Dmitry Safin's Diary


Saturday, March 15, 2008 Monday, March 17, 2008
Wednesday, March 19, 2008 Friday, April 11, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008 Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Friday, June 27, 2008 Monday, June 30, 2008
Tuesday, July 1, 2008 Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Thursday, July 3, 2008 Friday, July 4, 2008
Saturday, July 5, 2008 Sunday, July 6, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008 Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Wednesday, July 9, 2008 Thursday, July 10, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008 Saturday, July 12, 2008
Sunday, July 13, 2008  

Saturday, March 15, 2008 My name is Dmitry, and I have worked for Alcoa’s Russian information systems organization since 2005.
 
At the end of 2006, I received the first invitation to apply for the Earthwatch fellowship program. After thinking about it for some time, I decided not to apply—I had already gotten my share of traveling abroad during the year. Good news came later, though. My colleague, Alexandra Gluschenkova, was selected to go on an expedition to the Bahamas! I was really glad for her and wished her good luck. We worked in the same office at that time, and I was able to get all the news about her preparations. It was really interesting to know what awaited her and what would be expected from her—and that was everything!
 
I decided to wait for Alexandra’s arrival home, check if she returned in one piece (alive and healthy, that is), and then apply for the program myself. Of course, everything was all right. In her diary, she shared a lot of stories about her travel, the places that she visited, her involvement in the project, the friends she made while on the expedition, and the culture that she found there. She also had lots of photos that were just awesome—you can imagine. So I was set—I should apply!
 
After the application form was filled out and sent and while I was waiting for the answer, I spent time checking locations where, if selected, my future expedition probably would take place. I also discussed this with my friends. One of them told me that Costa Rica is a nice place to go. Another—Alexandra Gluschenkova—told me that only “Hunting for Caterpillars” deserves my attention, and everything else would not be much of an achievement to me.
 
As for me, I was looking forward to participating no matter what location it would be. I only had thought that if my expedition would allow me to see the ocean, it would really be great. I have never seen an ocean in my life, and I really want to.
 
Several months passed, and one Friday evening I got a call from Shamsa, the Alcoa coordinator. She told me that I was chosen, and my expedition would be…“Hunting for Caterpillars in Costa Rica!” I should thank my friends for choosing that for me in advance.
 
What is really amazing is that in the original announcement about the 2008 program, there was no such option. There was only “Hunting for Caterpillars in the Andes” and “Costa Rica’s Sustainable Coffee.” So, I’ve got two-in-one unexpectedly.
 
I was beyond myself at that time. I immediately informed my wife and my son and received warm congratulations from them.
 
When I found out that the research would take place in one of the world’s richest rain forests in La Selva—where we will work with a lot of birds and animals, including parrots, peccaries, coatis, sloths, monkeys, and jaguars—I understood that I should prepare myself for the biggest adventure of my life!

Monday, March 17, 2008 During the weekend, I browsed through a lot of Internet sites about Costa Rica in general and two locations where our research would take place—La Selva Biological Station and Tirimbina Rainforest Center. Wow! That’s certainly not going to be a comfortable hotel stay. But I really like it, since I look at the opportunity to participate in something extraordinary and special in my life. If it’s going to be hard work in a rainforest without much comfort—perfect! It will make our research team stronger and more effective. And I really love to work on an effective team.
 
Of course, it won’t be a really uncomfortable stay on the forest ground. We will have rooms with bunk beds, bathrooms with showers, and a kitchen. But the best part is that our temporary home will be as close to nature as possible. I already can imagine parrots sitting right on the window of my room, monkeys flying over my head, and butterflies everywhere. It’s going to be fantastic!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 I decided to start collecting expedition details as early as possible, and my expedition coordinator—Alison—is very supportive of this. I already got some expedition details from her, and it really looks very serious right now.
 
First of all, our expedition would start with a two-hour bus ride followed by 45 minutes of walking with all of our belongings. I now know that taking a lot of things with me is not a good option. I need to make hard decisions about what and what not to take.
 
I next checked weather conditions and potential hazards:
  • It will be very hot—approximately 27° Celsius (87° Fahrenheit)—and very humid (90%-100%).
  • It will be either raining heavily or very sunny.
  • There will be a lot of different kinds of insects—mosquitoes, chiggers, biting flies, etc. (no surprise here).
  • There are poisonous snakes and some irritating plants, so I suppose tall rubber boots will be a must.
 
Now I know that a rainforest is not a safe place in which to walk around. I should be mentally and physically prepared for hard work in very unusual conditions. Seems like I need to start working out and walking a lot more!

Friday, April 11, 2008 Since my last diary entry, I’ve done a huge amount of work investigating everything related to Costa Rica and the visa process related to my trip.

Now I know that I need two visas—a Costa Rican tourist visa and a U.S. transit visa since I will be flying to Costa Rica through Atlanta, Georgia. It’s going to take a lot of time to get them, since I need to get the Costa Rican one first and only then can I request the transit visa. I hope to get them all in time.

