Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Coiba National Park, Panama

Over the past few years I have received a number of requests, mostly by graduate students or researchers, for copies of my Master's thesis which is titled, "IDENTIFYING AND UNDERSTANDING RESOURCE USERS OF PANAMA’S COIBA NATIONAL PARK". Just today I received a request from a student at the Graduate School of Kuroshio Science, Kochi University, Japan. It's amazing how far reaching one study can be and how the internet connects people so easily! I am posting this link so that in the future anybody interested can download this PDF of my thesis.


I conducted this research during the summer of 2001. Working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) was a really amazing opportunity I had while in graduate school at Duke University. It was early in the Spring of 2001 and I still hadn't solidified a topic yet for my master's research, though I knew I wanted to do work on Marine Protected Areas. I attended a lecture one afternoon being given by Dr. Todd Capson of STRI. Though his topic was on terrestrial conservation, I attended anyways just to hear his talk. Afterwards, I went up to him and on a whim asked, "So, do you do any marine research that is like the work you presented today?" His eyes lit up and he began to tell me about a "pet project" of his that had to do with a large marine protected area on the Pacific coast of Panama. And that's how it all began! A random question after a random presentation I attended. I've always been a believer that you never know where life is going to take you. And that day it took me to Panama.

So I spent over three months that summer designing and implementing a social science research survey in fishing villages all over the west coast of Panama. Here's a map of where I worked.

If you can read the city names, I interviewed fishermen from Puerto Armuelles in the west to Mariato in the east. My research question boiled down to this: Who are the people who fish or otherwise utilize the area in and around this large marine protected area? So I got to travel up and down the coast all summer long, walking into large towns and tiny villages, walking up to total strangers, asking where I could find and talk to fishermen. I met some really amazing people during my travels.

I remember one fisherman in particular who lived in the tiny island village of Bahia Honda, which you can see in the inset on the map next to Pixvae. The only way to get there was by boat. And there was no public boat or ferry to take you there. You just had to ask around to see when a boat was going. So I happened to catch a ride on the boat of this fishermen. When I arrived in the village, he told me I could stay in his house. What I hadn't realized was that there was no hotel, no restaurants, of any kind in this tiny village! So he made room for me in his very simple cinder block house with no power, no windows. I even had a small bed and room to my own. There was no running water either, and no indoor bathroom. He showed me where the "bathroom" was. We walked outside and there was a small concrete block "room" with four walls and no roof. There was a large wooden door, but it had no hinges. So you just had to lift it up and slide it over when you went in or out. Inside was a large hole in the ground covered by a toilet. He told me this is where I could "shower", and then walked me across the square where there was a water pump. You had to prime the pump (the only one in the village), then fill a bucket with water, and carry the water over to the concrete bathroom. Then, as you stood there with your head poking out above the five-foot tall walls, you scooped the water from the bucket into a little cup that had a small hole in it that let the water flow out in a crude shower-like fashion. And that was that! It was at times like that when I would have flashbacks of growing up in California and complaining angrily that my sister had used up used up all the hot water in the shower! Had I only known how good I had things! I also remember on the first morning I woke up in that village, I was sitting in the house with that fisherman, his wife, and his little baby girl and the baby stood up from a crawl and took her first steps across kitchen floor.

This is a picture of my accomodations in a small village called Pixvae. The bottom left door is for the jail. The top left door with the cross on it is, appropriately, where the village priest lived. The bottom right was an office, and the top right was a small room with a single bed where visitors to the village could stay. You could see through the floorboards right into the room below.

This is a picture of a fisherman who caught a swordfish that was almost bigger than the hand carved canoe he was in. As we approached this village, we happened upon this small canoe that just hooked a fish with a hand-line. The man in the back was digging his paddle into the water to slow the boat down, while the man in the front was holding tight onto the line. The fish was dragging the canoe through the water. It looked like they had landed a big one, so we pulled up along side them to watch them bring it in.

