Trish Riley is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Greening Your Business (Alpha Books, 2009, with Heather Gadonniex) and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Living (Alpha Books 2007), as well as many travel books and articles about environmental issues.
A CLEAR BLUE SKY REFLECTED IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN AS OUR BOAT CUT AWAY FROM PUERTO QUEPOS, COSTA RICA, ON A WARM SPRING DAY. “JUST ONE THING,” I ASKED KATHERINE EVANS, MY DIVE TRAINER, AS WE WERE ABOUT TO CAST INTO THE WATER. “DO I REALLY HAVE TO FALL IN BACKWARD OFF THE BOAT? CAN’T I JUST CLIMB DOWN THE LADDER?”
She laughed and said, yes, I could ease into the sea instead, but that it’s simpler to let the weight of the tank pull you into the ocean.
I had snorkeled the beautiful, crystal blue waters of the Florida Keys and Bahamas many times and always marveled at the amazingly colorful reefs and creatures that roam the Star Trek-worthy world under the sea. But I was a bit nervous about venturing down too deep to access the surface and fresh air.
I had wanted to scuba – as well as skydive – as a child, but then I lost all desire to risk my life when my children were born. Now that they’re grown, I’m beginning to feel adventurous again.
What is the allure to venture under the sea? There are certainly dangers worth considering before submerging with a tank.
I consulted with Wes Skiles, famous for filming cave diving expeditions around the world (www.karstproductions.com). He shared footage of some of his most challenging dives with me and attendees at the Gainesville (Florida) Environmental Film and Arts Festival (http://gefaf.org). The film showed the trials endured by him and his colleagues as they explored the caverns that supply freshwater, which is running just underground across the Florida landscape. Skiles’ work has been broadcast by Nova, Discovery channel, and National Geographic channel.
Skiles said he discovered his love for cave diving while trying to help protect the vitality of the Florida springs, which, like waterways everywhere in the world, are rapidly being contaminated by agricultural pollution and debris from careless civilization. A Skiles interview (www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/cavedive/producer.html) recounts his experiences finding the bodies of divers who didn’t survive their explorations – including his best friend.
Of course, Skiles and his colleagues engage in extreme diving that carries a much greater risk than most of us will ever face. Drew Arthur, a dive instructor with Oceans Unlimited (www.oceansunlimitedcr.com) in Quepos, said, “People of all ages want to dive – biologists, nature lovers, adventurers, even children. It shouldn’t be a strenuous activity.”
Nelson, a diver on board the boat heading to our first dive spot, said that he’s a U.S. Air Force pilot who’s been grounded too long. He wanted to experience the thrill of adventure, which he compared to flying.
The staff of Oceans Unlimited provided training, and I was surprised that the skills were not as complex or threatening as I had thought. I went along with tradition and dropped off the boat into the deep blue sea, finally diving for the first time in my life. I felt no sense of hesitation as I plunged backward off the boat and into the sea with the weight of the oxygen tank on my back.
We swam toward the orange line anchored by weights to the sea bottom. I did hesitate a moment when we first submerged along the rope line, suddenly feeling that in spite of my expert training, I hadn’t a clue what to do or how to breathe. I popped back to the surface for a last gulp of fresh air, and spoke briefly with Evans, who reassured me that if I was uncomfortable going down, then we’d come back up. I realized that I really had no reason to panic and that I could rely on my knowledge, so back under we went, easing our way downward, clearing our sinuses every few feet.
The sea was blue but murky, filled with bits of debris that washed past us as we dropped down to about 40 feet. I noticed that Evans continuously checked what looked like a large watch on her wrist. I questioned her, and she showed me the device, which read 37, then 38. I thought that meant that we’d already been down for 38 minutes, and that our trip, a 45-minute dive, would soon be over. I felt a little relieved because I was a bit uneasy and unsure of my ability to continue breathing with ease. However, thinking time was short, I paid more attention to the fish and crusty corals, assuming my chance to see them would soon end.
It turned out she was consulting a depth meter, not a clock.
We saw colorful parrot fish, damselfishes, triggerfish, several different kinds of starfish, waving purple and pink fan corals, and multicolored coral rocks covered with crusty red, blue, green, and brown growths. We spotted a few bleached corals, too, signs of problems in the sea. Spiky black sea urchins hid in crevices; puffers of all sizes passed us by; and a lobster’s long antennae stretched out of a hole. Angelfish with long crowns swam by. The currents of the sea were like the wind, blowing the fish, the corals, and us to and fro.
I suddenly understood the pilot’s lure to dive.
Maintaining my buoyancy was a challenge, and Evans came by to add weight and adjust my air when I rose above the floor or sank too close to the bottom. She checked with me frequently to make sure I was doing okay, giving me the thumbs-up sign. I was doing fine and found the sea interesting, though I was debating staying aboard the boat for the second dive to come. I reasoned with myself that it would be foolish to decline this rare opportunity. Eventually, Evans indicated that it was time to go back up, and we found the rope and rose slowly to the surface, exhaling and pressurizing our ears as we went.