The good news is that after some investigation, I found that there is a small town called Samara on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Its name is the same as my home city here in Russia. I definitely need to visit it after the expedition! It seems like it is nice resort-type place where I will be able to swim in the ocean, taste national Costa Rican food, and relax in the sun following the hard work in the rainforest.

Friday, May 16, 2008 Good news. I’ve got my tickets and visa and am ready to go!

While filling out the Earthwatch forms, I checked the length of my flights and found what my first challenge will be—an 11-hour flight over the ocean! I hope the Boeing 767-400ER is comfortable enough to be my home for 11 hours. Another four-hour flight will take me from Atlanta, USA, to San Jose, Costa Rica, where I will meet the team.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 I’m so excited—only 14 days left before the expedition! My checklist of required items is ready, and only a few items still need to be purchased.

The preparation itself was a small adventure, since I needed to buy items that I don’t usually use in my life—flashlight, pocket knife, rain poncho, compass. I also needed to look for them in shops that I don’t usually visit.

A week ago, one of our team members initiated email conversation with the whole team. Now I know that I will have great international people to work with in the jungle. Nine people are from the USA, and the other four are from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Russia. One is a sound producer for an American radio station (www.pulseplanet.com), so we all have a chance to share our experiences with a large radio audience.

Today, I received the briefing for this year’s expedition and found that the first five days will be at a rustic solar-powered biological station with no phone or Internet access, no ability to charge batteries, and no restaurant—team members will prepare food for themselves. The good news is that there is a fantastic swimming hole to cool off in after a long day in the field.

After a day-and-a-half of recreation time, we will move to another station that’s more comfortable—washing machines, computers, phones, and Latin American meals prepared by the station staff.

I can’t wait to meet our team and the project staff and start working together!

Friday, June 27, 2008 Today is my last working day before the trip. During the weekend, I will be busy with preparations—buying items that I still need for the trip and packing all my stuff.
 
On Monday, June 30, I’ll get up at 5 a.m. and go to the airport, fly to Moscow (1.5 hours in the air) and then fly to Atlanta (11 hours in the air). There, I will meet a friend of mine, Alexey, and spend a day sightseeing with him and his family. On the next day, I’ll take a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica.
 
I’ll meet the team in the morning on Wednesday, July 2, and we will go to the Tirimbina Rainforest Center right away. This is a solar-powered, isolated place, where team members will participate in cooking the meals. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, there are no washing machines or Internet and phone connections.
 
After five days of collecting and taking care of caterpillars, as well as performing experiments in the lab, we will go to the La Selva Biological Station, which offers more comfort—electricity, washing machines, and Internet. Right after that, we will have 1.5 recreational days, during which team members can spend time on excursions and such. I’m thinking about visiting the Caribbean coast at that time.
 
After that break, we’ll have three days of work in La Selva, where we may possibly meet other research teams and discuss projects where they would be involved.
 
On Thursday, July 10, we’ll finish all experiments, and a bus will take us back to San Jose. This will be the end of the project, but I’ve already planned to stay for two more days to explore other places in Costa Rica—San Jose (capital) and Samara (resort town on the Pacific coast).
 
Since I’ll have very little access to the computer during the expedition, I will have to write my diary on paper. Don’t expect the next update before I get back on Monday, July 14.

Monday, June 30, 2008 Today I was traveling to Atlanta, Georgia. At 5 a.m., a taxi took me to the airport for my first flight of the day—from my hometown of Samara to Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation. There, after customs and passport control, I boarded a Delta aircraft and got ready for more than 10 hours in the air.

My neighbor on the plane was traveling to the United States to work and learn English for several months. We exchanged our plans. I told him about the Earthwatch program and my participation in it, and he was really exited to hear it.

The sun was shining during the entire flight—we were following it through the day. When we landed in Atlanta, it was still early in the day.

I met my friend Alexey in the airport, and we went by car to his apartment, where we met with his family—his wife, Katya, and daughter, Masha. They were really glad to meet me. They have lived in the U.S. for more than one year, and it is always nice to spend some time with a person from your country. Of course, I was happy to see where and how they live and what they do.

We went to a Mexican restaurant and spent a very pleasant evening exchanging different stories about our lives. It was a really nice and relaxing evening after the exhausting flight that I had. After an endless number of stories and several drinks, we decided to call it a day. We made great plans for tomorrow—I needed to see Atlanta in one day, and I wanted to get the maximum experience and excitement!

I called my wife (it was early morning in Russia) to tell her that I was okay, and I went to bed.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 I got up at 4:30 a.m. (thanks to jet lag) and spent some time sending letters and pictures to my family and friends through the Internet. My hosts got up around 9 a.m., and we went to downtown Atlanta.

The city is beautiful! It is so different from what I’m used to seeing in Russia. For me, it looks like a huge forest, with small clearings containing skyscrapers and apartment complexes. It’s really special!

Alexey parked a car in the Georgia Aquarium parking garage (half of the buildings in downtown are used for parking, which is different for me as well). We went from there to Centennial Olympic Park, which was built as a tribute to the Olympic Games that took place in Atlanta in 1996. The park is really nice, clean, and full of reminders from the time of the Olympic Games—statues, flags, Olympic rings fountain, and more.

