Three weeks ago, I arrived in San José, Costa Rica, with a backpack full of bug repellant, SPF 50 sunscreen, my SCUBA mask, and a feeling of excitement at the possibility of engaging in a professionally rewarding experience in a beautiful place. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I spent my time doing the background research necessary to travel solo down Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, stopping at coastal towns along the way. My google searches consisted of things like: What are the traffic laws in Costa Rica? How do I ask to fill my car with gas? and Where is the best place to see a sloth? Meanwhile, I was preparing to write a qualitative research paper on the involvement of the shipping sector in the designation of a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) in a biodiversity hotspot off the coast called the “Thermal Dome.” I conducted a literature review, wrote interview questions, and spent weeks thinking about my methodology and data analysis.
The first two weeks of my trip were spent traveling around and enjoying all of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. I stayed at eco-hostels, explored local national parks, met other travelers from around the world, and perfected my concise explanation of “what I was doing in Costa Rica.” Safe to say my reasoning for being there strayed from the average response of “I’m just here to surf” or “I’m just backpacking around Central and South America because…why not?” During those first weeks, I was tested in more ways than one. Driving solo in a foreign country proved intimidating at first, but I soon learned that stop signs are merely a suggestion (as are speed limits), four-wheel-drive is an absolute necessity, and if needed there is always someone willing to help point you in the right direction. My spanish-speaking abilities were tested as well, and I found myself extremely grateful for the months of spanish classes taken at Middlebury College and MIIS.
While I had visited Costa Rica in high school, I was still in complete awe of the biodiversity I experienced over those two weeks. I saw sloths (multiple!), monkeys, intimidatingly-large spiders, giant fluorescent butterflies, sea turtles, caimans, toucans, and scarlet macaws. I witnessed firsthand how conscious and appreciative Costa Ricans are toward their wildlife, and how it is considered the country’s greatest resource both for the tourism it generates and its inherent value. On a whale-watching tour, I spoke to the tour guide about the importance of cetaceans in the area and how he has dedicated his life to their protection. My last weekend before returning to San José, I joined a SCUBA trip to Caño Island and within 15 minutes spotted multiple species of tropical fish, an octopus, and several hawksbill turtles. The divemaster explained in detail how to dive without disturbing the wildlife, and once again I could sense why Costa Rica is a world leader in ecotourism and environmental protection.
At the beginning of my third and final week, I returned to San José and started preparing for the main event of my trip, a conference hosted by MarViva, the organization I am working for. The goal of the conference was to invite stakeholders in the shipping sector from different countries in the region and involve them in the process of designating the Thermal Dome as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) under the jurisdiction of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Representatives from the ministries of transportation from Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala attended the conference to discuss the designation process, provide insight into the shipping sector in their respective country, and discuss the importance of prioritizing environmental protection for a biologically significant area such as the Thermal Dome. By the end of the day, each representative had committed to supporting the initiative of designating the Thermal Dome as a PSSA and spreading awareness of its importance within their countries. While the process could take years, it was clear that this was a necessary first step.
Now back in California, the work of combing through direct observations and transcripts from the conference, interviewing participants, and sending out questionnaires has begun. I will eventually be analyzing all of this data to assess the success of the conference when involving stakeholders in the designation of a PSSA in the Thermal Dome, and these insights will (hopefully) provide guidance for future PSSA designation. Feeling rejuvenated by the Costa Rican sunshine and only partly covered in mosquito bites, I am looking forward to continuing this project.