Panama Perspectives – Day 69 (03.11.14) Continued

This is officially my last Panama Perspectives. And, as promised, this post will be about the non-Bocas contingent of the experience: Boquete and Coiba. So without further ado…

We left STRI on the morning of February 27th in the largest boat I’ve ever seen in Bocas. Like seriously, this boat was big enough to fit all of the students, all of the staff, and all of everyone’s luggage. Trust me, that’s A LOT of crap. Upon reaching Almirente, we somehow loaded said crap into 1.5 buses and promptly took off for the mountains and Boquete.

During the 4-ish hour drive – on the windiest mountain road ever paved – we crossed the continental divide. Aside from experiencing less than 100% humidity for the first time in 2 months, this was the most interesting part of the trek for me. The continental divide is a fancy name for the mountain range that divides the Americas. In Panama, the Caribbean side gets way more rainfall than the Pacific side due to the mountain barrier. Obviously, this makes the Pacific side a whole lot drier. The change in landscape is literally immediate; it’s pretty incredible. One minute you are driving through a lush rainforest and the next minute looks like the backdrop for an old western movie.

Old-timey maps add gravitas to any explanation.
Old-timey maps add gravitas to any situation.

After breaking for a super classy parking lot lunch of PB&J, pretzels, and diet coke, we finally arrived at Casa Pedro.

You can’t understand how good this looks until you’ve spent nearly 2 months living in a field station. They gave us homemade blackberry juice for goodness sake.
You can’t understand how good this looks until you’ve spent nearly 2 months living in a field station. They gave us homemade blackberry jam for goodness sake.

The big draw of Boquete is the mountains, specifically Volcan Baru, a dormant volcano that scrapes the clouds at 3,475 meters. It is the tallest peak in Panama. This was the crowning moment of TTE, the trek to the top.

This isn’t even base camp… what the $#&% are we getting ourselves into...
This isn’t even base camp… What the $#&% are we getting ourselves into?!?!

I won’t go into the gory details of the 20-mile hike, the experience may or may not have given me mild PTSD. Suffice it to say that many, many curses and prayers were uttered and their content is for the mountain’s ears alone. We did, however, eventually reach the top in time for…

No words.
No words. Awe or exhaustion. Take your pick.

After a much-needed recovery day, we left the quaint mountain paradise of Boquete for our last locale at sea-level. Armed with only a backpack and our SCUBA gear we left the mainland and several hours later arrived at Coiba.

coiba map

Located in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Coiba is the largest island in Central America. Up until 2004, it was home to a rather brutal penal colony with a reputation for torture and execution. The prison’s nasty reputation for wanton beheadings meant that pretty much everyone stayed away from Coiba, and as such, the island is in pristine condition. In 1992, Coiba was declared a national park and marine protected area. Today the island is almost completely uninhabited save a few rangers.

… and allegedly some ghosts.
… and allegedly some ghosts.

The first thing you notice about Coiba is the Pocillopora. What the eastern Pacific lacks in coral biodiversity it makes up for in sheer coral volume. The seabed is covered in Pocillopora, almost 100% on some reefs.

It goes on and on and on and on.
It goes on and on and on and on.

The other thing you notice about Coiba is the ENORMOUS number of fish compared to Bocas. It’s like night and day.

Maybe this Blue Planet moment will give you some idea. (photo credit: Sam Csik)
Maybe this Blue Planet moment will give you some idea. (photo credit: Sam Csik)

This is because, unlike Bocas, Coiba is home to relatively healthy reefs. It is an example of a hugely successful marine protected area. And why is that you might ask? Isolation. No people = no fishing and no pollution.

Top left: whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) Top right: crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) Bottom left: Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus) Bottom right: goliath grouper (Epinephelus quinquefasciatus)
Top left: whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) Top right: crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) Bottom left: Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus) Bottom right: goliath grouper (Epinephelus quinquefasciatus)

On one hand it is amazingly heartening to see a thriving marine ecosystem. On the other hand, it is amazingly depressing because I know that Bocas and the rest of the Caribbean once looked like Coiba. It hurts my soul to say so but I’ve never seen a truly healthy reef in all my years of diving in the Atlantic. I’m not even sure if there are any left.

We barely had a boat ride where we didn’t see one or both of these. It was seriously magical. (photo credit: Sam Csik)
We barely had a boat ride where we didn’t see one or both of these. It was seriously magical. (photo credit: Sam Csik)

Despite what you might think from all the photos, we also had this little thing called class while in Coiba. And one of our most interesting trips was to Uva island where we snorkeled the coral reef/field site of Peter Glynn, the father of eastern Pacific coral studies.

Also this happened. That’s King Sebastian, our fearless boat driver and all around hero.
Also this happened. That’s King Sebastian, our fearless boat driver and all around hero. Clearly he deserves a throne.

We also dove on a number of interesting reefs that are characteristic of the area. Coiba is the way that it is because of something called upwelling, for which Wikipedia has a great definition: an oceanographic phenomenon that involves wind-driven motion of dense, cooler, and nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface, replacing the warmer, usually nutrient-depleted surface water. There is great debate regarding whether or not the eastern Pacific is a true upwelling zone but after experiencing the crazy thermocline in Coiba I am convinced. The class did a number of activities involving characterization of reef species composition as well as measuring the currents. After so much time in Bocas, it was really interesting to experience a tropical marine ecosystem that is different in almost every way.

The ultimate pinnacle of Coiba (and potentially the entire trip) was the whale shark. We set off for Wahoo Rock at around 4pm to try our luck with the cryptic beasts. Honestly, I was expecting to return defeated. After all, these animals are pretty rare and we know so little about them. However, I shouldn’t have worried since apparently the ocean gods have blessed Three Seas XXX. Not only did the entire class see a whale shark, some of us saw TWO (or perhaps the same one twice).

I was moved to tears. (left photo credit: Sam Csik)
I was moved to tears. (left photo credit: Sam Csik)

It is an understatement to say that the entire class was ecstatic. Even freaking out doesn’t even begin to describe the mood. It’s impossible to explain what it feels like to see these creatures in the wild, the biggest and arguably the most mysterious fish on the planet. We ended on the best possible high note imaginable.

Now, we are back in Gamboa where I sit writing this post. We have come full circle, this being the spot where the students spent their first night in Panama. After 70 days, 40+ dives, 22 new friends, 5 classes, and 1 whale shark, we are returning to the US. Without a doubt, this experience has been one of the most challenging and rewarding of my life. I feel so incredibly privileged to be a part of the Three Seas family, especially Three Seas XXX. I can’t imagine spending 10 weeks in a perpetual state of hygienic dereliction with any other group. I wouldn’t change a thing.

fin

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