A Step Into the Wild: Siobhan’s DANTA Field Course Experience

When I received my acceptance to DANTA’s Primate Behaviour and Conservation field course in Costa Rica last summer, I immediately surfed the web extensively on this country, (a nation slightly smaller than Nova Scotia, or for my American readers, West Virginia). Like any eager traveller, I wanted to know everything about this seemingly utopic, biologist’s mecca. Flanked on either side by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Costa Rica is cozily nestled between Nicaragua and Panama. When you Google “costa rica army-” you’ll find that the next word that Google suggests is “ants!” Indeed, they have not had an army since 1948, but the takeaway from this is just how crucial the environment and all its inhabitants are to the country’s identity.  Costa Rica contains four percent of the world’s biodiversity – over 500,000 species! Beyond the barrage of abstracted facts and history found on the internet, actually visiting this country was an experience far richer than any surface-level understanding that could be gained from “armchair travelling.”


Pura Vida. This was the first thing I learned about Costa Rica as I stepped out into the outside bustle of the San Jose airport (not to be confused with San Jose, California; a mistake you don’t want to make, like I had once, when booking flights). Flagging down a cab, I said “gracias” to a taxi driver and he rejoined with an enthusiastic pura vida!  Having limited Spanish, I had expected “de nada” and was confused, tossing this new phrase around in my head. “Pure life” must be a salutation, I presumed. As it turns out, it is a common response to a myriad of person-to-person interactions – a phrase which embodies all that is wonderful about the country – and an expression of eternal optimism for your neighbour to reap a rich, pure life.

Two weeks later and by the course’s end, everything about Costa Rica still seemed pure to me. Between the majesty of the natural environment and the unabashed kindness of the people, I had come, as a novice, to experience a place that felt like another world. That sometimes feeling of traversing an alien landscape was never more evident than when we moved down to the Osa Peninsula and entered the rainforest. The sheer grandness of this biosphere was overwhelming and exhilarating, all at the same time. To stare out into that leafy green through binoculars and come face to face with a howler monkey is indescribable.


Like a mantra I kept repeating to myself, I am in the wild. This isn’t the zoo. This is real life. This was something I had dreamt of doing my whole life but never thought I could.  The opportunity to study New World primates deep into their habitats was an incredible privilege.


Leading up to the field course, I had been nervous and intimidated at the thought of potentially not having the knowledge I needed to succeed. How wrong I was. Our professor, Kim Dingess, was engaging and accommodating — our own private Jane Goodall.  She taught us the skills we needed to understand and develop research methodologies. It was an invaluable in-the-field experience, to be able to take skills learnt abstractly in the classroom and apply them, for example, to a group of squirrel monkeys who had migrated in the afternoon to the trees surrounding our lodgings.

Some of my favourite moments were in the daily journeys on the back of the pickup truck to the lower research centre. Squeezed onto the seats with my new field course friends, the rush of racing through the trees was a thrill. On our return, driving to our lodgings late at night in the pitch dark with the headlights of the truck as the only light, I looked into the black abyss of rainforest we were leaving behind, imagining I was in Jurassic Park.

That kind of sensory deprivation and the subsequent feeling of overwhelming wonderment were sensations I experienced every day, in different ways. My philosophy friends might recognize this feeling as an experience of the sublime: a greatness beyond possibility of measurement, understanding or imitation.

This sublime happened again when we had the good fortune to assist a critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle safely lay her eggs. It was past midnight and we were huddled quietly on a wide expanse of Osa Conservation‘s Piro Beach, which stretches as far as the eye could see. The ocean in daytime is lovely and inviting, but now in the darkness, the crashing of waves and crackle of distant thunderstorms were both ominous and fantastical. Observing this prehistoric-looking turtle emerge from the tempestuous waves, plodding slowly but surely across the sand to lay her eggs was a thrilling experience and I was humbled to have borne witness to one of the most fundamental events of animal nature, by a creature much older (and likely, wiser) than me. Afterwards, we watched her turn and with great effort make her way back to sea, swept away by a rising wave. It brought tears to my eyes. She had laid a clutch of over 150 eggs, and I learned that only one in a thousand of those eggs will survive to reproductive age.  Unwittingly, this turtle was battling for the survival of her species and the odds were dismally against her.  But inexplicably driven to survive, she was.


And that night serves to remind me when I become disenchanted by the state of the world and the struggle science and conservation efforts face that I would do well to remember the Hawksbill. As someone endeavouring towards a career in science, I cannot help but hope to make a meaningful difference in the world. I think back to that night on the beach and it gives me hope for our own species.


My DANTA trip transcended that of a mere field course; it was truly a life-altering experience. Our studies were not restricted to just primate behaviour and conservation. We were taught about mangrove forests, botany, ornithology, sustainable farming, sustainable architecture, and given an understanding of how the rainforest worked and who the key players were. Beyond that, we ultimately came to learn about ourselves as young emerging scientists and the role we could play in order to make a difference and to prevent our own species from joining the endangered ones.

I can’t imagine my life without this adventure.


If you would like to see more photos, visit my Flickr or blog!


Siobhan Isa, Masters of English Lit student at the University of Guelph, Canada

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