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Rainy Season Visitors – Part 2

Humpback whales are easily recognized because of their enormous size, their majestic whale songs and their stunning aerial acrobatics, often breaching the water despite their large bodies and landing with a tremendous splash. A fully grown humpback whale weighs more than 5 adult elephants and measures up to almost 20 meters in length, the size of a big bus. Humpbacks possess a massive tail fin called fluke and unusually long pectoral fins (1/3 the length of their body!), which they use for navigation through the world’s oceans. The only known predator of such huge animal is a pack of very hungry killer whales.

Humpbacks have a very diverse diet consisting of krill, plankton and small fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel. Humpbacks do not have teeth but baleen plates, with bristles attached to them that prevent small prey from escaping but allow water to easily pass through. Since they don’t have teeth they have to swallow their preys entirely. The way they hunt is a real spectacle. They use a technique known as bubble net fishing. This involves a group of humpback whales swimming around their prey in a circle, blowing bubbles around their prey in order to herd the fish into a tight ball and creating  loud vocal sounds to scare the fish to the surface of the water. Then, the humpbacks slap their fins against the water to stun the fish and immobilize them. Finally, the whales will swim up with an open mouth and engulf thousands of small fish in just a single gulp, using their baleen bristles to separate water and debris from prey and their tongue to push the water out of the mouth and to swallow their prey.

Humpback whales feed mostly during the summer feeding season, building up blubber (fat) reserves that they will use during their migration and mating season. They make huge annual migrations from summer feeding grounds near the poles such as Alaska and Antarctica, where they enjoy cold nutrient-rich waters, to warmer winter breeding waters near the Equator where they mate and bear offspring. This means that the visiting humpback whales that we can see in Coiba have travelled thousands of miles all the way from Antarctica, making this the farthest migration of any mammal! Moreover, during this long migration and their time in Coiba, they will be fasting, hardly feeding and living primarily off of the blubber reserves acquired during the feeding season! Their time in Coiba is mating season so here they either breed or, in the case of pregnant females, they give birth. Females produce a single offspring once every 2-3 years. The average gestation period is 11-12 months. This means that a female humpback in Coiba will get pregnant one year and then migrate back to the South Pole while pregnant. Once there it will be feeding for a few months and will then migrate thousands of miles still pregnant and fasting  back to the safer warm waters of Coiba, to give birth to her only calf! The mother will nurse the calf for about a year, with calves drinking up to 600 L of her mother’ s milk in just one day! A calf will continue growing until approximately the age of 10, when they reach full adult maturity.

A humpback’s song is beautiful, unique and can last for a long time. Imagine that you are underwater and all of a sudden you start to hear a very complex and loud mixture of low-pitched moans, whines and howls. You look around trying to find the source. The sound wraps around you but you cannot see where it comes from, and you know this orchestra is the work of one of these huge fellows which is perhaps a few miles away from you, since their magical songs can travel for great distances through the ocean. Can you imagine it? Believe me, it is a truly unforgettable experience. And it is even more amazing given the fact that humpbacks do not have vocal cords and are unable to breath through their mouth, so all their sounds are produced by pushing air out of their blowhole. The songs are still surrounded by mystery. We still don’t understand the impressive humpback’s ability to produce songs of such complexity, and we are not certain of the purposes behind them. Typically one population of male humpback whales will sing a variation of the same song. Because whale songs are sung exclusively by males, it is believed that the song could be a mechanism for mating used by males to show off their vocal abilities and appeal to females. If this is correct and you have the chance to hear a whale song, think you are listening to one of the most complex acoustic mating rituals in the animal kingdom. However, female humpbacks have very rarely been recorded approaching a singing male whale and male humpbacks do not exclusively sing during mating season. Therefore, some scientists believe that there has to be another purpose behind their songs. Perhaps songs act as synchronizing symphonies guiding the migration of groups of whales. We simply don’t know.

At one point these amazing creatures were considered highly endangered due to excessive hunting and commercial whaling. Since then they have made a huge comeback thanks to protecting laws and a general increase in environmental awareness among the public. Most populations today  and are no longer considered a concern from a conservation standpoint. However, they still face a number of threats from humans such as entanglement in fishing gear, harassment by whale watchers, boat collisions, overfishing that compromises their feeding grounds, and water and noise pollution as well as other environmental impacts on their habitat. Entanglement in fishing gear and other marine debris is known to occur during long migrations. Shipping channels and coastal developments may displace whales, discouraging them from breeding in an area that they would normally use. The population migrating in Central America is among the populations still at risk. Do not be discouraged, a lot is being done to improve their situation. I only ask you, if you want to see whales, wherever that may be, make sure you look for responsible operations that follow adequate guidelines for whale watching.