The boat crew was skilled at helping everyone shed their gear in the water and climb back aboard. A plate of pineapple and cold cups of water were passed to ease the saltiness in our mouths. A few people sprayed themselves with a freshwater hose, but I chose to let the benefit of the salty water sink into my skin. I’d rubbed Purple Prairie’s natural zinc and titanium dioxide sunscreen into my skin to protect against sunburn.
MORE TO COME
Luckily, the next dive came up very quickly, and I didn’t have time to waver. The second dive was easier, knowing I’d already successfully “mastered” the skill, and the corals and fish were more plentiful and beautiful than before.
We followed a school of colorful fish to find another cluster of small yellow surgeonfish hiding in a shallow canyon. A beautiful blue fish, about six or eight inches long with a band of bright yellow across his fins at the breastbone, took a liking to me and began to swim alongside me. Once it moved right in front of my face and looked directly at me as if in greeting. We smiled at each other, and he continued along with me for quite a ways. I reached out but didn’t threaten him by trying to touch. I just wanted to let him know I acknowledged his connection to me. I saw him scoot over to a large fish nearby, as if warning him away. I felt I’d made a friend in the Pacific.
Soaring through the sea was indeed like flying through the air, and the chance to view the beauty of the undersea world is truly a treasure. By the time I’d surfaced from my second dive, I had made a decision: I’m coming back for more.
EXOTOURISM AND ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY
Costa Rica is well known as one of the most environmentally friendly nations in the world; it was rated the third cleanest country in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index prepared by Yale and Columbia universities. Perhaps this, and the fact that Costa Rica does not support a military, accounts for the fact that the country has earned the title as the Happiest Place on Earth by the New Economics Foundation and the World Happiness Index.
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species (more than 300,000 are insects!) and ranks among the top 20 nations for its rich biodiversity. Thanks to its wealth of rain forests and attendant creatures, ecotourism is a principal economic driver in the country. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute and partners have developed a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program. It guides businesses toward environmental policies to help protect the incredibly beautiful natural paradise that has become a mecca for visitors to explore its tropical beauty. The CST provides a benchmark to help tourists select properties that are striving to preserve the wildlife and fauna that make it so special.
The influx of tourism is certainly leaving its mark on this beautiful paradise, and the rapid growth is outpacing existing regulations, which are insufficient for the sudden demand. Trees must be felled to make room for development, and the increased population puts a strain on water supplies. Lacking water treatment facilities, many homes and businesses operate on septic systems that filter waste water back into creeks, rivers, groundwater, and the oceans. Contamination of waterways is a great concern, particularly because many residents draw freshwater from local rivers. Ocean health is also threatened.
Beaches participate in the voluntary Blue Flag Ecology Program, which provides an indicator regarding water quality. The beach at Quepos is polluted, but the nearby beach at Manuel Antonio National Park has a Blue Flag certification and provides a scenic site for water play. While diving off Quepos, the murky water filled with debris showed that the water is contaminated by runoff from coastal rivers, which carry waste products from civilization as well as agricultural chemicals from tropical farms.
Costa Rican tourism officials and the government will need to continue to forge ever more vigilant regulations in their partnerships with tourism developments as they seek to protect the rare beauty of their land and the creatures that live within it – from mosquitoes and butterflies to residents and tourists – as well as protect the boon to the local economy from tourism.
When you visit, seek properties that boast the seal of approval from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute – the Certification of Sustainable Tourism – and select waterways that bear the Blue Flag Ecology Program stamp.
Here are some resources to guide your travel:
- www.oceansunlimitedcr.com: Owned by two former police divers from Florida, this Quepos dive shop provides training for dive instructors as well as novice divers. The shop engages the community in environmental education through local schools, conducts water cleanups, monitors local reef health, and has been recognized for its environmental efforts.
- www.visitcostarica.com: The official site of Costa Rica provides detailed information on hotels, attractions, maps, and sustainability ratings.
- www.best-ecolodges.com/costarica.htm: An independent site run by traveler Eve Cabanel, who researches and recommends properties on the basis of their sustainability principles.
- www.costaverde.com: This is a lovely property developed by an individual owner with environmental concerns in mind. Constructed of solid wood and local stone, the hotel includes several buildings in a rain forest overlooking Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific Ocean on the central Pacific coast. Howler and squirrel monkeys swing and sing in the trees. Rooms are large with screened windows and broad decks opening into the forest.
- www.lacusinga.com: Bordering Ballena Marine National Park on the southwest Pacific coast, La Cusinga is situated in a virgin rain forest near the town of Uvita. Far removed from tourist activities, the lodge provides scenic views of unpopulated beaches and colorful tropical flowers amid towering trees. La Cusinga provides a stunning yoga pavilion overlooking the ocean and is a popular retreat for groups. A small organic farm yields a bounty for the kitchen. Humpback whales and spotted dolphins are frequent visitors to the waters off the coast, and scarlet macaws can be spotted in the trees.
- www.ramadaherradura.com: A welcome respite from jungle life, this CST property near the airport in San Jose provides all the comforts of a luxury hotel, from hot tubs and massages to fine dining and free Wi-Fi.