I bet with all my talk of caimans and machetes, you’re thinking I’m really brave and adventurous by now. However, there are a few things that really push me outside of my comfort zone. If you read about my attempt at learning to kiteboard in Ecuador, then you know that one of those things is open water (i.e., actually being in water where you can’t feel the bottom and/or can’t be sure what’s swimming with you). Another is that I’m a wee bit claustrophobic. So, you want me to look for crocodiles from the safety of a kayak? Sure, why not. Clear some jungle with a machete while a boa constrictor looks on? Cool, I’m in. But please, oh please do not make me trek through a fetid, claustrophobic jungle and then wade through the swamp. And of course, that’s precisely what we had to do as we embarked upon another nighttime caiman excursion, this time on foot.
The center has a gate at the back of its property that I didn’t even notice until the moment that Melissa, another biologist, opened it and beckoned us forward. I fancied that it was a bit like stepping through a looking glass, for it seemed to open into another world—one that appeared to be a particularly dense bit of forest with a low canopy and vines and trees crowding in upon a narrow path. To me, the path felt so narrow that with every step forward, I imagined the trees and vines closing in behind me, forcing me deeper and deeper into the belly of the rainforest. At one point, I made the mistake of bending down to cinch my pants tighter around my ankle and my headlamp uncovered a brown recluse next to my foot. That’s another uncomortable thing: I hate spiders. Especially big ones, and this one was about 2-inches in diameter. Walking through the jungle surrounded by fetid overgrowth, spiders, and god-knows-what-else made me feel like I wanted to turn back. Only I didn’t want to go alone and I’m too damn stubborn to admit I’m uncomfortable with the whole thing.
I continued to walk on in silence and simply ignored what might be dropping onto my shoulder, or what I might be stepping on, or the bugs flying in my face, until finally the path ended and we came upon water. Now, I can cross open water as long as it’s low and I’ll think nothing of it, but it became very clear to me that we would be wading around in this stuff for more than the time it takes to get from one bank to another. And indeed, we did just that. As my feet squelched into the mud below and the water rose with every step, it took every brain cell in my possession to block out the thought of all of the living things that were swimming underneath. Not to mention the thought of water spiders…this place has every kind of spider you can imagine and the water spiders are huge. I focused so much mental energy on just putting each foot forward that I forgot that I was supposed to be searching for caiman. We continued wading over slimy rocks and in shoe-sucking mud when Melissa spotted a pair of common boas in a tree overhead (which were kind of cool, actually, but ugh…just one more thing to think about in this truly uncomfortable moment). Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we got to a part that met up with the sandy beach. Ah, land. We sloshed out and began patrolling the banks and it was then that Melissa spotted the caiman—our first up-close sighting. This one was just a baby of about 3-feet in length. He calmly hung out near the bank and contemplated us and our bright headlamps before slowly swimming away. Somehow, seeing one of these beautiful creatures up close made up for all of the discomfort I had in getting to that point. We continued searching the area for more, but he was our only sighting that evening. It was enough.
The next morning, as we headed over to the hatchery site to continue construction (a place where I can be guaranteed I’ll be attacked by my all-time favorite: fire ants), Oscar spots the familiar signs of a turtle nest. We don’t have any sterile gear with us, but if we wait for it, a poacher or predator might discover the nest, so we have to make due. Oscar quickly empties one of his bags and hands it to David while he begins digging to find the nest. Over a foot below the surface, there they are: white, perfectly round eggs with soft, flexible shells. He counts each one as he places the eggs into the bag. There are 103. When we arrive at our construction site, he digs a hole in the hatchery and transfers the eggs back into the sand. In 50 days, that’s 103 sea turtles that will have a better shot at living to become adults.
Seeing our elusive caiman, playing a small part in saving some sea turtles, even clearing some jungle so children can, one day soon, spend a day learning about rainforest conservation and plant trees in a spot that I cleared…these things make the discomfort bearable.
I’ll try to remember this the next time I feel uncomfortable…
(P.S. The morning after our nighttime caiman excursion, I opened that gate at the back of the reserve’s property to see what it was like during the day—if it really was as claustrophobic and forbidding as it seemed to me the night before. It wasn’t.)