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Rod’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 03 Oct 2010

Location: Costa Rica

MapQuesting for Quetzals, Hunting for Hummingbirds, Traipsing after Turtles and Waltzing to Whale song in Costa Rica

Those familiar with my writing will have detected my inordinate fondness, indeed almost adoration, for alliteration. I confess I find a child-like thrill in the mental hunt for words headed by like consonants to fill a sentence and give rise to a rhythmic resonance in reading prose that both soothes and stimulates. I am not alone in this - read a Dr Seuss book. So the title – how could I resist?

Humming birds, in my personal phylogeny of life, are, of course, preposterous. I put them in the same family, Prepostera, as giraffe and rhinoceros. They are small, bright, ever-moving like the ultimate ADD creature, and completely captivating. They dance, clack ferociously, tweet, trill, chirp, fly backwards, bicker, and joust in midair - all while changing colour second by second as the light catches their iridescent plumage. I have stood still for hours transfixed with an inane village idiot grin on my face as a dozen hummingbirds danced and jostled around me darting in again and again to see if they can feed at this enormous orange flower (my gortex jacket is bright orange). One sat on my hand briefly and I could feel the warmth of its feet for ages afterwards. I’ve felt the cool sharp breeze of a dozen pairs of hummingbird wings as they dart and hover waiting to insert their fantastically long thin bill into the feeding station.

Hummingbirds weigh just a few grams yet fly thousands of km on annual winter-summer migrations. The ruby throated hummingbird that buzzed through the garden one morning with a wings blurring at 75 beats per second, can live for 9 years and make an annual migration as far north as Canada. I traveled from Canada to Costa Rica by jet airplane with my in-flight food tray rattling as we flew through turbulence from dramatic tropical storms – no such service for the tiny ruby-throat. Hummingbirds feed on nectar, they pollinate and eat insects (all useful job skills) and are just absolutely bloody mesmerizing. Of all the species that have been introduced to Australia in the last two centuries how did we overlook hummingbirds? Why couldn’t the Victorian Acclimatisation Society of the 1860’s whose self appointed task was to introduce “plants and animals to make the alien environment feel more like home, to beautify their gardens, provide sport for hunters and ‘aggrandise’ the colony… and … make the land economically productive”, have established hummingbirds in Australia rather than bloody rabbits. But they didn’t and Australia has none and we are the poorer for it.

One morning I had breakfast surrounded by hummingbirds in a bright sunny courtyard of a mountain lodge in San Gerardo de Dota – about 80km south east of San Jose in the cloud forest country of Costa Rica. It would have been the longest breakfast on record as I was constantly diverted by hustling hummingbirds except I was scheduled to renew my quest for the elusive Quetzal. And Quetzals, while not in the family Prepostera and no rival for hummingbirds in my estimation, have a fascination all of their own.

Quetzals are, of course, Trogons in that family of gaudy, flashy fruit eating birds of the Americas -- except quetzals took the bling bit just a bit further. The males have ridiculously long tails (in order to get laid of course – the things we males do), a bright red chest and an emerald green body with a fluffy crown of feathers. I’m not doing it justice… throw in an overall iridescence so the every time it moves it takes on another shade of red or green and you are getting the picture. Not impressed? Ok, well the cloud forests are famous for quetzals - in fact the Ticos (politically correct way to refer to Costa Ricans) named a national park after them (Parque Nacional Los Quetzales) and there are a plethora of hotels, lodges, cafes and tour operators posing with Quetzal in their names. Not enough…? … there is a Quetzal Education and Research Centre whose goal is (no, not to educate Quetzals – I suspect, like many beautiful thangs that they are as dim as dishwater) but “Working to ensure the next generation of quetzals and environmental stewards alike”. And of course 2010 is the year of the International Quetzal Jubilee. Quetzals are big business.

Quetzals eat avocados (not the big ones but small ones) then sort of sit or flutter around till they can crap out the seeds. So if you can spot them in an avocado tree then you can often get a bit of time with them. Such was the case on my first morning when following some vague instructions I arrived at the location of the most recent sightings of quetzals. Of course the birds weren’t there but I was patient and breakfast was still an hour away and sure enough a bus load of Japanese tourists soon arrived. Japanese tourists of course travel with guides and of course just after they arrived so did the Quetzals. I set off after him (the guide) and elbowing the Japanese aside (they are so polite!) managed to get a good view through the guides telescope of my first ever Quetzal. It didn’t let me down and an hour later I was still watching the 2 pairs of Quetzals that had arrived to feed in a large avocado tree some 200m from the road. Of course, later that day I saw another male from just 30m away and only about 10 m from my hotel room but the 5.30 am start was worth it.

