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2000 Expedition Journals
“It Looked Good on the Map!” Northern Costa Rica (9/10/2000)
Hide and Seek with Sea Turtles
Luke opened the front hatch of my kayak and handed me my mask, snorkel, fins and ankle weights. After spiting in my mask and rinsing it to prevent fogging, I strapped it on, tied one end of the towrope to the bow of my kayak and the other one around my waist. I jumped in the water and donned my long freediving fins. The water was so murky I could not see five feet ahead of me. In the middle of the rainy season the swollen rivers discharge sediment and mud turning the ocean into a thick brown color that looks more like soup than turquoise tropical waters. I raised my head to look for the creatures that I knew surrounded me. I spotted the closest floating 60 feet to my left. I finned over and then stopped moving and held my breath to approach slowly by gliding forward with my momentum. When the two rear flippers were less than a foot ahead of me I slowly extended my arms and touched the animal. It hadn’t even noticed me. I got a hold of the shell and the sea turtle slowly swam left, turned its head toward me and stared with big round eyes, as if to ask who I was and what I was doing on its back. I kept my grip and the turtle resurfaced to breathe and swam slowly, pulling me. It was a beautiful Olive Ridley Turtle, three feet long and weighing well over a hundred pounds. My presence didn’t seem to threaten the turtle. When it dove, I was able to re-orient the turtle to make it swim back to the surface. Ridley turtles can stay underwater for up to an hour and half, but the longest I’ve held my breath freediving is two minutes. I played for five minutes with the reptile like Jacques Mayol had done with his beloved dolphins. It was like dancing, and such a unique experience that I wanted to repeat it with other partners.
I raised my head above the surface and looked around. I could see three other turtles 100 feet ahead of me. With the rope dragging my kayak behind me, I pushed on the stiff long fins. As I approached the next turtle I controlled my breathing and only moved my legs at a very slow pace. I kept my arms along my body and swam toward the tail of the turtle. I wasn’t as stealthy this time and the turtle turned around and spotted me. Instead of chasing it I stopped and stared at it. Something happened, maybe we had a magical moment of communication, for without breaking eye contact, the turtle closed the 3-foot gap and swam right toward my face. I found my eyes 10 inches from the turtle’s head. I could read great curiosity in its eyes and was able to see the details of its sharp beak. When it came close to butting its head on my mask, I remembered that the size of a turtle’s brain is insignificant and started to worry it might mistake my nose for a shrimp and I extended my hands forward to push the front flippers to the side. The turtle, perhaps offended by such a gesture, slowly dove away. I dove too and followed it for a few seconds before giving up.
When I surfaced, turtles where all around me, all I had to do was swim 30 feet to get to the next one. Some only returned to the surface to breathe for a couple of seconds before diving again. Most likely they were feeding on shrimp at the bottom. Others preferred to float and paddle lazily against the mild current.
We didn’t search long to spot this pack of turtles as they were in the same location as the day before. We had paddled our kayaks along the shoreline of the town of Ostional (Nicoya Peninsula on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast) and we found ourselves in the middle of thousands. We got so close that we could touch them and managed to play tag with them for over an hour. We would paddle up to a distance of 20 feet and then let the kayak’s momentum take us to within inches of the turtles. Some dove, but most let us pass by and touch their shells. When we touched their fins or tail however, they quickly dove. It was amazing and I regretted not having my freediving equipment on board, thus we decided to return the next day.
The little hamlet of Ostional is set on the middle of a long black sand beach with world-class surf. For its waves it may be one of the three best locations in Costa Rica but is a well-kept secret. As a nesting ground it is among the most important in the world, hosting the Americas’ largest population of Ridley turtles. There, in front of this settlement, dozens of thousands of turtles lay their eggs monthly. They come in mass once a month for a period of two to three days to lay their eggs on the beach they were born on. This event is locally referred to as the “Arivada”, or “Llegada”, which means the Arrival. I was told that anywhere from ten to three hundred thousand turtles could be coming at once. The beach becomes so crowded that for two days, one could walk up and down the beach on the backs of turtles without touching sand.
After hearing these stories and looking at a few photos as proof, I heard from locals that they were expecting the largest Arrivada of the year. We didn’t hesitate to delay our paddling of the coast to witness such a phenomenon. We were excited when locals told us we had arrived just on time as the moon was changing the next day and the turtles were already a week late. They were expected on our second night there. In the evening, we strolled the beach in the pouring rain and were happy to see two turtles laying their eggs. It was an experience I could not forget as we dug gently in the black sand behind the turtle’s tail to see the deep hole in which it laid over a hundred eggs. With its flippers it then filled up the hole and used its body weight to pack it, in order to prevent birds from easily digging it up.
