I just climbed Volcan de Tajamulco, in Guatemala. That is the highest point in Central America, at 4,280m (14,041 feet). I stood alone at dawn at the summit, and spent one of the most blissful and inspiring mornings of my life.
Why is it that high altitude brings forth such powerful emotions. In the book Zorba the Greek, the author Nikolas Kazantzakis wrote of the sensation of climbing Mount Nikos “anyone would think that the soul too was an animal, with lungs and nostrils, and also craved oxygen”
Scientists know that high altitudes mean lower partial pressures of oxygen. This can actually cause the dreaded ‘attitude sickness’, because of a lack of oxygen supply to parts of the body, particularly the brain. This is dangerous, and can actually cause death in some cases.
Scientists and mountaineers alike have long been amazed at the hardiness, health and energy of people who live at high altitudes, such as the peoples of the Himalayas in Nepal. Samples of their blood have been found to contain extremely high levels of haemoglobin, the vital protein that transports oxygen around the body. Despite the dangers, could it be that there are other hidden undiscovered health benefits to moderate exposure to high altitudes?
I am extremely curious to know more. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the view!
The sun is rising – 5:00am Friday 27th November. In the creeping light, I am racing up a rocky pinnacle at just a little over 3,800m. The going is tough. My heart is pounding hard in my chest, and my lungs are working as hard as they can. I am running, scrabbling for balance with both hands on the bare rocks. To the left and right the rocks slide away into perilous falls. I can see the glimmer of a lake down to my left. I am about to summit Chirripo, the highest mountain in Costa Rica. I turn to see my climbing partner gaining on me… I whoop in exilharation, and then immediately regret it – I needed that oxygen!
With a last twist of the trail that sets my quadriceps muscles on fire, I see the flag of Costa Rica ahead of me fluttering in the first morning breeze, and I know that I have made it. Jubilation takes over, and I hug the suprised stranger who is the only man to beat me to the summit that day. We made it! The view is breathtaking, layers of clouds below us glowing in a ring of orange creeping light. I am freezing, even in my thermal base layer, fleece, mountain top, goretex jacket, and Andean wool hat and gloves. It can’t be much above freezing point. What a climb. What a dawn. What an amazing place to be.
And then again, what an amazing study of the effects of altitude on vegetation. Climbing mountains gives a biologist an amazing opportunity to observe something called ‘zonation’ in action. That is, when vegetation (and associated animal species) occur in discrete zones, delineated by geographical boundaries. In this case, the zones are defined by altitude.
We had started that day at the punishing hour of 3am from basecamp. At 3400m, this is already above the ‘tree-line’. Here only hardy bushes and xerophytic plants (adapted to desert-like conditions), will grow. Standing there on the top of CR, there is nothing alive except us. Well… probably some microorganisms grow, bacteria and algae. But mostly just rocks.
During the previous day, we had hiked 6 and a half hours from the village of San Gerardo de RIvas, witnessing truly remarkable changes in vegetation. Moist lowland forest had suddenly become gorgeous cloud forest, heavily clad with old man’s beard and orchids, which troops of white faced cappucin monkeys were literally ripping to pieces in their search for tasty insects. It was literally raining precious orchids, like a free-for-all herbarium.
Strange clusters of indigenous bamboo came and went, and when we crossed the treeline the change into scrub land was equally dramatic. Suddenly beautiful flowers appeared on both sides, and small cheeping birds fluttered on between the sparse foliage. A green spiny lizard followed us, one of Costa Rica’s highest living reptiles.
Okay, so why does this happen. Well, we know that at higher altitudes, a number of abiotic factors change. Air begins to thin, that means less CO2 for plants to draw on for photosynthesis. This also affects evaporation rates for water, which becomes faster. The effect of winds can be more strongly felt, as there is nothing to slow them down up there. There is also less shade. Basically it becomes more exposed, creating a harsh environment where water is scarce for plants. Presumably, the combination of these factors places a limit on how high certain species can flourish. This allows plants to grow which would otherwise be out-competed by the lower-altitude loving plants. At a certain altitude, around 3,600m, it’s too high for anything. When my two climbing buddies and I tried to do a little ‘independent exploration’, we soon found that this meant there is very little to hold on to. Climbing on bare rock on high altitude is a scerene but also intense experience. You know you are climbing higher than life itself dares to go. That makes it a little more scary, a but also a little more special.
So if you dare to climb this amazing mountain, watch out for the zonation!
photo credit www.govisitcostarica.com
Saturday morning, 8:30am. I am 25m down in the Pacific Ocean of the coast of the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, next to a wave-rocked promontory they call ‘Isla de Murcielogos’, or ‘bats island’. The diving guide, an seasoned veteran known as Javier, raises his hand and signals to me by placing the palm of his hand straight up on the top of his head. His meaning is unmistakeable – shark.
Around the corner swims a beefy bull shark, his grey flanks rippling with muscle and his bunched mouth bursting with razor sharp teeth. He doesn’t seem to be much interested in us, however, he seems to be taking a stroll around the island. The thrill for us is a powerful one, and although we can’t talk to each other underwater, you can see feel the excitement in the quickening of our fins and in the widening of our eyes.