Quetzals aren’t the only dazzling birds in the Costa Rican cloud forests. Two of my favourites of the many I encountered were the Collared Trogon with its bright orange chest and gorgeous green head, and the endearing “Redstart” a cute little yellow bird with a red skull cap that followed me for ages trying to get its photo taken – I swear it as going to ask me for money when I finally relented.

I confess that I am a poor birder, erratic and highly idiosyncratic with an ideologically unsound focus on bright things - a veritable bower bird of birders. But there are so may brightly coloured birds that I can pursue my peccadillo and still have enough new species each day to keep my thumbing through my new bird book. Speaking of bird books I must name drop. The author of my newly acquired book one Richard Garriques was at my lodge leading a tour group. We conversed knowledgably as gentlemen do and he kindly signed my copy.

But birds, descendants of dinosaurs as they are, as well as bright, mesmerizing and visible, are not the only attraction in Costa Rica. I had sworn at the start of this trip that I wasn’t going to see another bloody turtle for 6 months and of course Canada and Alaska are relatively turtle free. However, Clare (adorable Tasmanian niece currently living in CR and the reason why I am here) accepted with alacrity my reluctant suggestion that we could go to Tortuguero – second only to Australia’s Raine Island in its phenomenal density of nesting green turtles.

[Note for non-family: Clare is adopted Korean so we bear little family resemblance. Everyone in Costa Rica assumed she was my little Chinita and I was either a. lucky or b. way too old for such a lovely young woman or c. both. Either way I found it somewhat amusing, Clare was aghast. She introduced me at every opportunity as her tio (uncle) (we even thought of getting t-shirts made up) but of course no-one believed her - there is not a strong family resemblance. Hotel staff were bemused initially when we insisted on separate beds and then annoyed when we continued the pretence by actually messing up both beds)]

It turns out that Clare harbours an inordinate fondness for turtles -- in stark contrast to her complete phobia about birds. (It seems her thoughtful father, in a moment of patriarchal tomfoolery placed a chicken on the head of a very young and impressionable Clare and she has not been the same since). Anyway, Tortuguero is, as I said, famous for green turtles. It's one of the great conservation success stories with a green turtle population that recovered from near extinction to huge numbers -- in fact 2010 was a record year for decades with some 20 000 nesters and the season not yet over. Tortuguero was where the highly regarded Archie Carr started his now legendary turtle research program and countless very clever and dedicated biologists have worked there in the decades since. So it’s a Mecca for turtle biologists and I confess it’s a place I had long wanted to visit. A short plane flight less then 36 hours after my arrival in CR and we were there by 8am.

After (yet) another breakfast of beans and rice we set off to find a hotel and 2 hrs later settled on the Miss Miriam #2 with a private verandah and a sea view of sorts for $30 a night including breakfast – of yep rice and beans. (Actually by the time we found it we were too buggered to go any further and we fell asleep while checking out the room and felt obliged to stay).

Turtles are the main attraction at Tortuguero and a substantial contributor to the local economy. In addition to the money flowing to hotels, water taxis and restaurants; locals are employed as accredited guides for turtle walks under a carefully regulated system administered by the National Park. Not surprisingly, local shops also offer a vast range of turtle related souvenirs and mementos although regrettably I was unable to find a Tortuguero green turtle in a snow bubble. We duly signed up for a turtle walk that evening (I found it hard to believe I was actually paying someone to show me a green turtle) and as our guide also offered guided canoe trips through the spectacular lowland rainforest that makes up the Tortuguero reserve, we took the package. Bright green crested Iguanas (known locally as Jesus Christ lizards for their ability to run across the water surface), toucans, vultures, howler monkeys and white faced capuchin monkeys were highlights of the afternoon paddle - and not having to paddle!

Our first nights foray into turtle watching ended abruptly as poor Clare succumbed to food poisoning within metres of our first turtle and we retired sick – Turtles - 1: Clare and Rod - nil. The next night was more successful as we hooked up with the local research centre and accompanied them on their 8 to midnight beach patrol. Our contribution to global knowledge exchange was a talk from me earlier in the evening to the mostly Spanish speaking field crew about turtles in Australia -- we muddled through painfully but there was a significant amount lost in translation and they are perhaps still wondering why there are sea turtles in Austria.