We next headed to the Westin Hotel, where, for only US$5, you can get to the height of more than 200 meters (656 feet) and see the entire city from one of the highest spots. Good thing that I took binoculars with me (something from the Earthwatch packing checklist). It is always interesting to look at the city from a different angle, especially a city where you’re staying for just one day.

After great views of Atlanta, we headed back to the aquarium. We went to the food court first (we were really hungry at that point). I bought a classic American lunch (well, what I think is one)—sandwich, hot dog, French fries, brownie, and a bottle of Coca-Cola. I wasn’t able to finish it all, but at least I tried. I liked it!

What to say about the Georgian Aquarium. It’s huge, it has lots of species of different ocean inhabitants, and it’s very beautiful! I was able to touch skates (slimy) and anemones (really soft), see a huge white whale, walk under big aquariums filled with fish and see them from underneath, and stand still for ages enjoying “aquarium cinema” (very big wall showing lots of fish swimming in front of you).

At some point, my friend told me that it was already time to go to the airport. We got back to his silver Toyota Camry and drove to the airport. He helped me navigate there, and we walked for a while between souvenir shops, sharing last pieces of stories until it was time for me to go to the plane. I flew away but promised to return.

The plane to San Jose was not as comfortable as the trans-Atlantic one. There was no food provided (which is strange for an almost four-hour flight), and it was rather cold. So I arrived in Costa Rica a little bit stressed. One woman raised my spirit when she called me muchacho and asked in Spanish to help her with her luggage. I know that muchacho means young man, but it felt really strange being called that.

After changing some dollars into colons, which is the local currency (approximately US$1 equals 500 colons), I went to the taxi stand and took a “death journey” to my hotel. I knew in advance that drivers in Costa Rica are very careless and drive really fast on very bad roads, but I thought it’s almost the same in Russia. Now I know that it’s different.

Bad road, crazy driver, darkness outside, no road signs, no traffic light. Before crossing every road, he used his horn just in case there was another driver crossing the road. And when we found one road that had a traffic light, we crossed it while the light was red. Very refreshed, I entered Rincon Hotel lobby around 10:30 p.m.

I missed the team dinner, so I expected to meet the team members tomorrow during breakfast. But there was a surprise for me. I’m sharing a room with one of the Earthwatch fellows—Darryl. I met him downstairs, and he told me that I didn’t miss much by skipping dinner. Not much information was told by the principal investigators.

I found out that my cell phone doesn’t work in San Jose. I really was hoping that it would. So, I just sent a couple of emails to my wife and friends telling them that I’m fine. After that, I went to bed, trying to get some sleep.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 I woke up at 4:30 a.m. again. I repacked my luggage and headed for breakfast, where I met the other team members. They were really friendly from the start, so I felt at ease.
 
Right after breakfast, we put all our stuff into the bus and headed for our destination—the Tirimbina Rainforest Center. It took us two hours to get there. The bus driver was really nice, and he stopped the bus at some spots where we were able to have great views and take some awesome photos. Mountains, rivers, waterfalls—everything is so beautiful here!
 
When we got to the rainforest center, we took our rucksacks/backpacks with us and headed for an orientation walk to the Tirimbina Field Station. Our bags were supposed to be delivered there when we finished our hike.
 
Our group, together with Lee Dyer, the project’s principal investigator, started this amazing journey into Costa Rica’s rainforest. To say that it was amazing would be an understatement. It was another world! Every 10 minutes of our trip, we saw different forest—it’s so diverse.
 
Lee provided some tips on what we should look for to find a caterpillar. First of all, there are some plant species that have more caterpillars than others. Specifically, Lee pointed out that the piper family is one that we should take a closer look at. He showed us the leaf structure of this plant and explained what’s common between different species.
 
Another good way to see that there is a caterpillar on a specific plant is to look for fresh damage on a leaf. The difference between old and fresh damage is that if a caterpillar was feeding recently, there still would be some shredded tissue left on a leaf. If the damage was old, the tissue would have been destroyed by rain, and you’d just see holes in the leaf.
 
Since caterpillars don’t move a lot, the best way to look for them is to stand still and look closely at the plants, paying particular attention to the underside of leaves.
 
With these tips, some of us were able to find caterpillars on the first day.
 
Trails in the forest were very well kept, and Lee explained that local people put forth a lot of effort to keep them this way. It took us three hours to get to the station because of all the stops that we had (usually it’s a 45- to- 60-minute hike). When we finally got there, Grant Gentry and Tara Mossad were waiting for us with our luggage and a hot lunch. They made us tortillas with cheese, sauce, and some vegetables. We also had fresh pineapple and spicy chips.
 
After lunch, Kim (biology teacher from the U.S.), Jim (sound producer from the U.S.), and I went to the river. It was a really small spot where you couldn’t do laps, but there was enough space for several people to swim around. There was a cave right next to the place where we were swimming, and you could basically hear some bat sounds. It was really exciting (and somewhat scary).
 
