Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chumming for Ballenas

The other day at lunch amidst light conversation, Mel casually threw in that she was going away for the weekend with a couple of the other researches from La Selva. Feeling slightly inquisitive, but more for purposes of conversational flow, I replied “Oh yeah, where are you going Mel?”

“To the Osa Peninsula to see some whales…no big deal.”

Um what? Did she just say whales? The thought of Mel spending the weekend riding the waves at sea, gazing across the horizon searching for breaching humpbacks while I stayed behind doing lab work was more than I could stand! Before I knew it, that oh too familiar ugly beast known as jealousy was beginning to rear its head….and there was nothing I could do about it except continue to feed it with a tasty spread of questions.

“Who are you going with Mel?! How long are you going for Mel?! How much does it cost Mel?! What’s the itinerary Mel?! Is there room for me Mel?! Jeezes H. K-riest Mel, throw me a freakin’ bone here!!!!”

Recognizing the overwhelming sense of unease in my voice, she quickly rattled off the facts as she knew them to be. She was going to the Osa Peninsula for an all inclusive whirlwind weekend of bussing, boating, beaching, sunning, and whaling (watching, not slaughtering) with fellow researchers Taryn (South African former Kruger National Park employee invasive species researcher all around most awesome chica ever), Justin (boyishly cute bilingual High School Biology teacher from an East L.A. inner city school with piercing blue eyes, not to mention a very impressive dancing repertoire), and La Selva tour guides Kennith (the quintessential Latin Lover who leaves a slew of broken hearted hopeless women in his wake whom do not possess the important quality he looks for in partner) Octavio (young wanna be Latin Lover who is to clumsy and awkward to ever actually become one but potentially has a promising future as a paparazzi photographer)and Christian (kind, patient, intellectual whom exemplifies the true meaning of the word gentleman and possess a natural borne ability for longwinded storytelling). And yes, there was room for one more….perfect.

A day and a half later I found myself standing at the ticket counter in the stagnant Autobus Estacíon a Puerto Viejo de Sarapaqui purchasing a ticket to San Jose successfully using every one of the 4 words in my Spanish vocabulary. Somehow the clerk understood what I needed and exchanged my $1.50 for a slightly ripped pleather cushioned seat on the Tico bus. With backpacked tightly strapped down and empanada in hand, I eagerly climbed the stairs and took a seat next to my dear friend Mel and soon to be dear friends Taryn, Justin, Kennith, Christian and Tovio….oh yeah, and Shea must have overheard us making weekend plans because he was conveniently sitting on the bus going to Osa as well. As the bus grinded its way out of the station and started sputtering down the avenue, I opened the window to let the humidity hit my face and the pungent combination of street smells envelope my senses.

A few hours later we arrived at the Caríbe Estacíon in a seedy district of San Jose where we negotiated with a flock of vulture-like taxi drivers for a decent fare to our hostel. We checked into Hostel California, stashed our bags on the bunks and found our way to the bar to gorge on cervesas and nachos before a night of continuously interrupted sleep under a questionably sanitary blanket. Morning came far too soon as we were up and out of the Hostel by 5:30 a.m. and walking down Calle Central, carefully dodging the piles of garbage which lined the streets along the way to the strikingly beautiful Teatro Nacional to meet the tour bus at 6 a.m. Once onboard, the tour operators decided to utilize the 5 hour ride from San Jose to Osa to conduct an informative course on bus etiquette and marine mammals in SPANISH by yelling into the microphone consecutively for 2 HOURS! In classic Brenda form, all I gathered from the entire spiel was “prohibito numero dos esta banó”….and now I have 9 words in my Spanish vocabulary! Oh yeah, and the Spanish word for whale is ballena….that makes 10!

