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A whale of a time in the Osa Peninsula

January 8, 2011

Drake Bay: This picture-perfect bay carved out of Costa Rica’s southern Osa Peninsular is little changed since Sir Francis chose it as a mooring spot for the Golden Hind in the 16th century. The English navigator, hero, privateer (or pirate, if you happen to be Spanish), and slaver used the sandy Pacific cove to repair his ship and, so rumour has it, bury some of his booty. Spanish pieces of eight are still occasionally washed up in the tides.

Bahía Drake

We’re seeking treasure of a different kind: this corner of a country (that’s just two-thirds the size of Scotland) is perhaps the world’s most biodiverse wilderness, home to 140 species of mammal alone. Hilly, tectonically active, densely forested and sliced by fast flowing rivers and waterfalls, neighbouring Corcovado (which means ‘hunchback’ in Portuguese?) is Central America’s last significant tract of moist tropical rainforest. Its remoteness has saved it from the rest of the coast’s fate – deforestation, coupled with a gold rush, did not get started until the mid-1960s, by which time environmental lobbyists were adequately organised to protect it. Corcovado was made a national park in 1975.

A type of wild turkey

We stay in overpriced but prettily located timber shacks on the hillside overlooking the bay. The waves lap so ferociously at the shore that we can hear the growl and shush of their pebble brushing from our rooms, some 200-metres above. The view is of sky and birds: above, a slow spiral of circling vultures, the horizon is beaded with a chain of fly-by pelicans and flittering close at hand are dozens of hummingbirds and butterflies.

The hanging bridge

A slow walk along the mustard beach, which is busy with hermit crabs, brings us to a swinging chain bridge crossing a river that’s swimming with crocodiles. Older tourists kayak down it, while young half-naked Americans bristling with tasty muscles backflip fearlessly into it from the bridge.

Iguana sunbathing in a tree

We wake early and board a speedboat around the headland and into the ocean. The little fibreglass craft is battered by high waves and we are thrown out of our seats and brought hard back down with each rise and fall of seawater. It’s exhilarating, but I’m privately glad I had a light breakfast.

Poisonous sea snake

We’re looking for dolphins and there are many false calls – fish hunting and fish jumping out of the water to avoid being hunted. A striped, yellow and black, poisonous sea-snake swims impossibly across the mercurial water surface. We don’t have to look for long before we spot the arch and leap of a small pod of playful dolphins.

Dolphins!

Playing

They stayed near us for at least half an hour

Our boat stops while they circle us curiously, flying below and around us, chasing each other, jumping above the waves and slapping the water with their tails. At one point, a particular show-off shoots vertically up in a high twist before flipping down.

Tell me they're not kissing

Buoyed by the water show, we continue on towards Caño Island biological reserve, around 20 kilometres off the mainland. We’re halfway there, when our guide, a marine biologist, shouts: “Whale!” To our left, like a flag representing the planet’s massive, deepwater marine mammals, is the unmistakeable fin of a humpback whale. It’s followed by the thar-she-blows volcanic spurt of expelled breath and then a breach of the mighty animal fully arching out of the water before plunging below. It flips up its tail in a wave goodbye.

Wow! A baby humpback breaching in front of us

We watch mesmerised as it and its two companions appear and disappear at regularly spaced intervals – 7 minutes dive time, followed by 3 minutes emergence. Eventually, we leave the awesome spectacle and make it to Caño.

Goodbye.

We picnic on the beach, where I am the unfortunate victim of surprise mugging by a massive raptor, which swoops in and steals a bun off my plate. Disgusted with its loot – did the bird think it was a meat pie? – it soon drops my roll on the sand, while I scurry back under canopy cover to save the rest of my lunch.

The bird wot took my bun

The island is newly formed and lacks the rich biodiversity of Corcovado – there isn’t even a monkey – so in the afternoon, we investigate the waters instead, going snorkelling around the coast. We’ve barely broken the surface when we spot the biggest fish I’ve seen in my life (outside of a shark): a grouper that’s at least 2 metres long, hovering in shallow waters a few metres offshore. We swim over and around it, while it remains placidly lying there, being cleaned by small yellow fish.

Native gecko

We drag our goggle-eyes away from it in time to see a massive fly-past of hundreds of rays, fluttering by like tessellations in an Escher drawing. We find an enormous stingray, half buried in the sandy bottom, and then a beautiful tornado of flashing silver jacks.

