Welcome to Panama!
by Amy Peniston -- October 3rd, 2009
Early morning snorkeling, hermit crabs, and chocolate cake for dessert. What a day.
At 6:45 am, a group of 14 bleary-eyed students boarded a plane in Panama City. Less than 3 hours later, they paddled among fields of coral that rose from the sandy ocean floor like intricate architecture. Masked faces peered inquisitively at the piles of black urchins that littered the substrate; the sun beat down, sending pulses of sparkling light spiraling and curving through the water. Welcome to Panama.
The group of us met yesterday in the Atlanta airport and flew together to Panama City. As we were landing, I was surprised at the amount of nighttime light, from cars and buildings especially. I hadn’t expected such a city! We arrived at the Riande Hotel (very classy), sampled the local cuisine (from “Supernachos” to “Fruta”), and headed to bed, an early morning ahead of us. Little did we know that our first adventure would be so soon!
We landed, took taxis to the Institute, and were treated to breakfast (the melon papaya juice was the all-round favorite). After splitting up between the four dormitory rooms, we loaded onto two boats and set out to San Cristobal- a coral-bed 10 minutes away that is home to a host of fish, sponges, sea cucumbers, urchins, and tube worms. As we fumbled about with masks, snorkels, and flippers in the early morning sun, the lush green of the island forests hugged the horizon in every direction, taking our breath away. The water was calm, warm, and rich with marine life. One highlight was the “Sailor’s Eyeball,” a unicellular algae that looks like a small, black glass ornament. It is strangely iridescent, almost eerie as it shimmers from within crevices in the coral. My favorites by far were the squid- 15 of them that rose and fell together in formation, beady eyes flashing and wings quivering. As a group of us closed in, they shot backwards causing their beaks to flap comically. Even when lunch beckoned, vigorous coaxing was needed to get us back in the boats.
Later, we returned to the water, this time to visit Bastimentos in order to collect hermit crabs for our orientation experiment. The trip took us out of the cover of the island, and soon we found ourselves plunging and soaring with the swells that rolled rhythmically through the sound. After clambering onto the shore, we were told to “Go look for hermit crabs!” Two hours later, we had collected almost 200 of the little guys (though we did lose a few pairs of sunglasses in the process!). Tired, salty, and bitten (surprise ant hill) after a successful day in the field, we fought the surf, struggled onto the boats, and sped back home. Dinner and chocolate cake awaited!
…and we turned, cruising past the tip of an island- black rocks like shattered blocks of charcoal embraced by the wind-whipped waves- to race the boat’s shadow across the sound…