It rained during the patrol of course and black volcanic sand has a peculiar stickiness to it as Clare was to discover. I took an ignoble pleasure in the fact that I did not have to leap into the nest pit and wrestle with a 100kg turtle while wielding tagging pliers, tape measures and note book - I left that to Clare. To her credit she maintained her good humour and enthusiasm even after the second face full of sand and a few solid whacks from a flipper.

I had forgotten just how dark a black sand beach gets on an overcast night and we lost count of the number of logs we fell over and holes we fell into. But it was the sheer number of turtles that made for our slow pace as we stopped often so as to allow an emerging turtle to make her way un-spooked up the beach. For hundreds of metres at a stretch the entire beach was traversed by a turtle tracks and new turtles were emerging every 50m or so. The field crew was selecting only turtles that were actually laying eggs or had just completed laying. The turtles are quietest then and tagging and measuring is easier and less stressful for both turtle and researcher.

And no matter how tired you are on a patrol, watching a turtle lay its eggs is not to be missed. The nest chamber, carefully and laboriously crafted by her hind feet, is never seen by the turtle. Nor does she see her white spherical eggs and the strings of mucous that cushion their fall into the nest and help protect the eggs from fungus and bacteria. Nor indeed does she ever see her hatchlings or join them in celebrating their birthdays some 50 days later when they emerge from the sand and make their perilous dash across the beach then past the massing sharks and fish as they swim furiously out to sea to find deep water currents offshore. It’s possible she may see her offspring years later as juveniles, or even half a century later when they emerge on the same beach as her to nest for the first time, but who knows if she would recognize them.

Costa Rica is a safe place to visit. It has some 50 years successful experience with democracy and a governance system that by Central American standards is exemplary. It has no army and no need for one as the aircraft from the US bases in Panama can be deployed into Costa Rica in less then 15 minutes and the Costa Rican president presumably has a hotline to the White House. Over 10% of the country is in protected reserves, it has a stable economy, law and order and, not surprisingly, huge numbers of well heeled gringo visitors and residents spending large amounts of cash. The kicker is that the gringos bring their own cultural expectations and demands and perhaps, culturally, Costa Rica is the poorer for it. One manifestation of the wealthy gringo phenomena are the plethora of over-priced, ideologically-unsound holiday mansions available for rent in places that should probably never have been developed. All that said I loved the decadence of Casa Fantastica the uber-exotic mansion we scored for 3 days at Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast. With 9 bedrooms (each with own bathroom and Jacuzzi), a games room, dedicated cinema room, gymnasium, deluxe kitchen, FABULOUS ocean and jungle views and the most AMAZING infinity pool to enjoy them from, it was awesome. The house rents for $5000 a week or just $24000 over New Years Eve. We scored it because… well… connections… anyway it was our brush with the life of the glitterati. We ate, drank, lounged, read books, ordered massages, did “excursions” and thoroughly enjoyed it… and yes I watched the hummingbirds too.

Corcovado National Park is “the most biologically intense place on earth” according to National Geographic (and quoted in the Lonely Planet guidebook and just about every other piece of tourism promotional material for the Osa Peninsula). It’s probably not that far from the truth - 139 species of mammals (including 6 species of wild cats), 116 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 400+ species of birds and all on just 42000 ha. Drake Bay, one of the major access points to Corcovado NP and on the northern end of the Osa Peninsula, is only accessible by boat (a magical ride through a maze of mangrove lined channels of the Sierpe River and across a blue water bay) or plane. It’s as remote as it gets in Costa Rica, it keeps the number of visitors down and it’s absolutely bloody worth the trip - even in the “green season” when roads are cut, rivers are muddy torrents and it’s raining cats and dogs. I stayed in a tent camp just metres from the crashing surf and my small patch of gardens and buildings were surrounded by jungle. From my tent I watched toucans and enormous Scarlet Macaws leap nimbly (astonishing for their size) between trees as they fed, parrots buzzed past regularly, multiple brightly coloured birds filled my binocular lenses, and hummingbirds zipped and hovered like tiny iridescent helicopters amongst the heliconias. It rains more than half the time and everything is damp. The facilities were rustic, the bathrooms barely worked, the food won’t win too many awards and the beer was only occasionally cold (I have re-discovered beer and ice), but I loved the place.