-By Rodrigo Villarino

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Rainy Season Visitors – Part 1

This time of the year is particular in Santa Catalina.  We have special visitors who, like every year, visit Coiba during the months of July-September to delights us with their majestic and beautiful presence. These friends of ours, with whom we share the wonders of Coiba for a few months, are the humpback whales.

People know that during these months Coiba offers the possibility to see these amazing creatures. They come to our dive center asking us to confirm whether they have the chance to see them underwater or at least on the surface during our boat rides. We can see and feel their excitement about that possibility and we all in Panama Dive Center obviously share that excitement too. Whales have that effect on us. Their beautiful, powerful and secret nature inspire our imaginations! When I see the excitement in our clients about the possibility of these encounters and their smiles, exclamations and expressions in absolute awe when it actually happens, I think to myself: “this is what I live for”. When I see their happiness after a dream becomes true, a dream that gets them closer to nature, I feel truly realized.

Although sightings underwater are extremely rare events, seeing them on the surface throughout the day happens often in these months. It sometimes begins with someone spotting a jet of water emerge from the ocean up into the sky. At other times we see a group a whales swimming on the surface and yet, at event other times we are lucky to witness the full power of these wonderful creatures in one of their spectacular jumps out of the water, which is known as breaching! In any event, what follows is always the same very loud “whales!!!!!” from whoever sees them first, and then everyone stands up too excited to remain calm or quiet. If the whales are visible, everyone shouts expression of joy and excitement. If whales disappear, then everyone stays quiet and still, fully alert and scrutinizing the surface, waiting for the next blow. The joy of seeing these massive creatures is thrilling.

I haven’t been one of the extremely lucky persons seeing them underwater yet, but an instructor who recently saw them while diving described to me the experience, and I got a glimpse of the magnitude of the encounter. I saw a special light on his expression while describing me the event. I found the respect and love that he professes to these animals really contagious. I pictured myself there and how amazing that must be. He described them to me as something from another world, his eyes almost popping out while telling me the size of their fins, their elegance, their mysticism, their power. They truly are from another world.

What are you waiting for? Come to Santa Catalina and visit Coiba, where you can enjoy the beauty and mystery of these beautiful animals. In the meantime, if you want to know more about humpback whales, visit our blog next week for another entry full of interesting facts, photos and videos about these mysterious creatures! Let us share the magic of the ocean! We are waiting for you!

-By Rodrigo Villarino

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Pufferfish

If you´ve had the chance to dive in the Coiba National Park in Panama, you surely had the opportunity to admire the variety of pufferfish present on the site. Indeed, these intriguing little fishes traverse the reserve in great numbers and surprise us with their variety in colors. However, we know very little about this species, its peculiarities and its habits. This article will try to answer some of the questions and attempt to give a little more insight about these fascinating creatures.

What is their real name?

Beyond balloon fish, globe fish, puffer fish, their real name is Tetraodontidae (smooth puffers) or Diodontidae (spiny puffers), much less simple to pronounce.

What do they look like?

There are 121 species of puffer fish, so it is possible to meet individuals of many types. What they have in common is the shape of their bodies, elongated and globular. All puffers have five fins, two pectoral, one dorsal, one abdominal and one anal. Their skin is hard, smooth and without scales. Some of them have bright colors that indicate their danger and toxicity, while others have more discreet colors that allow them to blend into their surroundings. In addition, many of them have the ability to change color to adapt to changes in the environment. These changes can be discrete, variations in hues, contrasts, or very surprising, total color changes from yellow to black with white spots. In terms of size, there is also a great variety: it is possible to meet species of balloon fish of only 2.5 cm in length while others can reach up to 100 cm in length.

What are they feeding on?

The diet of puffer fish is mainly composed of invertebrates and algae. They have four teeth, two centered on the upper jaw and two on the lower jaw. This dentition has the appearance of a beak and allows the largest specimens to break the crustaceans which are also part of their diet.

Why do some of them puff?

Puffer fish are very slow and it is very difficult for them to escape from their predators. Thus, inflating allows them to scare their assailants. They can indeed reach up to three times their original size. To achieve such a transformation the globe fish uses the impressive elasticity of its stomach and quickly ingests a large amount of water or even air if necessary. It then looks like a kind of ball, often covered in thorns, which dissuades most predators from coming closer.

What are their other defenses?

Despite their slowness, puffer fish have very good eyesight and they are able to orient their eyes independently. They are also able to maneuver easily in all directions in the water. These two assets allow them to spot any threats in time to hide or swell up to a balloon.

In addition to inflating some puffers are covered in spikes which stick put upon inflation and make them inedible. In addition, almost all puffer fish produce tetrodotoxin, a very toxic substance present in their internal organs and skin. It would appear that they create this toxin by synthesizing the bacteria present in their food. Thus, if a predator catches them before it swells, it may regret it. Indeed, this substance is1200 times more dangerous than cyanide and lethal for almost all the predators. The dose of this toxin present in a single balloon fish can kill up to 30 adult humans, and there is no known cure. So under their inoffensive face, they  hide a real murderer potential, which even classify them as the second most toxic animal in the world after the poisonous golden frog.