As different as it might look on the outside, life's pretty much the same wherever you go in this world. I'll post up some of my pictures from Panama when I have time. It's stories and moments like those that really make traveling worthwhile. The most memorable and most enjoyable events always seem to be when you are completely out of your element experiencing life in a way that you never knew existed. I know I'll always have a friend and a place to stay if I ever wander back to that tiny little island village in Panama.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Coral Spawning

I finally witnessed something I've always wanted to see, which is the once-yearly coral spawning event. I had seen videos of this before but had never witnessed it in person. I think once while I was on the great barrier reef I saw the "slick" of coral eggs on the water from land, but I've always wanted to see it up close and in person. Here's the video I shot of this amazing event which took place on Friday night, July 6th, 2007:

Getting to witness this event wasn't as easy as one might think. The corals usually spawn 6 days after the full moon in July. We weren't sure of the exact day, since they can always spawn a day early or late. Since the full moon was on June 30th, there was also a chance they were not going to go until after the full moon at the end of July. On my first attempt I went out to LauLau Bay on July 5th and met up with John, Angleo, Bev, Brie, and EJ. We snorkeled out the main dive cut and explored around for over an hour. It was a beautiful night-snorkel, and the water was nice and calm, but no spawning!

On my second attempt, I was lucky to be in the company of a PhD coral biologist, Dr. Peter Houk ("Dr. Coral") who taught me how to spot the spawning corals. We left in his small boat from Smiling Cove marina at 7pm, since the corals usually spawn between sunset and the moonrise. So friends Pete, Fran, Michelle and I headed out to a spot right next to the Dimple dive site. We saw a spectacular sunset on the way out and the water was as smooth as glass, with Pete guiding us with the GPS course he had plotted and downloaded onto his handheld GPS.

There was a fisherman moored to the Dimple dive buoy, so we picked a spot a little closer to the reef crest and found a nice sandy patch to drop our anchor on. As we were getting geared up, Pete started seeing coral eggs on the surface of the water. So Pete and Fran jumped right in and headed for the shallow water along the reef crest while Michelle and I took a little longer getting our dive gear sorted out in the dark. Unfortunately I experienced some user-induced issues with my camera which rendered it unusable, but Michelle was kind enough to let me borrow hers, since she had two underwater cameras ready to go. (Thank you!) While we were in the water sorting out the cameras, I noticed a "fire worm" or "bristle worm" swimming through the dark water column heading straight for Michelle's light, and it didn't look like it had any plans to stop! (Eurythoe complanata?) I warned her and she tried to get out of the way, but she didn't do a very good job. Luckily it didn't sting her as it brushed against her kicking legs as she swam frantically to avoid it. (They don't call them fire worms for nothing!) Here's a picture I took of one on a reef in the Virgin Islands. You can see the venomous bristles exposed. I've never seen on on the reef here, so I was excited to see my first one in Saipan.

As I made it over to the spot where Pete and Fran were, I could see a lot of eggs in the water column and on the surface, but I couldn't see the actual corals that were releasing the eggs. Finally, Pete flashed his light at me and pointed out a colony of Acropora coral that was loaded with eggs.

It hadn't begun to spawn yet, but it was about to. The trick is to find a coral that is full of the pink eggs and you just have to sit there and wait it out. In my case I sat with my face in this coral for over 30 minutes before it started releasing its tiny eggs. It was sure worth the wait, though! Having my dive gear on made it very easy to sit and watch, (while taking pictures, of course!) even though we were only in about 5 feet of water. When the coral started to release its eggs, Pete came over and used my octopus (my 2nd regulator) to breathe off of as we watched the show. It started slowly at first, just releasing one or two eggs, but then after a few minutes it really started to pump the eggs out. We managed to catch a few other colonies that were in the act of spawning as we made our way back to the boat.

As we relaxed in the boat and enjoyed some great food that Fran had brought along, we saw another neat show, this time it was all the plankton and other small sea critters that our lights were attracting. I started just looking overboard shining my light on the thousands of little pink and red eggs on the surface of the water, but then I started noticing a whole world of little things that were attracted by my light. We saw tiny worms, shrimp-like stomatapods feeding on the coral eggs, and even a tiny cubozoa (box) jellyfish! Coral eggs are actually a egg and sperm combination packet, and after floating on the surface for a while and mixing with all the other sperm/egg packets that were released, they break apart so the eggs can be fertilized by sperm from another colony. As we decided to pull up anchor and head back home, we could start to make out a thin layer of an oil-like substance on the surface of the water which was actually the sperm from the packets that had broken apart.

The ride home was beautiful, as the water was still like glass. We all had our lights shining ahead into the water watching fish jump, bioluminescing critters shine, and the reflection of the stars on the water.

Now, if I could just witness those turtles hatching... !