At 11:00 a.m. sharp our luxury tour bus dumped us off alongside the road where we lathered up our pasty little gringo bodies with SPF 4000 and enjoyed a short walk down a palm tree lined dirt road to the coconut littered beach where the boat waited. An invigorating beach scramble aboard, amidst the crashing surf, diminished what bits of drowsiness remained from the early morning autobus Spanish lesson and left me feeling refreshed and ready to see some freakin’ whales!
Unfortunately, the first day left us with little more than the tail end of something diving under the surface of the water and a turtle (thanks to my hawk eyed roomy Mel…good one Mel!). After our 3 hour tour, we all felt a little disappointed as Gilligan and the Skipper called it a day and navigated the boat towards the shore. But as the shoreline drew closer and our eyes fell upon the beach that we would be calling home for the night, our moods dramatically lifted as it was one of the most beautiful landscapes any of us had ever seen. The coastal mountains, heavily laden with tufts of emerald green vegetation, sloped down to the grainy sands of la playa where the turquoise waters of the Pacific met the jungle….monkeys swinging from trees and all (please refer to Mel’s blog for an exciting monkey encounter). We spent the remainder of the day soaking in the beauty of our surroundings body surfing in the warm bath- like waters. Shea even attempted a bare chested ascent of a palm tree to retrieve Justin and I a coconut to make the moment that much more magical…wait, I meant comical! Poor Shea is still nursing a few abrasions…turns out coconut palms and bare chests don’t mesh well (sorry Shea…next time you shouldn’t listen to my suggestions….I tend to be full of bad ideas!.

Although totally exhausted from traveling all day and playing in the surf, Taryn, Christian, Kennith and Justin convinced me that I should attend the presentation being given by the onboard whale biologist immediately following dinner. I didn’t really want to go because I figured it would be in Spanish, but everyone assured me that they would translate the important info and I would probably enjoy the pretty pictures of ballenas. Like a fool, I listened to them and went to the presentation instead of going on a moon lit night walk with Mel to look at ocean phosphorescence. BIG MISTAKE! As predicted, the death by power point presentation was totally in espaniol and lasted (and I’m not kidding) 2 1/2 fucking hours!!!!! That makes for a total of 4 1/2 hours of my precious life wasted on Spanish whales that I will never, EVER, get back! AND to make it worse, the only pretty picture he had was a flow chart depicting the evolutionary chain from which present day whales descended from DOGS in PAKISTAN!!!! What?!!! What?!!!!!! I thought that maybe I had lost something in translation, but the picture was right there plain as day…. so I suppose it’s true….whales came from dogs in Pakistan….absolutely amazing.

The next morning, Mel and I woke up at dawn for an early morning yoga session on the beach which was simply glorious…very cliché I know, but still totally awesome. Actually, I must admit that I wasn’t totally able to get into my rhythm because I kept getting distracted by the dogs roaming on the beach and wondering if they were going to spout water from their blow holes anytime soon.

After yet another tasty breakfast of gallo pinto con huevos, the group scrambled aboard amidst choppy conditions and began heading 20 km due west for Isla de Cano in Corocavado National Park. Despite very rough seas, we were a boat full of eager beavers donning jail bird orange life vests with eyes glued to the horizon. Well, most of us had eyes glued to the horizon….some had eyes rolling back into their heads as they chummed off of the side of the boat. I actually didn’t know that you could chum for humpbacks but apparently it works because not long after the purging halted, we had our first spotting…. a baby, the guides said a 4 day old humpback, livin’ la vida loca splashing about learning how to play. I grabbed a Frisbee out of my backpack and chucked it at the whale, having not yet been wholly convinced on the whole dog to whale evolutionary transition, and I’ll be damned if the thing didn’t jump up and grab it with its teeth!!! Amazing! And to think that I almost spent the weekend working with soil samples in the lab (Bill, if you are reading this please know that I really do think that microbial communities are just as fascinating as watching newborn humpback whales breaching and playing frisbee).
Gilligan and The Skipper finished the tour off by guiding the boat into the mouth of the Rio Sierpe and through the crocodile infested mangrove forests, navigating the shallow channels for 30 km to our final destination, the riverside town of Sierpe where we loaded back onto the bus for the 5 hour journey back to San Jose (actually 6 hour journey due the traffic backup caused by a landslide in the mountains that wiped out the road for more than a day.

The following morning, we left San Jose on one of the earliest buses headed back to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and our lab at La Selva. As the bus driver took us screaming down the lush mountainside through Brallio National Park back into the lowlands, I couldn’t help but look out my window at the countryside flying by and smile from ear to ear knowing that I was exactly where I wanted to be and doing exactly what I want to be doing in life….and that my friend is an incredible feeling. Pura Vida!


AM said...

Amazing! I have been on many whale watches off of Cape Cod, and seen many whales right next to the boat, but I'm sure a whale watch where you are is much more fascinating. Good thing Mel can take a hint!
Dogs evolving into whales huh? Are you sure the instructor was completely sober?

mel said...

So I am sitting here- nursing my post Costa Rica depression with an afternoon beer & I decide to update my blog... then I check out yours & remember that yours might actually be an anti-depressant, unlike beer... I am ready to hear the exit stories tho! love ya, hasta manana mel