In the Land of Pura Vida

By Marissa Bernal

Each year, a select group of students from the Zoo Magnet School and the student volunteer program are chosen for the Duttenhaver Animal Conservation Field Study Team. The group assists field researchers engaged in conservation projects around the world that are part of the EarthWatch Institute. These opportunities to experience scientific fieldwork firsthand, made possible thanks to support from Linda Duttenhaver, inspire many of the student participants to pursue future studies and careers in science and conservation.

In recent years, scientists working in Coto Brus have noticed something unique. Local landowners have begun planting fruiting trees on their properties—although the specific reasons for this are not yet clear. Scientists hypothesize that these trees hold the secret to improving the resilience of forest ecosystems and restoring the continuity of Costa Rica’s tropical forests, which benefits both people and wildlife. As part of this study, this year’s Earthwatch team worked directly with researchers to study the ecological benefits of fruiting trees, and the motivations of the tree-planters themselves.

The moment comes on the fourth of July at 7 p.m., amid my father’s birthday celebration, I begin to prepare myself for a long journey to the Coto Brus Rainforest located in Costa Rica near the Panama Border. About an hour later, I find myself nervously saying goodbye to my family, with the promises of “I’ll call you when I can,” and “I’ll see you soon.” With the final whispers of “I love you” in the air, my fellow team members and I slowly drift into the check-in line at LAX. Hovering about us are many unspoken questions and fears, yet as we proceed further into the airport, the compelling power of curiosity and a guaranteed adventure outweighs it all and propels us forward.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, flying, and short nights we found ourselves in San Jose, facing a ridiculously small airplane. The group let out a collective groan. “Well, guess it’s going to be a tight squeeze,” someone muttered and, just like a clown car, it magically accommodated all 12 of us. The hour-long ride to Golfito was loud, and jokes about falling out of the air and exclamations of “Look at that!” filled the plane. Once grounded, we took in our surroundings and greeted our Earthwatch mentors before piling into a van to make the hour-and-a-half drive to the station.

At last, we arrived at the Las Cruces Biological Research Station on July 6 at approximately 11 a.m. The feelings running through my mind were incomprehensible. The reality of the opportunity I had been granted was hitting me like a semi-truck and it took me a minute to compose myself. After settling into our rooms, the rest of the afternoon and following day were spent training for our week in the field.

Our days in the field were stimulating, our eagerness to learn shined through. Quickly the team became a family and we learned to work as one. Everyone found something about the work that they loved, and my favorite part was being in the transects themselves. I loved to see the sights Costa Rica had to offer and the creatures I stumbled upon.

My free time was always exhilarating. Usually I recruited my roommate to come join me on exploratory hikes, as I had the goal to see monkeys. The search for these mammals proved to be difficult, since the group of white capuchin monkeys in the area traveled as a pack. To know exactly where they were was impossible, yet I was eager, and we were averaging six miles daily on our treks in pursuit of a sighting. Soon, there were three days left of our time at the research station and my hopes were low. I had sprained my ankle and couldn’t possibly go out on another monkey hunt. Our mentors surprised us that evening and took us to dinner at a restaurant nearby. While conversing with the owner, my monkey quest luckily came up. Excitedly he told us that the monkeys liked to hangout out in the forest behind his restaurant. The team walked over and soon enough, we were surrounded by capuchins. I was thrilled and couldn’t believe the sight before me. That night I went to bed content and grateful

In the land of “Pura Vida,” I learned more than the reality of fieldwork. I learned about life in another country and the importance of preserving and protecting the lands so carefully crafted by nature.