Rainforests & Reefs

2013 Rainforests & Reefs Field Report

Susan Langley|May 15, 2013|Field Report

Friday, March 8, 2013 - Belize City, Belize: For most of us arriving from colder climates, the weather provided a warm welcome to Belize at our hotel in the historic district, the Radisson Fort George and Marina Hotel. With an afternoon at leisure, some of us settled in and relaxed while other intrepid souls headed off to explore the town. As the sun set we assembled for drinks and hors d’oeuvres hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford Travel/Study, and we met some of the staff and our fellow traveling companions, before a traditional buffet dinner.

Saturday, March 9 - Lamanai Ruins / Embark Island Sky: After an early breakfast we headed off on a trip to the New River, an excellent opportunity to see rural Belize. Boarding covered boats for a leisurely trip to the Mayan site of Lamanai, we received a visit from a resident spider monkey anticipating a treat of bananas. With Pepper Trail as our ornithologist, we were assured sightings of several boat-billed herons, black-collared hawks, a pair of nesting jabiru, and polyandrous northern jacanas walking on vegetation along the shore.

On arrival at Lamanai, we enjoyed a picnic before visiting the ruins and archaeological sites. Our guides led us along paths through the rain forest while identifying culinary and medicinal uses for the various plants, trees, and fruits. Near the museum it was possible to see the national flower, the black orchid, in bloom. Many of us first made our way to structure N10-43; the rather bland name belies the fact that this pyramid is the tallest building on site and the second tallest in the country. We braved the vertiginous climb to the top, and were impressed by the incredible view. We worked our way through the Ball Court to the Jaguar Temple and down lush trails where the greenery opened to reveal the Mask Temple. Making our way to our waiting watercraft, we found ourselves whizzing back to our buses and then to our home for the next two weeks, the Island Sky. Seeing us off were pantropical spotted dolphins playing alongside as we left the harbor. Welcoming refreshments were organized by Jannie Cloete, our Cruise Director, whose attention to detail was phenomenal. Later, we gathered and were introduced to our expedition staff, and were provided with Zodiac training.

Sunday, March 10 - Lighthouse Reef / Half Moon Caye: We began our morning with a snorkel briefing by Conrad Weston, one of our naturalists. Local boats picked us up from the marina and we set off for a morning of exploration. Those of us opting for a drier experience enjoyed a walk on the shore. Our birding enthusiasts headed immediately to a viewing platform in Half Moon Caye Natural Monument from which the westernmost and largest colony of nesting white-morph red-footed boobies might be observed. At nearly 4,000 residents they proved an impressive sight! This was made even more intriguing by the presence of their arch-enemy, the magnificent frigatebird, nesting alongside with no apparent animosity. In addition to Pepper, Richard Cahill of ANCON Expeditions and Dennis Wille, our Costa Rica naturalist, were all on hand to guide, interpret, and advise us.

The afternoon provided spectacular drift snorkeling in an area aptly named, The Aquarium, while some of us who had been in the water in the morning determined that we should visit the island. Those of us on the beach had a chance to laze on the sand, walk the island, or view the birds. This was a wonderful preamble to the welcome cocktail party and dinner hosted by Captain Henrik Karlsson.

Monday, March 11 - Roatán, Honduras: We awoke this morning to find ourselves anchored off Coxen’s Hole, named for a pirate who frequented the area. There was an embarrassment of riches in choices today as we set off to explore this 50-square-mile island. The birders departed early with Pepper and Dennis for Brazil Hill, and were rewarded with sightings of endemic mangrove, Yucatan vireos, and endemic Canivet’s emerald hummingbirds, as well as wintering summer tanagers.

Those of us opting to be townies for the morning had the opportunity to check out the sea bottom off West End without wetting our feet, by boarding a semi-submersible vessel. Everyone enjoyed an introduction to the flora of Roatán at the Carambola Botanical Gardens, which covers 40 acres of protected forest and extends up the side of Carambola Mountain. After an initial demonstration of a number of herbs, leaves, fruits, and their extracts, we toured only a fraction of the garden concentrating on culinary and medicinal species. After refreshments among feeding hummingbirds, we gathered at the Manta Ray Restaurant, perched on stilts over the water. While some of us preferred to rest in the shade and enjoy the sea breeze, others couldn’t resist a stroll along the street to pick up a carved wooden mask, some of the regional weaving and embroidery, or a little something for someone back home.

After lunch those of us tempted by the morning’s sights caught a local catamaran for snorkeling over splendid hard coral reefs, home to colorful reef fish like Creole wrasse and stoplight parrotfish. Back aboard the Jolly Roger, we toured the embayments of the area with a Caribbean beat and a little dancing on the deck. Those of us relaxing and snorkeling from the shore had the chance to explore a couple of local wrecks that serve as artificial reefs and home to a great deal of colorful sea life.