The next morning we were up at four o’clock but we only saw one turtle. We were told that they would certainly come within the next two days. Thus we waited, setting our alarms to stroll the beach twice a night. Two days later we were told again that they would come within two days and the week went by without ever seeing much more than 10 turtles a night. That alone was fascinating, but deceptive, considering the massive arrival we had been promised. It was interesting to hear the theories for the late arrival from all the villagers and even the biologist. Some said they didn’t come because it had rained intensely and the swollen rivers stirred the water too much. Others thought that the sky had been too overcast. The truth, we later learned, is that nobody truly understood why the turtles didn’t come.
In Ostional villagers are very knowledgeable about the arrival, and they should be, as more than 80 percent of the village is making a living from the turtles. In the past, poachers sold as many eggs as they could and the Ridley population declined. Since 1987 biologists have been working with a cooperative that organizes villagers to protect the baby turtles, clean the beach and extract eggs only from the first wave of turtles that would otherwise be destroyed by the second wave of turtles from the same arrival. The management of the harvesting has gone well. The Ridley population is rising again in the wildlife reserve of Ostional and villagers are still able to extract hundreds of thousands of eggs monthly.
Egg sales are the mainstay of the Ostional economy. They are sold to distributors who target bakers and bars throughout the country. Eggs are served raw in a shot glass with a bit of Tabasco and sauce. One of the main buyers though is a cookie company in San Jose that believes they are crucial to making a superior product. In Ostional illegal poaching has ceased and scientists believe that the cheaper, legally harvested eggs from Ostional have captured 95 percent of the market from poachers that raid other beaches hosting turtles.
As turtles are crucial to the economy of the town, villagers take a keen interest in knowing and protecting their turtles. When there is no Arrivada, no money comes in. Their confidence that the turtles were due to come, caused us to stay longer than we planned. Yet we realized that the nesting pattern of sea turtles is not an exact schedule and after 10 days, we had to return, disappointed, to San Jose. We got out just in time, as a tropical downpour continued for four days. The rivers, usually crossed by four-wheel drive vehicles, became impassable and Ostional was sealed off.
We called daily to the owner of the guesthouse where we had stayed to know if the turtles had come. When she finally told us that hundreds could be seen in the water and that the arrival was imminent and the rivers’ levels were back to normal, we returned with hope. Indeed all the signs of an arrival were present. Each morning we saw tracks of over a hundred animals that had come during the night. Three days later we left Ostional in disappointment one more time as we had appointments with journalists and reporters in San Jose that we couldn’t miss.
We returned yet again to Ostional a couple of days later with the intent to continue paddling south along the coast of Costa Rica. We were skeptical we would see any turtles at all yet we decided to give ourselves another couple days but no more, for if we were going to stick to our plan to paddle the Peninsula of Nicoya, we couldn’t afford to waste any time. We already had our plane tickets reserved and less than three weeks before flying out of the country to document an important indigenous festival in Guatemala.
After driving 7 hours from San Jose we met our host and checked in again at the Cabinas Ostional. People were excited to tell us that the baby turtles from a prior Arrival had started hatching that same day. The next morning we woke up at 4:00 to witness the event. We were the first ones on the beach before sunrise and at first didn’t see anything. Our excitement gave way to more skepticism. As the light increased it dawned on us that baby turtles were everywhere on the beach even just at our feet. The small, gray bodies on black sand had been invisible in the pre-dawn darkness. It looked like an invasion of army ants coming out from holes separated by no more than a few feet from each other.
As soon as the day broke, the full village was out on the beach scaring away the numerous vultures and collecting the baby reptiles to carry them close to the waves. Scientists have reported that unaided, less than one percent of baby turtles make it to an adult age. For this reason the Ridleys lay an estimated 50 million eggs each season on the beach of Ostional. The first challenge for a tiny turtle is to walk the long beach to the ocean. The black sand beach of Ostional hosts a large colony of vultures that feed on eggs and baby turtles. As well, dogs, chickens and a few dozen wood storks feed on eggs during the day while coatimundies, coyotes and raccoon come digging silently at night. Little turtles are totally defenseless and if the giant shoes of some clumsy tourist crush a few, most get saved by the well-organized villagers. I usually think that it is best to let nature be and not intervene, but I agree with the biologists in this case who say that humans, particularly shrimp fisherman, kill so many turtles that a little help is necessary to maintain a healthy population. So we spent the next three days taking endless photos of thousands of little turtles struggling to get out of their nests, stumbling down the beach or being carried in buckets and finally getting washed back an forth in the violent surf.
