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

One major argument for the conservation of species is the importance of biodiversity in developing new medications for treating human disease.  Today, more than 50% of marketed drugs are extracted from natural sources or produced using natural products as the starting materials of synthesis.  Here in Coiba National Park, a tiny cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae species, has been discovered to produce a chemical that has proven to be a potentially powerful anti-cancer agent.

Marine plants, microbes, and animals produce a wide variety of compounds for their own use in defense against predators or competitors or for use in chemical communication.  Many of these compounds have pharmaceutical potential, and quite a few are in use today as the basis of vital anti-cancer and anti-viral medications.  With more than 200,000 discovered species of invertebrates and algae alone in the ocean, the marine environment is a source of incredible chemical diversity.

 

Contreras

In our very own Coiba National Park, a species of Panamanian cyanobacteria was collected and discovered to produce a compound that appears to have potent anti-cancer properties. In 2008, Dr . Kerry McPhail of Oregon State University, while scuba diving in Coiba National Park, collected blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, for study.  From this original specimen, scientists have extracted a compound being called coibamide A, and in screenings and research have found that it has a unique ability as an anti-cancer compound, working through a mechanism not yet present in existing cancer medications.
Even more exciting is coibamide A’s success during screenings in targeting and killing the cancer cells of glioblastomas, brain tumors that still have very few treatment options in existence, as they grow rapidly and aren’t very responsive to chemotherapy drugs. It has also been shown to kill off the cells of triple negative breast cancer tumors, another type of cancer that is still very difficult to treat.
Coibamide A is now continuing to be studied as scientists attempt to better understand how it works, how it could be produced synthetically, and whether it could be developed into a new anti-cancer pharmaceutical.
With so many species of marine bacteria and other organisms still undiscovered and undescribed, the biodiversity of our oceans may have the potential to unlock the secrets to treating many of the diseases that we find the most devastating today.
 By Daryll Carlson
 Sources:

In Coiba National Park, we have the pleasure of observing several species of moray eel, an incredible hunter with a flexible body to move between rocks and wait in crevices for passing prey, a keen sense of smell, and not just one but two sets of jaws. While most fish avoid these clever predators, Groupers are known to actually seek them out, coordinating a team effort to hunt alongside them and share the catch.

Groupers themselves are expert hunters as well, with bursts of speed that make them formidable opponents. However, with their larger size and bulky shape, they are not able to catch prey that hide in small spaces and cracks. So, when their prey is not easy to reach, they seek out moray eels to flush them out instead.

First observed in 2006, this partnership has been studied by many scientists around the world. In the open ocean, Groupers are observed doing a sort of shimmying dance underwater to summon moray eels and signal their desire to hunt in a team. Occassionally, they even point out the hidden prey to a nearby eel by doing an underwater headstand, pointing out the fish’s hiding spot with their head and shimmying their body (check out this link to see a video of this behavior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCHlajWPtrA). This behavior is only done when there is a moray nearby, and is stopped as soon as an eel arrives. More rarely, when an eel ignores the signal, some have even witnessed Groupers fearlessly approaching the moray and attempting to push it toward the target prey.

Upon seeing the signal, the moray responds by chasing the fish out of its hiding spot to be captured in the speedy Grouper’s jaws. The two then actually share the meal, enjoying the rewards of their complimentary hunting strategies.

This sort of cooperation is one of a few examples of different fish species teaming up underwater to hunt, and there are many other manners in which marine organisms partner up for the mutual benefit of both parties. This sort of teamwork between the ocean’s many species goes to show how truly dynamic and complex life underwater can be, and how lucky we are to be witnessing some of this diversity here in Coiba National Park!

-By Daryll Carlson

In times of devastating hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, destructive bush fires spreading across the north-west of the US and a president of one of the most powerful nations in the world still claiming climate change to be a hoax, it’s more important than ever to raise as much awareness as possible to science-based facts and self reflect on what options every single individual has to support our unique and badly endangered ecosystem. As a diver, no matter wether you’ve just done your first certification or you’re a ‘pro by heart’, you should act as an ambassador to and protector of our oceans.