Right after we were done with our swimming, it started to rain. So we ran to our new home, changed, and went for a lecture, where we learned more about our project.
 
The goal of the research is to better understand how caterpillars use various defense mechanisms to protect themselves from both predators and parasites. We’ll spend most of our time collecting and rearing caterpillars.
 
There are numerous benefits to be gained from this research.  
 
Diversity and natural history: The most significant impact of this project is that data collected are related to more then 3,000 species of caterpillars, plants, and parasitoids (an insect that completes its larval development within the body of another insect, eventually killing it). This information is shared with the locals, scientists, naturalists, and local workers. Many naturalist guides use data and images collected during these expeditions.
 
Sustainable agriculture: Managers of banana plantations, alfalfa fields, and other agricultural systems who are attempting to control pests without using pesticides will benefit from increased knowledge of the parasitoid community.
 
Sustainable employment in the rainforest: Although it is not a direct benefit from the research, our Earthwatch project benefits the local communities by supporting the research stations and continuing collaboration with local naturalists and scientists.
 
Environmental education: This project has directly benefited the educational community, because many volunteers have been school teachers who have incorporated ideas learned from this project into their classroom work.
 
Lee told us about caterpillars in general and those that we could find in Costa Rica. There are approximately 18,000 species found only in the La Selva area (and Tirimbina could be considered part of this area as well). Lee next introduced Grant as the “parasitoids expert.” We learned about the different natural protection mechanisms that plants and caterpillars are using.
 
Plant protection mechanisms:
  • Some leaves have extra floral nectar buds that attract certain ants that in turn protect plants from caterpillars and other insects; and
  • Some leaves have small spikes all over them that make them uncomfortable to feed on.
 
Caterpillar protection mechanisms:
  • Shelters that caterpillars build, such as with leaves;
  • Chemical defenses;
  • Symbiotic relationships (e.g., with a species of ant that protects caterpillars);
  • Camouflage; and
  • Stingers.
 
We also learned that since natural diversity is so vast here, each group of volunteers has found a new caterpillar species on each expedition. It was really exciting to hear. I definitely want to find a new species!
 
Right after the lecture, we went “hunting” on the nearest road. We weren’t lucky. Everybody was tired, and it was raining all the time. When it was too dark to find anything, we headed back.
 
For dinner, we had boiled rice, beans, potatoes, and carrots. After dinner, some team members stayed in the dining room to play a game called “Spanish-English,” where you need to give your best explanation of a Spanish word that you probably don’t even know. Then your description is compared to one in a dictionary. Since I’m not any good with Spanish, I decided to retreat.
 
I checked out the shower and found that the water was cold. As I found out later, the water is heated by the sun. During the day, the water’s warm, but at night, it’s not. Oh well. At least we have a nice river to swim in.
 
I headed to my room (I got a whole room to myself when everybody else had a roommate—I got lucky!) and fell into a peaceful sleep.

Thursday, July 3, 2008 I got up at 6:30 a.m. and headed for breakfast—pancakes with syrup and pineapples. Very tasty!

At 7:30 a.m., we divided into three groups. One was led by Tara, one by Grant ,and one by Lee. Kim, Samantha (the second Alcoan in our group who is from Australia), Vanessa (web designer from the United Kingdom), and I were in Lee’s group, and we were going to do a “plot” today.

We went off the trail and found a spot with a lot of different species of piper plants. Lee selected a center point in the area, and we made a cross with tape that marked an area that was 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter. We then collected every leaf from each piper plant, putting leaves from the different plants into separate collecting bags (special bags that allow oxygen to get into them and which we used to collect leaves and caterpillars throughout the trip). We marked each bag with the date, location, and name of the plant species. Then we went back to the station where we met with Grant’s group, which did plots, too.

Amy (a teacher from the U.S.) was assigned the task of entering data into the computer. Everybody else opened each bag, counted the number of leaves in it, carefully checked if there were any caterpillars on them, and provided the collected information to Amy.

If a caterpillar is found in a bag, we put it to the side in a separate bag with some leaves to feed on. If no caterpillars are found, all the leaves are thrown out and the bags are set aside to be used later.

The total number of caterpillars we found was very low. I didn’t find any this time.

After we were done, we headed for lunch. We had rice and beans (something really common in this area), boiled eggs, preserved fish, and peanut butter with bread. After that, we decided to go for a swim. This time more people joined in. It was Kim, Samantha, Vanessa, Jim, and me.

After being refreshed in the forest river, we went to hunt some more. To increase my chances since I still didn’t find any caterpillars on this trip, I created a tool—a wooden stick with “V” on its end. It’s a lot easier to look under leaves (where you usually will find a caterpillar) using this tool. And what do you think? Several minutes after I made the stick, I found a caterpillar! She was feeding on a branch instead of a leaf, which is not typical. And what a beauty she was—five centimeters (two inches) in length, black and yellow, and very hairy. I was so happy when I found it! From that moment on, I was able to be proudly called “Caterpillar Hunter.”