Hatching starts a few hours before sunrise and usually continues until 8 or 9AM. All the villagers come to the beach at first light armed with plastic buckets and cardboard boxes. They drum on them with a stick to scare off most of the predators and then fill them up with babies and carry them down to the water. Vultures however always find an unguarded spot where they feed on defenseless turtles. Other predators I saw in Ostional were little crabs. So little that they can’t drag the baby turtles entirely into their hole. I saw a dead one with its small tail and rear fins in the air and its head stuck into a crab hole. When I lifted it a crab had eaten its eyes. Villagers do what they can to protect the turtles on the beach, but once into the sea, many other predators await them and only a very small percentage will make it back twenty years later to lay their eggs in Ostional.
Three days passed and the stream of baby turtles tapered off and we asked the villagers again about the Arrivada as it was already 26 days late. The first theory was that the Arrivada would probably happen as soon as the babies finished hatching. The pregnant females, not wanting to crush all the babies, were waiting before invading the beach. The explanation made sense and people told us that it had happened before, that the turtles occasionally skip a month and that what followed was usually the largest arrival of the year. Villagers, who by then had become friends, assured us that the arrival would be a sight we would never forget. How could we not stay longer? Patience, patience, patience, the most important virtue for travel in Central America, it seems is also one necessary when waiting on nature. We decided to cancel our kayak departure again, even though prior delays and problems had caused us to cancel the entire previous month’s paddling itinerary. Because of those tardy turtles we were getting soft. If we were going to wait, we were at least going to train a little to stay in shape. As we could see sunlight reflecting off of the heads and shells at the surface of the water, we decided to paddle our kayaks through the large breakers, and go look for them on the ocean.
Having seen so many turtles in the water while paddling the first day, on our second day out we took our diving gear. Once in the water with my freediving equipment, in the middle of the turtles, I felt like I was back in my element, dancing with sea turtles. It had been almost three weeks since the first day we had come to Ostional. Three weeks filled with hope and disappointment. We had been hoping to see thousands of turtles on shore, but here, swimming in the middle of such a large concentration, it was like being in a dream. They are so awkward on land and yet in water are so powerful and beautiful. As Luke got the video ready, I approached another turtle, grabbed its shell with both hands and let it tow me gently in a circle and down into shallow dives. Most turtles didn’t fight; they just played the game until they got tired of pulling a dead weight and then flapped around to signal that they wanted to be released. I spent an hour in the water swimming with them and then got back in my kayak to let Luke enjoy the moment. From my boat, I could see up to thirty heads at once. Luke however wasn’t very lucky. Each time he got close to a turtle, it dove away. He saw a few close up, but was never able to touch them or ride them. After half an hour he gave up, not understanding what was wrong with his approach. Was it his swimming or breathing technique? I told him I knew why and he laughed when I explained, “you see, when I see them I think about how beautiful they are in the water, but when you approach them, they sense that you think how delicious they would be on your plate sautéed with onions and chilies”. The gourmet chef assured me that, with the exception of lobsters, he never thought about cuisine while diving with marine life. I wondered if Luke was the one bringing bad luck to the village and keeping the turtles from coming to shore, after all they were all out there, probably just waiting for us to leave.
With patience and persistence you can accomplish anything. We can paddle the coast anytime, but most likely we will not have other opportunities to experience an invasion of nesting turtles. So for the time being we will wait.
As they seem to be afraid of Luke, we decided to leave town for a day or two to coax them in, and to call every day for a status check. We left for Playa Grande also on the Nicoya Peninsula. There between October and December the giant leatherback turtles come in small numbers of 10 to 30 each night to lay their eggs. We had read about them, but it doesn’t matter how much one reads. It is inconceivable until you actually see them that these turtles can reach over two meters in length and a ton in weight. When we saw the first turtle laying its eggs, we were speechless. Its head was much bigger than ours, its breathing sounded like a spouting whale and its size, although not quite two meters, was astounding. Its long rear fins dug a very deep hole into the sand. Its body looked gelatinous with thick layers of fat to protect the leatherback and allow it to dive to a depth of up to a mile.
Throughout my travels, I have seen many strange animals, but there for the first time I felt I was in the presence of some extra-terrestrial being. No words could do justice to this experience and photographs will not capture the breathing or the energy spent by this giant of the sea to fin its way up the beach. We wished to take photos, but more than the Ridleys in Ostional, Leatherback are sensitive to heat and light and only come to shore during the middle of the night. In Playa Grande, flash photography is strictly forbidden and I was only able to take a few shots by covering my flash with a red plastic filter. In the morning, we walked the beach and gaped at the wide tracks left by the giant turtles.
