This morning I woke up feeling comfortably cool and dry after a week camping at Moraka Playa on the southern side of the island (during which my sleeping bag was wet and sandy most of the time). We arrived in Moka last night to begin our individual research projects now that we’ve had some practice with mammal and sea turtle censuses at the beach. I definitely didn’t anticipate the sheer amount of water the rainforest was capable of producing, but between torrential downpours, the wildlife and natural beauty was unreal. The trails around the southern beaches have much less hunting pressure than the northern side of Bioko because of their remote location. Our campsite is currently the home of seven volunteers who come each year for five months to record the nesting behavior of four types of sea turtles (green sea turtles, leatherbacks, olive ridleys, and hawksbills). We joined them for five nights on our FMTE (Field Methods in Tropical Ecology) course to learn research methods for surveying mammals and sea turtles on the island.
To reach the beach, we first drove from Malabo to the village of Ureca, which was about a two hour drive on a road that wasn’t paved until last year, and was first cleared in 2010. We had to wait in Ureca for a few hours for the tide to go out before we began our trek down to the beaches since we would have to walk along the shore for much of the 16 kilometer hike. Due to poor planning on our part, most of us (including myself) had stayed up way too late packing the night before, so the wait offered a bit of time for a power nap before the hike. There was also a conveniently located tropical waterfall where we were able to swim, jump off rocks, and actually wake up for the first time that hot rainy morning. Unfortunately, much of my newfound energy disappeared about an hour and a half into the hike, most likely a result of sleep deprivation and my diet of primarily bread and rice over the last six weeks. After hiking down through the rainforest, we emerged onto a long stretch of stony shoreline that seemed to last forever.
The sun was setting as we made it past the rocks and reached the final stretch of sandy beach, casting a warm orange glow on the end of our hike. It was the kind of fairy tale sunset where thousands of little puffy clouds made the sky look endless and the horizon was so wide you could see the curvature of the Earth. There are a few incredible moments I’ve experienced only after hiking several hours away from any easily accessible human settlement, and I think this was one of them. We finally reached camp and devoured a dinner of mostly white rice and a sparse amount of canned vegetables, which was of course heavenly at the time. However, after five days of pretty much that same meal, my insides are disintegrating and I would definitely be ok with never eating rice again. The lentils and fresh baked bread at Moka have been a welcome change, and there are rumors of salad tonight, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Tomorrow is the first day I’ll be going out on a mammal census here in Moka, and I’m looking forward to it after my first encounters at Moraka. Each day at the beach, we did a morning mammal census at 7 am, or an afternoon one if we had done a turtle census the night before from 11 pm to 3 am. For the mammal census, we walk quietly through the rainforest at a pace of 1 km per hour, listening for monkey or duiker calls and looking for movement in the trees. It’s almost like a game, trying to spot them before they spot you. I had the opportunity to go on one census with one of the excellent guides from Ureca, and one census with Drew Cronin, the advisor for our research projects who can magically sense and identify a monkey in the forest 100 meters away. I saw a group of red-eared monkeys, a red colobus, and a putty-nosed monkey, and heard a red duiker and a drill. For the turtle censuses, we walk from one end of the beach to the other, then sit and wait for half an hour, and walk back, repeating the process and stopping to observe if we see a turtle nesting. Unfortunately we didn’t see any turtles the night I went out with the volunteers, but we did sit in the pouring rain for a good amount of the night. The first night, however, a leatherback nested about 30 meters away from our campsite, and I got to watch it lay eggs at two in the morning. It felt like dream because I woke up for it and went back to sleep afterword, left with the memory of an amazing experience in the morning.
For now, I’ll be looking forward to seeing more animals and working on my identification skills. I can’t wait to see how this project goes!