LAST Week Three: Whale Watching and the Blue Flag

For most of this week, we haven’t had any volunteers, which is an interesting change of pace but in some ways a necessary one to catch up after a hectic first fortnight. I’ve enjoyed having time and space to sort myself out and get to grips with things better, but am now feeling ready to welcome the next volunteer who is arriving in a few days. 

We started with one volunteer, and on her last day we were out on ocean day. We had two turtles during the day, a male and female hawksbill that arrived at the same time (their attitudes led us to speculate we might have been interrupting something). As we sat on the beach waiting through the day, we could see two humpback whales going by in the distance. This was one of those moments where you really sit back and realise where you are and how incredible it is, which can get lost sometimes. Then at the end of the day, as we were pulling up the nets, two more turtles got caught in them! These were two more hawksbills. One was tiny and we worked it right there on the boat and released it again, while the other was bigger and had to be taken back to shore. It was all a bit chaotic, but exciting and good fun.

That night we went out for dinner (yes you can go out to dinner in Playa Blanca, right next door at the restaurant/bar that plays its music far too loud for the three occupants) and had some great ceviche and a couple too many beers.

The next morning, volunteer-less, the biologist needed to catch up on admin that has been lagging behind, so we all went by bus to Puerto Jiminez to use wifi. Since this was meant to be a work trip of sorts I did some job seeking (no joy) and added photos to my first couple of blogs, but that still gave me plenty of time to catch up with people and connect to the world. In the afternoon we gave the house a serious clean, which was disgusting but necessary. So we had sort of a half a day off, although nicely it wasn’t counted as one.

The next day we finally had time to learn how to do data entry for the mangrove part of the project. Since we didn’t have time to be trained properly this revealed all of the things we had done wrong in the first few days. Some new vials arrived from San Jose, so we were also able to properly store our recent tissue samples from the turtles at last. Low tide was in the afternoon so we headed across the river to correct some of our mangrove mistakes (but we forgot the GPS to take coordinates) and also to collect bamboo for some maintenance in the nursery. Chopping down the bamboos was an adventure that left us all scratched up and sore, but overall it was a success. 

On Monday morning we were helping some local women who are Playa Blanca’s Blue Flag committee. The Blue Flag is an international programme for beaches, and Playa Blanca had an inspection on Wednesday to get their second star. On Monday they wanted us to help them plan 50 trees! We were a bit intimidated by this request, until we saw the trees, which could only very generously be called saplings. Once that was done we went up to the nursery to make use of our bamboo. We put some posts up and fixed the shade covers in two of the three sections (who doesn’t love digging deep holes in gravel?), leaving it looking much more respectable. After lunch the biologist and J (one of the RAs) went off on another adventure for the Blue Flag committee (collecting scrap wood from town), while myself and C took the GPS up to the mangroves and finally actually collected all of the necessary data on our recent plots. 

Looking good!

Tuesday was our day off, and probably one of the most extraordinary days of my life. Seeing the whales earlier in the week had amped up C and I’s desire to go whale watching, and the biologist sorted us out with someone who only charged us $40, as opposed to the $75 we had been quoted elsewhere. I would have happily paid $75, we saw three whales – a mother and calf, and a male probably trying to mate with the mother. They hung around for a long time, with the calf jumping around. I’ve never seen whales before, except for that distant sighting a few days earlier, and it was genuinely breathtaking. After we left them, we went to a massive pod of Pacific spotted dolphins. It was impossible to take photos of them as they were all around but moving so quickly, some of them also flying out of the water. We finished the morning with a little snorkelling at a small reef, and were back in Puerto Jiminez by midday. 

(A far less interesting side note, in Puerto Jiminez there are two or three cheap second hand clothes shops, and I managed to pick up some lightweight running shorts which have proven to be the best thing by far to wear for work here, so now I can stop trashing my nice running shorts. It’s not whales, but I was pretty pleased about that too.)

Wednesday was originally ocean day in the rota, but since the Blue Flag thing was happening, instead we helped set up some recycling bins on the beach with pretty painted signs (I didn’t expect my post-putting-up skills to develop quite so much here, but I’m certainly not complaining) and drove around putting up signs painted on old satellite dishes reminding people not to drop litter, to be careful of poisonous trees, to be careful of crocodiles… all our hard work paid off, as Playa Blanca got its second star. 

In the afternoon we borrowed a little boat and paddled out to the river, with the aim of collecting some red mangrove propagules. This was an entertaining adventure, but we couldn’t find any. This is interesting in itself, as the season apparently seems to have been much shorter than normal this year. 

On the boat we did notice the water was unusually clear (for Playa Blanca, where it is usually silty with nil visibility) so I went for a swim after work, a decision which definitely paid off! I saw loads of cool fish, including a porcupinefish, a southern stingray, and a small hawksbill turtle which I swam with for about five minutes.

The last day of the week was ocean day, the one day a month that we go to a different location in the gulf to prospect. Predictably this meant we didn’t have any turtles, but we did spend the day on a beautiful tropical beach on the other side of the gulf, accessible by boat only with steep sides of jungle behind it, which was very cool (and drove through quite the tropical rainstorm on our way back!). 

P.S. LAST are currently hiring RAs for 2019, so if I’m making this sound appealing, or if you think you’d like to check out their Pacuare nesting beach project (because you just love walking in sand for hours in the dark, or because you need to see leatherbacks), definitely get in touch with them, you can find details on their website, Facebook, Twitter, etc. If you’d like to know anything else about my experience so far before applying, drop me a comment and I’ll be in touch.

P.P.S. The dive centre on Gili Island where a very good friend of mine has been doing her DiveMaster was badly affected by the recent earthquake in Lombok. Luckily, she and all the other staff and students of the dive centre are fine, but most of the local staff have lost their homes and they are trying to organise food, water, and medical care to the island at the moment. If you have anything to spare, please donate to their GoFundMe.

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