How do they reproduce?

In most cases in salt water, the male brings the female to the surface where it releases between three and seven eggs, which it subsequently fertilizes. The eggs remain on the surface and hatch after about four to seven days. However, a species of globe fish stands out because of their incredible courtship: the Japanese Pufferfish. These create nests which are real architectural masterpieces to attract the females (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV1C_HvP8P0)

In fresh water, the task is more complicated for males, which have to differentiate themselves from others to be chosen by the female. He draws her into a protected place in order to release her eggs, which he will fertilize. In captivity, it has been observed that the male protects the eggs until hatching.

A nice meal?

Their toxicity makes puffer fish very complicated to eat. Indeed, only a very precautionary preparation makes consumption possible. Despite this danger, ´takifugu´ puffer has become an exceptional dish in Japan. Although it is only be prepared by graduated chefs, every year some people are hospitalized and die intoxicated by fugu. Its consumption is even forbidden to the emperor. This danger does not frighten the Japanese for whom it is a luxurious delicacy. A dish made of fugu can costs between $20 and $50, the whole fish is sold between $100 and $200. In other parts of Japan some puffer fish farms have made them non-toxic by monitoring their diet, making them more simple to consume.

A population in danger?

Although in Coiba National Park you can come across at least 7 different types of puffer fish. This is not the case everywhere in the world. Indeed, some species are beginning to be threatened by pollution, overfishing and the destruction of reefs. This is particularly the case with the Japanese puffer, whose population has declined by 99% in the last 40 years, as well as the Canthigaster cyanetron, the red lined puffer fish and the dwarf puffer recently classified as vulnerable species in danger of extinction.

-by Anaïs Yvinou

 

Sources:

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/group/puffer fish/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetraodontidae

http://vieoceane.free.fr/poissons/familles/Tetraodontidae/fiche1.html

http://ipfactly.com/puffer fish/

https://www.aquaportail.com/taxonomie-famille-177-tetraodontidae.html

https://a-z-animals.com › A-Z Animals › Animals › Puffer Fish

https://diverswhowanttolearnmore.wordpress.com/2014/11/16/tetraodontidae-puffer fish-vs-porcupinefish/

eol.org/pages/5056/overview

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Coiba National Park: A UNESCO Site in Danger?

@inspiredbymaps view of the ranger´s station from the top

World heritage sites are places whose characteristics set them apart from a merely beautiful scenic site.  They are unique and have an intrinsic “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV) that reflects the wealth and diversity of the Earth’s cultural and natural heritage. Because of their outstanding value, World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. Their protection benefits every single one of us and therefore, it is the duty of the international community as a whole to cooperate in their preservation.

Coiba National park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection (SZMP) were included in the list of Unesco World heritage sites in 2005. It is an area of breath-taking beauty that stirs the heart of its visitors. But apart from its beauty, what makes Coiba special? What is its OUV?

To be included in the World Heritage list, a site has to meet at least 1 out of 10 selection criteria. Coiba meets Unesco criteria (ix) and (x) for inclusion in the World heritage list of natural sites. You can find these criteria and why Coiba meets them here.

In simple words, Coiba holds communities of plants and animals which are essential for the well-being of our entire planet. Coiba is extremely reach in biodiversity, with many of its plant and animal species not found anywhere else in the world. These species in many instances play key roles in processes responsible for the health of our oceans. If we don’t have healthy oceans we are in SERIOUS TROUBLE. This is why Coiba is a World Heritage site and why it must be protected.

The State Parties are countries that adhere to the World Heritage Convention, nominate sites within their national territory to be considered for inscription in the list and have the responsibility to protect the World Heritage values of the sites inscribed. The benefits of joining the list are multiple. It often serves as a catalyst to raising awareness for heritage preservation. It provides access to the World Heritage fund. Sites also benefit from the elaboration and implementation of a comprehensive management plan and experts offer technical training to the local site management team.

The World Heritage Committee consists of representatives from 21 of the States Parties to the Convention elected for terms up to six years. It meets once a year and is responsible for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. It allocates financial assistance from the World Heritage Fund and has the final say on whether a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List. It also examines reports on the state of conservation of inscribed sites and decides on the inscription or removal of sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The World Heritage Committee can inscribe on the List of World Heritage in Danger properties that face threats to their World Heritage values and once a site has been Inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, the World Heritage Committee can allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered property. The Committee then develops and adopts, in consultation with the State Party concerned, a program for corrective measures, and subsequently monitors the situation of the site. It also alerts the international community so that it can join efforts to save these endangered sites.

