National Geographic Society Newsroom

Searching for the Pure Life in Paradise

Dylan Jones is an avid climber, a freelance writer and a West Virginia native. Dylan has collected data for three different ASC projects over the last four years and is committed to protecting the places where he likes to play. He recently visited Costa Rica to do some hiking, surfing, and relaxing while collecting freshwater samples for...

Dylan Jones is an avid climber, a freelance writer and a West Virginia native. Dylan has collected data for three different ASC projects over the last four years and is committed to protecting the places where he likes to play. He recently visited Costa Rica to do some hiking, surfing, and relaxing while collecting freshwater samples for the Global Microplastics Initiative project in one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.

First light greeted us at 5:00 a.m. on our two-mile hike to the Whale Tail reef on Punta Uvita. Photo: Dylan Jones

White sand gives softly under our feet, reflecting enough ambient light to illuminate the empty beach and rolling boils of big surf. The crescendo of crashing waves makes the black expanse of the Pacific sound as if it is breathing, possessing the power and will of a sentient being. The plethora of tropical birds that populate the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena are still resting—their beautiful songs won’t be carried along the salty wind until the searing equatorial sun crests the coastal mountains.

The tide is rising, and we have to make it out to the “Whale Tail” and back before the thrashing waters inundate the narrow land bridge that grants our passage to the famous rocky outcrop. Sitting just nine degrees north of the equator, the sun rises early here. Brilliant magenta hues begin to bleed across the sky over the densely forested peaks, revealing a meandering drift of clouds. Frozen in awe, I forget that time is of the essence. In fact, time ceases to exist. The scale of the surreal scene makes it feel as if we stand on the shores of the cosmic ocean, peering into the vast and unfathomable expanse of space-time.

We make it to the Tail just in time to watch our nuclear furnace ignite a new day in paradise. As we hustle back to the mainland, the tide splashes our shins. Looking back at The tail, I shudder at the idea of being stranded waiting for the tide to recede—surely it’s happened to someone. Knowing I won’t be that unfortunate soul, I release a deep breath and say the words out loud: Welcome to Costa Rica.

The tide recedes as afternoon bathes Playa Uvita in soft light. Photo: Dylan Jones

More Than a Motto

Pura Vida. Literally translated, the Costa Rican motto means “pure life.” But the Tico turn of phrase is more than an expression—it’s a laid-back life philosophy. The concept seemed appropriate for my continued involvement in Adventure Scientists’s Global Microplastics Initiative, an ongoing study that seeks to identify the sources, composition, and distribution of microplastics in marine and freshwater environments.

My trip to Costa Rica represented my fourth outing as an adventure scientist. Having participated with ASC over four years, I am committed to making each of my adventurers bigger than myself. I collected salt water samples in 2015 during a climbing trip through Southeast Asia, and I jumped at the opportunity to collect freshwater samples in one of the world’s most pristine tropical environments.

Locals and tourists both enjoy the swimming opportunities and magical setting of the Uvita Waterfall—this is where I collected my water samples. Photo: Dylan Jones

Nearly a quarter of Costa Rica’s lands are permanently protected as national parks or under other designations. Although it claims only one tenth of one percent of the world’s land mass, it contains five percent of the planet’s biodiversity. That includes essential pollinators, a brilliant array of fruits and vegetables, and rain forests teeming with prospective medicinal value. It quickly becomes apparent how vital the region is to our viability in a decreasingly diverse world. Costa Rica is lauded for its progressive environmental policies—in 2012, it ranked fifth in the world on the United Nations Environmental Performance Index.

But while Costa Rica may be touted as one of the cleanest countries, it has been enjoying an expanding economy, complete with controversial palm oil plantations. These monoculture farms greatly reduce biodiversity and quickly deplete the rich volcanic soils needed to support native biomes.

We took a break from euphoric sunset surf sessions to find the Uvita waterfall, a paradisiacal swimming hole where locals and tourists escape the stifling daytime heat and practice pura vida. As I collected my samples, I thought back to Southeast Asia—of the three marine samples I gathered, one was completely free of microplastics, joining a small percentage of samples able to make such a claim. Despite the pristine appearance of the deep green pool, the popularity of the Uvita waterfall left me skeptical of obtaining a second plastic-free sample.

FullSizeRender (1)
A surfer heads out for a sunset session in the Ballena Marine National Park, one of Costa Rica’s premier Pacific surf zones. Photo: Dylan Jones

On the bus from Uvita to the capital city bustle of San Jose, we passed countless hectares of oil palms. The uniform rows blended into a steady stream of green and brown. A processing plant coughed black smoke into the evening air as rickety trucks transported burgeoning loads of palm fruit bunches. Some of the extracted oil will most certainly end up in products packaged in plastic.

As the bus climbed from the coastal flats into rugged mountains, the driver careened around hairpin turns with a casual attitude. I noticed a girl in front of me wearing a tank top with Pura Vida printed in neon green. I wondered how many tourists explore what the phrase represents beyond its satisfying linguistic flow and simple literal translation. How many of them are aware of the omnipresence of microplastics—the pygmy elephant in the room?

White Heron wading in the tide
A white heron searches for breakfast in a rivulet that flows directly into the Pacific on Playa Uvita. Photo: Dylan Jones

I considered the one molecule that provides the foundation for pure life—water. Although we can’t see microplastics, water tainted with these toxic particles is no longer pure. The crystal clear bays in Thailand and the vibrant waterfalls in Costa Rica may not be as they appear. A more pure approach to life by humans can certainly alleviate future pollution while we figure out how to remediate existing damage.

As we sat in the San Jose airport awaiting our flight to the states, I saw the phrase again, painted on a brick wall. Like the water cycle, it had all come full circle: Pura Vida. What better phrase to embody the end goal of the Global Microplastics Initiative?

Apply to Become an Adventure Scientists Volunteer

Learn more about ASC on our website, the Field Notes blog, and by following us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Google+

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Gregg Treinish
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.