Bocas Del Toro
We spent most of our stay in Panama in Bocas del Toro, a province in the Northwest of Panama, bordering Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea.
Our base of operations was the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where our we attended class and conducted dive and lab research.
Bocas is a very altered marine ecosystem, with glaring holes in the food web punched out by overfishing. Very few large predators remain. On most dives, the biggest fish you are likely to see are Grasby groupers that barely stretch over a foot in length.
Sea turtles are virtually absent, I didn’t see a single one in my experience of over 30 dives during a two month period.
The coral health, however, is very good in certain places. Outer reefs boast large swaths of elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (Acropora cervicornis), two species that once made up the lion’s share of the Caribbean’s reefs. Disease and bleaching have reduced their populations catastrophically. Coral biodiversity in Bocas is high, making it a good place to study corals.
Bocas is lucky to have a relatively small invasive Lionfish population. While we did see them somewhat frequently, it was not a distinctly regular occurrence that signified large scale invasion. Indeed, it may be the overfishing that keeps down the lionfish population.
land: Rainforests, beaches, and caves
During our time in Bocas del Toro, we were lucky enough to be surrounded by lush tropical rain forest. There were multiple resident troupes of Howler monkeys that climbed and swung through the trees making truly tremendous amounts of noise. Two species of sloths, caimans, and an inconceivable amount of leaf cutter ants shared the forest and mangrove swamps. Our Tropical Terrestrial Ecology class led us on hikes through the rainforest at ITEC, which sits deeper in the rainforest, surrounded by an enormous amount of wildlife. Huge orb weaver spiders, tiny poison dart frogs, and countless insects coated the trees around the research station.
Bocas del Toro is also home to limestone caves lined with several species of bats, who were kind enough to poop on my face while I photographed them from below. Always nice to meet the locals.
The second portion of Tropical Terrestrial Ecology took us into the mountains of Panama, to the town of Boquete. There we hiked through montane and cloud forests that boasted enormous trees and waterfalls. We searched for the beautiful Resplendent Quetzal bird but came up empty handed.
Boquete is also home to a large amount of coffee plantations, which thrive in the rich volcanic soil and moist climate. We visited Café Ruiz, which produces delicious coffee that we were lucky enough to sample. The tour included a hike through the plantation fields as well as a lengthy but interesting explanation of the process by which the plant they grow becomes the drink we all love.
Previous years of Three Seas were able to climb Volcán Barú, a large stratovolcano that is the highest point in Panama. Unfortunately, it was the wet season when we visited Boquete, and the climb was deemed too dangerous (rightly so, according to anyone local) due to algal buildup on the trail up the mountain.
Coiba National Park
The snake in the gallery is a fer-de-lance, or an equis, as the locals call it for the X shaped pattern down their backs. I came about 6 inches away from stepping on it while wearing flip flops. From what I've read, I would have needed a trip to the hospital to avoid losing my foot or leg. Isla Rancheria is about 2 hours from the mainland by boat, and I have no idea where the nearest hospital is from the port. Luckily, the snake didn't strike and I got some fun photos out of it.
I look forward to going back to Coiba some day. I’m curious to explore more of the diving there, which was excellent, but I felt our time there was a tease of the huge potential around the island.
Our time in Panama ended in Coiba National Park where we stayed on Isla Rancheria, which is conveniently for sale, if any of you are interested. The island of Coiba is the largest island in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. It remains untouched largely due to the fact that it previously housed a prison that over the years was used for political prisoners and the worst of the worst criminals.
On top of this, the island is reportedly haunted by the ghosts of the prisoners that once lived there. We unfortunately didn't get to visit the prion ruins or main island, but we spent a lot of time in the waters around it.
The shallows around Coiba are generally rocky, but contain some reefs that are vastly different than Caribbean reefs. There are relatively few coral species comparatively and lower coral cover in my experience.
The low amount of coral is made up for by an abundance of large life. White-tipped reef sharks were a regular feature of dives, and large turtles were similarly common. During one snorkel, 4 or 5 large turtles were circling to investigate us strange, gangly swimmers while we photographed a large group of snapper.