A week later we called Ostional from Manual Antonio and learned that the turtles could be seen swimming in the surf zone. We drove back just in time to experience the first day of the Arrivada. None of the stories we had heard prepared us sufficiently for the sight that met our eyes. The turtles first start coming at night, and when they start, they don’t stop. Thousands of turtles were laying their eggs on the beach and returning to the water while thousands more came out of the surf. Our local friend Louis took us for a walk on the beach. There were so many turtles they had to climb on top of each other. We helped a few which were struggling on the their backs after flipping over while trying to cross over a log or another turtle’s back. In places it was not possible to set foot between turtles without stepping on them. The invasion we had long waited for had finally come.
For over five kilometers along the beach, the sand was covered with shells and flailing flippers. The smell was strong, a mix of reptile stench and the whiff of decay from thousands of eggs, upturned and smashed by the current wave of turtles. We returned in the morning when there were less turtles, but enough light to take photos. The villagers were already at work extracting eggs. Men felt the sand for nests by pushing downwards with the heels of their feet. The women followed, digging up the holes and filling large bags with the eggs. Finally, the young men carried the large sacks to a waiting truck. The bags were thrown on top of each other without precaution. The soft eggshells can absorb shock and heavy weights. The bags were then put into storage rooms to be repacked later. Villagers extract half a million eggs in two days, less than 5 percent of the amount laid in one arrival. The biologist told me that people could easily extract four times more without any harm.
Ostional is a rare place on earth where so many turtles can be seen almost monthly. Yet we wondered why we never saw many tourists in Ostional. Even during the Arrivada, guesthouses didn’t fill up.
We rate Ostional as one of the best beaches for its incredible wildlife, its excellent surf, the kindness of its people and some of the lowest-priced, comfortable lodging in Costa Rica. Ostional is an attraction on par with the famed Volcano Arenal and Manual Antonio National Park. And when you finally do see the turtles, they won’t let you down.
Playa Grande, Nicoya Peninsula "Leatherbacks and Strip Development" (September 2000)
Ostional, Nicoya Peninsula "Pacific Waves: Deceptive Power" (October 2000)
Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos "Beauty on a Budget"
After the natural spectacles of the Nicoya peninsula further north-- massive turtle arrivals, baby turtles hatching, half-ton leatherback turtles, etc.--paddling the rest of the Pacific coast seemed anticlimactic. Between Punta Arenas and the Osa Peninsula you find many nice beaches , and scenic roads, but the whole stretch is more densely inhabited and much less intriguing.. The one exception is the famous National Park of Manual Antonio. And we had already visited it twice. So we paddled on to a place we knew was going to be more challenging, the wild and remote Osa Peninsula.
The Peninsula starts with a large river mouth and an outcropping of land, ominously called Punta Mala, “evil point”, on the map. Reading the map didn’t inspire much confidence as just a year ago I nearly drowned in a large river mouth on Costa Rica’s northern border (read “Dancing with Death.” Nicaragua journal). Yet once on the water, to my relief this river mouth did not present any difficulties.
We paddled on another 17 miles to a much more challenging river mouth emerging from a point called Punta Violin. Against the current the whole way it was a long day. Fortunately the coast was rugged and beautiful. Small patches of sand and clusters of coconut trees lay in the back of small bays encircled by jagged rock gardens and steep cliffs. The view took our mind off our fatigue.
After camping in Punta Violin, the next day we paddled along beach-lined coast stretching out further than we could see. The thick forest and virgin beach was a strong contrast with the coastline from the day before. 20 miles made it another long day and without any hope of finding a sheltered beach we finally decided that we would have to land in the big waves.
Luke went first while I waited outside of the breaking zone. He made it safely to the beach after some skillful back-paddling to avoid being surfed by two medium sized breakers. He had barely touched the sand when I looked back and saw a much larger swell than anything we had seen form behind me. I quickly paddled out worrying that it might break much farther out. It was a good decision, as the wave broke just where I had been waiting. . The following wave was even bigger, a 15-foot monster. I realized instantly that I was in trouble. I had never been out in waves its size before. Shaped like a mountain, it rose quickly as it approached me. My body was charged with adrenaline and I had only one thought, that not making it up that wall of water would mean the end. Just as the wave was about to break, I pushed as hard as I could on my paddle and let out a scream of rage and fear. My kayak climbed up the face of the wave until it was almost entirely vertical. I could see the crest foaming above my head and I closed my eyes thinking, “there’s no way I make it out.”
When you think you are facing death often strange things come to mind, yet this time it was blank. I could think of nothing but the wave and my kayak. I felt the boat airborne, opened my eyes and realized that only my rudder was still touching the water as the crest passed under me. The wave pitched the boat down its steep backside and roared toward the beach. I barely made it and kept paddling furiously out. My heart pounded; not from exertion but from fear.
