the small group of people, a man introduced himself as a marine biologist working for a Costa Rica wildlife rescue group and promptly took us to a turtle nest from which baby turtle were escaping frenetically. They were juvenile Olive Ridley turtles, one of the most common species on the Central-American Pacific coast, but still endangered and in need of preservation. Unfortunately, the nest had been disturbed by a predator – perhaps a raccoon or a wild dog – and sadly many of the turtles had already been killed.
The marine biologist asked us to help with the rescue of the juvenile turtles. They were slightly premature and had difficulties climbing the sandy walls of their nest. The biologist told us to take as many as possible carefully across the beach to the water, over the surf.
We did our best – running from the nest to the water with baby turtles in our hands. Some were making their way on their own, under the scorching sun, struggling towards the water. Unfortunately, many did not make it – the heat and the distance being too much for their slightly premature bodies, the rough surf drowning them in the waves. Some were barely alive as we gently released them to the loving sea where they belonged and where life seemed to welcome them back.
The biologist explained that the small turtles had little hope of making it without our assistance. “They normally hatch at night, at dusk or at dawn,” he told us – “never at noon, in full view of predators and when the unforgiving heat destroys their fragile organisms in a matter of seconds.” In the middle of the day, they basically cook alive on the sand, gasping for air, easy pray to fiddler crabs and seagulls.
It all happened in the blink of an eye. There was a mad rush. Turtles hatching. Screams of excitement. “Arribada” … “They are coming.” With us running back and forth as fast as we could … and then, suddenly, nothing … some minute lifeless bodies rolling gently in the crushing surf. As my father said, we definitely did our best. That is life. We saved as many as we could. Many made it and will perhaps come back one day to the very same beach to lay their eggs … and the circle of life will start over again.
It was both a wonderful and painful experience. A lesson in marine biology, life, death, hope and survival.
Above: Noah Botman rescuing juvenile Olive Ridley turtle, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. © Michel Botman Photography, 2013.