Logistics. Logistics. Logistics. This project would be impossible without the support of ACG. With the help of many staff and employees of Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG), I was able to organize the first of several expeditions to the western tip of Santa Elena Peninsula. This trip involved a number of details including the boat ride, water, food, camping gear, field gear, field assistants, permisos, and coordinating several work schedules between ACG botanists and para-taxonomists. Thankfully, the trip couldn’t have gone any smoother.
We began the trip from el muelle de Cuajiniquil, a small fishing town located on the northern shoulder of La Peninsula. After loading the boat we began the 3-hour trip around La Peninsula to our base camp Isla San Jose, part of Las Islas Murcielagos archipelago.
Area de Conservacion Guanacaste maintains a field station here, part of a large network of field stations throughout ACG. This is where we would sleep, cook, and process plant specimens. A walk around La Isla reveals an interesting assemblage of plant species (mostly wind and bird dispersed).
From La Isla, the boat ferried us across to tierra firme, a short 15 minute boat ride to Playa Colorada. The waves here and all along the coast are too big for boats to approach so we stuffed our gear into plastic garbage bags and swam to shore.
After rinsing off in a nearby quebrada we began the climb up. We were attempting to summit Cerros Santa Elena (750 meters in elevation). This has only been done once before in 2007 in collaboration with ACG, INBio and the Missouri Botanical Garden. We were hoping the small foot trail they had made back in 2007 was still passable but, surprisingly, the vegetation had grown over and botanists Roberto Espinosa and Adrian Guadamuz had to forge the way up, machetes swinging.
We weren’t anticipating the need to machete the trail so we didn’t have time, energy, or enough water to reach the summit in one day. The first expedition back in 2007 involved a number of ‘porters’ machete-ing the trail, water runners shuttling water to the crew, camping on the actual mountain. Since this was a one-day scouting trip, we decided to make it to the half-way mark (at 440 meters in elevation), eat lunch, and begin the decent. While we were descending, we set up vegetation transects every 100 meters in elevation to survey the diversity and abundance of plant diversity. I also collected plant specimens to take back to base camp, identify, and preserve as a reference for my future work in these cerros.
The vegetation on these serpentine soils is dense and surprisingly diverse. We also spotted a ton of Geometridae (a type of moth caterpillar). There were so many individuals that they would fall onto our shirts and heads as we passed through the dense vegetation. This was really exciting since one theory argues that herbivory on plants growing in harsh serpentine soils should be reduced. This was clearly not the case here.
Back on shore, sore, dehydrated, plants and gear in plastic bags, we swam to the boat and headed to Isla San Jose. During the boat ride back to La Isla, a group of dolphins played in the wake of the boat. A perfect ending to the first of many expeditions.