When we got back to the station, Lee and Grant told us that they never saw this species of caterpillar before in this area. Grant told me that this caterpillar will grow up and become a tiger moth.

At 3:30 p.m., we had a lecture by Lee. He explained that a caterpillar is an insect that is the larva of a butterfly or moth. It consists of a head, thorax, and abdomen. The head is where you could usually find eyes, mandibles, spinnerets (silk mechanism), and antennae (used for smelling). The thorax has six articular legs for movement, up to five pairs of prolegs (for sticking to plants), and thorax tubes for the movement of oxygen (instead of lungs). The abdomen contains the digestive organs.

We learned that most caterpillar species feed on specific plants (called host plants). If you are looking for a specific species, you could just check the plants that are its host plants.

We learned about other types of caterpillar protection mechanisms. Some caterpillars avoid leaving frass (feces) in the place where they live because its smell will attract parasitoids. Instead, some shoot the frass long distances, and some just leave the place where they defecated. Other caterpillars, on the contrary, basically live in their frass. It’s all over them. This is another means of protection. It’s really hard to find a caterpillar in a big pile of frass, because the parasitoids are just overwhelmed by the smell and can’t concentrate on the task of finding a caterpillar.

After the lecture, we had dinner—spaghetti, sausage, and fried plantains.

Friday, July 4, 2008 I got up early again—at 4:30 a.m. It seems like I don’t want to sleep when so many beautiful and interesting things are around me!

I went to check the surrounding area with my binoculars and camera. When I came to the main house area, I saw a car leaving with Lee—he was supposed to spend only the first three days with us. I waved goodbye and then spent some time watching the nearest trees in the hope of seeing some birds and animals.

At some point, I got lucky. I had a very good view of a white capuchin monkey. She stared at me for several seconds and then ran away. I wasn’t even able to get my camera to take a picture—too bad.

Later, before breakfast, some members of our team noticed toucans near our station. They were flying from tree to tree, and it was so beautiful!

After we had breakfast (eggs, rice, beans, and fried plantains), we went collecting. This time, the whole group except the tree people (who went with Tara to do some lab work that I never found out what it was about) went to the jungle part of the rainforest. Grant explained that jungle areas have a lot of vines, and we were supposed to find very interesting species of caterpillars in those vines. I won’t say that we were really lucky. I found one caterpillar, and the whole group found eight or 10.

After lunch (rice, spaghetti, sandwiches with ham), we went to a main trail between our station and the Tirimbina Rainforest Center. We were very far away from the station when the rain started. I thought that I was already too soaked from sweat anyway and decided not to put on my rain poncho. That was a huge mistake! Rain in Costa Rica is unlike anything that I’ve seen in my life. It’s just a wall of water falling on you from the sky.

Before the rain, I went ahead of Jane (a former health professional from the U.S.). After the rain started, I decided to get back and make sure she was okay. When I found her, she was really grateful that I did return, because she was not sure which trail to take and did not want to get lost during the rain. We headed back together, and I was helping Jane on slippery parts of the trail. She called me a Russian caboose (support/guard car that is attached at end of a train) because I was always behind her and making sure that we both got back safely.

After this hike, I felt really exhausted because of the rain and hiking for three days in a row from early morning until late evening. But after our traditional dip in the river, I felt rejuvenated again. This time, we were swimming during the rain, and this experience was fantastic. I forgot about my tiredness and boldly headed for lunch.

We were supposed to have a “bat tour” today, but it was cancelled because of rain. After dinner (tortillas, spaghetti, chips), we just sat in a dining area, chatted, and discussed cultural differences—what members of our group usually do, what kinds of food we eat, what drinks we drink, etc. After long conversations and endless stories, we all went to sleep.

A side note: It seems like I didn’t clearly describe the weather that we had while in Costa Rica and its effect on us. Throughout the entire trip, the temperature was almost the same each day—25° Celsius (77° Fahrenheit), with a couple days at 28° Celsius (82° Fahrenheit). The humidity was tremendous. I don’t have specific values, but we were promised to have between 65% to 100% humidity.

While you’re in a forest, you basically always sweat all over your body. But as we discussed between us in the expedition, it was a “good sweat”—the feeling was just like water leaving your body through sweat, and that’s it. It’s completely different from what you feel in a hot city. You don’t really feel exhausted from the heat. And you need to drink water all the time. During the normal four-hour hike that we had daily (before and after the lunch), I consumed two to 2.5 liters of water.

It’s really amazing how people live in such conditions. It’s so different from what I’ve seen before in my life.

Saturday, July 5, 2008 Today’s our day off, and most of our team members decided to take different tours available near the Tirimbina area. Scott (veterinarian from the U.S.), his wife Rose (teacher), their daughter Lynette (student), Kim, Vanessa, Samantha, Jim, and I decided to take the whitewater rafting tour. Others went to watch an active volcano or decided to stay at the station.

