Experimental Tropical Marine Ecology

A Portrait of Bocas del Toro
by -- October 17th, 2008

Because such a place merits full description, the likes of which I have yet to give.

Isla Colon is one of many small islands on the Caribbean side of Panama in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama on which is located a town which I believe is the namesake of the region.  The islands are not large, nor are they far from shore, but they are numerous enough to be called an archipelago.  Most are relatively flat with a few hills and cliffs thrown in for good measure.  On the leeward side of the archipelago, nearly all the coastline is dominated by mangroves. On the windward side are rocky headlands separating typical sandy Caribbean beaches.  Between the archipelago and the mainland, the water is very shallow throughout–no more than 100 ft deep anywhere.  This is where we’ve spent most of our time.

The town of Bocas is on the Southeastern tip of the island.  There are no stoplights and it is generally a walking environment although we’ve been taking taxis to and from the lab (about $0.75 a person).  The town has water on most sides and only a few main roads.  The streets are lined with dirty little grocery stores, souvenir tents, greasy food stands, and the obligatory town buildings like churches.  Along the water front streets are bars, hotels, and restaurants, most of which begin on land and are built on stilts slightly over the water.  Most stuff is quite inexpensive.  The streets themselves are filled with filthy dogs.  The people are more friendly than Eastern Caribbean folk and are mostly of indigenous and African descent.  Joanna also noted early on in the trip, “Is it just me, or are Panamanians particularly beautiful people?”  I don’t think it’s just her.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Insitute is about a 20 min walk (5 min taxi ride) outside of town on a narrow isthmus.  The lab itself is positioned on the leeward side of the road.  A rather unclean beach is all that lies on the other side.  Facilities include an admin building, 20 person dorm/lounge/dining room area, two small cottages where the professors stay, a very modern, well equipped, and very green lab building, dock w/ boats, facilities buildin, and an outdoor wet lab.  Plus the pond/lagoon of crocodiles and turtles that is backed by a small jungle-type area.  While dining, we look out on this jungle area through a wall that is nothing but screen, and conversation is often broken when people spot birds of paradise or iguanas.  Along our walk from dorm to lab is a vast colony of leaf-cutter ants.  The grounds in general present a great deal of open space filled w/ tropical life.  Buildings are separated by a few hundred meters in which exist numerous types of vegetation–most especially, fruit trees like grapefruit, limes, and coconut which we have been picking and eating.

When we go out on the water, it is from the leeward side.  The dock is within a very quiet embayment where wind hardly ever reaches.  When cruising towards our destination, we pass vast areas of mangrove, small bays with small multicolored houses, many with thatched roofs, and we constantly pass small canoes and handmade boats sitting low in the water, often propelled by no more than a paddle by indigenous fishermen hauling lobster.  In such instances, the poverty is undeniable.  We see people washing themselves and their clothes in the water by their tiny huts and over-exploiting the lobster and grouper because they have no other choice.  The area is beautiful, but desperately overfished and abused due to desperateness of the poor.   On walking into town, there is no question that any one of us is priveleged beyond belief on this little island.  One wonders what the locals think of us kids strolling around, obviously spending more than they make in a week.   Tough times in paradise.

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