If you travel along the Sixaola River this year, you might come across a rather unusual vehicle: a brightly pained floating school bus.
While at first glance it seems to be something out of a fantastic children’s story or the pursuit of someone not quite connected to reality as we know it, this bus is indeed conducting serious scientific research.
Equipped with dual-frequency side-scan sonar and hydrophone arrays, the bus is the newest research vessel of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, out on the river between Costa Rica and Panama to find manatees.
The man behind this research is STRI’s marine biologist Héctor Guzmán, who already has experience tracking humpback whales, sharks and sea turtles. The waters of the Sixaola River are so murky though, that his research proves to be challenging: The manatees he is researching are simply not visible, so the researchers rely on acoustic cues and tagged animals to track the movements of the big mammals. Knowing how many manatees live in the Sixaola, how they move and which places they prefer to feed, sleep or reproduce will be a great help in developing a sustainable protection plan for them.
The River used to be the home of much larger manatee populations than the estimated 20-30 animals who live there now, but pollution, as well as hunting led to a drastic decrease in numbers.
This project is part of a larger research assessing the biodiversity in the entire area in order to provide a functional conservation program for the Sixaola and its surroundings. It is being conducted by the STRI and the Universidad de Costa Rica Mario Rivera, and supported by the Interamerican Development Bank and the United Nations Global Environment Facility.