I looked at the ocean nervously and wondered if I’d be able to land at all. . I’d have to time my landing well. The problem was that it was a long breaking zone with waves of different size reforming and re-breaking constantly and in different places.. Luke got lucky with a long, fairly calm set. I decided to not take any risks and waited to start paddling until right after the next big set.. A couple of minutes later a large set came, too big to be manageable. This set was followed by two huge waves. I decided that I had to go in right after the second one. I started paddling hard and looked back and to my horror I was in the middle of another large set. I quickly backpaddled and when the set passed me I quickly moved forward. I first surfed a medium size wave to the left without any trouble.. I caught another wave and surfed to the right. Its speed died leaving me broadside and I only had a few seconds to straighten my kayak. A look back over my left shoulder revealed a small wave starting to lift my kayak. Nothing to worry about. Then I looked to the right and realized that another bigger wave was coming in at an angle. The two merged together right behind me, I surfed the curl to the right and leaned in to brace with all my body weight on the paddle. . The wave collapsed into a half tube and the power of the water forced my hands into a high brace. The tube closed on me and there was nothing I could do to prevent capsizing.
The wave took me for a washing machine ride and I felt a snap on my left shoulder as I bailed out. Only two things came to my mind. I had to keep a strong grip on my paddle in my left hand, and I had to grab my kayak with the other. Holding the paddle is easy. I didn’t worry about it. I wasn’t able to hold on to the kayak. Once in the water my spray skirt and life jacked made my body act like a drogue, a sea anchor, buoyant but stationary. The kayak even full of water, was easily carried away by the surf. I swam after it still holding my paddle.
Wave after wave passed over my head. The paddle caught each time dragging me closer to the beach. Suddenly my body froze. I couldn’t swim anymore, I could barely move. I had trouble breathing and didn’t understand what was happening to me. When Luke saw I wasn’t swimming anymore he ran to the water. In waist deep water he held on to my kayak and pulled me out. I wasn’t able to stand. I grabbed on the kayak and let myself float while Luke pulled. I collapsed in on the beach with the waves riding up the wet sand underneath me, my head in the water.
After pulling the kayak out, Luke helped me up. I moved my left arm and felt a sharp pain through my chest, shoulder and biceps. The repeated yanking from the paddle in the surf and the wrenching from the capsize pulled my muscles and sprained my wrist. I also twisted my lower back and neck. Luke brought me some drinking water and ibuprofen and asked, “How are you brother? You look much better. When I pulled you out, your face was so white I was worried you would pass-out.”
I had already swallowed so much seawater that the fresh water tasted salty. Nauseated and exhausted, I laid down in the shade while Luke carried our gear.
After catching my breath, I examined our situation. I was alive and not too seriously injured. Had I been slower making it out on the monster set I would probably be in much worst condition. Yet I had injured myself and was clearly unable to paddle for a while. We were on a beach in the middle of the Osa Peninsula with no road access. No boats could ever land on the beach to evacuate us either. There were almost no breaks between the waves. We needed to be evacuated from the peninsula, but didn’t have many options. I could handle the pain. We had enough painkillers to tranquilize an elephant for a month, but I was not going to paddle out of there. Things could have been worse, but not much.
The Peninsula de Osa is the most remote and inaccessible stretch of coast of Costa Rica. A large part of this peninsula is protected land that is part of a national park called Corcovado. The map revealed that the closest dirt road was 15 nautical miles away as the bird flies. A symbol signifying a house looked to be about 5 miles from our location. It was too late in the day to attempt anything, so Luke set camp while I strapped my left arm to my body and rested.
After dinner, we closed ourselves in our tent to escape from the bugs. Luke as usual fell asleep in a mater of minutes. Racked with pain and uncomfortable in such confined space, I tossed and turned all night. Large crabs starting digging deep holes all around us and under our tent. We could hear the clicking sound of dozens of small hermit crabs crawling through all our cooking gear. And in the morning we found the nozzles of our water bottles chewed as if a puppy had done it. We blamed crabs for it. With all the holes they dug, our camp looked like a minefield. I got up and tried to pull my shirt over my head and a sharp pain reminded me that I was incapacitated. There was no way I could paddle flat water, let along going out through the breakers.
While Luke prepared some oatmeal, I studied the map. A dotted line indicated that there might be a trail paralleling the beach leading all the way to the house marked on the map. We looked for it but to our eyes there was no sign that man had ever passed through.
