Is it a boat? Is it a plane? Is it Superman doing Delta-wing tricks? No. It’s Spirit, the flying inflatable boat belonging to Delfín Amor Eco Lodge near Drake Bay, on the southern Pacific coast. The craft is primarily used by the marine-environment protection foundation Vida Marina, which operates out of the lodge. The surreal boat bird with an identity crisis aims to play a key role in the foundation’s ability to locate and document the many pods of whales and dolphins that frequent the rich waters around Drake Bay and nearby Caño Island, and to identify illegal fishing activity.
The lodge was a private hideaway before it was bought by California transplant Sierra Goodman in 1999.With a personality as colorful as the heliconias that thrive in her gardens, Goodman has been gradually building up the accommodations, although it is apparent that her main passion is for the Vida Marina Foundation over which she presides.
A former paralegal, the ebullient Goodman talks about how she ended up here. Landing in Drake Bay during hurricane Mitch in 1998, with the sea too rough to venture out, her mind was made up nonetheless: this was the place to be, and the deal on the property was completed. Only later was she able to appreciate not only the spectacular abundance of dolphins, whales and other marine animals around the bay area, but also the urgent need to protect them. Her life’s mission went into high gear.
The Vida Marina Foundation’s main concerns are to document the many marine mammals in the area with a view toward creating an official marine sanctuary.
It’s well known that the Osa Peninsula is one of the world’s hot spots for biodiversity and species abundance. This marine ecosystem is unique thanks in part to its proximity to an intriguing oceanographic phenomenon known as the “Costa Rican tropical thermal dome.” Rather like a transparent underwater mountain, a core of warmer shallow waters well up over colder low-oxygen layers, providing a year-round source of food and even temperatures, which in turn sustains more than 25 species of marine mammals and turtles.
But perhaps most compelling is that this is the only place on the planet where migrating humpback whales from north and south meet. The northern migrants appear from November to April to breed and give birth, overlapping with their southern cousins as these arrive from June to November. Not only are the scientific implications of such genetic interconnectivity tremendous, it gives tourists the longest season for whales potting anywhere.
Heading for Drake Bay always gives a feeling of adventure, especially if arriving over land and sea, via the Sierpe-based boat taxis and the 50-minute skim through Costa Rica’s largest stands of mangroves, passing over the (sometimes teeth-clenching) wave break into the ocean and across to the verdant, indented bay. It really is the best way to arrive, although it’s a tough decision when daily national plane services mean more time can be spent in this magical area.
Delfín Amor Eco Lodge lies south of the bay village of Agujitas, within easy walking distance.My boat taxi navigated through the five or so launches belonging to the foundation to deposit me on the beach. It’s not easy to spot the lodge’s cabins, so dense is the hillside vegetation surrounding them, but once up at the open reception and dining deck area, ocean and bay views are glimpsed through the trees.
As with all properties south of Drake Bay, no electricity or services are available, obliging hotels to adapt to alternative energy sources to serve their guests. Most, like Delfín Amor, juggle a combination of solar, generator and propane-sourced energy.
Originally housing guests in tents on covered platforms, Delfín Amor now has six cozy wood cabins with queen-size bed, bunks, pretty dolphin-themed bathrooms and warm showers, and that’s about as big as Goodman wishes to go. Each cabin’s dark-green exterior walls are decked with vibrant murals of tropical wildlife, painted by one of Delfín Amor’s frequent volunteers,Maasa Craig.
The connecting gravel pathway winds past the accommodations up to an open-sided rancho used by the foundation for community workshops and video presentations on marine conservation for local students, using Goodman’s own haunting videos and photographs, which have been featured on U.S. TV channels and in many international publications.
It also serves as a yoga platform and occasional party house, but with plans afoot to revamp the rather cramped kitchen, dining and reception area, it will become a temporary cookhouse and dining room until the new facilities are completed.