Diving with sharks on their own terms can be a powerful experience, and you can feel the majesty of their powerful domination over the saltwater aquatic ecosystems of this earth while reminding yourself that as long as you are not their natural prey you should be in little danger.
However there is another kind of diving with sharks that I object to. This is the kind where a thrill seeking tourist gets in a cage, and then all kinds of bloody lumps of meat are hung outside to attract the big predator sharks such as the great whites Carcharodon carcharias. Tourists then enjoy the sight of the sharks feeding next to them, beating against the sides of the cage even in a frenzy of bloodlust.
photo credit (www.travelsouthafrica.net)
I make my point later as we dine on a high terrace looking out of the bay at playa el coco. A large raccoon approaches the table and attempts to convince us to give it food. Obviously he has learned to associate humans with a source of food, and although he is still afraid he stands on his hindlegs and attempts to bully us into surrendering our lunch. I manage to drive the ardent mammal off, but there is a flash of teeth and it crosses my mind that I could get bitten. Time and time again the lesson has been drummed into me that we don’t teach a wild animal to associate humans with food. Even the smallest animal becomes dangerous. So if this is the case, why oh why, are we doing it with some of the most ferocious predators on the planet?
Things go wrong with a raccoon’s perception of humans, the worst we might have to suffer is teeth marks and a rabies shot. Teach a shark to associate humans with food, and you can have fatalities.
Western Australia banned cage-shark diving for this reason in 2012. The debate was heated, as cage-shark diving is a major earner in the tourist industry. South Africa, and Southern Australia are two places where you can still do cage-shark diving. Why is it not banned world-wide? Well, no one has actually proved that cage-shark diving causes sharks to attack people. This is curious, and fascinating. It does occur to the educated mind that it might … perhaps we are lacking the right team of scientists for the job.
We continue on our watery exploration of the seafloor underneath ‘Bats Island’, seeing many wonderful things including the tiny but spectacular harlequin shrimp. The sharks have been the stars though. So if you want an amazing experience, I do recommend going down into those waters, the last wild frontier on Earth, and seek a glimpse of one of the most impressive and efficient predators ever to swim in our seas. But leave the cage behind, go on – be a real diver. Oh yes, and remember – don’t feed them!
I lead an annual trip to Monteverde National Forest Reserve, near Santa Elena in Costa Rica. The last time I was there, it was in June with a group of IB Environmental Systems students from the Academia Britanica Cuscatleca in El Salvador. As we were settling into our lodgings, a visitor arrived.
Boldly sniffing around the doors to our cabins, was a male Coati or Pizote. With characteristically raised tail, stripey upturned face and strong nimble fingers, the Coati looks like a Rainforest version of a raccoon. Unlike most raccoons, the Coati often shows no fear of human beings, and this one swaggered up to my group of students and casually sniffed us for signs of food. None is totally sure why they stick their tails straight up, perhaps it is to let other Coati’s know where they are. But for a lone Coati such as this, this idea fails to explain it and it seems to me that it is trying to show us who’s the boss.
-Awww…que linda, went up the cry as everyone crowded around to see. I was cautious and warned my class not to get too close. And with good reason. The Costa Rican coati (or white-nosed Coati) Nasua narica has a formidable fighting reputation, with both sharp claws and razor-sharp teeth including canines. They are part of the same group as raccoons in the family Procyonidae, but tend to be more aggressive and fiercer hunters. If they are fed human food, this can cause them to associate humans with lunch and this is a dangerous idea. A coati could easily bite off a human finger. I ask the students to hold their hands up in the air away from the animal, and also to show clearly that they are carrying more food. We take some photos, and allow the animal to pass.
Unfortunately one trio of hapless girls have left their door open, and the male saunters in to inspect the premises. It is safer to open the door and wait for him to come out, which he does eventually after leaving a large dark dropping on the bathroom floor.
Scientists have reported that the Coati are sworn enemies of the highly dominant Cappucin monkeys, having a similar niche in the ecosystem as varied and efficient predators. On an animal survey hike later in the early evening, we witness firm evidence of this theory. A group of 10 coatis ascend into the trees and begin attacking a troop of Cappucin monkeys. An unfortunate mother monkey is separated from her family, and two Coati attack her from both sides. They rip the tiny infant from off of her back where it was clinging in desperation, and in front of my horrified class they murder it in cold blood and take it away in pieces. Our guide tells us that later the Cappucin monkeys may take their revenge.
In the meantime, my students are no longer likely to cry ‘aww…que linda’ next time they see a male Coati inspecting the cabins. However, like some of their human counterparts, they do have a certain roguish charm and I am always delighted to see one – Although when I do; I show them the same respect that I would if I had met Al Capone on a stroll in the rain-forest.
