Never had I set foot in the Americas before my 3 week Costa Rican summer adventure. In January 2019 I set off to study Conservation Marine Biology at Universidad Veritas in San José, the capital city of Costa Rica. During the program I lived with a homestay family along with a few other students doing the same program as me, and some American students on various other programs. The centre of my homestay family was our host mum Myrna, or as she insisted we call her, ‘mamatica’ (meaning Costa Rican mum) and her endearing, roughly barrel-shaped miniature poodle Tammy, who no one was entirely convinced wasn’t a sheep (photos below for reference).
Our lessons in the on-campus part of the program were spent at the university in ‘BioMol’ (Veritas’ molecular biology lab). Classes included lectures and various activities from shark taxidermy (for the upcoming ‘Shark Week’ public education outreach program in Costa Rica) to extracting shark DNA from fins and performing a polymerase chain reaction to identify species.
We got to witness marine conservation and protection practices firsthand on two field trips north of San José. The first was to Paquera in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica, where we spent our days in Curú Wildlife Reserve, becoming accustomed to protecting our bags from the stealthy raccoons and white-faced capuchin monkeys that lived there. Each day brought new incredible experiences; snorkelling in the warm waters around Isla Tortuga, watching the sun go down while eating fresh pineapple on a beach dotted with hermit crabs, and swimming in the Reserve at night to see bioluminescence exhibited by tiny marine organisms under a sky full of stars. These activities were enhanced by on-site lectures about the biodiversity present within the Reserve and efforts to protect it.
Our second field trip saw us headed to El Jobo, Guanacaste, located close to the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua. We spent most of our time there capturing rays for data collection and identification purposes; tagging, measuring and taking tissue samples, before returning them to the ocean. There was also plenty of snorkelling, a day of sea turtle capture and release for tagging and extraction of tissue samples, and a day of beach cleaning with local children that were participating in a program with NGO Equipo Tora Carey. The absolute highlight of the whole trip came after watching the sun go down, however, as we were lucky enough to be part of an Equipo Tora Carey conservation initiative, releasing baby sea turtles on the beach.
Before I left to go on the program, I had been researching Costa Rican culture, history and the country’s reputation as a global leader in environmental policy. I then had the pleasure of watching what I had read about come to life during my time there. From the incredible biodiversity and beautiful scenery, to the cheerful, relaxed vibe of the people, to the entirely different style of teaching, to the never ending supply of ‘gallo pinto’ (beans and rice) to seeing local environmental initiatives wherever I went, Costa Rica was an incredible place to study, travel and experience a culture so different from my own.