We gathered at 4:45 am in front of the school, meaning to leave at 5am. The students wore a face of adventure and eagerness, or whatever one can muster so early in the morning. The group huddled together to exchange pleasantries while waiting for our transportation. In true Costa Rican fashion, the bus driver came an hour late.
The drive to Osa was uneventful. A monotonous 7 hour slog marred by traffic and briefly interrupted by a snack run and lunch at a roadside stop that had way too many dishes that looked and tasted alike. Camila, being a vegetarian, struggled to get a decent meal. Somehow the students managed to pick a different dish each, compounding on the chef’s troubles.
We arrived at the LAST compound at 2-ish. The place where we stayed was littered by cats.
The place was modest yet well kept. It was located next to a palm oil plantation. The main guest house was this long wooden structure, adorned with touristy posters, hanging coral decorations, and lots of plant arrangements made with old car tires.
After half an hour of settling down in our dorms, we had our first meeting. We met Eduardo and Rebecca. The students listened to the worsening ecological conditions of the turtles and mangroves while petting the house animals.
Can’t blame them for it. Those cats were cute. Once the meeting was done, our schedule for the trip was set. Tomorrow would be our first task. Today we would explore the surroundings.
Playa Blanca is a sleepy fishing town where the fauna vastly outnumbers the human population. It is directly in front of Piedras Blancas National Park, so when you gaze at the horizon you are met with a wall of green.
Most of the beach is gravel. The sea is quiet, yet always moving. The tide changes are pronounced, leaving you with scenery that changes by the hour.
The receding tide reveals a huge swath of muddy soil. As it dries out, you can see the different river mouths, and the patterns they create. It is this coexistence of river and sea that produces the brackish water the mangroves need to thrive.
Mangroves are inherently plastic, meaning they change their structure at the root, leaf, and stand levels in response to salinity in order to exclude salt. They can resist up to a hundred times more salt than a regular plant. There is much we still don’t know about them.
As the sun began to set, so did the first day of the trip. The small fishing vessels returned to port. The sky had a pinkish hue.
Early in the morning, we had our breakfast. The students had a whole day of manual labor ahead of them.
The job of the day was to move the mangrove nursery to a new location since the old one was destroyed by the tide. William and Andrew volunteered to man the wheelbarrows. Away they went, with their matching clothes.
The nursery was a short, 20 minute walk. Along the coast, a few settlements popped up. There was a family that had a ramshackle restaurant, with a boombox blasting terrible music all day long. As we walked by, I wondered if there ever was a moment in history when someone actually played good music at a high volume in a public space.
The nursery consisted of several dozen small pots with mangrove saplings. Hiding in the nooks were spiders, snakes, and hundreds of hermit crabs. Graham picked up a large one. It shriveled into a ball, patiently waiting for us tourists to grow bored of her and put her back down.
The work was rewarding. The students merrily did their manual labor. Their eyes gave away their commitment.
By noon, the job was completed. Lunch was next. We had some free time to explore. I decided to venture into the forest.
The tide began to slowly recede. I walked on the soil, which was covered in 5cm of crystal water. You could see all manner of living beings either going back to the sea or heading to the river. A blue crab walked beside me. I followed him for a while. He walked north along the shore line. I kept walking looking down until I stumbled upon a grove.
The mangroves lined up in all of their glory. As they stood next to each other, the shallow water stood almost still, slowly ebbing away into the sea. The sun was at its zenith, and if you squinted, you would be hard-pressed to understand where the earth began and where the ocean ended.
A mangrove grows like an island. Its roots are almost limitless. Their arms dig into the earth, burrow in it, and resurface in tiny fingers. As time passes by, the old roots die out, and the center mass of the plant shifts towards the newer roots. Each root is a new step in its slow, slow path. They walk among us. We are just too ephemeral to see their journey.
Fortunately, not all of nature’s bounties are reserved for immortals. The forest also has many hibiscuses. In the case of this flower’s lifespan and mine, the roles are reversed.
Later in the afternoon, we headed deeper into the forest, to take measurements of the saplings the volunteers plant in many different places. Along the way, we spied a macaw.
We took several of the more mature saplings and planted them in groups. These would be supervised for many years to come.
Mangroves grow, on average, 10-14cm a year. Less than 10% of these mangroves will survive the next 3 years. I look at Zane, wondering if’s she’s thinking the same as me.
Such dismal figures matter not. Life is hard, resilient and beautiful. As he clasps his son’s hand, this father is all too familiar with the passage of time.
The roots of a mangrove can extend for an enormous distance. It covers the ground so densely it becomes the soil itself. It is impossible to get near them without stepping on their roots. Hundreds of crabs, snakes, insects, and fish live in its bosom. Rather than a plant, it is an ark for life.
Hundreds of these tiny peaks rise from the ground. They are covered in barnacles, lichen and who knows how many more bacteria and microorganisms.
Hundreds of years from now, each of these saplings will house hundreds of life forms. For now, they are tiny plants in the care of Kirsten and Victoria.
The following day, we raise earlier than usual to take the boats to Playa Colibrí, a place where we will do turtle sightseeing and, hopefully, survey and tag a few of them.
The students are anxious to see the turtles. Diego looks at the sea. He appears wiser beyond his years.
After we set the nets to catch the turtles for surveying, we have nothing to do but wait for several hours on a beautiful, isolated beach. The perils of volunteer work.
Playa Colibri is a fine example of how a beach in Costa Rica should actually look like. Nowadays, we equate beaches and palm trees to be the norm. Truth is, the African palm was imported by the Europeans into the continent, disrupting the ecosystem. The mangroves and the almond trees are the true plants of the region.
This beach is full of tiny islands like this one. It feels more like a swamp.
The edges of the beach is filled with enormous trees, their branches extending so long that they bend down towards the earth, root into the ground, and bounce back into the sky once more.
While we waited for the turtles to appear, the students enjoyed the beach to its fullest extent.
Unfortunately, nature is unpredictable. Not one turtle showed up. Their disappointment was evident.
As we came back, we found a different type of island.
We over 15 mouths to feed, Elena quickly got to work. Her kitchen is colorful pastiche of pots, pans, condiments and utensils.
Always the busy bee, Kirsten used her free time to interview Eduardo about his conservation work.
The students left their clothes to dry. With the turtle trip finished, our work here was nearly done. Tomorrow we would leave for San Jose.
As the day dwindled on, the local cats frolicked in the grass.
The next morning, we had a few hours before our return home. I woke up early to do some morning shots. The naked trees were filled with parrots, all singing at the same time.
The beach was deserted. Everybody seemed to be asleep or busy making their bags. I heard the sounds of a group swimming nearby.
It was Victoria, Camila, Kirsten and Jimena. They were enjoying their final moments in this beautiful place. Camila sat among the rocks, looking at the sky. Victoria and Kirsten were looking at the sea, looking for the turtles they couldn’t find the day before. Jimena was in a world of her own, trying to hug as much seawater as she could. I asked her if I could take her portrait. She smiled shyly. The ocean smiled back. The turtles appeared. The girls were beside themselves. So was I. The turtles kept their distance, but were close enough to make us think that Osa was saying goodbye for now.
The return home was a quiet affair. Lucile played Stardew Valley. Others read or listened to music. Zane closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. I kept looking at the students. They are slowly growing, slowly making their own path. They will exist and trace a path that I will probably not know. Just like a mangrove.
Photographs and text by Leandro Natale