The rafting was amazing! On one of the dangerous parts of the river, called “Confusion,” our boat flipped, and we all ended up underwater. I felt scared for a moment, but after I got to the water’s surface, I felt very good. The feeling was incredible! Apart from the excitement that you get when you fight the water, there is another good thing about rafting in Costa Rica. While we were drifting, we were able to see lots of amazing and different things—landscapes, birds, monkeys, and more.

After the trip and lunch, we went to the canopy tour, where we were “zipping” above the forest at a very high height while fastened to steel lines via special equipment. It wasn’t as exciting as rafting, but the views from above the forest while on the zipline were fantastic!

After the second tour, we took a taxi to get back to the station, where we had the bat tour that was cancelled yesterday. The local guide, Willie, told us about bats in general and about species you can find in Costa Rica. He told us that out of approximately 5,000 species of mammals, 21% are bats. Only three species worldwide are the vampire bat, which people in the country are afraid of because they suck blood from cows and other domestic animals. All other species are not dangerous to mammals. Some eat nectar, others eat fruit, and still others eat insects, lizards, and frogs.

After the informative part, we went to watch bats. There were several of them hanging in bags on the porch. We gathered around Willie while he opened the bags and showed us several live bats. We were able to see them and even touch them (but very carefully). Then Willie released them and showed us how bats echolocate (locate an object by emitting sounds and detecting the reflections from it) their surroundings before flying away. We next went to the forest, where Willie showed us nets that are used to catch bats. They set them especially for us this night, and there were two bats in them. We released them and saw how they flew away.

On the way back to the station, we saw a bullfrog on the trail. Carefully avoiding it, we headed to our rooms.

Sunday, July 6, 2008 Today we traveled from Tirimbina to La Selva. We packed our stuff and took a bus that brought us to the station right at lunchtime.

There were a lot of people around us—scientists, students, birdwatchers. Tara met us with a small dance, telling us that she had a surprise for us. We followed her to the bridge that connected two parts of the station, and she showed us a sloth sleeping on a tree and a camel that was resting on the riverbank. Right after that, we saw peccaries (medium-sized mammal that resembles a pig) that were on the station. Wow! This place has lots of animals!

After lunch (pilaw rice, vegetables, fried potato, and pineapples), we headed for an orientation walk. Grant explained that it is almost impossible to get lost in the La Selva area, since all trails are very well marked and it is always clear which direction you should go.

We took the closest trail and found lots of caterpillars by just staying on the trail. One caterpillar was safe to put in our hands, so I took it from Grant (who found it) and asked team members to take a picture. The feeling of a caterpillar moving on your hand is very pleasant, like several tiny lips putting kisses all over your hand.

On the way back, it started to rain, so we were very soaked when we got to the station. The first thing I did was head to the computer lab to send emails to my wife and friends, updating them with the latest news and telling them that I’m okay and can send emails regularly from now on. The computer lab is air conditioned to protect the computers from humidity, and the contrast of temperature when you enter and exit the lab is amazing. It’s like you step from summer directly into winter and vice versa.

After the lab, we went to our rooms to unpack and then to the laundry facility to finally wash all our clothes (we didn’t have washing and drying machines in Tirimbina). We had dinner (fried fish, rice, vegetables, and watermelon ice cream), unpacked some more, and, very tired and sleepy, went to a lecture.

This lecture by Grant was about parasitoids. We learned the difference between parasites and parasitiods. Parasites live and feed on their host, are very dependant on them, but do not kill them. Several generations of parasites can live on the same host. The flea is an example of a parasite.

Parasitoids feed on their host, killing it as part of their life cycle. Some parasitoids (immobilizers) immobilize the host first and then feed on it until the host is fully consumed. Other parasitoids (koindoionts) live and feed on an active host but kill it at some point.

Parasitoisd are divided into wasps and flies. The main strength of wasps is venom that can paralyze the caterpillar, switch off its immune system, and inject a virus. The main strength of flies is speed. They can put eggs onto a caterpillar and fly away very fast.

We also learned ways caterpillars protect themselves against parasitoids:
  • Against flies—Building shelters, such as ones from leaves.
  • Against wasps—Biting (some caterpillars have claws) and chemical defenses (poisonous glands).
 
Based on statistical data, 38% of caterpillars in the La Selva area have parasitoids.

Monday, July 7, 2008 We gathered in the lab at 8 a.m. and discussed our plans. Five people stayed with Grant to process the caterpillars that we gathered in Tirimbina. All others, including me, went with Tara and Umberto (local guenero—caterpillar-rearing expert) for more caterpillars.

We did a plot. We needed to find an area 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter that had at least three types of plants (we had more than five) and then search each leaf of each plant and collect all caterpillars that would be there. Tara told us that usually you could just find two caterpillars in such a plot, but we found 10. Later, she told me when I asked that we were really lucky this year in La Selva. We found a lot more caterpillars than people usually find.

After lunch, we went to the “caterpillar zoo”—a big, porch-like area in a forest where caterpillars are hanging in bags. Each bag is marked with the name of the caterpillar it contains, the date it was found, and its identification number in the database.

There are several tasks that should be performed in the zoo area. Usually Umberto takes care of that on daily basis, but since there were Earthwatch volunteers, he had some free time. We were there to help.

