Costa Rica trip gives local student volunteers ‘the best time of our lives’

A hike through the biologically rich Costa Rican jungle was part of an incredible summer experience for 10 student volunteers from Lake Erie Nature & Science Center. - Photo by Sean Waitkus

The day starts with a walk along the beach, pallid sun reflecting off of pools filled with scuttling crustaceans and fish caught in the changing tides. As morning progresses, a trek through a national park reveals chirruping frogs with clear skin and monkeys scouring branches for fruit. An hour of zip-lining through the treetops presents a sunlit vista of forested country and rolling grasslands. In the afternoon, kayaking along mangrove shores yields sights of painted crabs and glimmering snakes. When darkness falls, a nighttime hike exposes thousands of salamanders, amphibians, and yellow-eyed caimans sulking in the shadows of the river.

These scenes are all examples of what student volunteers, called Naturalist Assistants or NAs, at Lake Erie Nature and Science Center experienced on a journey through Costa Rica earlier this summer. Nine days of hiking, kayaking, and exploring the landscape from the Pacific to the Caribbean yielded hundreds of extraordinary wildlife encounters, in a country where holding a toucan or viewing nine-foot crocodiles in the wild are extraordinarily typical experiences.

“The incredible biodiversity of Costa Rica gives students a unique opportunity to learn through hands-on exploration,” Derek Skapes told me. As Wildlife Specialist at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center, Skapes' job includes supervising the NAs. “Our goal for this trip was to show these students one of the world’s most biodiverse locations, a biological hot spot where you’ll see a family of monkeys or a group of macaws or a two-toed sloth or tree frogs the size of nickels at every step.”

Accompanied by 30 Brunswick High School students and five teachers, the group of 10 NAs, who hail from Bay Village, Westlake and other area towns, along with Skapes as their leader, spent nine days traveling throughout the country, from the bustling markets of San José to kayaking around Arenal Volcano to hiking through Tortuga National Park and witnessing the magnificent La Fortuna waterfall. Along the way, the students were guided by a Costa Rican native who educated them on the local animal and plant life. NA Sean Waitkus, the group’s diligent photojournalist, described the guide’s vast knowledge of even the most obscure species as comparable to “a Discovery Channel episode every five minutes.”

“The education these kids received was literally once in a lifetime,” Skapes said. “They may return to Costa Rica fifty times and never get to see wild macaws that close or get so excited over a crocodile encounter.”

Waitkus lamented that most young adults in Ohio never get the chance to experience such vast biodiversity. “You always hear about people who are world travelers. Now, I have to stop and think for a second: ‘Wait, I’m one of those people.’ It’s an incredible feeling.”

When asked whether he would be taking his Naturalist Assistants to Costa Rica for another trip, Skapes just smiled with the wisdom and weariness that follows an intensely enriching experience. “Hopefully,” he replies. “At the end of the trip, several students began crying and thanking me for ‘the best time of our lives.’ If I can, I would love to share that with more of our student volunteers in years to come.”

Lake Erie Nature & Science Center is a Bay Village-based nonprofit regional center of excellence that features a planetarium, wildlife rehabilitation, more than 100 live animals on exhibit and a wide variety of educational offerings. For more information, visit or call 440-871-2900.

Katie Ferman is a Communications Intern at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center, honors student at the Ohio State University and a Bay Village resident.

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Volume 2, Issue 17, Posted 1:04 PM, 08.20.2010