No hike, but some elephant seal fun!

Well, the boyfriend came down with a nasty virus so unfortunately, there was no hike this weekend. It was even my birthday weekend! But he is feeling somewhat better so hopefully next Sunday we can do another Sunday Funday hike.

I feel like haven’t written much about The Marine Mammal Center lately. That’s because things have somewhat slowed down. It is nice to have time to sit down and take a coffee and lunch break for a change. The ellies are slowly but surely learning to eat and compete with each other and each week more are released. Soon we will hit a peak again but this time with California sea lions. Each year, most baby sea lion pups are born in June, and since we have just entered june, it is only a matter of time before they take over. That isn’t to say that we haven’t had plenty of sea lions already, but we soon shall have plenty more.

This past Thursday, BBC had a camera crew at the center filming a documentary. Myself and two others from my crew were “volunteered” by our crew-mates to wear microphones and be filmed working with the elephant seals. Specifically, they wanted us wearing the microphones to catch some of the vocalizations of the ellies while we did fish school, which involves tying a string around the tail of a fish and dragging it around the water in the hopes that it will trigger predatory instincts in the pups. One of the others with me wore a GoPro camera on her chest to catch the volunteers perspective during fish school and hand feeding. Then, they used a pole with a GoPro on it to get the ellie’s perspective during fish school and hand feeding. They also took some other video clip angles while we were feeding a pen, including some underwater shots. I think it goes without saying that the pups were very interested in the camera and kept trying to bite at it! They’re so curious, I love it. I don’t know when that will air but I will post it or link to it as soon as it does. That way you all can get a glimpse at some of what we do there!

In the mean time, here is a picture of one of the elephant seal pups being curious as always!

One of the curious elephant seal pups I volunteer with!

One of the curious elephant seal pups I volunteer with!

12 Hour Days

Holy. Crap. Over 170 animals at the center now. We tube fed more elephant seals than I can remember today. This post covers this week and last week. Sorry I didn’t post last week. I had a full 12 hour day with no lunch last week and didn’t get home until late. This week was only an 11.5 hour day and I did get lunch.

This week is also apparently Volunteer Appreciation Week so they had ice cream sundays for us. I think we all deserve it. We are definitely in the peak of busy season. Every day we get more and more animals. Sure, we also have releases often, but more are coming in than going out. It’s always nice feeding then pens with free-feeders. Takes no time at all. The challenge comes when you have ones that aren’t supposed to be fed (aka “NPOs”) and you need to figure out if they’re are just NPO because of an exam or because of a surgery. If it’s a surgery, then you have to go through separating that one so the others can eat. It can be tough when dealing with feisty sea lions.

Last week, I was bitten on the leg by an ellie. Didn’t break skin. But definitely left a bit of a bruise. You get outnumbered when you’re in a pen trying to keep them away from a tube feeder but they’re coming from all directions. In zombie movies, I always wonder why people can’t just outrun the zombies. They’re slow and move so awkwardly. When you’re surrounded by hungry ellies flopping across the pen floor towards you honking and barking, you understand.

I get to the center at 7am. There are a few long time volunteers that get there at 3am! THREE! Can you believe that?! And then they stay until 6:30pm or 7:00pm like the rest of us. I live an hour and 15 minutes from the center. There’s no way I could get there that early.

Anyway, I’ll try to post again next week. ‘Til then!

Enlightenment In Costa Rica

Last summer, in June of 2012, I embarked on one of the most rewarding trips I’d ever been on. I traveled to Costa Rica for 10 days to volunteer at a Leatherback sea turtle research station on the gulf coast called Estacion Las Tortugas with a group organized by EcoTeach. This trip forever changed my life.

After a long flight, a layover, a delay, and then an even longer flight, the plane touched down in Costa Rica. There, a bus and tour guide met me to take me to the hotel where I would be staying. By the time I arrived late that night, my roommate was already in bed asleep. I picked one of the many beds in the large room, put on my pajamas, and laid down, exhausted from the full day of travel and yet excited for what was to come on this trip. The next morning, I officially met my roommate, a woman around 30, who was an interesting character. Covered in seemingly meaningless tattoos, her first time out of the country, and hardly any education paired with a know-it-all attitude that would prove to be obnoxiously annoying.

