Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Travel: Day 8 - Puerto Rico - Jungle jaunts and bio-luminescent trawls

One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts institution is the freedom to design and offer courses that are close to your heart. In January 2011, I was fortunate enough to lead a group of 6 students through the world of Tropical Ecology. Apart from not being in the right ecosystem, Nebraska in the winter is definitely not the place to have field trips about Tropical Ecology. Consequently, one portion of the course involved a 10-day trip to Puerto Rico where we got to see for ourselves all the things we talked about in the classroom. 

This is a travelogue of our adventures together, the sights we saw, the things we did, and the lessons we learned. (You can see all the previous posts in this thread here).

The day began with AJ demanding a hearty breakfast so we fulfilled that request, courtesy Ponderosa.  As I mentioned earlier, you can get a lot of food for less than 5 bucks!

(Sami Wysocki 2011)
After 7 days of crossing through and circling around them, on the 8th day we finally ventured into the Sierra de Loquillo mountains that make up the central spine of Puerto Rico.  It was well worth the wait.

(Sami Wysocki 2011)
The drive was quite curvy, naturally, but as we rose into the mountains, it began to cool down and occasionally the canopy would clear to show some fantastic views of the rest of the island and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

(Sami Wysocki 2011)
I like the following picture because of the illusion of speed that it conveys.  Most of the ride into the mountains was on a curvy road through canopy like this.

(Andrew Jacobsen 2011)
We stopped briefly at the Yokahu Tower for some impressive views of the mountains as well as the distant ocean (see panorama pictures above).

(Miranda Beran 2011)
The Tower itself is quite an imposing structure and has windows that accord different views of the landscape depending upon which direction you are facing.

(C.S. Manish 2011)
While at the Tower, we had to take an obligatory group photo.

(C.S. Manish 2011)
Driving further along the road, took us into the El Yunque National Forest.  Formerly known as the Luquillo National Forest and/or the Caribbean National Forest, El Yunque National Forest is said to be the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System. El Yunque National Forest occupies a little over 28,000 acres of land and El Toro, the highest mountain peak in the forest rises 1,065 metres (3,494 ft) above sea level. The area receives more than 200 inches of rainfall in a year in some areas, thereby providing enough moisture to sustain a tropical jungle-like setting with lush foliage, waterfalls, and numerous streams.

Andrew Jacobsen 2011)
As you would expect, the rainforest is host to numerous species of epiphytes that can be seen adorning the branches of trees.  The forest is also home to many species of Coquí , an endemic frog, hugely revered in Puerto Rico.  (And they create quite the ruckus at night with their distinctive and repetitive co-qui calls!)

(Katie McKenna 2011)
We got off the road and took the La Mina trail to Cascada La Mina (La Mina Falls).  Tumbling down at least four shelves the water is cold, refreshingly clear and frothy.  Just perfect for a dip in the pool that collects at the base!

(Miranda Beran 2011)
The students spent almost an hour exploring the surroundings of the waterfall.  A few of them were adventurous enough to clamber up to the first shelf while others waded into the pool and swam off the sweat from the hike.

(C.S. Manish 2011)
After some time, we retraced our steps along the path (for some reason the return trip always seems shorter), stopping from time to time to smell the jungle and take some pictures.

(C.S. Manish 2011)
Along the way, we saw numerous plants and flowers.  Here's a smattering of a few of the amazingly beautiful organisms we saw.

(Andrew Jacobsen, C.S. Manish, Katie McKenna, Miranda Beran and Sami Wysocki 2011)
After lunching at a roadside stall, we got back into the van and drove towards the north-east corner of the island, towards Fajardo.  Our destination?  La Laguna Grande.  (Remember me telling you in the Day 7's report to pay close attention to the body of water that was being bisected by the sun's rays in the panoramic view from the lighthouse?).

Puerto Rico is home to three Bioluminescent Bays (bio-bays): La Parguera on the southwest coast, Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques and La Laguna Grande in Fajardo.  Earlier in the trip we had gone snorkeling in La Parguera (on Day 3) but in the day time.  Now it was time to go back and see something wildly different for ourselves at night.  A bio-bay is a body of water that contains millions of micro-organisms, dinoflagellates, that glow in the dark for a second or two when agitated.  It is a defensive response of the tiny organism, in essence warning the intruder of dangers untold.  Sort of.

Our tour started a little after dark.  We were divided into pairs and began by kayaking into the ocean towards a thin channel that leads to La Laguna Grande. The channel was narrow and convoluted and we had to kayak in single file to avoid hitting each other and the sides of the channel. Mangrove trees that line the channel made up the canopy and gave quite an eerie feeling as we silently paddled in the near-dark.  As we approached the lagoon we began to notice little sparkles every time our paddles stirred the water - the dinoflagellates were luminescing!  After passing through the channel we entered the lagoon and here we did not have to strain our eyes to see the luminescence.  We spent about half an hour paddling around while listening to the tour guides (Luis Mendes, Jose, and Axel) describe the science and history behind the process and the bay.

(Unknown 2011)
After that, the students had no trouble sleeping in the van on the ride back to the hotel.  After we freshened up, we had dinner and then wandered around Carolina taking in the night lights and the sights and sounds of Puerto Rico.  Tomorrow was going to be our last full day in PR but it promised to be filled with plenty of exciting moments, too.

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