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

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

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!

And the day finally arrived! On the 4th of June, Kim and I did our first day of freediving in the Pacific. After having spent nearly two weeks with the great team of Freedive Utila and getting the necessary gear together, we finally managed to find a day and try it all out.


Rubén, our captain, and his brother Melvin helping him out as assistant, found a great spot for us to let down the line, do our breath-ups and plunge into the deep. Lucky for us, Camilo accompanied us with his sidemount gear and took some wonderful video of our dives. And, as if just being down there wasn’t beautiful enough, two magical cow nose rays glided past as I reached the weights on one of my dives. A birthday gift for me from the ocean!


We are super excited to start regular training sessions and begin teaching this amazing course (starting mid July) to anyone who also wants to experience this very different kind of freedom

Click here to watch the whole video!