Now that my time here as an intern is coming to a close I am reflecting on my experiences and the memories that I will take away. Before coming to Santa Catalina I did not have much diving experience, having dived only to Open Water level in Malaysia. I thought it would be cool to get the chance to do some diving again, but I have to say that my time here has really made me fall in love with experiencing the underwater world and I am desperate to continue!

Every day in Coiba has been special. Even the days when we haven’t had our most spectacular dives you can’t help but be in awe of the park and the diversity of life in the water. And then you get those days that really are extraordinary, when the park is bursting with life and it feels like everywhere you look there is something special to see! My best day of diving happened on our instructor Kat’s birthday when our first two dives were full of big, big schools and turtles, and we shared the last dive with 2 beautiful whale sharks. Since I have been here I have been incredibly lucky enough to see whale sharks, manta rays, giant schools of sting rays and hammerhead sharks among countless other amazing things!

I also, on the encouragement of Sabina, have gotten into making and editing videos from my dives – something I really enjoy doing! This and all the diving experience are skills I am so glad to have gained from my time here.

I am very thankful for the opportunity that PDC has given me to be able to do this, and for all the special people I have shared my time with (particular shout out to my fellow interns / house mates!). PDC it has truly been a pleasure.

Esme

For our regular beach cleans we usually focus on the town beach as it is easily accessible from the shop – and is always in plenty of need! However, having noticed excessive and increasing quantities of plastic and waste on Estero beach (the main surfing beach in Santa Catalina), last weekend we decided to organize a bigger operation to go down there and tidy up.

Our friends Michelle from La Buena Vida (a local hotel) and Ollie (owner of Sup Santa Catalina) agreed to help us to transport people and rubbish to and from the beach, enabling us to facilitate the clean. Michelle also spoke to kids from town who were previously keen to get involved with events like this. We arranged a post-clean feast of empanadas and fruits and we were good to go!

We had a good turnout of kids and adults, but the task ahead of us was mammoth! The thing that struck us was the incredible amount of micro-plastics. It would be a near impossible task to clear all these tiny shreds. However, our team did a great job. We filled 10-15 large bags between us – considering that these were mostly filled with small items / pieces this felt like a job well done.

It was beautiful to see the kids engaged in the task and helping for a long time without getting distracted! Afterwards we had a short discussion about why what we had done was important and it was uplifting to see their understanding of the issues of pollution – especially since this is not the case with many older members of the community.

After the beach clean we had a short yoga session led by Michelle before delving into our empanadas and finally having plenty of time to play / swim together on the beach. One of the nicest things about the day was coming together as a community, having the chance to enjoy the company of others from the town and working together to make our home a better place.

A big thank you to everyone that helped us with all aspects of the clean. We hope to keep bringing the community together in the future and hopefully see an ever-growing team of beach clean heroes!

Sea turtles are probably one of the most well-known and beloved creatures of our vast oceans. Whilst they do breathe air, they can stay under water for around 40 minutes – or even up to several hours while they are asleep. As Reptiles, Turtles lay eggs. The females usually return to the beach where they were born. On the beach, they dig hole in which they lay up to 300 eggs and then cover them up with sand and finally they camouflage them. This is the only protection those eggs will have, the mother returns back to the ocean right after laying her eggs. Those little guys unfortunately have very little chance of making it to adulthood. A lot of them will get eaten or won’t even make it to the ocean safely after hatching. But even if they do, more danger in form of predators awaits in the ocean. Luckily, enough make it so that we can observe them on almost every dive.

They have fascinated humans for several thousand years and appear in mythology and cultural depictions throughout all cultures. Usually, they symbolize wisdom, patience and a certain easy-going way of life as they can live to over a hundred years old with the exact life span depending on the species of sea turtle. In Africa the story goes that turtles are the cleverest of all animals and they gave the other creatures their colours. In Nigeria the turtle is known as a trickster and accomplishes heroic deeds through various different stories. Meanwhile in ancient Greek and Roman mythology the turtle symbolized fertility and was thus an attribute of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus. In Tahitian culture the sea turtle is the shadow of the gods and the lord of the ocean.