(photo of author with Pizote in Tamatin, Costa Rica)
It was last weekend, when I finally had the time and the right vehicle to take the bumpy drive up into the depths of the Parque Montecristo. This national reserve sits along the Northern border of El Salvador, where it famously meets two neighbours – Guatemala and Honduras. The mountain inside the park is called El Trifino, and in fact that is the only part which would be categorised as cloud forest. The rest is secondary pine forests, but beautiful just the same (for those non-scientists amongst you a secondary forest is one that has been cut down at least once and allowed to re-grow. The implications are that the biodiversity isn’t as high as a primary forest, which has escaped deforestation altogether). As we managed to scramble up the near vertical parts of the entry road, in a subaru forester, I wondered how three countries manage to club together to successfully manage a wildlife refuge. Well, the result seems to be a lot of strange rules. Firstly, you are not allowed into the park without a permit, applied for in advance. Secondly, you are not allowed to walk anywhere in the park, except on the specially designated footpaths. Thirdly you are not actually allowed in the cloud forest area at the moment, as it has been temporarily closed for ‘construction’ for two months. For construction? This forest has taken millions of years of evolution to be constructed, what can man possibly do to it in two months which will be of any benefit?
Having said all that, the park staff where enormously helpful and very professional, and as we were science educators we were allowed to wander a little ways into the cloud forest to have a look. This was a good cardiovascular workout, and as we saved our breath for respiration as we climbed, we fell instantly under the spell of the whispering quiet of the trees. I remembered taking a group of students from the ABC to Costa Rica for our first Environmental systems field trip there, and I was asked
“What is a cloud forest”, and “Do clouds grow up there?”
Well, a cloud forest is a tropical rainforest which grows at high altitude, basically at the altitude where clouds form. As clouds are basically floating water droplets, this means that a lot of the humidity which a rainforest requires comes in the form of misty water droplets, and not so much as falling rain. Cloud forests are a lot cooler than normal tropical rainforests, and are generally occur on the tops of mountains. What this means is that the staggering biodiversity of a rainforest in on display, but also for the casual walker or amateur biologist the climate is much fresher and more pleasant than a steamy lowland rainforest. Orchids abound, mammals tend to be a bit furrier in order to stay warm, and insects tend to be a little less murderous. And of course there are clouds, drifting through, bringing a certain mystical ambience – which combined with the spell-binding variety of nature cannot fail to delight those who seek out the quiet places of this Earth.
In other words, clouds forests are well recommended for rainforest beginners. Except the only one in El Salvador is closed right now, ‘under construction’. Now is that cloudy, or clear?
I recently had one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I spent the Saturday night patrolling the protected zone of San Diego beach with los tortugueros (the turtle-watchers). Between the months of May and October the most abundent sea turtle in the world ‘the olive ridley turtle’or golfina, comes ashore in El Salvador to nest and leave the next generation of turtles in the form of little ping-pong ball shaped eggs of surprising softness and density. As we lay on the sand close to the hard dome of young 20yr old golfino female, we watched in awe as she deposited 48 eggs in clusters of three into the vertical hole she had dug with her hind flippers. Using only red-light torches, which are thought not to disturb the turtles, we witnessed the ritual of of the female ‘whumping’ the sand flat and swishing sand over the nest to disguise it from predators. The mother turtle cried tears of deep emotions we could only wonder at, and I felt strangely blessed when this gentle creature slapped me on the arm with it’s flipper and then showered my face with sand. We followed her down to the sea and watched her disappear into the black night. Afterwards we dug up her 48 eggs, fired slingshots at marauding dogs who tried to steal a free meal and transported them to a safe hatchery.
Every night until the end of this month the 300m stretch of protected sand is protected by teams of 5 tortugeros, all night, every night. The population of golfinas worldwide has thought to have dropped to 50% of the numbers in the 1960s. These men and women of El Salvador are on the front lines of the battle to preserve the unique natural wonders that exist in El Salvador and those that we share with our neighbouring countries. I asked one of the tortugueros what he loved the most about doing this work.
“the baule, when they come are nearly 2m long. I have seen one only once, they are the most beautiful thing I have seen.” the man replied. The ‘baule’ or leatherback turtles are less frequent visitors to the shores of El Salvador, and I found myself envying this experience. Well I have seen one turtle. There are three more species to see. How many of you know their names?
The cougar, mountain lion, puma or panther. This mighty predator gets a lot of names, and the correct one is actually Puma or Puma concolor including the species name. And according to field biologists this awesome predator roams the entire range of the Americas, from the rocky mountains of Canada down to the eerie plains of Patagonia. Wait a minute, does that mean they must pass through El Salvador? Well, yes. In order to inhabit an area the Puma needs a large area devoid of human habitation, and a food source. Are there Puma living in El Salvador? My first guess would have been no, but in two recent ABC expeditions to the El Impossible National Park and to the area of Perquin – I asked professional game scouts and guides the very same question. They replied that a Puma was sighted 6 years ago on Serra Campana in El Impossible park, and a Puma with cubs was spotted three years ago in Perquin. Both sightings occurred to a lone human in the early morning, at around 6am. How many Puma are there in El Salvador? Are they resident here or are they passing through? These are questions I would like to find answers to. Well next time you go to these wild areas of El Salvador find the courage to get up early and go for a walk on your own…if you dare!