Monday, September 8, 2008

It was a dark and stormy night

And that was the night after we stood on the beach of Ostional watching an Olive Ridley Turtle preparing her nest and laying her eggs. More on the dark night later.

The Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) is the smallest of the sea turtles usually less than 100 pounds and named for the olive color of its heart-shaped shell. Ostional Beach is located on the Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and is the most important nesting beach for Olive Ridley turtles. About 750,000 turtles nest here between July and December each year. Some populations of Olive Ridley synchronize their nesting in mass emergences or arribadas. Thousands and even tens of thousands of Olive Ridley nest during arribadas that continue for several nights. The arribadas usually occur on the darkest nights before the new moon.

That night we went to the beach to see the turtles. It was raining hard the whole time we were there, but it was very warm. We were not fortunate enough to see turtles in the day time, but we did see the one female laying at night. No flash cameras allowed, so we only have this picture taken by the light of flash lights by our friend Juan Carlos with his cell phone. The eggs are shiny ping pong ball size.

It was the fourth night of the arribadas, so there were not a lot of turtles. We watched one female from start to finish in her 45 minute egg laying. She dug a hole with her back flippers that was about 18 inches deep. The precision of her dig is all instinct, not once did she turn to look and gauge her progress. Once the hole was dug, the egg laying began. At first the eggs came singly, but soon as many as 6 or 8 appeared to be expelled with each contraction. It took about 10-15 minutes for all of the eggs to be laid, probably around 100 eggs. She then spent another 10-15 minutes covering the nest and compacting the sand. I wish we had a picture of her head and front flippers. Massive! Truly incredible looking and muscular.

The rainy season is here and before leaving for the beach we knew that having a four wheel drive vehicle with high enough clearance to cross the streams is critical. The inn keeper had questioned me about our car when we made reservations. On Wednesday, September 27, we drove to Ostional. It is about a 6 hour trip, with 4 hours of that on gravel roads. We had to cross two streams to get to our hotel. The second stream, Rio Rosario, was wider and deeper. The water tore the front license plate off of our car and our traveling companions’ car as well. Fortunately for us the police men noticed ours and pulled it out of the water and yelled for us to stop. Juan Carlos didn’t know that his was gone until we noticed the next day.

Hotel Luna Azul sits up above the beach with jungle stretching out before it for a kilometer or more to the shore. There was enough of a breeze that we didn’t need to use air conditioning. With screened windows open, the sounds of the cicadas, geckos, and birds were our night time chorus. We were lucky to have cooler than normal days at the coast. It is usually very hot. This was our first trip there.

On Thursday morning, I was the first of our party of four to arrive for morning coffee in the hotel dining area. One of the hosts let me know that the rivers had risen considerably during the night and our plans to travel south would be impossible. The Montana River would not be low enough to cross for days and that would be only if the rains stopped. We could go north, but because the Rio Rosario was also much higher, a tractor would have to pull us so that we wouldn’t be washed downstream. The tractor would be there soon for some of the other guests who were leaving that morning. After lots of coffee and a delicious breakfast we went to the river to see how high the water was and if anyone else was crossing. Another couple staying at the hotel opted for the tractor tow across the river. The couple from Austria had already been rescued once after being stuck crossing a river. Their rental car, although a four wheel drive, just wasn’t high enough or powerful enough. The footage will remind you why you would never, ever want to buy a used rental car! Although being towed is a way to cross the river, it is not great for a car. We decided that staying at the hotel for another night was a perfectly good plan. Excellent facilities, food, and charming hosts. We were also enjoying the flora and fauna. At the river there were about 10 cars and trucks on our side watching and waiting to cross. It reminded us of people at Blossom Bar on the Rogue River watching other rafters go through the rapids. Pacha Mama, a nearby alternative community, received their produce by sending workers across the river to ferry the produce back.

Here's the movie:

While at Luna Azul we saw several new birds: White-throated Magpie-Jay, Long-tailed Manakin, Fiery-billed Aracari, Rufous-naped Wren, Cinnamon Hummingbirds, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Plain Chachalaca, Red-lored Parrots, Smooth-billed and Groove-billed Ani, Barred Antshrike and Hoffman’s Wood peckers. We also saw a few Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas.

The trees outside one of our cabins were Pochote (pachira quinata). The trunk and the branches have large thorns and it is sometimes called spiny cedar. It is a native tree and is impressive with a large trunk and can grow to 100 ft. The criss-crossing of the heavily thorned branches from several trees made for an unusual porch surround.

Troops of howler monkeys (called mono Congo here) follow the tree line around the cabins to the Jabo fruit trees near the main building. Their booming voices are incredibly loud for their size. They are also incredibly loud at five in the morning, as they pass within yards of your windows! We hear them frequently at our house, but they are below us in the trees and do not come up the hill. They use a tree line to travel and do not like to be on the ground if they can help it.

We lost power at 4:30 on Thursday afternoon! And it truly was a dark and stormy night, the wind and rain continued, but the fortunately the temperature was still bearable, since the ceiling fans would not be running that night. The hosts, Rolf and Andreas were prepared; with lanterns, head lights, and their gas stove took good care of their nine guests. Besides the four of us, a German couple with three well-behaved children was still at the hotel. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the dinner menu again had five entries to choose from. The food was delicious! Luckily, the water pressure is not impacted by the lack of electricity and hot water is produced by a combination of solar and gas. So even with a power outage, we were not without our creature comforts!

The electricity was restored on Friday afternoon. We finally decided that another night at the hotel was the better option. Earlier in the day Andreas braved the river in their car to get vegetables and eggs for the hotel. Their vegetable truck could not cross the river. No fresh fish though. I was glad that I had opted for the fabulous herbed snapper the first night!

On Saturday morning we learned that the river was down. The water level was lower than the previous days, but still higher than our first crossing on Wednesday on our way in. The current was still strong. But it looked like a go, especially if the water level continued to drop. We packed our bags for the third time and checked out of Luna Azul once again (You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!'). We waited at the river for awhile, hoping to see someone else cross, but no one came along. Juan Carlos and Lilliam decided to stay at least one more night, since they were enjoying the unplanned vacation. Their car, being smaller, lower, gas, and carpeted is much more likely to have water damage than our diesel. So at 11:30 we crossed the river (2+ feet deep) and headed home. We found the road conditions to be worse than on our trip down. Fields were flooded and water crossed the road in many places. We didn’t have any problems, but kept the car in four wheel drive until we reached pavement, about 3.5 hours later! We arrived home at 6, just before dark.