Spider sleepovers, shark sightings and other spooky tales from the field

© Robin Moore

The work of protecting nature takes Conservation International experts into some of the most far-flung and wild places on Earth. Over the years, they have had their fair share of spooky — and downright dangerous — moments in the field. In honor of Halloween, here are a few of their most hair-raising experiences.

John Martin, director of videography:

When Conservation International managed a conservation forest in Guyana, I spent three weeks filming alongside the BBC’s natural history unit along the Upper Essequibo river. After a grueling day traveling by boat, I arrived at the community of Rewa to set up camp for the night. Exhausted, I started to set up my hammock by the riverside before sundown, but our intrepid ranger-in-charge Elvis — his real name — insisted that I sleep in the radio communications house.

After a light dinner and a bath in the river, I slipped under my mosquito net and onto my foam mattress, intending to catch up on some field notes before bed by using my headlamp for light. As Elvis happily snored away just a few feet away from me, I looked up at the ceiling and noticed large, dark, circular spots everywhere. I aimed my headlamp out of the mosquito mesh and realized that the spots were actually tarantulas! Not just three or four — rather dozens of tarantulas were crawling along the walls.

Readying myself to flee to the river, I called out in fear and panic to Elvis. Amused, he calmly assured me that the tarantulas were harmless and only there to eat the mosquitos. Still shaking, I quickly cocooned myself back in under the mosquito net, praying that none of the resident arachnids wanted to share the foam mattress with me.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

One of the tarantulas found inside Martin’s lodging for the night. © Conservation International/John Martin)

Andrew Parker, regional senior director for conservation, Africa:

While conducting a research project on leopards in Thornybush Game Reserve in South Africa, I was staying at an old, isolated bush camp where I had to walk about 50 meters (164 feet) to turn on an old diesel pump if I wanted water. On one occasion, I returned to the camp after a long day following leopard spoor — animal tracks or scent — through the bush on foot and was in desperate need of a shower, so I went to turn on the pump as the sun was setting.

As I approached the pump house, I was confronted by the most spine-chilling sound in the African bush: the deep, throaty growl of an angry lion in very close proximity.

About 5 meters (16 feet) away, an extremely large and rather angry male lion had his ears back and a tail that was hitting the floor like a whip — all the signs of an imminent charge. Standing in my shorts and sandals with a towel over my shoulder, there wasn’t really much I could do, and I was somewhat rooted to the spot in fear. The charge happened faster than I could register, but the lion darted past me into the bush.

That wasn’t the last I saw of that particular lion — he stayed around my camp for quite a while and developed the very unnerving habit of following me while I was on foot tracking and measuring leopard spoor. He always kept a respectful distance and I can only imagine it was a case of cats and their curiosity, but it certainly made kneeling down to measure a track an adrenalin-filled experience.

Female lion (Panthera leo) in the Zambezi Region of NamibiaAfter stalking its prey, a lion will often let out a low growl before charging for attack. (© Will Barrard-Lucas/WWF-US)

Katie Bryden, videographer:

I was nearly four days out at sea in the South Pacific when the weather took a turn for the worse.

Unseasonable cyclones were brewing on all sides of our vessel, which was set out for an 11-day research trip off the southern Lau Island group in Fiji. With persistent 4.6-meter (15-foot) swells and 80-97 km/h (50-60 mph) winds, even the most experienced scientists and crew were feeling the rock of the boat. A couple hours after going to bed, I woke up to loud crashes and bangs — all the dishes and silverware in the kitchen had fallen out of the cabinets and doors were swinging open and slamming shut. I had to brace myself with both arms and legs pressing into the wooden bunk slates to keep from flying out of bed.

Luckily, everyone was okay, but some people woke up with wet beds (from waves crashing into their rooms, of course). The seas calmed down by the last day of our expedition, so we all tried our best to keep things light by making jokes of the rough conditions. Our vessel, the MV Sea Rakino, actually makes an appearance in Shailene Woodley’s movie “Adrift” — a story about sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. Fortuitous?

The MV Sea Rakino during a rare moment of calm seas.The MV Sea Rakino, Bryden’s vessel, during a rare moment of calm seas. (© Conservation International/Mark Erdmann)

Edgardo Ochoa, marine safety officer:

Cocos Island, Costa Rica is well-known for its abundance of sharks — from hammerheads to white-tip reef sharks— and seeing them on a dive is not uncommon. During an expedition to the island, I spent several days diving with Conservation International staff and local partners underwater, registering and counting fish, invertebrates and coral cover.

On one morning dive, a 15-foot-long (four-meter-long) female tiger shark was particularly interested in us.

I was with two other staff members, Ana Gloria Guzman and Marco Quesada, during a safety stop when the shark approached us. I started to get my camera ready to snap a picture — but the really scary moment was when it looked like one colleague was using the other as a shield against the shark! (Especially when you consider that the nearest medical facility was 36 hours away.) Fortunately, the shark just passed us by harmlessly and I managed to get some great photos of the moment.

To this day, my colleague insists that she just moved away and denies using anyone as a human shield. (Don’t worry, I believe her.)

The female tiger shark that swam directly by Ochoa. © Conservation International/Edgardo Ochoa)

Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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Cover image: A spider resting in its web, Haiti. (© Robin Moore)

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