Often they are connected with creation myths: There are stories in which the turtle literally carries the world on its back; in some stories that turtle stands on the back of another larger turtle – it is “turtles all the way down”. In other stories our planet is carried by four elephants who stand on the back of a turtle. Unfortunately, in a metaphorical way, turtles really are carrying some of the weight of the world as they are one of the creatures impacted the most by climate change. The reason for this is that the gender of the little sea turtles hatching from their eggs on the beach is determined by the sand temperature. As a result, rising temperatures have led to a too high percentage of female sea turtles, in some areas it is as high as 95%. This makes reproduction even harder, and it is already not easy for our beloved creatures. Sea turtles take decades to reach sexual maturity. When they do return to the beach to lay their eggs the survival rates are unfortunately very low.

Sea turtles are not just the cute, calm creatures we love so much on our dives though – they have a real significance to the ecosystem. For instance, they eat the seagrass, keeping it short enough so it keeps spreading over the ocean floor providing an important habitat for lots of other species who find shelter and food in these grassy beds. They also eat jellyfish. The leatherback turtle is immune to the poison of the box jellyfish and hence controls its population keeping beaches safe for us humans as well.
In Coiba National Park one of the spots where we are most likely to find sea turtles is at the so-called cleaning stations that exist at certain dive sites, like Iglesia. At these cleaning stations fish eat the parasites inhabiting the sea turtles among other bigger animals like rays making it a mutually beneficial institution: they feed on the parasites and the sea turtles and rays get rid of those nasty little plagues. It is fascinating to observe such areas where the animals knowingly go to get cleaned off, and it is what makes Iglesia one of my favorite dive sites.

 

-Text and video by Saskia

Sometimes, really just sometimes, you get one of those days in Coiba that are like dreams coming true. Last week one of our groups had such a day. The weather was beautiful, which is unusual this time of the year, and the boat ride out to the national park was already stunning.

The first dive site we visited was el Bajo Piñon. Full of life there were lots of schools of fish as well as turtles and our current favourites here – manta rays. It was astonishing to see this dive site bursting with life in all its colours. After a surface interval on one of the little beaches, where the sea shells made a sound like little bells getting tossed against each other in the waves, we headed to our second dive site – Faro. There, the surface current was extremely strong so that it was a struggle to get to the descent line. However, our dive instructor Kim reminded us that strong currents often mean lots of life and she couldn’t have been more right. After the group managed to descend and drift dive for a bit we started hearing very high pitched clicking noises and whistles – coming from hunting dolphins. Not long after we saw a school of bigeye jacks, fish dolphins like to hunt. And finally, they appeared. A group of three dolphins – a big one, a middle one and a baby dolphin- showed up and chased the fish making it look like a game. These creatures seem so intelligent, curious and alert. Every move they make is elegant and playful at the same time. It looked like the bigger dolphins were trying to teach the baby one how to hunt with the baby dolphin always being on the fins of the bigger one. They move incredibly fast in the water and soon enough this group disappeared again. Every now and then over the next couple of minutes we heard a high pitched whistle again until it got louder and more continuous and another pair of dolphins appeared, again shortly after we found a school of bigeye jacks. They hung around for a while longer, showing their teeth and fish inside their mouth making it seem like they were grinning at us letting us know how much fun they were having cruising through the water. It was an absolutely remarkable moment to observe those dolphins hunting and for me it was a childhood dream coming true. We rarely have the luck to see dolphins in Coiba, from the boats we see them quite often but mostly we just hear them on a dive without being lucky enough to spot them.

However, after this encounter our luck was still not used up. Shortly after the dolphins swam off we discovered a whale shark although whale sharks are mostly just observed during dry season here. We followed it and got up close only few meters away from the giant creature with its beautiful painting. Then it turned around and swam towards the group so everyone in the group saw it up close. We then said goodbye to the whaleshark as we had to go up for our safety stop. Without any surprise everyone went nuts once on the surface, talking screaming and laughing in excitement and joy. A lot of the divers had not done a lot of dives yet, but it does not take an experienced diver to realize how extraordinary this day had been. After a lunch break we then did a negative entry to our third and last dive of the day and again we had surprise visitors. A rare black tip reef shark and another manta ray came to say hi and swam past the group. Finally, we made our way back to the dive center with still a blue sky and memories for a life time. Even the instructor said it was one of her best days diving with 1000+ dives all over the world. Thank you Coiba for showing us all your beauty!!

– by Saskia

Here in Coiba we just can not get enough of rays hanging out with us on our dives with their movements so elegant it often seems like they are flying through water. Lately we have been particularly lucky and seen Mantas on most of our dives – sometimes just for a brief moment but more often than not they hang around for a bit or appear multiple times throughout a dive with every encounter unique in its own way.