We figured that we could always walk out, but perhaps not with two kayaks fully loaded with 300 Lbs of gear. Even perfectly healthy, we could not carry our equipment more than a few feet. We decided that our best option was to try and reach the house marked on the map. In the middle of the national park, it probably was an official ranger station. During high tide with a strong shore break, we could not pull our kayaks in the water. We waited for low tide when the beach is a little flatter and the waves break further away. The idea was to drag our loaded kayaks in thigh-deep water, normally an easy task in small waves. However the waves were too powerful, and flipped our boats upside down numerous times, and with only one arm to drag the kayak it proved impossible. I was suffering so badly that I felt nauseated. After an hour of frustration we covered less than a mile. Totally exhausted, we stopped and brainstormed to find an alternative.
We lifted the boats past the high-tide mark and tied them to coconut trees. After marking their positions in our GPS, we grabbed our water bottles and walked on the beach. Our thighs were already tired and the exposure to the mid-day tropical heat took its toll on us.
On our right side, the constant roar of the waves mocked us. On the other side, sea eagles and red macaws reminded us that we were in the middle of a seldom-visited section of the park.. Two hours of walking on the sand took us to a narrow path through thick forest leading to the ranger station.. Our hopes of driving in and out died. Two rocky points separated us from the beach leading out to the road on the other side. We would have to paddle. The station turned out to be a jungle lodge run by the national park. We inquired about evacuation options with one of the park rangers.
“The only way out is by plane or by foot,” he said. “Sometimes small boats come here (the river entrance next to the lodge is sheltered from big waves), but we never know when. But most boats have passengers and would not be able to carry your kayaks. The only solution would be to charter a helicopter.
I asked Luke what he thought of that solution. Too expensive he replied.
“I will paddle both boats the 5 miles to the station tomorrow. The next day I will make one paddling trip out to the road at the park entrance with one kayak, walk back and make another trip with the second kayak the day after.”
The park ranger interrupted saying it was not possible for us to kayak this coast. People have come here with kayaks before, but nobody can come out of the waves here. They are too big. The foreigners who tried before had to charter a special boat to evacuate them with their gear. You won’t be able to paddle out to sea. I turned to Luke and asked again, “are you sure you feel alright paddling alone here?” He replied that he did.
“At low tide when the waves break further away, they aren’t as large and I can time it. The landing and launching from this small river mouth here is a little sheltered and will be no problem. My only challenge will be to get out from our camp. I can do it, I feel it.”
After filling up our water bottles, we started the long walk back. My cheap sandals had begun to disintegrate making the heels of my feet raw. The steep beach forced to walk with one leg constantly higher than the other. The skin that wee left exposed to the sun, our legs, and faces, burnt in the angular light of the afternoon. When we crossed path with the red-macaws again, they circled above our heads screaming, “We told ya so. . .!”
I asked Luke, “Are you having fun?”
“No, I’m getting fed up.”
“So am I,” I replied.
I imagined what our friends probably think, that we are in a tropical paradise, kayaking and enjoying life. The truth is that sometimes working nine to five in an office, having a hot shower and a good bed to sleep on is like a dream vacation to us. Overall our expedition has been very positive. With the exception of our hellish month in Nicaragua fighting storms, malaria, dysentery, and bandits, we are still happy to have paddled Central America. But as time passes, the toughest things become the everyday details. Small things that didn’t bother us when we started annoy us now more and more. The constant tropical heat and sweat. Sleeping in the stagnant sauna-like air of a small tent, , the bloodthirsty insects, the food crunchy with sand and having to lay out on a lumpy air mat to catch a few fleeting winks of sleep, the tedious and bland food in Central America, the constant worries of getting robbed, the machismo bus drivers with a death-wish, the corrupt officials and police officers. Month after month, after three years, everything takes its toll. At the end when things go wrong, it really makes you wonder. Does it still make sense or are we just doing this to finish it?
Our conversation was interrupted when we arrived back at our campsite. . I was stunned to see a 6-foot crocodile sunbathing on the beach just in front of our boats. Luke was not paying attention and didn’t see it when it dashed into the waves. To make him a believer I had to show him the clean footprints and tail marks on the sand. Salt-water crocs have a bad reputation in Costa Rica and we hoped not to meet a bigger one.
We set up camp and after another heavy dosage of painkillers; I tried to sleep in our mini-sauna on my sandy-sheets. The astringent stench of sweat, salty wet towels and the mildew from the tent was horrible. I lay in bed thinking about our situation. Only fifteen miles separated us from the road. Walking out was an option. Leaving $20,000 dollars of equipment was not. We were trapped on the Osa Peninsula.
