The Music of the Jungle

Posted on January 7 2015 in Costa Rica

This place is alive with sound. Indeed, I heard its music before I ever set foot on land. As the boat carried me an hour through the mangroves along the Sierpe River and across the width of Drake Bay to our cove, we hit a wall of sound so dense that it reached us while we were still 100 yards or more off shore. It vibrated from the rainforest that grips the mountains here and extends down to the very edge of the sand.

At first, all I was aware of was the scream of millions of cicadas, but as my ears adjusted, I could hear many other creatures in the cacophony: the raspings of red-masked parrots and the door-hinge squeaks of yellow-billed toucans and the scoldings of white-faced capuchins. Underneath it all lay the slap and shush of the waves, into which I stepped directly from the boat – there is no dock here – receiving my first baptism in these warm and salty waters.

It is never completely silent. Even in the deepest of night, the geckos click and the insects sing.

Yet, it is the quiet things I love in Costa Rica. You would think it would be the Scarlet Macaws gliding over the trees, squawking to each other brightly as their red, blue and yellow plumage flashes in the sun, or the Howler Monkeys that wake me at the first humid shimmer of dawn with the guttural, resonate alarm that earns them their name.

The constant symphony contains grace-notes of silence, however. They are, in their own way, just as loud: the slow beat of the iridescent blue wings of the Morpho butterfly as it lifts and sinks its way through the jungle every morning, or the absolute tranquility of a soft-skinned, pale-green lizard, eyes closed and arms lying close to its sides, asleep on the spine of the foot-long leaf I pull down for closer inspection. My soundless friends the pelicans are here too, gliding in squadrons above the trees, passing in silent synchronicity, their shadows on the broad leaves of the forest floor moving as quietly as the birds themselves.

The orchestra resides under the water as well. When we are out taking data, we often drop a hydrophone beneath the boat and listen to the dolphins and whales. In these breeding grounds, the humpback whales sing songs of love in their local dialects and change the melody from year to year, the better to attract a mate, and the dolphins chatter with one another. Each, apparently, has its own name – a particular series of tones it is given at birth and by which the other dolphins address it.

As haunting as those mysterious melodies are, it again is the quiet creature that catches my attention: the gentle sea turtle. We see them rarely, and always alone. I met a man who collected data here eight years ago. Back then, he had to use a clicker to count the hundreds they would see in a day. Now we see one or two, sometimes none.

Despite good laws and heroic conservation efforts, the commercial fishing industry continues to do its damage. Even in the short time I have been in Costa Rica, I have witnessed shrimp trawlers pulling up their huge nets filled with twenty pounds of by-catch for every one pound of shrimp, the required turtle-escape devices glaringly absent. Our boat has crossed the long-line of a ship ten or twelve miles distant, the baited hooks directly in the path of a pod of hundreds of dolphins. We have seen bloated and decaying sailfish floating on the water, the victims of “catch and release” sport fishing, too tired after their epic struggles for freedom from rod and reel to survive.

All this I have seen well within the currently protected waters off of Cano Island Biological Reserve and Corcovado National Park. It is unclear whether it is a true lack of funding or a lack of political will that has resulted in this lax enforcement, but it makes me question the work we are doing. Wouldn’t enforcement of the existing laws be better than the expanded jurisdiction of a Marine Protected Area, if the new law was going to be similarly ignored? It is another thing I hope to learn.

On our last voyage, we came upon a young, female Olive Ridley sea turtle floating languidly under a tiny sprig of kelp thinking she was hidden, like Charlie Brown’s round head sticking out from behind a skinny tree. She lifted up her wizened face at our approach, but she did not dive. We took it as an invitation, and one by one got in the water and swam up to her for a closer look. When it was my turn, after making eye contact, I reached over and ran my hand down her shell. She put her head down and slowly sank. I thought I had disturbed her, but she wasn’t moving away from me, just sinking. Then, with a gentle push of her flippers, she propelled herself forward and touched my thigh with her beak, then rose to the surface directly in front of me. I reached over again, this time passing my hand along her shell and onto her tough but silky front flipper. Again she lowered her head, sank, touched my thigh, and returned to the surface. I do not know exactly what I saw in her eyes when her gaze met mine for the third time; I only know what I felt: love.

That afternoon on our way home, we pulled the boat onto the beach in town for a quick run up the dusty road to the store. A little girl, maybe three years old and tiny for her age, was playing in the placid water with her older sister. When she saw me with Harper, the new research intern, she lifted her head, her curly black hair neatly tied back in the Costa Rican manner, and came toddling toward us with black eyes shining. She raised her tiny hand in greeting, calling “Hola! Hola! Hola!” When she came close enough, I put out my index finger, which she unhesitatingly grabbed, and I said “Hola, bella. Mucho gusto.” She placed her other precious hand on my thigh to steady herself, right where the turtle had touched me. Impulsively, I lent down and kissed the top of her head, sharing the love I felt for that beautiful little creature of the sea with that beautiful little creature of the land.







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