Their colouring in particular on their belly is unique to every individual and allows to identify them.

The name manta originates from the Spanish and Portuguese word “manta” which means blanket or cloak and doesn’t refer to their colouring as one might think but instead to the way they used to be catched. They are mostly found in tropical and subtropical waters making Coiba National Park a perfect place to look for them.

Sometimes you will spot a fish seemingly attached to the manta near its head catching a ride and gaining some extra protection by its giant host. Those fish are called remora or are commonly also referred to as suckerfish as they quite literally suck onto their host. They do not have any negative impact on the ray in doing so, instead this is a special sort of symbiosis and exciting to observe as a diver and sometimes those little guys have been observed to even attach themselves to a diver.

Those giants reaching a fin span of up to nine meters do not just seem curious and smart – their brains are ten times larger than those of whale sharks and studies conducted in 2016 suggest they might even be able to recognize themselves in a mirror, a sign of self-awareness that is usually just observed in dolphins and certain species of monkeys. So, in a lot of ways those little geniuses like to outperform other members of their class with particularly skills in problem solving and communicating.

Some of our divers experienced that first hand when a manta ray entangled in plastic approached them. As the group was just getting ready for the safety stop the manta showed up swimming towards the group seemingly looking for help. After a bit of hesitation and back and forth it slowed down swimming at the same speed as the group as if it was realizing it is getting help now and let the dive instructor cut the plastic line it was entangled in. It stayed for a bit before the group surfaced and then swam away enjoying its freedom once more.

This is encounter adds to the stories that are out there about manta rays and dolphins who found themselves entangled approaching divers for help. It impressively illustrates how smart and communicative these creatures are but once more is a reminder of how important it is to keep our oceans clean and especially avoid plastic and plastic bags.

  • By Saskia, Photocredit: Katie and Kat

Sources: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/fish/discover/species-profiles/manta-birostris
https://oceana.org/blog/manta-ray-brainpower-blows-other-fish-out-water-10
https://divezone.net/manta-ray

Rubbish is a big problem here in Santa Catalina. Sadly it is certainly not an exception in Central America, or anywhere else for that matter. Walking down the stunning Santa Catalina coastline you can’t help but notice all the old discarded ‘stuff’ littering the way. Naturally as our home we want to keep the beaches here beautiful, something we can enjoy and be proud of. Here at Panama Dive Centre we are organizing twice monthly beach cleanups to do our part for cleaning up our coastline. However there are much more significant reasons for our beach cleans than simply aesthetic reasons. Littering is a global crisis, but why is it so important to prevent its spread along our coast and beaches?

“An estimated 5-13 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year from land-based sources” – That’s similar to emptying a garbage truck of plastic into an ocean every minute.

Rubbish is having a devastating effect on marine ecosystems across the world. Approximately 100,000 marine creatures are killed per year just from plastic entanglement – and this is only a figure for those that are found. Ingestion is another matter, over 70% of deep sea fish were found to have ingested plastic in a recent study. We know that plastic takes many years to break down – but even when it does it turns into microplastics and toxic chemicals, which continue to effect the health of marine animals.

“There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way”

This also affects us here on land. For animals that feed on fish (humans included!) not only are waning populations and near extinctions a threat for food security, but we are also ingesting the same toxic chemicals and microplastics harbored by the fish that we eat! Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium estimated that top shellfish eaters in Europe are consuming up to 11,000 pieces of micro plastic in their seafood each year.

“Projections indicate that by 2050, the ration of fish to plastics could be 1:1”

What can we do to end the cycle and help cure our oceans? Every small action counts. It has been estimated that Americans go through about 100 billion plastic bags a year (around 360 bags per person) so just bringing your own bags to the supermarket is a great place to start. Arranging or getting involved in beach cleans like we do here at Panama Dive Center is also a great way to help. Small actions add up! The more people that are willing to make that little extra effort can really make the difference.


For more about rubbish in Santa Catalina and our beach cleaning efforts see the blog of one of our recent participants: www.liveandletgo.org !

-By Esme

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/19/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-sea-by-2050-warns-ellen-macarthur

http://naturalsociety.com/un-urges-action-microplastics-ocean-outnumber-stars-1343/

http://www.beachapedia.org/Plastic_Pollution_Facts_and_Figures

With the beginning of the rainy season not only the summer in Panama but also one of the most beautiful seasons for diving in Coiba comes to an end: The whale shark season.