One of the most important facts for divers and non divers to understand, is that this sport does not interfere with nature on a higher level than any other sport practiced outdoors such as hiking, skiing or mountain climbing. Diving might even have a smaller footprint than those mentioned above – from your very first stage of training, a dive instructor should provide you with guidelines and techniques on how to preserve the seascapes and in what manner to interact with the dwellers there, whereas there is no mandatory briefing before people set out on their first hike ever or ski down a slope. Mountain climbing instructors do not necessarily have to provide information on how to protect the stretch of land they’re practicing on. Dive instructors do.

Ocean deoxygenation and coral bleaching

Ocean deoxygenation describes the loss of oxygen from the ocean. While studies show that during the 20th century oxygen levels were continuously decreasing due to surface warming, there is a prediction of a further loss of 3-6% of oxygen concentrations in the 21st century. Warm water can’t hold as much oxygen as cold water, so when the surfaces of the oceans heat up due to climate change it causes a direct loss of oxygen. But hand in hand with a rise of the surface temperature comes a change in density of the now warmer water. The cold water from below is way thicker than warm water from the surface, which makes it more complicated for the two layers to mix up. In the end this doesn’t only leave us with the heated up surface water, which can’t hold as much oxygen as it used to, it also brings along a malabsorption of the narrowed amount of oxygen from the surface layer.

The process commonly known as coral bleaching is induced through increasing water temperatures. The collaboration between corals and algae is a rather special one. The corals have very high light requirements, which emerge from the symbiosis with the algae, which live in the cells of the coral and also provide them with their rich colors. The metabolic waste produced by the coral serves as fertilizer for the algae and in return they receive part of the vegetational photosynthesis products. A lot of coral subspecies depend on this as main nutrition as plankton alone can’t feed them sufficiently. Certain circumstances, incl. high water temperatures, can cause coral to reject the algae, and therefore loose their color and suffer death by starvation.

Shark and Whale diminution – and the impact on our climate

It’s no secret that the numbers of big marine predators like sharks are constantly decreasing. But recent studies from different marine conservation organisations display a new consequence. With the shrinkage of predatory fishes through fishing and fining, the biomass of smaller fishes and zooplankton expands tremendously, which produces more CO2 in general and decimates a fair amount of the important phytoplankton through nutritional consumption by said fishes. Phytoplankton, as proved in multiple studies, nowadays is responsible for 70% of Earth’s oxygen.

Whales are enhancing the growth of phytoplankton in a completely different way – by feeding at a depth of up to a few hundred meters and defecating at sea level they transport essential sources of iron and other nutrients across layers of water that otherwise wouldn’t mix. The phytoplankton at the surface thrives on this nutritional diet and therefore multiplies and absorb more CO2.

As divers, we should all try to display exemplary behaviour when interacting with the environment and living organisms above and underneath the surface and engage in our local diving industry to support diving with a minimal damage – e.g. by installing buoys where possible, so boats won’t have to drop the anchor.

For those who want to take the extra step towards a compensation of carbon dioxide released in regards of their (remote) dive holiday check out

https://www.atmosfair.de/en or for tips on personal cuts in rewards of reduced CO2 emissions https://www.carbontax.org/whats-a-carbon-tax/.

So while North America starts to evaluate the damage Irma has caused on its horrific way across the Caribbean Islands and onto mainland Florida, I hold my breathe and pray for the vast underwater landscapes and its inhabitants, that had to endure this powerful storm without any kind of protection. Hopefully those precious marine sanctuaries are still in a position in which they’re capable of rejuvenating themselves and won’t suffer too much from the damage they had to withstand.

-by Nina Berti Sep 2017

 

Sources

Keeling at al. 2010

IPCC 5th Assessment Report

https://www.nabu.de/natur-und-landschaft/meere/lebensraum-meer/02888.html

http://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/save-the-plankton-breathe-freely/

https://www.sharks.org/blogs/science-blog/sharks-in-decline

https://theconversation.com/how-overfishing-and-shark-finning-could-increase-the-pace-of-climate-change-67664

Photos: The Ocean Agency

Four months of hard work and a lot of fun are coming to an end. My divemaster internship in Panama Dive Center (PDC) finally ended and I will soon be a certified divemaster, a new Pro member! The enlightenment does not go as far as to having a white bright aura around me but it feels really great. Yes, I made it! Four months of learning, swimming, diving, dealing with clients, filling tanks, loading up boats, fixing equipment, workshops, practical skills and much more, all of that at the rythm of the divemaster song – despacito, suave suavecito, pasito a pasito!

