Thursday, August 4, 2011

A manatee!!!!

Richard has always wanted to see manatees, and we had talked to a travel agent last trip about arranging something - but the manatees are easier to find in Panama, and we were missing a passport last trip - so we were committed to seeing manatees this time, even if it was a bit pricey.

So - the tour operator, Karina, met us at our cabina this morning.  She was very nice, and chatted with us as she drove us down to Sixaola, the border town between Costa Rica and Panama.

We had to show our passports and get an exit stamp from Costa Rica.  We had to walk across this HORRIBLE ancient rickety bridge, with boards that moved around, gaps between the cross pieces, some broken and rotted boards, spikes that stuck up somewhat - and worst, NOTHING to hold onto!  Oh, did I mention the occasional semi that came lumbering across, as we had to move to the rusted metal platform on the side????  THIS was the bridge from Hell, and it was a miracle that Richard and I managed to walk across it in both directions.

Of course, at the other end we had to go through Customs to enter Panama.  So another line, another wait - then a taxi ride to the boat at the wetlands park (because to take a car from country to country entails way too much time and effort - plus Panama is one time zone ahead of Costa Rica, so timing is of the essence when going from one country to another and coming back in the same day).

Yes, this is a bus on pontoons.  No, this is not the boat we went out in.  We were in a little outboard motorboat, with the wood planks for seats.  Maybe a fiberglass boat.  Definitely no frills.

So we went out into the wetland area, which is kind of an estuary or channel that winds between the mainland (rather swampy) and the barrier islands (mangrove swamps).  We came to the platform, sort of an elevated shelter, which is basically a wildlife blind.  There's a man who has taken on the project of putting out food for the manatees, and he hangs up fresh banana leaves and green bananas every day - he grows these organically, so they are better for the manatees.  He showed us around, and had us sit quietly for a while - manatees are very shy, and when a motorboat comes through they go off and hide for a while.  So we had to wait for the manatees to come back.

It was kind of like fishing - when you get a nibble on the hook, the float and/or the fishing rod bobs up and down.  With the bananas and leaves hanging from the low branches, the manatees would sneak up and begin eating from underneath, pulling the branches down.  So when we saw the branches bobbing, we knew there was a manatee around.

Then there was the crunching noise, and some grunting - and eventually a manatee face!  I don't even know how to describe a manatee face - grey and rumpled up and furry, somewhat like a wet Sharpei dog - it was just a big grey furry face, but without any real definition - when it was eating the leaves and bananas, I couldn't really tell what was what - where were the eyes?  Nose?  Mouth?  Ears?  Forehead?  It was just a very weird grey amorphous blob, chomping and grunting!  There were a few moments of snout sticking up, breathing - a few moments of back as the manatee lay flat on the water to better grab a few bananas.  Then a moment and he/she was gone, grabbing from underwater again.


I kept trying to get a photo, but the manatee (only one showed up) was VERY elusive - just bobbing that blob-shaped head up, nuzzling the bananas and leaves, chomping and taking things underwater to eat.  I may have a bit of manatee showing in the photo, just to the right of the bananas.  Then again, it may just be a ripple in the water.  The manatee almost looked like a big rock coming to life and eating on the surface - that's how amorphous it was!

After 2 hours, the motorboat returned and we were taken to the end of the barrier island, where there is a turtle project.  The volunteers had just left the previous day, but Manatee Man had a big lunch ready for us - fried fish, rice and beans, salad, and watermelon.  He showed us around, and we chatted in our minimal Spanish. 

One moment of excitement - I went out to look at the water, thinking I had seen a crocodile face (which turned out to be a log) - but then I noticed that the motorboat was drifting away from shore and starting to turn with the tide and drift seaward - Motorboat Man had Manatee Man take him out in his canoe and they brought the motorboat back to shore.  I can only imagine how long it would have taken to paddle back!

These white things are screen covers for the various turtle nests - the eggs are gathered from the nests and re-buried, and these screens protect the baby turtles when they hatch, before they are helped out to sea (as in protected from birds, crabs, dogs, etc).  The project released over 1000 baby turtles in July, so this was pretty exciting.  These nests are about ready to hatch - but we didn't have time to stay until evening and see the hatching.

Most of the groups have murals in the cookhouse, and each person signs the painting.  They were pretty cool.

Then boat ride back to the landing - taxi back to the border - passport control - cross the horrible bridge - passport in Costa Rica - and Karina took us back to Puerto Viejo.  We also saw a lot of birds on the way, and a bunch of river turtles - not sea turtles, just little grey river turtles.  Sitting on piles of stuff floating in the river, and looking around.

A long and eventful day!!!!!

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