Later, the majority of us headed off to high adventure…literally! The afternoon was spent zip-lining and even those not keen on heights, found it an exhilarating experience to slide through the forest and over meadows on a series of runs descending the hills to our starting point. Bragging rights all around!

Tuesday & Wednesday, March 12 & 13 - At Sea / Isla de Providencia, Colombia: On Tuesday morning Buzz Thompson, our Stanford Travel/Study representative, presented From Super Corals to Electric Shock Therapy: Saving the World’s Coral Reefs and Fisheries. Pepper taught us Jungle 101: An Introduction to Rain Forest Ecology, and after lunch Olga Stavrakis explained the differences between the Ethnic Minorities of the Caribbean: Garifuna, Kuna, and Emberá. We rounded out the day with Susan Langley, who took us Beyond Morgan and Blackbeard: Famous Pirates You’ve Never Heard Of… Our day at sea passed quickly and soon it was time to prepare for our arrival in Colombia.

Wednesday began with our intrepid birders setting off with Pepper and Dennis to the Repressa Reservoir and along the base of the Peak Trail for the opportunity to sight the endemic Providencia vireo and Antillean birds, including black-faced grassquits, white-crowned pigeons, and green-breasted mango hummingbirds.

Those of us keener on water sports enjoyed snorkeling among sponges and anemone patches with blue Creole wrasse, shrimp, and groupers at two locations, each with a plethora of small colorful reef fish like damselfish. Crab Caye produced sightings of sergeant majors and other colorful small fish and sponges, and at El Anillo we saw porcupine pufferfish, and were delighted with the Caribbean reef squid. We ended the day at the beautiful Playa Manzanillo where some of us indulged our inner children on rope-swings.

The land tour visited Centro Educativo Maria Immaculada, a local convent, school, and orphanage where we completely disrupted classes much to the delight of the children, who sang and danced for us and to which we made a donation of educational supplies and funds. We then proceeded on a circuitous tour of the coast with stops at scenic overlooks, as well as at a small shop where an ex-pat French proprietor makes delicious popsicles in flavors like tamarind, coconut, and hibiscus. Arriving back at the tiny Isla de Santa Catalina, a band greeted us. By this time we had all reassembled and had time for music, refreshments, and a little shore-side shopping for local handicrafts.

As we headed toward Costa Rica, we were able to learn Why Costa Rica is Costa Rica from Conrad, and Rich enlightened us about the importance and economics of the Canal in The Land Divided, the World United, and the Panama Canal Expansion.

Thursday, March 14 - Puerto Limón, Costa Rica / Tortuguero Canals: Arriving in Puerto Limón, we set off through the countryside for Moin where we were greeted by a vibrant local band and embarked on Mawamba boats to cruise the canals of Tortuguero. The park’s raison d’être is to preserve the breeding grounds of green sea turtles. Although it wasn’t breeding season, the canals offered a stunning array of wildlife, including sloths, monkeys, and Montezuma oropendola. As we moved about the canals we also saw the famed emerald basilisk, or “Jesus Christ lizard,” nicknamed for its apparent ability to walk on the surface of water. Other avifauna included salty-tailed trogons and gray-necked wood-rails, as well as northern jacanas, moving from leaf to floating leaf. We enjoyed several opportunities to see the three species of monkeys in Costa Rica—howler, spider, and white-faced capuchins cavorting through the canopy. Costa Rica is one nation that developed a conservation ethic very early and boasts 186 protected areas, nearly one-fifth of the country’s area.

At last we had to tear ourselves away and return to the landing where refreshments had been set up. There was time for a quick stop to purchase some coffee and other mementos before we headed back to the ship for lunch.

Setting sail for Panama, we joined Pepper for a titillating talk about Moaners, Screamers, and Pygmy-Tyrants: Coping with Neotropical Bird Diversity, followed by Buzz and his discussion of Natural Capitalism: How Central America is Putting a Value on Nature’s Services. Later, we joined our expedition team to learn about tomorrow’s plans and had a chance to enjoy a taste of the tropics, with exotic fruits and the Costa Rican national rum drink prepared by Dennis. Many of us opted to spend the evening in one of the many restaurants and bars that line the shore in Bocas Del Toro before our late-night departure.

Friday, March 15 - Escudo de Veraguas, Panama: Often compared to the Seychelles, Escudo de Veraguas is the quintessential tropical paradise. We spent a long morning exploring its shores where palm-thatched fishermen’s shelters were nestled among the trees. Basing ourselves at Indian Beach, we swam, snorkeled, and used our Zodiacs to thread through the mangroves between the surreal rock formations dotting the waters off the coast. At our beach site we had the extreme good fortune to see both of the island’s endemic species—the pygmy sloth and the Escudo hummingbird. This recently described bird is the only fully endemic species of bird on the island. We also saw brown boobies nesting precariously on one of the champignon rock formations on our way back to the ship.

