Getting in touch with nature

By: Garth Gray, high school alumnus High School Study Abroad, Wildlife Biology

A year ago Costa Rica to me was just another distant country on the Caribbean coast known for its rain forests and excellent surfing. Thanks to my participation with an Academic Treks program by Broadreach, I got to experience life in the country first hand and much more.

Our focused group of high school students consisted of four boys and seven girls, coming from homes as far away as Alaska, Maine, New York, and Florida. Our primary mission was to work alongside researchers with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation to collect data from, monitor, and study the endangered green sea turtles along the coast near Tortuguero. Our daytime studies came alive at night when we explored the beaches after midnight in search of turtles laying their eggs. Soon studying outdoors became an adventure as we stumbled (literally) across four-hundred-pound nesting turtles, venomous snakes, and even the red glow of a pair of jaguar eyes just a few feet into the vegetation.

Our staff and team of researchers were awesome. Through them we gained an appreciation of the importance of conservation and knowledge that the research we were helping with really was important. I learned that the sea turtles only contribute to the ecosystem and are not harmful in any way. New laws protecting sea turtles from poachers and valuable research focused on prolonging their existence help not only the turtle population but the local tourist economy as well.

Free time relaxing with my new friends was also a lot of fun as we compared home towns, interests, and college plans. We shared times we won’t easily forget, like touching bottle nosed dolphins from the bow of our boat and scuba diving in the clear Caribbean waters. We also performed community service work with local students by cleaning up beaches to make turtle nesting possible. I enjoyed practicing my Spanish vocabulary while getting to know some of the locals my age. Working alongside our new friends took on greater meaning as we gained their respect as givers rather than takers and I feel proud knowing that we left favorable impressions of Americans abroad.

Towards the end of our adventure we traveled through the rain forests to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. There we relaxed on the black volcanic beaches with just enough time to scuba dive, soak in the local culture and reflect on the last few weeks we had shared. Our fragmented group of strangers was now united with a common desire to not only stay in touch with each other but to also stay in touch with nature.

All of these experiences have given me a greater appreciation of our fragile ecosystem, distant countries, and close friendships. I realize better now, that every individual can make a positive impact on others and the world around us. Knowing now that the turtles I see along the North Carolina coast may likely be on a journey back to Costa Rica gives me a closer connection to them and a concern for their safety. I am grateful for this recent experience, and look forward to many more in the future.