We woke up to the roar of the ocean. The tide was high at 5 AM. Three shore breaks in a row piled up one after the other lifting a sandy wall of foam ten feet high. When the curl collapsed the explosion was astonishing. The resulting surge of bubbling water climbed the steep beach almost up to our camp. Luke tried to go for a swim; he could not even get close to the water’s edge. We knew it was impossible to go out during high tide. We waited until 8:30 AM, loaded Luke’s boat and sat on the beach for 30 minutes to look at the wave patterns. Sets of huge waves were separated by sets of ones only slightly smaller. Occasionally there was a calm period lasting for less than thirty seconds. It was not enough time to pass through a 600 yards breaking zone. I asked Luke again, “are you sure about this?” He replied, “yes, I can time it, I can do it.” I worried. They were among the biggest waves we had ever paddled through.. They reminded me an occasion in Honduras where Luke was not able to get out. The wave here seemed taller than in Honduras, but they didn’t have as much velocity.
Luke sat down in his kayak, closed his spray skirt and sent me the go signal. I pushed him out and saw him going effortlessly through the first six waves. He then reached the middle section of the breaking zone where they were breaking strongly. He took his time, back paddling to avoid getting caught in breaking surf and passing one monster after another. I saw him lose balance to one side, brace quickly and paddle forward out of it. The same situation happened numerous times from one side to the other. One wave almost surfed him backward and he was able to re-initiate some forward momentum while half of his boat was still in the foam. There was no pause between the waves, and there was no break between the sets. The more the ocean threw at him, the more he demonstrated his skills, power and determination to make it out.
I stood on the beach following his progress, sometimes screaming encouragement he couldn’t hear, sometimes yelling at the ocean for not giving him any break. Where were the calm zones between sets we had seen before? He had none. He was in a constant struggle. When I thought he had finally made it outside of the breaking zone, a huge rogue set came in and threw him so high in the air that only his rudder remained in the water.
I was worried and felt totally helpless. Luke was fighting a wild ocean and I couldn’t be with him. I could not even swim out to assist him if he capsized. After ten long minutes of strenuous effort Luke managed to make it out. I then realized how much his kayaking skills had improved in the last three years. Luke has become a master in launching and landing in high surf. As he disappeared on the horizon line, I felt proud of my expedition partner. Words do little justice to the challenge of fighting such rough breakers to get out to sea. It takes not only great skills and power, but also courage. Luke has it all. I was even more impressed when I saw him jogging back on the beach less than two and half hours later.
The plan was for him to paddle both kayaks one at a time to the small river mouth located a ten-minute walk from the ranger station of the National Park. From there we would try to arrange an evacuation on a tourist boat, if not Luke would have to paddle the two kayaks 13 miles out to the park entrance with road access.
By the time he returned, I had packed camp, loaded my boat and towed it down the bank. . There were no easy-launch beaches around, so I pulled all the gear up to the calmest launching zone I could find. The tide was much lower and the waves were breaking even much further out.
As Luke took a quick break, we saw a man riding a bicycle down the beach. That alone was an unusual sight but when the man finally spotted us he stopped, dismounted his bike and put on a pair of shorts, wee looked at each other laughing. In the middle of nowhere on this beach where we think we’re stranded, a naked guy rides up on a bicycle? It turned out that the man was the head ranger of the Sirena Ranger Station Lodge that we had visited the day before. Worried, he came to see if we were all right. He had a hard time imagining how we could get out in such surf. After lifting one end of my kayak, he understood that carrying was not an option. The man was shocked to learn that our second kayak was already down on the bank of the Sirena River. The ranger told us that there was a motorboat in Sirena and that we might be able to catch a ride. Regardless, we would have to take the second kayak there. We told him we’d arrive around 1PM and with that he rode off to notify the boat captain.
A few minutes later, I pushed Luke in the water for his second launch. His struggle against the surf was a replay of the morning. Large waves launched him in the air, he braced from side to side as walls of foam slammed him in the face and passed over him. He gained ground little by little. Every foot counts and after a couple of minutes, it was heartbreaking to see a large wave set him back close to shore. I could feel his exhaustion, I could sense his frustration, but he never gave up.
At one point Luke looked so small that I assumed he must be out of the breaking zone, but yet again a set, much larger than any other, reared up and took him out. He had no chance; the ocean won the battle. I followed Luke and the kayak with my eyes. I was thinking loudly, “swim to the kayak, stay with the kayak!” The waves were too big; the kayak was already too far from Luke. He was far from shore and with the size of the waves, I often lost sight of him for a few seconds. It made me nervous. The kayak was easier to follow and had started to drift sideways with the current. “Never mind the kayak,” I told myself, “I can’t lose sight of Luke.”
Floating on his back with the lifejacket, he was using the paddle to stroke his way back to shore. He only turned back on his stomach to catch the surf. When he finally stood up in chest deep water and sent me an OK sign, I went for the kayak. A strong rip tide pulled me out and I quickly dove in the surf to make it back the beach. With no life jacket and one injured arm, I couldn’t reach the boat and it continued to drift sideways. Finally a large wave pushed it close enough for me to grab it. Fortunately the hatches were closed and the $10.000 of photo equipment remained safely inside the pelican cases.
