IN THE GOLFO DULCE, Costa Rica
“The temperature is 90 or 92,'' Stephen Watson advises a swimmer off the stern of the Pacific Explorer.
"That's the water temperature,'' adds Watson, a third-generation Costa Rican.
Bathtub hot or not, the Pacific Ocean water was cooler than the steamy air that, even for an 8:30 stroll that morning, had tested the passengers' interest in a 6-acre botanical garden near this southeastern tip of Costa Rica.
So after the narrated walkabout, which included the option of tasting or smelling leaves, blossoms and fruits, and then lunch back onboard, some passengers settled in with their novels and field guides. Other chose to nap.
And when the 2 p.m. announcement came that the motorized Zodiac rafts would take anyone back ashore, instead, some passengers stepped off the water-level platform to swim. A few got in the kayaks to paddle toward the palm tree- and hibiscus-lined shore, or to just peer down for tropical fish.
With no takers for further guided walks, Watson joined the other crewmen who always wait by the platform, helping the swimmers, snorkelers, kayakers and rafters. More often, as one of three naturalists onboard, he was shepherding land and snorkeling excursions during the nine-night voyage that the CruiseWest line titles "Between Two Seas.''
Focused on animal and plant life, the 185-foot Pacific Explorer takes 100 passengers from the port of Colón, on Panama's Caribbean coast, through the Panama Canal, and then along the Pacific coasts of Panama and Costa Rica. Nights are for motoring from place to place, days are filled with trips onshore or in the water. It is much more a hands-on ecology lesson than a cruise.
"Our guests come with a common disease: 'neo-tropical expectations,' '' jokes Daniel Fernandez, the chief naturalist. "They want to see animals and birds. But all we can promise that you'll see in the forests is green.''
The Duarte River expedition typifies the CruiseWest motto, "Up-close, personal and casual."
On the Pacific Explorer, the only dress code is no bathing suits or bare feet in the dining room, and expect the crew to call you by your first name.
While the Seattle-based cruise line owns eight ships, this vessel is chartered for the late-October-to-April season. The majority of the crew is Costa Rican, but everyone speaks English. (At press time, an ownership change facilitated a restructuring and bookings had been suspended temporarily. They were expected to start again in a few weeks.)
The cruise is both downscale and upscale, in other words, informal but pricey. Fares generally run from $4,200 to $5,600 per person based on two in a cabin, depending on the time of year and the four cabin categories. What those fares buy are often-fascinating field trips, modest cabins and attentive service, but at least on my cruise, uneven meal preparation.
Most of the passengers I spoke with greatly enjoyed their on-scene lessons from the guides, enhanced by their remarkable ability to find us birds, monkeys, lizards, iguanas and insects.
Ignoring the slight motion of the Zodiac as it purrs along the mangrove-lined Duarte River, Karla Taylor stands at the stern and points left and right, directing attention to various birds. There are egrets, kingfishers, brown pelicans, herons, osprey, white ibis and other birds familiar to Floridians.
There are also some not so familiar, such as the mangrove swallow and snail kite. In this one-hour expedition, we'll spot 18 species.
Taylor spent more than seven years in the jungles and along shorelines of her native Costa Rica collecting and classifying insects, plants and marine mollusks. She also worked alongside the late Archie Carr, the acclaimed University of Florida professor who was a pioneering leader in protection of sea turtles.
After several minutes on the raft, she asks her passengers, "What are you expecting from this cruise trip?''
A few answer and then she puts it in context:
"It's always the same: The women always say, 'Nature,' and the men always say, 'The canal!' "
A touch of history
At 6:30 on another morning, 19 show up to ride the Zodiacs a brief way to really stretch their legs: We scramble up a sharply steep, grassy slope between two levels of a 1750s Spanish fort at Portobelo, Panama. For about a century's time, this hamlet on the Caribbean Sea coast was perhaps the richest city in the world, because the Spaniards stored their looted gold and silver from South America here, before shipping it home.
This hillside fortification and two other forts proved fruitless against seven raids by the British — though Sir Francis Drake was fatally wounded here — so Spain stopped using Portobelo. Like any other company town, when the company moved away, Portobelo became a partial ghost town.
But the old stone walls are picturesque and also provide, at the hillside middle battery of the fort, a place perhaps 125 feet above sea level that is much better for spotting birds.
Fernandez, the chief naturalist, stays with the sweaty handful of us who can't contemplate the ascent to the highest level. Barefoot, he moves easily across the battered stone flooring, setting the tripod beneath his 60X Bushnell spotting scope.
His ears more than his eyes tell him where to look. In his 12th year as a naturalist, the native Costa Rican can imitate the sounds of numerous birds, and he whistles to get them to call back or move about, the easier for him to fix the spotting scope for us novices to see them.
"Oh my god, this is what we came up here for!'' he suddenly announces. "It's a white-vented euphonia!''
Just as he focuses in on the bird, which grows to just 3 1/4 inches in length, it flies away. We barely see the flash of yellow feathers on its underside.
Undeterred, Fernandez keeps talking quietly but is actually listening and watching for telltales.
"Everybody be quiet and just listen toward the right side,'' he directs. "That chu-chu-chu sound is one of our most colorful toucans.''
Sure enough, across the valley on a ridge-top tree, he has recognized the shape of a keel-billed toucan. He trains the scope on it and calls us over.
Even at 60-power magnification, the toucan is little more than a silhouette. Its black feathers are discernible but not much of its colorful yellow, green and red bill or bright yellow chest. We file up to the scope, take a look, then let someone else in.
But all at once, the person looking in the scope says, "There's more than one of them.'' Fernandez acknowledges that toucans seldom travel alone. So we all return to the scope, and are rewarded by seeing the first toucan has been joined by four more.
A special surprise
The cruise is winding down and yet simultaneously winding up.
The ship anchors off Corcovado National Park and at 6:45 a.m., the first bunch opting for a zipline experience sets off for shore. Before the second zippers leave, three nature walks of increasing difficulty will set off.
It turns out the word "moderate'' is open to interpretation. Though the route starts on a sidewalk in front of a few block-and-stucco rental cabins, it quickly becomes a steep climb, first on grass and then a muddy track. One of the oldest trekkers turns back.
But once again, the wildlife lecture will ease the burden of watching out for tree roots, mud and dewy grass. Among the creatures we see are a three-toed sloth — this one moves enough on its open tree branch that we can watch it happen — several large, electric-blue morpho butterflies and more birds.
We move farther on the trail and one of the trekkers points over our leader's shoulder. We all turn to look up but only Watson suddenly clasps his head between his hands, in delight.
"We never see this bird here — it stays in the tree tops!'' he offers, almost breathlessly, as we look at the small black bird with the brilliant red head. It is the red cap manakin, and it is not more than three yards from our group, posing on a branch.
This cannot be topped so we troop back to the beach. The outbound trek that had taken us two hours, including pauses for sightings, takes 18 minutes on return.
Back at the beach I show Taylor my photo of the manakin. "This is a five-star bird,'' she says excitedly. "This has made your day.''
Yes, but the cold Pilsen beer I sip before our beach picnic is a nice step back to civilization.
Robert N. Jenkins is a freelance writer and former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached through his website, bobjenkinswrites.com.