By the time we reboard our boat to head back to the bay, I’m exhausted by the wowness of it all. The wonders continue…

Massive moth hanging outside my parents' room. (My camera has a scratch on the lens)

Next day, we rise even earlier, at 5am, for a 90 minute boat ride into the heart of the Corcovado. A night-long rainstorm continues to drench us into the morning and we’re soaked by the time we step onto the wild sandy beach at the other end. Once under the broad leaves of primary rainforest, we begin to dry off, searching eagerly in the canopy for similarly drenched mammals.

Hermit crab cluster

Before long, we’ve spotted a troop of tiny squeaky squirrel monkeys, lacing in and out of the vines in that strange compulsion animals have to never divert from the path made by the one in front. We find howler monkeys next – a group of mothers and babies drying out as the sky gradually blues. Then spider monkeys – brown here and quite different from the black, South American species we saw in the Amazon. We watch them for a while, transfixed.

Spider monkey

Following a trail through the forest to a small cove, our guide finds us something truly special: a tapir. He – we know it’s a he, because of his very large penis (tapir’s have one of the longest penises of any animal) – is lying in between the mangroves on a comfy bed of fallen leaves. He raises his head, with that peculiar trunk-like prehensile nose, to look at us. Then flops back down. With a powerful yawn, he shuts his eyes and before long, we hear an undeniable snore!

Sleepy tapir

Tapirs have three toes

... and a long penis

The rest of our trek, I’m in an awestruck daze. We pass three enormous crocodiles sunbathing on the opposite (thankfully) bank of a river – I barely note them. We find a lovely three-toed sloth – I hardly crane my neck up.

Crocodile

Then, outside the park’s Sirena research station, on a tiny grass airstrip, we find a huddle of sleeping peccaries, looking just like luggage, just yards from a 2-prop plane – I register them. But nothing can beat the (Baird’s) tapir.

Peccaries by the Sirena research station

Nick and my dad outside the research station

We return to Drake Bay for an hour’s sleep, before we set off again for a nightwalk with Tracie ‘the Bug Lady’. We’re all tired and more than satisfied with our day’s coup, so my mother considers skipping the nightwalk for her bed: “I’m not that fussed about seeing insects.” I persuade her to come along, although I have my doubts – after so many amazing sights, surely anything else will be an anticlimax?

Smoky frog - the largest frog

We trudge to the meeting spot in the pouring rain and pitch black. My torch dies before we’ve left the hostel and we’re all stumbling with tiredness. But Tracie turns out to be a captivating entomologist, incredibly knowledgable and full of extraordinary stories about her tiny subjects. From the dripping, jungle path – “careful of snakes, we’ve seen two fer de lance here this week” – she conjures bright yellow tree snakes, enormous smoky frogs, tailless whip scorpions, deadly beetles, spiders, glow-in-the-dark fungus and even a sleeping sloth high in the tree.

Beetle with a smile on its back

Snake - it's sleeping now; only active in the day

My favourite is a seemingly undisturbed patch of mossy verge, which she gently taps with a twig to reveal the perfectly hewn door of a trapdoor spider. He leaves it open for a short time and then, suddenly slams it shut with the impatience of a man bothered by door-to-door salesmen.

A tailless whip scorpion on my face.

It’s nearly midnight by the time we reach our beds after an incredible day. Our final day in Drake Bay, we spend trying to find some of the animals Tracie showed us. We look for snakes, frogs and bats but our blind without our guide. Finally, my mother finds a massive scary arachnid in his cave – it’s the Bolivian wandering spider whose toxic delivery Tracie described so vividly. We leave it alone.

Even the trees are armoured in Corcovado

Corcovado is a special place not just for Costa Rica but for the world. Yet, as with ‘protected’ national parks across the world, this one too is threatened by logging, agriculture, illegal trade in animals, shark finning, pollution and the steady ingress of roads. I don’t believe that national parks should be closed to people – the opposite, in fact. But I know that we are just 4 of the increasing numbers of visitors to this precious wilderness. I hope that now, in the 21st century, in a relatively developed nation, this popularity doesn’t mean more pollution and damage, but rather, an increased value being placed on the wildlife we’ve all come to see.

Sunset over Drake Bay

As with all good things, my parents’ holiday too comes to an end. They fly out of Costa Rica, and we will make our way north to Nicaragua.

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