We looked at the ocean. There were no pauses between sets. It looked furious out in the breaking zone. Paddling out was no longer an option. Our next idea was for Luke to paddle through the wash just next to the beach. It worked for half hour, during which Luke had to brace stroke every few seconds. He still moved faster than I walked. We progressed a couple miles but the tide was already coming back up, the beach became steeper and breaking waves began dumping right on shore. It became impossible for Luke to keep the kayak upright. After numerous capsizes in shallow water, we pulled the boat back on dry sand.
From where we were, a mangrove canal ran parallel to the beach on the other side of the dune. On the map it seemed to go as far as the Sirena River, our destination. With the rope around my one good shoulder and strapped over my chest, I pulled the kayak while Luke pushed from the rear. From the top of the dune, we had to plow through a field of shoulder-high elephant grass. It took a big effort to reach the canal. I left Luke with the kayak, and returned to the beach to walk toward the river mouth.
When I arrived, I looked around and Luke wasn’t there. I started wading up the murky river bordered with mangrove. I did not understand why Luke wasn’t there. He should have moved much faster than me. I continued up through the mangrove to look for the canal’s entrance into the river. When I was thigh-deep in the murky water, I noticed a log moving toward me. It was going against the current. A better looked revealed it to be a crocodile. Man with technology is on top of the food chain. Man alone can be prey. The croc we spotted the day before quickly fled. This one, which I estimated to be eight feet long continued to move slowly toward me. I quickly changed direction and got out of the water. There were in fact a dozen crocodiles in this river mouth and I decided to walk back on the beach..
I walked back toward the dune and looked for the canal and Luke. I started to worry and create scenarios like him getting stuck on a log, stepping out of his kayak in the river to pull it over and encountering a large croc. When the mangrove gave way to fields of elephant grass, I realized that the canal Luke had started paddling didn’t reach the river. I spotted him two hundred meters off walking towards me. We had to return a mile back to get the kayak out of the river and pull it through the elephant grass back to the ocean-side of the dune. Luckily, we had reached a flatter beach and the waves weren’t as powerful. Luke was able to paddle the kayak into the wash near shore up to the beach just before the river mouth. When he stepped out of his kayak into knee-deep water, he exclaimed, “damn, there is a croc here too!”
It had been a tough day. Luke was exhausted and I was in pain, but we had made it to Sirena. I left our hero to cook himself some food and crossed the river to walk to the lodge. It was 5 PM, and the boat was long gone. The head ranger told me that the boat was loaded with tourists and could not have transported our kayaks anyway. He also told me that we should be careful camping next to the river mouth. Although they have never had any fatalities here, this specific species of crocodile, the acoutus, is the only dangerous one in Costa Rica. Salt-water crocs have killed people in other areas.
After days camping, the $6 bunk bed, and showers suddenly seemed like such affordable luxury. We hid the kayaks in the woods, unloaded our important gear and carried it to the lodge. The boat evacuation was no longer an option and Luke needed to take a day rest in the lodge before working on our second exit plan.
The Sirena lodge is beautifully located. During our stay we were visited by three species of monkeys, the amazingly agile spider monkeys, the noisy howlers and the small squirrel monkeys. We witnessed a group of 30 peccary--small wild boars--cross the airfield. Colored macaws flew over our heads at sunset. It’s no wonder the lodge attracts a good stream of visitors. We spent some time meeting the 20-or-so backpackers visiting the park.
Luck smiled on us when we met a group of four couples traveling together. Two in the group, Morten and his girlfriend Tatum from South Africa, were both white-water rafting and kayaking guides and had a lot of experience paddling in the surf of South Africa. I asked Morten if he would paddle my kayak to the park entrance with Luke. He was actually pleased to switch places and leave me his backpack to carry.
After our rest day, we launched Luke and Morten from the river mouth. Fortunately there was no sign of the seven bull sharks we had spotted the evening before and mercifully the waves were small and manageable. The rest of the group made the 20 K walk through soft sandy beach and thickly-forested trail. For a day Morten figuratively put himself into my shoes while I literally put myself into his. I had to borrow his hiking boots as my sandals were dead.
Thanks to Luke and Morten, my gear and I made it out of the Osa Peninsula, thus finishing our paddle of Costa Rica. We have returned to Panama where we only have a small stretch of coast to finish paddling later this year. Now is time for my arm to heal, and for us to rest our bodies while catching up on computer, writing and photo-editing work awaiting us.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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