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Hunterdon County Vocational School District students explore rain forest during trip to Costa Rica


Exquisite species of flora and fauna surrounded Hunterdon County Vocational School District’s Environmental Sustainability & Engineering Academy (ESEA) and Animal Science students as they explored the lush rain forest of Costa Rica this past summer.

Thirty-five students traveled to the country, where they also studied wildlife such as sea turtles, monkeys, birds and more. Their instructors continue to draw upon the experience in classroom conversations this school year.

The trip was a collaboration between Hunterdon County Vocational School District (HCVSD) and Ecology Project International (EPI). EPI has offered trips to the Animal Science and ESEA students for the past three years. Besides giving the students a unique hands-on learning adventure, the excursions presented them with the opportunity to earn college credits.

“It was a remarkable trip with so many discoveries,” said ESEA instructor Renee Stillwell, a trip chaperone. “We spent several days in Tirimbina Biological Reserve where the students were able to explore the abundant and diverse species of flora and fauna of Costa Rican rain forests. We also spent a lot of time at Pacuare Reserve, which is 2,500 acres of tropical rain forest on the coast of Costa Rica.”

While at the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, the students participated in a lesson on the Costa Rican ecology and biological diversity. They also were treated to spectacular views of the rain forest’s beauty at the reserve as they crossed the country’s longest suspension bridge, measuring 262 meters long and 22 meters high.

The Pacuare Reserve is known for its wildlife and the students encountered many troops of monkeys including white-faced capuchins, spider monkeys and howler monkeys. After seeing the primates, the students completed a monkey census and different surveys during their visit. They hiked through the rain forest to the nesting site of the great blue heron and viewed the first hatching of the herons on the Pacuare reserve, too.

But it was the reserve’s four miles of beach that serves as nesting grounds for giant leatherback turtles that created the most memories.

“The highlight for our group at the Pacuare Reserve was participating in the nightly turtle census and working with sea turtle hatchlings,” said Stillwell. “We took long walks along the beach in search of sea turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs. We were fortunate to see two rare hawksbill sea turtles lay their eggs, and then we took part in the egg collection and recorded measurements of the adult sea turtles.”

The group also witnessed two green sea turtles do a “false crawl,” which occurs when the turtles come to shore but turn back before laying their eggs and were present when several of the eggs hatched. The students held, measured and released the baby turtles into the sea.

“Our students were excited to be a part of the hatching of a never-before-seen hybrid sea turtle, too,” said Stillwell. “In the near future, research scientists will be publishing this biological discovery, and we will likely see HCVSD listed as participants and people present for this finding.”

Next summer, EPI will offer HCVSD students a chance to visit and explore Yellowstone National Park.

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