While some of us beachcombed or swam from shore, others snorkeled and rode the mild currents around the champignon formations. The water was so clear it was easy to spot an invasive lionfish as well as indigenous species like grouper. As we prepared to return to the ship, many of us encountered local fishermen paddling their dugout canoes and snorkeling themselves for fish and shellfish. Back on board we joined Dennis for a more detailed examination of the fruits we had enjoyed with his presentation, Fruits and Flowers of Costa Rica.

Saturday, March 16 - San Blas Archipelago: We began the morning with a Zodiac trip up the Rio Charcon, our best chance for watching crepuscular bird activities. We hardly knew where to look first with multiple sightings of keel-billed toucans, mealy and red-lored parrots, and blue-headed and orange-chinned parakeets. We were especially intrigued by a pink ibis, which Pepper determined was the offspring of a scarlet and white ibis.

While we enjoyed breakfast, the ship repositioned for our next stop at the island of Acuatupu in Kuna Yala, the lands of the autonomous Kuna people. Known for their colorful and detailed reverse appliqué textile work known as molas, this was an opportunity to purchase keepsakes and see the traditional dress of the women. We were also fortunate enough to witness the preparation of the community’s four-day celebration, including the making of chicha by the elder women of Acuatupu.

During lunch the ship repositioned again to permit us to go ashore on Holandes Caye. Some of us enjoyed snorkeling amid the colorful reef fish that included blue-headed wrasse, blue chromis, and yellow-tailed damselfish, as well as several types of puffers; one fortunate soul even saw an octopus! Some of us were able to enjoy walking the island’s paths and perhaps picking up a few more molas, while the birders reported seeing the beautiful sapphire-throated hummingbird.

To cap this eventful day, Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford Travel/Study hosted a cocktail party encouraging us all to wear our most colorful clothing. What a great opportunity to sport our new mola attire as we headed for our transit of the Canal.

Sunday, March 17 - Panama Canal Transit: Whether it’s your first or 21st transit of the Panama Canal, it’s always an event, and seeing the construction of its expansion adds a historic aura to the trip. Rich not only provided commentary throughout the day on the landmarks, stories, and facts about the construction of what has been justly called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” he also gave a fact-filled and humorous presentation on Panama Today.

Definitely a day to be outdoors, we were treated to morning flights of mealy and red-lored parrots, and saw a group of capybara. There were also flurries of black and turkey vultures. The intermittent rain that had clung to us most of the morning dissipated in time for a group photo beneath the Centennial Bridge and it became gloriously sunny in time for a barbecue lunch on deck to observe our passage of the Pedro Miguel Locks. Gulls and magnificent frigatebirds wheeled overhead and took advantage of the food sources stirred up by the ship’s passage, as we slipped past Balboa and into the Pacific.

With a very early morning ahead, many of us headed for bed soon after dinner as our ship steered toward the Darién Province.

Monday, March 18 - Mogue River: Just before daybreak we boarded a flotilla of local motorized dugouts, called cayucos, for a ride to the coast and up the winding Mogue River. We watched osprey fishing as the river narrowed. Soon we could hear the drums of the Chocó Emberá before rounding the final bend where we reached a landing. Waiting for us were many of the villagers in traditional dress including musicians and later, a gaggle of children—an interesting juxtaposition in their crisp uniforms, adjacent to their parents in colorful traditional garb as they sang a song for the occasion. The Chocó Emberá speak Spanish as a second language and we learned that English is being taught for the first time this year at the school. But smiles went miles and language provided no barrier.

The village was a manicured clearing with a dozen raised houses, open at the sides with palm thatch roofing. We were able to watch demonstrations of sugar cane pressing and corn grinding, were formally welcomed, and treated to music and dance performances. The Chocó Emberá use Jagua Vine dye as body paint and were willing to apply it to anyone who wished; needless to say there were a lot of blue limbs on the ship. These people are noted for their high quality basketry and wood carving, and many pieces found new homes with us. Before we left Anne Leicher presented a package of school supplies to the school’s principal.

After lunch on board, we were joined by a large pod of pantropical spotted dolphins cavorting off the bow, a manta ray on the surface, and even a Galápagos shark and humpback whale were sighted. We found ourselves glued to the gunwales with binoculars and cameras until mid-afternoon when we joined Susan for a sweet treat—a honey tasting of samples from each stop we made followed her presentation about Mayan Beekeeping: Past and Present. After tea it was time to learn from Olga about Save a Tree, Starve a Child: Lessons from the Ancient Maya. She took it in stride when she had to hold an impromptu break so everyone could watch a Bryde’s whale off the stern of the ship as we steamed toward the verdant island of Coiba.