I arrived as a recently certified Advanced Open Water diver with hardly 30 dives and still not completely confident about how to set up equipment and will leave as a divemaster with 115 dives and ready to guide, assist in courses, fix equipment and much more. Anything I could say would not make justice to the experience. Four months learning from great professionals in their day to day work, being part of it. Joy, fun, laughters, but also occasional frustration and exhaustion. All a person can ask for a truly unforgetable experience. This has been a long, exciting, challenging and very fun process that could only be possible thanks to all the wonderful crew that I had the chance to work with.

I am truly grateful to Camilo and Sabina, the owners of PDC for giving me the opportunity of being part of their team, sharing the passion of their lives with me and creating a very personal experience. Camilo has been my mentor during this 4 month journey across the wonders of professional diving. A lot of what I know now about diving is thanks to him. He has always performed with endless patience, optimism and great vibes and his trust in me has always been immense, which I really appreciate. If you end up in the right place with the right people, like I did, any 3 week divemaster course will never get even close to the quality of this experience. I have had not one but four professionals from whom to learn. My success in the course is not only the result of the great work of Camilo, my main instructor, but also de work of the entire team of PDC instructors: Sabina, Kim and Sofie. I have had the chance to watch their outstanding professionalism and learn from it every single day during these 4 months, both at the dive center and in our playground, the underwater world. Moreover, I shared this very enriching experience with another lovely divemaster trainee, Anais, and a team of other fantastic students – Lu, Katrin, Nina, Ari and Ani, that collectively made this experience worth a thousand regular courses. I have learnt something from every single one of them. I will remember Sabina for her oustanding teaching and organizing skills;  Kim for her rigorous and methodical work and her great humor; Sofie for her contagious enthusiasm and craziness; Anais for all her support and cheerful attitude during all our exercises and time together; Ani for her creativity and help 

and every single one of them for their valuable and unique ideas, opinions and ways of working, apart from all the fun we had together! And of course, although not a member of PDC, I also owe my success in the course to my girlfriend and PADI scuba instructor Alba. Not every one is as lucky as I am, having an instructor at home during his training! She is one of the best instructors I have met and I have learnt a lot from her, apart from benefiting from her continuous support and love.

From our fun scenarios for the Emergency first response course where someone would for example fake electrocution, to our assistant role during fun dives. From our Rescue exercise number 7 – which took quite some time until we performed it at demonstration level, namely, despacito, suave suavecito, pasito a pasito, to almost drawning during our swimming skills! Equipment exchange, discover local diving, search and recovery, night dive, discover scuba dive, snorkel guide…a looooooong list of tasks, tests, exercises that challenged us, exhausted us and most important, made us all laugh and enjoy. I am leaving a group of life-lasting mentors and friends.

I will miss Coiba and its wonders. The long boat rides under a burning sun or under a stormy apocalyptic sky, either of them equally amazing. The exciting dives under a strong current that brought to us the magic of the sea in all its splendour: hugeschools of jacks, snappers, barracudas, grunts, stingrays, eagle and devil rays… The more relaxing dives and all the wonderful reef inhabitants: gigantic moray eels, octopuses, frog fish, sea horses, triggerfish, and all the colorful fish like the moorish idol, the barber fish, parrot fish, angelfish and all the different kinds of puffer and porcupinefish. The unforgetable encounters with the lazy white tip sharks, the elegant turtles and the impressive humpback whales breaching the surface and delighting us with their magical songs. Pure, concentrated awesomeness.

I will also miss Santa Catalina. The beautiful Estero beach, the quietness and clean air, the sound of the waves at night and of the birds in the morning, the ‘carros’ bringing loads of veggies and fruit, the mango and avocado trees, all the coconuts we used to pick up on the beach, the multiple pot luck dinners we shared with friends, the surfers riding the waves…four truly unbelievable months!

It is over now and the only thing left is to wish a similarly amazing experience to all newcomers at PDC. Enjoy it. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the experience. Take from them and give back! Thank you all PDC members for an awesome time!

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