Experimental Tropical Marine Ecology

March 4: Day 1 – Arrival in Panama
by -- March 4th, 2011

The Panama Seven (minus Lisa) enjoying the view of Panama City from Punta Culebra.

Our first day on the Panama trip was exhilarating to say the least. We woke up to a homely breakfast of eggs, ham, toast, sweet pineapple, and smooth papaya, which we devoured ferociously. We then hopped on the bus and drove on through Panama City.

We soon arrived at Punta Culebra, a rocky beach where we would conduct a long term experiment on the chiton predation. Chitons are large, segmented, and nearly sessile mollusks that live among the rocks. When the tied comes in and the rocks are submerged, they are often preyed upon by fish. Or goal is to mark a few of these chitons, and then return to the beach in regular intervals to see how far they have moved, and if they have been preyed upon.

Professor Diaz instructed us to find ten of the chitons so that we could mark them for our experiment. However, there was one stipulation. They had to be decently exposed, so not jammed into any tiny crevices, or concealed underneath a rock. Basically we had to find ten dumb chitons. We thought it would be a piece of cake, but an hour later, we realized that perhaps the chitons were the smart ones. It took us forever to find the thirteen we eventually marked. Many of these were slightly concealed, but we settled for them. Only one was truly exposed. Susan found him sun bathing on some of the rocks further upslope. Once he detected us watching him (either by scent or vibration?), he began to flee–very slowly. Susan poked at him a few times to paralyze him with fear long enough for us to mark him.

We then drove back to the hotel, experiencing our first taste of Panama’s inclement weather along the way. Once we entered the highway, the fluffy cumulus clouds that had greeted us that morning had already transfigured into low, grey masses. The first few drops made streaks on the bus’s windows as we drove. By the time we made it back to the hotel, we were engaging a full on downpour.

Tired and slightly wet, we did the obvious thing. We sat down and stuffed our faces. Lunch was a hearty meal of chicken, mixed vegetables, and a pile of delicious rice–all accompanied by a pleasantly spicy sauce.

Before we finished eating, the sun came out and the downpour relented to a drizzle–a testament to Panama’s temperamental weather. With the weather appearing to be in our favor, we once again boarded our faithful bus.

We soon arrived at a research site in the Panamanian Rainforest. Driving up the wooded road, we passed a weathered four-towered fortress on our right. Prof Diaz would later explain that it was a bunker from WWII–a reminder of the United States’ historical presence.

Driving deeper into the woods, we soon found ourselves on a dirt path full of debris. Stopping next to a series of metal sculptures, we spoke to a man who seemed to be in charge of the area. After a short exchange in Spanish (which I understood nothing of), we commenced rapidly climbing up one of the metal structures. As I looked up to see what he was doing, I realized the structure was a massive crane, and he was clambering all the way up to the control center at the top.

After what seemed like a slice of forever, mechanical noises reverberated through the canopy, and a giant hook descended upon us. Lisa channeled her inner monkey and attached the hook to roof of another metal structure–a cage. We all squeezed in. With a brief jolt we began our ascent.

As we broke the roof of the forest, my first sight was the distant apparition of Panama City–beckoning me through the mist of the evaporating rain. I than turned around and acquired a broader scope of my situation. I was in a cage floating a few hundred feet above the forest floor–exhilarating. The crane operator then glided us gently about the treetops while Prof. Diaz divulged many of the secrets and nuances of the forest.

Halfway through, we spotted a three-toed sloth on one of the tree tops close to us. He moved slowly upwards–probably trying to flee in fear as rapidly as possible. Our crane operator navigated us like some sick Toy Story claw master, and before long we found ourselves right over the sloth, who by this time had resigned himself to freezing in fear. After documenting him with every photographic apparatus known to man, we then set our sights on a new target–an iguana in a tree not far away.

Once we had descended back to the earth’s surface, we all exchanged looks of overwhelmedness. Moments before, we were at the top of the rainforest. We saw animals that we had only known of from Animal Planet. And we saw birds that we had not known at all. These wide-eyed looks of amazement soon degenerated into slack-eyed imitations of sloths.

Our next stop was an artisan shop back in Panama City. The modest exterior belied its true nature. We were assaulted by such vibrant colors and hardy textures in the forms of scarves, jewelry, clothing, paintings, and woven items. After succumbing to a few nice shopkeepers, I eventually purchased a pair of scarves for my two sisters, a carved set of dominos for my dad and a plush toucan for my mom. I have yet to devise how I will fit these items into my already crowded luggage.

After satiating our need to shop, we traveled half an hour away to the STRI Station in Gamboa. We set our baggage down and claimed our beds before running outside and enjoying the massive field, complete with monkey bars and two soccer goals. After working off all the excitement from encountering exhilarating tree sloths, we came back in for dinner and feasted on fish, chicken, pineapple, cantaloupe, salad, and a delectable peachy dessert.

After reviewing the itinerary for tomorrow, our energy gave way to food coma. As we retired to bed–as our exhilaration turned into exhaustion–we knew one thing: this would be an amazing week.

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