The rest of our group consisted of a family of four, the parents well traveled yet used to more luxurious dwellings and the two little girls with an endless list of food allergies and intolerances. There were also five more people who all had gone to college together or worked together. They were the closest to my own age, ranging from 23 to 27.

After breakfast that first morning, a preview to what fresh foods Costa Rica had to offer, we loaded our bags onto an old stick shift bus and began the nearly full day drive to the research station. The driver didn’t speak english and the guide spoke a broken english. On the way, we stopped at a small school where the children demonstrated some dances and we joined them for lunch.

School children performing cultural dances and songs for us.

School children performing cultural dances and songs for us.

Eventually, after traversing some windy roads through the Cloud Forests, small towns, and pineapple orchards, we ended up at a dirt road dead end by a small sinking dock. Our bags were unloaded from the bus and we were to wait for a small motor operated boat, slightly larger than a canoe, to take us through the woods and water channels the rest of the way to the station.CostaRicaSeaTurtle_SU2012_336

After what seemed like an unbelievably long time, the wooden sign emblazoned with “Bienvenidos Estacion Las Tortugas” appeared. We carried our bags a little way to the completely isolated and self sustaining station. There were a couple of buildings with “dorms” for volunteers. The word dorm gives you a skewed idea of what they actually were but I don’t know what else to call them. The only electricity was for solar powered lights in the buildings. There were small huts where permanent residents of the station resided. There was an open air dining building and kitchen, an open air educational pavilion, a garden with fruits and vegetables, and free range chickens running around the property. The dorms had two bunk beds with mosquito nets each, able to sleep four people. Luckily there were only two people in each room because it was a tight squeeze with just that. All water came from tanks on the top of the buildings roofs and were only refilled once a week. The water all came out cold, which I thought would be an issue with showering, but as the days wore on turned out to be a blessing.

The hatchery

The hatchery

The "dorms"

The “dorms”

From my room, you could see the beach we would be patrolling each night and the hatchery where Leatherback nests were transplanted to protect them from poachers.

We were told we may not see a nesting leatherback while there because it was near the end of nesting season, but we would definitely see hatchlings. During the day, we explored and helped around the garden. At night we were divided up into shifts to patrol the beach for nesting turtles and hatching nests. It rained a couple of nights and our patrols were cut short, but finally, on our last night at the station, we saw a nesting female.

Every night for five nights we patrolled without flashlights and only the stars to guide us. The night sky on that beach was the most bright beautiful thing I had ever seen. Because we were in such isolation and so far from any towns, there was literally no light pollution. I had never seen so many stars. We counted falling star after falling star to pass the time. We always wondered how we would know if we saw a turtle because it was so dark on the beach that every shadow may have been one. The resident researchers told us when we saw a turtle, there would be no mistaking it. Sure enough when we saw that turtle, we could tell from far away. It was huge, the size of a compact car. It was the most awe inspiring site I’d ever seen.

Each evening, we would release babies that had hatched during the day when the sun was too hot for them to make it to the ocean. We’d stand behind them and encourage them along, trying to deter crabs who would make dinner of the hatchlings.

Me measuring one of the hatchlings from the day

Me measuring one of the hatchlings from the day

Releasing a hatchling

Releasing a hatchling

One day, we were able to help excavate a nest that never hatched. We counted which eggs were eaten by crabs, which had succumbed to bacterial infections, and which were never fertilized to begin with. At the end of our time at the research station, I was sad to go and wished I could stay longer. From there we traveled next to an area where one of Costa Rica’s only indigenous communities was located. We spent the day with a family group. It took us a couple of hours to hike to their home in the wooded mountains. They told us all about their history and culture and fed us the most delicious foods. Their simple life style seemed idilic to me.

Indigenous family's home

Indigenous family’s home

Our last day was spent traveling back to the hotel we stayed in that first night. By then I was exhausted from the trip, enlightened from the experience, and sad that I would soon be leaving this magnificent country. All this being said, I was happy and ready to be going home again. I would love to go again someday and explore more of the country and visit it’s Pacific coast.

This was the first time I had participated in a trip that would fall into the category of voluntourism. This is definitely the way to travel. I met some amazing people, experienced an amazing culture, ate some great food, and was able to help make a difference in conservation efforts. I recommend voluntourism to all the travel lovers out there and there are many great programs you can go through to do this, especially students.