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Three Credits in Paradise

Winter class in Costa Rica

Jacqueline Favaloro

Imagine spending Winter break basking in the sun, interacting with ocean life, and having the experience of a lifetime, all while earning three credits. This past winter session a group of students embarked on a journey to Costa Rica to study dolphins.

The trip took place from January 1, 2011 through the 17, and included a variety of students ranging in year, and with majors such as Psychology, Marketing, and English. The students studied in a small fishing village called Manzanillo on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. The village is in the Gandoca Wildlife refuge, and is a protected rainforest area.

The course is a three-credit Psychology or Honors elective, and is lead by C.W. Post Provost, Dr. Forestell. Students studied the social interactions between two species of dolphins – the bottlenose and the tucuxi. The students went out on the water in a powerboat to conduct observations of dolphin movement patterns and social behaviors. “The dolphins behavior was something I didn’t expect at all,” said International student Elina Viitasaari, a sophomore Psychology and Criminal Justice major. “They came so close to the boat, they were whistling, jumping or just swimming around us, it was so unbelievable.”

The students spent free time on the beach, and getting to know one another. “Once we had a chance to go to ‘Jaguar Wildlife Rescue Center’ to see different snakes, frogs, birds and we were even able to hold the baby monkeys,” said Viitasaari. “We went zip-lining! It was lots of fun! One of the best things was the jungle hiking. It was totally beautiful.”

In all, the trip ran for 17 days. It has taken place every year since 1998. The course began at Southampton College, and moved to Post in 2006. “The trip was started by me when I was a faculty member at Southampton College in the Interdisciplinary Psychobiology program,” said Forestell. “I still lead the trip, but each year a student who previously participated in the trip is invited back as a field assistant. This is a long-term study of unique dolphin behaviors that has already lead to two master’s theses, a number of conference presentations, and a peer-reviewed publication.” This years assistant was Laura Thompson, a Southampton college graduate. Laura participated in the trip in 2003, and then served as a field assistant in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Laura just finished her Master’s degree in Biology at Hofstra, and did her research and thesis on the project.

According to Viitasaari, the students did not only learn about dolphins, they also caught a glimpse of life in another part of the world. “Costa Rica’s slogan is ‘Pura Vida,’ which means ‘pure life’,” says Viitasaari. “That attitude was totally noticed in locals’ life style. People concentrated more on true values of life instead of material goods. Nature and environment were respected. It was admirable. Here it’s hard to think that slogan, the life style is too busy in New York and life is too stressful.”

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