That said, the offerings coming from the kitchen during my stay were not compromised; meals are served family style with guests sharing a single table, and the fixed menu was a satisfying mixture of locally caught fish, imaginative salads, crisply cooked vegetables, homemade bread and tasty desserts. Drinks are based on an honesty- box, self-service refrigerator for soft drinks, or wines and cocktails can be requested from whomever is around.
I quite enjoyed being part of the informal but busy goings-on, sitting on the narrow deck in front of the open-walled office and kitchen, chatting to fellow guests and staff.
And the staff-to-guest ratio is impressive; I was surprised that such a small concern has 19 staff members, although some work more with the foundation, maintaining the boats and gathering and collating observational data. Lodge host Victor García and manager Alan Sanabria gave their cheerful, youthful energy to helping with guest requests, and the overriding atmosphere is one of casual teamwork. Certainly no glitzy corporate hospitality hierarchy applies here, as I saw when almost all Delfín’s staff piled into the hotel dinghy one night to enjoy the revelries of Drake Bay’s annual fiesta, with Goodman very much in the thick of things. (And yes, lodge guests were enthusiastically invited along, too!)
When I asked Goodman about the renovations, she shrugged and said, “I’ve put my savings into all this, and I really would like it ready for next season, but my priority is to the foundation and lobbying for the protected marine park.”
Being one of only two concerns along the coast with boats and scientists able to undertake dolphin and whale research and tours, Delfín Amor’s emphasis is on getting onto the water as often as possible. Each tour is accompanied by a marine biologist guide and, additionally, a data collector to monitor the location, number and behavior of each pod found. The comfortable, spacious boats have single seating down each side, ensuring uninterrupted sightings, driven by twin Yamaha four-stroke engines for efficiency and reduced noise. Even without tourists, the boats go out constantly, especially if tipped off about illegal long-line fishing. Goodman and crew have documented several distressing examples of lines and rope wrapped around humpbacks and turtles, always reporting details to the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) despite a frustrating lack of response or support.
For my “day with the dolphins,” I joined a group of four accompanied by marine biologist Roy Sancho, a cheerful, eloquent font of information and anecdotes who has worked with Delfín Amor almost since it opened.
With Goodman perched at the front of the boat to help spot pods, Sancho talked about the different cetaceans that abound in the waters. We hugged the coastline to search out pantropical spotted dolphins, dubbed the “homeboys” because they prefer inshore habitats. Other tours travel farther out for the endemic, and endangered, subspecies Costa Rican spinner dolphins, rough-tooth or bottle-nosed dolphins and of course any whale in season: orca, sei, pilot, Bryde’s and the majestic humpback.
Within an hour, we had our first sighting of a small pod of pantropical youngsters that were later joined by other groups during the morning, until we seemed to have a megapod of individuals cavorting around the boat. A hydrophone was dropped in to listen to their high-pitched clicks and squeaks.
Wherever we turned, the water surface was broken with sleek dolphin backs and occasional clear leaps,much to the satisfaction of visiting cetacean researcher, Austrian Julia Neider, who works for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).
The tour had been recommended to her and she expressed satisfaction at the way it was organized while busily photographing the action for her database.
Trips are described as typically running from 8 a.m. to between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., depending on how far out the boat goes and on people’s interest. There was no feel at all of being rushed as we patiently followed the pods, entranced at the sheer numbers and their playful water games. A refreshing lunch of hearty sandwiches, fruit slices and juice was a tasty interruption.
In addition to the dolphin and whale encounter tour ($95 per person), Delfín Amor offers a variety of individual tours or will customize them to suit guests’ needs. A typical four-night package includes the San José-Drake Bay return flight and hotel transfer, visits to Caño Island and Corcovado National Park, dolphin and whale encounter and full board ($930 per person, double occupancy). The rate for accommodation and meals only is $95 per person, double occupancy. The lodge has its own kayaks and snorkel gear, the man with the horses for hire lives nearby, and birding, hiking or night tours are readily organized.
For lodge reservations or information on the Vida Marina Foundation, call 847-3131 in Drake Bay or 393-6554 in San José, or visit www.divinedolphin.com or www.vidamarina.org.