This year, from january until the end of march, we were very lucky to experience many incredible encounters with these enormous and breathtaking creatures, who join us in the waters of the national park every year in search for plankton.

What we do know about whalesharks is unfortunately very little compared to what we don’t know about them. They can reach up to 15 meters in length and can weigh more than 10 tons, which is why they are the biggest fish in the world. They are  gentle creatures, living in water temperatures between 20 and 25 °Celsius, moving slowly and most of the time in shallow waters, which is why they are sadly very often a target of boat propellers or fishing nets.

While the world of science has always thought they were big migrators, travelling miles and miles through our oceans to mate, feed and to give birth, a tracking system by Conservation International has shown that for example the whalesharks around Indonesia rather do periodical „short roadtrips“ in different directions before they return to homewaters. We might never know for sure, but as long as they keep visiting us here in Coiba and enlight our dives with their magnificent presence, we can live with that.

Here are just a few captured moments with whale sharks in the Coiba National Park:

 

 

This one we saw in Cativo on the surface, so close!

 

Our instructor Kim enjoying the view! What a magical moment! Thanks Liz for the beautiful photos

 

The biggest fish in the ocean…

 

…feeding on plankton

 

And here some of our videos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whale Shark- Panama Dive Center 06 Feb 18

Another amazing whale shark encounter yesterday captured by Camilo! We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for more sightings in the coming weeks. We are so lucky to share our dives with these beautiful and gentle creatures!

Posted by Panama Dive Center, Santa Catalina, Coiba on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

 

 

Whale Shark, Panama Dive Center

A rare and incredible treat yesterday in Coiba National Park… our divers enjoyed the presence of a stunning whale shark! Thanks to our intern Adele for captuing this video!

Posted by Panama Dive Center, Santa Catalina, Coiba on Friday, February 2, 2018

Diving with PDC always starts with a lovely one-hour boat ride to reach Coiba National Park. Most people hope for dolphins on the surface since they bring an unexpected joy to the boat ride. But the amount of plankton in the water makes it more common to see another beautiful creature jump out of the water: the Mobula ray (also known as devil ray). They can jump up to six feet, twist, turn and either land flat on their belly or go in smooth as they came out of the water. Scientists are not sure why these rays perform incredible surface acrobatics, but research suggests that these high jumps are related to their way of communicating, courtship rituals, escaping from predators and  the removal of parasites.

When diving in Coiba it’s quite common to see these beautiful Mobulas almost fly through the ocean. These great swimmers and jumpers move their fins up and down to steer through the water. Sometimes you see one or a couple performing a little show but if you’re really lucky you can see big schools of 100+ Mobulas passing by while you’re diving or during your safety-stop. Especially while feeding, eating plankton and tiny fish, Mobulas group together. It’s incredible how they can create a dark cloud of movement in the ocean. It’s very rare to see these big schools of Mobulas passing by while diving, so we’re very lucky to have them as regular visitors in Coiba.

Most people think that Mobulas live just below the surface in warm temperatures. But recent findings revealed that these rays can descend with speeds of 22 km/hour (which is way faster than sharks and whales descend) to depths of nearly 2 km! These deep dives take them 60-90 minutes and brings them to waters of only 4 degrees Celsius. To prepare for their deep and icy dives they play in shallower water where it’s warm to heat up their network of blood vessels in the brain to make sure their brain keeps active during their deep and icy dive. This makes them not only one of the best acrobats but also some of the deepest and fastest divers in the ocean.

 

-by Cece

 

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-28087489

http://www2.padi.com/blog/2015/10/31/9-facts-about-devil-rays/

https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mobula-ray/#mobula-jump.jpg

 

Photos:

Christopher Swann, Sabina Schreck

 

In Coiba National Park, we are sometimes lucky enough to observe the incredible octopus, charismatic creatures known for their intelligence and their mastery of camouflage.  If you haven’t seen it yet, this popular video from a TED talk is one you can’t miss that shows how phenomenal the octopus’s ability to blend in with its surroundings can truly be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmDTtkZlMwM.  Octopuses are sometimes called the chameleons of the sea due to this amazing skill.  It is well known that these animals can change their color at the blink of an eye to blend in with their surroundings, creating varied patterns and undulating displays.  But not only can they change their skin color and pattern, they are also able to alter the very texture of their skin to better match their environment.  One species of octopus even changes its arm shape and swimming behavior to mimic other marine species that are venomous, or that prey upon the species threatening it.  So, how do they accomplish these incredible physiological feats?

