24 Students Experienced Rainforest Ecology Firsthand in Costa Rica

A Fenwick junior from Oak Park offers up a web log on how a nine-day ‘fieldtrip’ to Central America was life changing.

By Ben Groll ’21

It was Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Our flight to Costa Rica landed late the night before, and after three hours of sleep, my roommate Vince’s alarm woke us up. Three hours of sleep is not great, so my three other roommates and I were understandably exhausted. The previous day’s traveling had drained us, and as we all start to get packed, Vince moved the blinds, and we looked out the window. I did not take a picture, but I see it as clearly now as I see this paper: The sight of a massive mountain towering in the sky as the sun rose behind it. I saw the bright rays of pink and red from the rising sun blasting through the dark blues of night, mixing to create a beautiful sight that is unlike any I had ever seen. The “Ecology of the Rainforest” trip was just that: unforgettable, breathtaking and incredible.

The ever-changing rainforest of Costa Rica acted as an excellent background to our ever-changing trip, as our experiences each day were different from the last. Our first day was spent traveling to Tortuguero, and even the several hour bus ride was fun. All around us, we witnessed the breathtaking sights of the country, from banana trees to mountains and everything in between. We even saw a sloth during breakfast. What followed was a unique ride to our hotel, and our form of transportation did not involve wheels. We spent an hour on a boat that took us to our secluded hotel, and we spent the next three days exploring the surrounding wildlife. We were able to live inside the magnificent rainforest for multiple days and experience its wonders first-hand. On one of our boat rides, however, the first-hand nature of our trip backfired. While on our boat, gentlemen’s volleyball coach and English teacher Mrs. Whitman had an unfortunate encounter with a caiman; an experience which she remembers as fondly as one would remember an encounter with a caiman. The lurking caiman rushed through the waters and tapped her side of the boat with a relatively small amount of force. We were all surprised by it, and thankfully, nobody was hurt. Even our tour guides were surprised by this encounter.

The trip was very busy but in a good way. One of the mornings, we were awoken around 4 a.m. by the sound of howler monkeys as they were just waking up. The ambient sounds of the rainforest had woken us on plenty of the mornings, and this was no exception. The busy-ness of the trip left little to be desired in terms of time spent sleeping. Still, the incredible coffee and excitement of our time there kept me energized the entire way.

The sheer awe and amazement of the sights around us is a theme of this trip. Arguably, the most incredible sight I witnessed was when we saw turtles come from the ocean and lay their eggs on the beach. This incredible process only occurs at night, and we were fortunate enough to see multiple, one-meter-long turtles emerge from the ocean, climb onto the beach, dig patches for their eggs, lay their eggs, cover up the eggs to protect them, and crawl back into the sea as elegantly as they came from it. The lengths at which these turtles go to protect their eggs, and their growing young, is remarkable and heartwarming. As we were waiting for our time to view the turtles, we waited on the side of the beach, and there I witnessed another one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen in my life: the clearest night sky filled with a seemingly infinite amount of stars.

On the trip, we took part in ecotourism, which is the process in which tourists experience nature first hand, but in a way that supports the environment and leaves little to no footprint on it. The country of Costa Rica does an incredible job of lowering its reliance on fossil fuels and relying on renewable energy, and its impact is clear. Their commitment to sustaining the environment was awesome to learn about, and it helped me see the efforts required to sustain this world of ours. While it seems complicated, it’s quite simple, and the impact is huge. We witnessed this impact while on the beach before we saw the turtles. Mr. Menich, my classmates and I sat on the beach and witnessed the sheer beauty of the night sky. The stars dotted the dark sky and gave it a blue hue; all while shooting stars temporary lit up the dark blue sky. The untainted atmosphere here sharply contrasts that of Chicago, and this is a testament to Costa Rica’s incredible ability to reduce emissions and help the environment. And the results are breathtaking.

Online Eco-courses

The Costa Rica trip was all part of the Ecology of the Rainforest course offered during the second semester at Fenwick. Each week, we were to complete modules online. The only time I spent in a classroom for this course was when I took tests and did the final presentation. While on the trip, we were split into groups and researched a specific aspect of the ecology of the rainforest. My group was assigned to research gene flow in plant populations. During our trip, we were able to see this gene flow through the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Both work together and benefit each other, and an example of this was with hummingbirds and Heliconias. On multiple hikes, we saw the curved Heliconias flower, which is specially adapted for the long beaks of hummingbirds. The hummingbirds’ beaks go into the heliconia flower, and the pollen is sneakily put onto the hummingbird’s forehead by the heliconia. Once the hummingbird reaches another heliconia, the pollen on its forehead pollinates that plant, and the cycle repeats. This incredible symbiotic relationship showcases the harmony in the rainforest, which I would not have been able to fully grasp had I not taken this course and gone on this trip.

Science Teacher Mr. Dan Wnek zip-lining.

Not all the time spent on the trip was in boat rides and hikes, however. We also went zip-lining and white water rafting. Before we went zip-lining, Mrs. Whitman, who went zip-lining the year prior, told us that the zip-lining activity was going to be “one of the coolest things we’ll ever do,” and she was right. My friend Anthony and I traveled across the final line for a daunting minute and a half, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, and it was thrilling and unforgettable.

The Costa Rica trip consisted of some of the most unforgettable moments of my life, and I am certain that I will never forget the time spent there, the sights that were seen, and the friendships made. This course is worth the work, and I would highly recommend taking it so that one can see the sheer beauty of the rainforest, and learn about the harmony of its inhabitants.

Four Fenwick teachers served as chaperones: Ms. Tracy Carey (assistant librarian); Mr. Tim Menich (science); Ms. Kate Whitman (English) and her husband, Steve; and Mr. Dan Wnek (science).

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