Rainforest canopy ziplines are a growing worldwide phenomenon and have reached even the isolated Drake Bay. Ziplines, a series of cables and platforms that bear happy humans through the rainforest canopy, require the use of a harness that fitted incorrectly crushes testicles or possibly even ovaries; and an enormous leap of faith. Suspended from a cable you whiz through the canopy, teeth clenched or screaming depending on your (and the cables) inclination. Occasionally you see wildlife but usually you and the cables are making so much noise that all wildlife, barring the most lethargic of sloths (renowned for their slothfulness), have split long ago. So you don’t see much but trees and leaves and branches but is a buzz, especially if, like me, you have a phobia about heights. The adrenaline rush was a fun counterpoint to many hours of slow rambling along jungle trails watching agoutis, coatis, monkeys and the dazzling, multitudinous array of be-jeweled birds (and little brown jobs) that make up just part of the ‘mucho’ biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado NP.

The stunning bio-diverse terrestrial environments are matched by the richness of the marine landscape. Three species of turtles nest on the beaches of the Osa Peninsula, mostly Olive Ridleys with the occasional green and even more rarely the gargantuan Leatherback. Numbers are low and numerous projects have sprung up to ‘save the turtles’. Its funny the fervour that turtles inspire and the co-dependency that often evolves in turtle ‘protection’ projects. Olive Ridleys have a penchant for nesting on sand bars around river mouths and this is the case on the Osa Peninsula. At one project on a small beach, the ever shifting river makes for unstable nesting beaches and nests are lost frequently. Enter the human saviour who relocates the nests and releases the hatchlings - a worthy and laudable enterprise. But closer inspection shows that there are stable areas of beach suitable for nesting – unfortunately it is already full occupied by the local turtle saviour’s camp, souvenir stall and hatchery. The world of turtle huggers is a funny one.

But it’s the whales and the dolphins that really steal the show. Some 5 species of dolphins live in the waters off the Osa Peninsula and in such abundance that it would be a rare day when you didn’t see a bunch on a boat trip surfing the bow waves. And, like the whales, you regularly see dolphins from the shore. Several species of whale including Orcas, False Orcas and the elusive Bryde’s Whale also hang out off the Osa Peninsula. Of all the whales though, the Humpback is the most visible and most dramatic with spectacular out of water leaps, thunderous tails slaps and fin waving. Out fishing one day we watched a mating pair of green turtles locked together and bobbing slowly in the swell. Nothing is as oblivious to the passing world than a mating male green turtle and the male barely blinked when a humpback whale surfaced just a few tens of metres away -- almost a remarkable case of “coitus interruptus”.

What’s remarkable for me is that the humpbacks that migrate to the north Pacific (the whales I watched with delight in the Inside Passage of BC) occur alongside the humpbacks that migrate south to Antarctica. One Antarctic mother and calf was documented as traveling over 8000km in just 161 days – not bad for a mum and toddler.

So its whale central down here! A recent boat based survey off the Osa Peninsula counted nearly 60 whales over a two week period. Attracted by the warm waters and abundant food, whales gather to breed and stock up for their next migration. A favourite food are sardines and its common to see huge aggregations or ‘balls’ of sardines - a curious rippling on the surface that resolves into a million tiny flashing silver fish as you approach – being dive-bombed by squadrons of brown boobies. Like the dolphins it’s a rare day when you don’t see whale breaching or at least the spray plume from a surfacing whale.

I’ve got to do a lot of cool things so far – swim with salmon, tête-à-tête with grizzly bears, wander in a luxury Winnebago and watch whales breach and ‘bubble-net’ schools of herring. But way up there, in the best of the best, happened on my last days in Costa Rica. Everyone knows that whales sing – all very hippy-trippy, new age and Gaia etc but they really do. And you can hear them. On my last dive off the Isla de Canos off the Osa Peninsula I sat on the bottom in 3 m of water surrounded by tropical fish, my head filled with the most amazing humpback whale songs. Humpbacks are renowned for their songs and their low frequency tunes carry long distances underwater. My whales were no where in sight but the clarity of their songs in full whale stereo was fantastic – it completely filled my head. I wonder if they could learn Bohemian Rhapsody?