All this is important because the World Heritage Committee has warned the State Party of Panama that, should management of Coiba and the SZMP continue in the same direction, the Committee will consider including the site in the List of World Heritage in Danger. In other words, the Committee thinks that the outstanding universal value of Coiba and its SZMP may be in danger.

An IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Reactive Monitoring mission visited the property (Coiba and the SZMP) from 28 November to 3 December 2016, in order to present conservation issues to the World Heritage Committee. On 30 January 2017, the State Party of Panama submitted a report on the state of conservation of the property. Both reports are available here. You can find a summary of the conclusions and decisions adopted by the Committee in its last decision (Draft decision: 41 COM 7B.17)  here. Briefly, the Committee indicated that:

  • the management of Coiba’s marine component continues to face significant challenges, with declines having been reported for some key marine values, and with little progress reported in the implementation of the Committee’s requests related to the management and control of fisheries.
  • the draft regulations proposed by the State Party include provisions for types of activities that would be incompatible with the World Heritage status of the property, particularly industrial fishing.

Basically, the take-home message is that certain fishing activities are allowed within the park which are absolutely incompatible with the World Heritage status of Coiba and which are having a serious negative impact on Coiba’s outstanding universal value. What is most disturbing and frustrating is that the World Heritage Committee has been repeatedly expressing concerns to the State Party in the past years over the absence of effective fisheries regulations within the property, with apparently little effect. The Committee has repeatedly requested the State Party to take immediate measures to ensure that fishing is strictly controlled and that fisheries permitted within the property are sustainable,  guaranteeing that activities such as industrial fishing are not permitted within the property. The World Heritage Committee has indicated that if by its 42nd session in 2018 there has not been substantial progress in protecting the property from unsustainable fisheries, Coiba and its SZMP may be included on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Although the listing of Coiba as World Heritage in Danger may be perceived as a dishonor, it may actually be a good turning point, focusing international attention on its problems and obtaining expert assistance in solving them. However, we believe the listing of Coiba in the World Heritage in Danger would not be necessary if the State Party complied with requests from the World Heritage Committee. Hopefully, the State Party will take note of the requests and we will soon see major positive changes in the management of Coiba’s marine component. Coiba is a special place, part of our natural heritage and it should be treated as such. Let’s not forget it.

– by Rodrigo Villarino

Antennariidae – also known as Frogfish

Giant Frogfish

When the bigger animals such as whale sharks and humpback whales leave or they are just not around, we turn our attention to other creatures in the ocean. Schools of barracuda, jacks and our beloved white-tips are still aplenty, but sometimes we also find some of the smaller ones hiding between the shells, rocks  and coral. Undoubtedly, one of our favourites is the frogfish.

These fantastic creatures, are a type of anglerfish, that can be found in tropical and subtropical waters off the coasts of Africa, Asia, Australia, North America and Central America. We are lucky enough to have resident giant frogfish here in Coiba National Park.

Frogfish have a textured exterior, and unique colors, spines and bumps that have the ability to change to match their surroundings, making them the masters in camouflage! Unlike many animals that use camouflage as a defense from predators, frogfish mostly use their abilities to attract prey. Their size is between 1/8 inch to 22 inches.

Frogfish are carnivores and also cannibals. They eat fish, crustaceans and sometimes other frogfish! Their mouth can expand to 12 times its resting size, allowing them to catch all sorts of prey, bigger than themselves. Frogfish have a modified dorsal fin that has a retractable lure resembling a shrimp, which is used to attract their prey. If their lure is eaten or damaged it can be regenerated. Using its fishing rod and lure the frogfish will dangle the bait in front of its head. An unsuspecting passerby will see the lure and become excited, swimming towards a seemingly easy meal, where it gets eaten by the frogfish. Frogfish have the fastest strike speed of any animal on earth! As their prey comes to them, frogfish move only when they sense danger or need to mate.

Because frogfish lack a swim bladder, they use their modified pectoral fins to walk, or even gallop, across the seafloor. They also walk by gulping water with its massive mouth, then forcing the water through it’s gills allowing it to move. The body moves very little as the frogfish huffs and puffs its way through the water column.

IMG_3316The female of these species lay eggs in the water and the male comes from behind to fertilize them. The abdomen of the female starts swelling as the egg absorbs water and this happens from 8 hours to several days before the laying of eggs. The male starts to approach the female two days before the spawning. The time of spawning is not known by scientists clearly, it may depend on the phase of the moon or a signal is possibly released by the female.

Once, Camilo´s sharp eyes spotted a minuscule yellow juvenile giant frog fish. No bigger that my fingernail this tiny miracle truly made our day. We managed to find it again and hope we will be able to track this little guy´s growth before it decides to leave or gets swallowed up.