As dusk approaches later the same day, we ready some kayaks to paddle them up a short length of the Tortuga river where Oscar knows there are caiman.
Caiman is a type of crocodile that is recognizable for its smaller size and the distinctive bony structure of its forehead. It has become endangered due to habitat destruction and poaching for its meat, skin, and eggs. At this stage of RPT’s caiman monitoring project, the biologists are attempting to count the number they encounter, log it via GPS, and then extrapolate from this an estimate of the number of caiman in the reserve. After they’ve done this, they can try to obtain funding to embark upon a larger effort to capture and tag the reptiles so they can monitor them long term. Although it’s doubtful they would use volunteers for that dangerous work, I’m still glad we’re here when they are merely trying to obtain a count. There’s something surreal about the whole idea of looking for crocodiles. It’s an activity that runs counter to our natural instincts; after all, evolution is a very useful thing, and I don’t think it took long for humans to realize that one simply should not go looking for crocodiles. On the other hand, it is precisely for this reason that the activity is so exciting.The put-in for the kayaks is on a nearby beach. The mouth of the Tortuga river empties into the ocean and there is a great confluence of waves and opposing currents in that spot. David and I get into a tandem kayak—I’m glad we’re going tandem because in order to get to the river, we have to go through the strong surf on the beach and he is more experienced with ocean kayaking than I. As we paddle toward the Tortuga, we have a bit of fun catching a wave and getting splashed in the process.
After maneuvering through the waves, we get to the mouth of the river and paddle to a spot that has a heavy canopy of forest growing right through the river. The canopy is so dense that we have to use our paddles to push aside leaves and branches to make our way through. We slowly make our way to a spot where we can wait until darkness is fully upon us. We need it to be dark so when our headlamps shine into the light of the caiman’s eyes, we will recognize the reflection (this is our best chance at spotting them). As we sit and wait in our boats listening to the sounds of the forest, daylight quickly wanes. Lightning flashes on the horizon, punctuated by the occasional roll of thunder. A warm sprinkle of rain begins to fall.
Once it is fully dark, we turn on our headlamps and head back through the canopy. The lights attract a plethora of bugs, so David and I don our head netting. We slowly paddle and shine our headlamps on each side of the bank to see if we can catch a glimpse of the tell-tale reflection from the caiman’s eyes. I shine my headlamp on the left bank and see a small round flash in return. Oscar has already seen it and is paddling to its location to catch a glimpse. That was the first caiman.
Two more sightings follow before we eventually turn back to call it a night. On the beach, another volunteer spots a snake. Oscar picks it up for inspection. It’s small with big eyes and rust-colored banding—what the locals a “cat-eyed” snake due to its large, cat-like eyes. It’s mildly venomous and very strong for its diminutive size, which it demonstrates for us by wrapping tightly around our fingers.
We pack up our kayaks to the nearly deafening sound of cicadas and numerous species of croaking frogs. The croak from a particularly large toad sounds like a bleating goat. The rainforest pulsates with life around us and we all feel satisfied with the completion of a successful mission.