Skin Color and Pattern

The skin of many cephalopods (octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish) is lined with thousands of specialized pigment cells called chromatophores.  Each chromatophore contains a tiny balloon-like sac of pigment of a different color.  By controlling the size of these cells through muscle contractions, octopuses are able to alter the color of their skin rapidly. This is much like if you squeezed a dye-filled balloon- the dye would be pushed to the top and the surface of the balloon would stretch, making the color of the dye appear brighter.  In the same way, using muscle contractions an octopus can expand and contract various chromatophores in its skin to make different colors more apparent, creating the patterns it desires on its skin to communicate with other octopuses or to blend in with the surrounding environment.  They can produce a variety of colors and even rapidly changing undulating color displays, and these color changes can occur within milliseconds.The pigments of octopus chromatophores are usually red, yellow, or brown, so sometimes octopuses must match colors in their environment that they cannot produce with mixes of these pigment colors. This is when iridophores, another type of cell in their skin, come into play.  Iridophores reflect red or blue light based on the angle of the cells.  By controlling the angle of iridophores and combining this effect with that the right chromatophore patterns, octopuses can create a phenomenal copy of the seafloor or surroundings they wish to blend in with.

Skin Texture

Not only can octopuses change their skin color, but they can also alter the texture of their skin, making themselves appear smooth or bumpy to various degrees.  They do this by changing the size of projections on their skin called papillae, using specialized muscles to make their skin appear a range of textures from smooth to bumpy to covered in pointed spikes.  By doing this, an octopus hiding amongst coral can not only match the color of the coral, but can also give itself a texture matching the coral as well, eliminating the lines where the edge of its body ends and the coral begins completely.  They can then re-smooth their skin to reduce drag when swimming and allow for a quick escape from pedators.

Mimicry 

There is one species of octopus, appropriately named the Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), that not only changes its color and texture but also changes the way it swims and moves its arms when threatened to mimic other toxic marine organisms in order to frighten away its predator or make itself appear less appetizing.  It can impersonate 15 different species that we know of!  The mimic octopus has been observed gliding over the seafloor with its arms pulled inward and its entire body flattened like a leaf to mimic a flatfish, crawling into a burrow and leaving two of its arms out on the seafloor with a black and white pattern on them to look like a sea snake, and spreading its arms out and propelling itself through the water to imitate a lionfish.  Mimic octopuses in different regions or habitats differ in which species they most frequently mimic based on which predators are found in that area.  For instance, those in areas with abundant lionfish more often take on a lionfish-like form.  They also choose to imitate different animals based on what organism is threatening them- when threatened by damselfish, they are observed imitating sea snakes, a common predator of the damselfish.  The fact that the species it resembles are all venomous or toxic combined with the differences in mimic octopus behavior when presented with different threats in different regions provides evidence that this is a deliberate mimicry of other species.  Check out this video to see some of this octopus’s amazing mimicry behaviors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-LTWFnGmeg!

 

-By Daryll

A month ago, I got certified PADI Open Water. It was an amazing experience that I never thought I would live. Indeed, before coming to do my internship in Panama Dive Center, I’ve always admired the people who dive and thus who have the opportunity to swim in the middle of the marine wildlife. But, since I didn’t know any diver before, for me it was something unreal that you see only on TV and that I would never do. I hadn’t even thought about trying it! And one day I saw an advert for an internship at Panama Dive Center and I told myself, after all, why not? So I applied and surprisingly they hired me!

Of course, I had a few worries before starting my course. First of all, my grand parents being from a family of fishermen in the North of France, I have been raised with the idea that the ocean can be dangerous and one should always be careful. Moreover, when I was younger, I have always been afraid to find myself in a space as huge as the ocean. And finally I get seasick pretty easily…

For seasickness, the problem was quickly solved thanks to dramamine pills. And for the rest, I decided not to think about it and once under water, all those fears disapeared! And it was an awesome experience. Of course, I had to start with exercices under water, like taking off my mask and put it back which was not the easiest but the sensation to be able to breath under water and stay on the bottom in the middle of all the marine wildlife was exceptional! And I am now addicted to it and it’s with pleasure that I go diving every week in the beautiful Coiba National Park!

Thank you to my great instuctor Sofie and all the team of Panama Dive Center for making it possible!
As a conclusion, I recommend to everybody to try diving, even those who like me, never really thought about it!

-By Adèle