Tuesday & Wednesday, March 19 & 20 - Coiba Island: Although inhabited in Pre-Columbian times and involved in the 19th-century pearl industry, the island is more known for the penal colony established there in 1912. The island retains about 80% of its forest cover, and the Parque Nacional Coiba was created in 1991 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. On Tuesday, our birders were thrilled to find a king vulture perching with others low enough to provide an excellent opportunity for everyone to watch. We also noted blue-throated goldentail hummingbirds and yellow-headed carcaras, which are recent colonizers of Panama and Costa Rica.

We made our way up the coast to the tiny Isla Granita del Oro, a paradise formed of volcanic rock surrounded by a wonderful reef. Under a pavilion at the ranger station, the ship’s chef and his staff prepared a tour de force barbecue that defied even the hungriest snorkeler to try every dish. A few of us ventured on a short walk toward a back bay where the large crocodile, Tito, resided. He graced us with an appearance before we enjoyed a lively dance party.

The next morning our hikers and birders set off for a mile and a half long Monkey Walk across a portion of Coiba, while the snorkelers and swimmers headed back to the irresistible Isla Granita del Oro. The hikers sighted the fabulous endemics, Coiba spinetails and Coiba doves, and had views of lance-tailed manakins.

The current around the islet provides nutrients for a plethora of undersea life. Those participating in water sports saw green moray eels, Guinea fowl puffers, Moorish idols, triggerfish, angelfish, bigeyed jacks, butterflyfish, and blueline snappers.

For the afternoon we set out on a Zodiac tour to explore the volcanic rock formations of the coast, with a keen eye out for interesting beaches or enticing swimming or snorkeling possibilities. We were entertained by the acrobatics of bat rays flipping out of the water and pods of dolphins playing around our Zodiacs. At last it was time to return to the Island Sky to freshen up for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner.

Thursday, March 21 - Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica / Casa Orquideas: The Golfo Dulce is technically a tropical fjord with a relatively shallow entrance but deep waters within, created by shifting tectonic plates. Its different character was apparent when we landed, having traded our white coral, sugar sand beach for a darker, pebbly, volcanic one. Before we even left the ship we could hear scarlet macaws screeching and soon were able to see them flying overhead two by two for the entire morning.

Casa Orquideas is a 12-acre private botanical garden created over the past 30 years by American ex-pats Ron and Trudy MacAllister. In addition to the eponymous orchids, they have an excellent representation of the most significant culinary, medicinal, and ornamental trees and plants, as well as some useful in small industry manufacturing, such as the tagua palm which produces vegetable ivory and bitter cedar. We were delighted to see cashews and pineapples fruiting, but even more by seeing stingless Mayan bees everywhere, assisting in pollination.

At a feeding station at the MacAllisters’ residence, the birds came to us, as did a black basilisk lizard, and we were able to watch rufus-tailed, long-tailed, and other hummingbirds, and the red-legged honeycreeper. In and around the garden, cherry tanagers flitted and we saw a white hawk, while the aptly named howler monkeys scolded from above. There was even time for a quick dip in the water before we had to return our snorkeling gear and enjoy our last wonderful lunch while enjoying the view.

Afterwards, we joined Dennis to view the film, Simbiosis, which features the birds of Costa Rica and their songs set to music. Dennis provided much of the bird song and imagery for this film. Hannah offered to renew anyone’s Jagua “tattoo,” and Olga agreed to build on an earlier recap and provide more information about the Peopling of America in a short talk to end the afternoon.

Before dinner, we hastened to the lounge for the final slideshow presentation of our trip created by Conrad, featuring fabulous images taken by him and other expedition staff, a wonderful but bittersweet way to send us off to pack for tomorrow’s departure.

Friday, March 22 - Puntarenas / Disembark / San José: Bidding farewell to our floating home and its crew, we rode into the interior. We were able to watch the terrain change as we noted the types of fruits and vegetables being offered for sale roadside. After one last chance to buy some delicious Costa Rican coffee we were heading home. Amid the coffee plantations shaded by the bright orange flowering poro trees, we had time to reflect on the past two weeks. We learned about the birds and the bees; about oceans and rain forests and how much they have in common; about the people and culture of the region from the traditional life along the Mogue River to the high-tech plans for the world’s largest canal; about plants and fish and that pirates can make some positive contributions to science and, in a lighter vein, some rather zany recaps.

We can’t help but concur with the common Costa Rican response to most questions, Pura vida—life is good!

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