One person was assigned to entering data into the computer (we had a laptop with us). All others performed one of several tasks available. The first caterpillar area that required attention was where caterpillars that had not yet changed into the pupa state were located. We needed to open each bag, locate the caterpillars (it could be more than one if they were found together on the host plant), and check if they had changed into pupa. If they did, we provided that information to the person doing the data entry and moved the bag to the “pupa” area. If not, we cleaned the bag of frass (solid waste), added food (leaves) if needed, and returned the bag to where it was before. Caterpillars found to have parasitoids were moved to another area—“parasitized.” We didn’t process this area.

In the “pupa” area, we were supposed to check if a butterfly was born. If this was the case, we again needed to provide this information to the person entering data and then move this bag to another area where bags were waiting to be delivered to the station for processing and identification of the butterflies.

Another task was to register newly collected caterpillars. We needed to count the caterpillars in each bag (sometimes there are up to 15 of them), get a number for the bag (from the person working with database), put this number on the bag using a marker, and then put this bag with the rest of the caterpillars.

I won’t tell you that this part of our work was very exciting, but still it was very interesting to see all the caterpillars that were collected by different people and watch how they changed from a small caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.

After dinner, we gathered at the cafeteria and spent some time chatting and drinking local beverages—rum and beer, which were very good. Grant joined us with great news. His wife called him and said that she’s going to have a boy in September. Grant looked very happy, and we all gave him warm congratulations.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 After breakfast, we went to collect caterpillars. This time, it was off-trail hunting with no plots. We were free to go in any direction and search for caterpillars everywhere. I found two caterpillars right away, and Samantha, who helped me collect these two, found another one on the same plant—a good start.
 
After some time, I separated from the main group and went deep into the forest alone. The feeling of being alone in a rainforest is incredible! It’s just you and nature. I found a very beautiful clearing where big branches had fallen from the tree (we were told that such clearings are very good spots for collecting caterpillars). This place was so beautiful!
 
I was hoping to see some birds and animals there, but all I saw were a couple of lizards, a huge blue Morpho (one of the biggest butterflies that we’ve seen in Costa Rica), and a small caterpillar that I collected right away. After taking lots of pictures of this place, I went back to our group, thanks to a compass. I found out that they were trying to find me and were shouting my name, but I wasn’t able to hear them. I was too far away.
 
Before going to lunch, I found another caterpillar—the fourth for this trip. I felt very good, since it was more than the total number of caterpillars that I found before.
 
After lunch, I decided to check what the “leaf area” was. I didn’t know what the task would be, but I heard that I would be located in an air-conditioned room (which is fantastic after spending all the time in hot and humid conditions). Amy was the second person who was assigned to this task.
 
Here’s what we were supposed to do:
  • We open a bag of leaves, which were collected by our team. Each bag contains the same plant species, and this species’ name was written on the bag.
  • One person puts a leaf into a special device that calculates the leaf area and displays it on a screen.
  • The second person enters the species name and leaf area into an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Repeat for every leaf.
 
This task was a bit boring, but it was a good rest after the hot weather and long hikes that we had daily.
 
Before dinner, Grant told me that Lynette wanted to go on a very long hike tomorrow, and I probably was a good candidate to go with her (seems like I made an impression as a good hiker). Samantha decided to join us, since tomorrow would be the last day of our trip and she wanted to take this long hike with us.
 
For dinner, part of our group decided to go to the restaurant in the town instead of going to the canteen. I organized a taxi, and eight of us (seven ladies and me) went to a very nice restaurant in Puerto Viejo. It was really interesting to spend some time outside of the research area and see how people live in the area. We had lots of fun this night!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 Today was a big day! Lynette, Samantha, and I were going to take the trail that is farthest from the station. The approximate length of the planned hike was 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).
 
Considering that faraway trails are not very well kept and most of our time would be on slippery up-and-down roads, it would take approximately five hours for us to finish this hike. Because of this, we took lots of water (three to four liters each) and lunch (sandwiches, snacks, juice) and headed for this “crazy” hike.
 
Since we were going so far away, we planned to find some really rare and spectacular caterpillars. The rest of our group stayed near the station and did different things—zoo, butterfly identification, and collecting near the lab.
 
For the first portion of our trip (2.3 kilometers, or 1.4 miles) we decided to hike without stops and go far, far away, only collecting once there. The trail was really challenging—lots of hilly, slippery parts where we helped each other get up and not fall down. At one point, there was only one way to get up the hill—with a knife. It was almost like climbing. I used my pocketknife as a climbing device, got up the trail, and then helped the ladies get up as well.
 
We were really lucky that it was not very hot this day (24° Celsius, or 75° Fahrenheit), and it wasn’t raining. Otherwise, our hike would’ve been a lot harder.
 
After we hit the outermost part of the trail, we started collecting. We were really expecting to find a caterpillar with every step, but it wasn’t so. We found lots of interesting insects, saw some animals and birds, and captured fantastic scenery, but we were not very lucky with caterpillars.
 
Each of my companions found two caterpillars. I didn’t find any. At one point, after studying one plant and seeing several different insects on it, I exclaimed that I can find anything except caterpillars and then moved on. Samantha, who was following me, stopped near that same plant and, after examining it for several seconds, called us to check what she found. She wasn’t sure if it was a caterpillar or just a wooden stick. Imaging our excitement when we realized that it was a huge (15-centimeter, or six-inch) caterpillar sitting on a leaf. It was the biggest caterpillar that any of us had seen in our lives! It was so perfectly amazing to find the biggest caterpillar on the last day of our expedition.
 
I didn’t found any caterpillars on this trip, but I didn’t feel badly at all. Our group of three found the biggest caterpillar of all those that our team found during these past days.
 
When we brought the caterpillar to the laboratory and showed it to Grant, he told us that this caterpillar will change its state to pupa soon, and a very big butterfly will be born from it—similar to the blue Morpho that we saw earlier.
 
This was our last day in La Selva, so we decided to have a farewell party. I bought some rum and snacks at the nearest bar, and we spent the evening drinking and chatting in the cafeteria. We felt a bit sad, because everything is going to end soon. The next day, we were moving to San Jose.

Thursday, July 10, 2008 All morning, we spent packing our stuff and getting ready to move out of La Selva. The bus left at 10 a.m. to take us to San Jose.
 
We spent this day wandering around the Costa Rican capital and buying some souvenirs. At 6 p.m. we went to a very nice restaurant for the official Earthwatch farewell dinner.
 
Grant told us that our team was very productive, as we found more than 600 caterpillars. I didn’t know it before, but some members of our team collected 20 to 25 caterpillars on each collecting trip.
 
He complimented us on what a great team we were (well, we felt it ourselves, of course) and how easy and pleasurable it was to work with us. We returned the compliment to Grant and Tara, as they were very supportive through the entire trip. As a sign of our gratitude, we gave each of them a bottle of Costa Rican rum (that was the only idea for a present that I came up with at that point). After the restaurant and a trip to a bar with hard-rock singers (which some of us visited later), we returned to our hotel for final hugs, kisses, and goodbyes. The next day, everybody had different plans. We were no longer under Earthwatch supervision.
 
My plan was to go to the ocean with Darryl and Amy early the next morning.

Friday, July 11, 2008 Because our trip ended, I felt sad sitting on a bus going to the ocean. People who became very close friends left in different directions around the world. I was missing my family, too. But, I was going to see the ocean!
 
When I came to Costa Rica, I found out that going to Samara (a small town on the Pacific coast) is more complicated than I originally thought. It’s nine hours on a bus, not the five that I thought it was. That’s why I decided to join my new friends and go to Manuel Antonio Beach, which is also on the Pacific coast but a lot closer to San Jose—only four hours on a bus.
 
We got there in the afternoon and headed to the ocean right after checking in at one of the hotels. The beach was fantastic! Very clean sand and very warm water. Now I can say that I’ve seen the ocean! My only wish was to get up early the next day and take pictures of an empty beach in the morning!

Saturday, July 12, 2008 I got up without an alarm at 5 a.m., took my camera, and went to the beach. Sitting there in the morning was amazing! Only you, the wind, and an ocean! At some point, a dog joined me, and we were sitting together catching early sunbeams.
 
At 8 a.m., a private bus took me from our hotel directly to a hotel in San Jose. There, I met again with Vanessa and Tanya (the woman from Canada, and one of those who collected most of caterpillars), who were staying in San Jose until the next day. We wandered around, chatted, and discussed our past experience. Since we were leaving the next morning almost at the same time, we decided to meet in the airport and hang out there before flying away from our best life experience.

Sunday, July 13, 2008 Today, I flew home! I didn’t feel my body through the entire flight. One reason is that the past 12 days were so amazing that I didn’t want to leave Costa Rica. The other reason is that I missed my son and wife so much that I wanted to meet them as soon as possible.
 
I had three flights: San Jose to Atlanta, Atlanta to Moscow, and Moscow to Samara. Since we were moving in a direction opposite of the sun, I was “losing” a day. In Moscow, I found out that my luggage was not delivered from Atlanta, and I would need to get it later at the Samara airport. I wasn’t very upset. I just filled out all the required papers and hurried to fly home. Several days later, my luggage was delivered and nothing was lost.
 
My overall feeling about the Earthwatch experience is beyond all words! I’m very happy that Earthwatch and Alcoa selected me to participate in this project. I’m so grateful for that!
 
Costa Rica is an amazing country that definitely is worth visiting for vacation or even moving there to live. It’s a very beautiful and laid-back place.
 
I will miss this country and the people that I’ve met there. I made very good friends from all over the world, and I hope to meet them someday, maybe in Costa Rica again.
 
I’d like to thank all the readers who managed to read my diary up to the end. I hope that my example will tell you that joining an Earthwatch project is definitely something worth doing. And if you’re an Alcoan, you definitely need to apply for the Earthwatch fellowship program!

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Hunting for Caterpillars in La Selva


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