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Santa Catalina, Panama – A little ‘know-how’ from paradise

If you’d have asked me five years ago what I think to know about Panama I would have said the same as two months ago – Panamanians speak Spanish (or at least most of them speak something that sounds quite similar to commonly known Spanish), it’s probably really warm and I’d really like to visit it someday. Two months ago it seemed as likely for me to travel to Antarctica as to live in Santa Catalina – but here I am, establishing my life in this idyllic and authentic little fisher village in the southwest of Panama.

I’m a German expat (the latter by heart) and fluent in English, but until my plans to be a part of Panama Dive Center in Santa Catalina took shape my Spanish skills were limited to ‘vamos a la playa’, tequila and the main chorus of ‘La Cucaracha’. With the endless help of my lovely coworkers and my close friend Rosetta Stone (editor’s note: language teaching software, currently tested for Spanish, French and German in Panama Dive Center) I do plan on being able to at least have basic conversations in Spanish when I have to leave Panama in November. Until today my most said sentences definitely remain ‘Disculpe, hablo solo un poquito español’, ‘¿Cómo se dice … en español?’ and ‘una Balboa, por favor’. But to encourage all those who might be in the same situation: Don’t let missing language skills hold you back from an adventure in Central America! Everyday it feels like I’m learning twice the amount of vocabularies I already mastered, but constant progress is the most desirable kind of reward when it comes to learning a new language.

 

Thinking of Latin America I can’t help myself to associate every nation with a few of their traditional dishes. Whether it’s the North with Mexico’s spicy Tacos and Enchiladas, Gallo Pinot in Nicaragua or the world-famous Argentine Asado (grill). But what’s the most common food in Panama? I was sure to at least never have heard of a typical panamanian dish before. It didn’t take me long to fill this lack of information: Along the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts the usual diet consists of fresh seafood, tropical fruits and lots of root vegetables. Panamanians also have one other main common feature with the United States of America next to the shared currency: They love to deep-fry everything that might be fitting for nutritional desires. But who am I to complain, that habit provided us with Patacones, which are deep-fried discs of green plantains – a recipe that already made it in my repertory composed of only two other dishes from around the world.

One of the best and to me most surprising parts regarding the food are the various options for meat-lovers, vegetarians or even vegans – although I consider myself part of the veggie-faction most of the time I think it’s fairly easy to sustain any kind of dietary around here. Even I have days which I start off with a fresh coconut from the beach (in case you’re having difficulties figuring out how to open them yourself: our Divemaster Trainee Rodrigo can be of great help to establish those kind of life saving skills), stuff myself with an absolute unreasonable amount of melon slices, help myself with some banana and pineapple pieces from the local food truck over the afternoon and enjoy some cooled mangosteens with an even colder fruit juice in the evening – as for me I can say eating healthy rarely was this easy!

What I appreciate most about the restaurants in Santa Catalina most definitely is the variety. You’ll have to choose from an awesome pizzeria (Jammin Hostal y Pizzeria), an argentine restaurant (Los Pibes) and a great diversity of other restaurants that even offer such exotic dishes as sushi.

 

Closely connected to the food section is the average price range which is not as low as one may think. While an average dinner for one including drinks can be done with about 13$, it’s the secluded location of Santa Catalina which makes it possible for a package of toothpaste to cost about 3$. Cosmetics in general are more expensive than in other countries or even Panama City. Regarding food it displays mostly in western luxuries such as cheese (about 5$ for a fist-sized piece) and milk (approximately 2$ for one liter). Cheapest accommodation ranges from around 15$ for a bed in a dormitory (Hostel Villa Vento Surf) to 20$ for a Private Room (Cabañas Las Palmeras) but can go up to 80$ per night/pP (Hotel Santa Catalina). As a tourist I predict I would spend about 30$ a day for food and accommodation, excluded special day trips such as diving, snorkelling or whale and dolphin watching. A surfboard can be rented for around 10$ per day. The most famous domestic beer is the ‘Balboa’ (which also is the name of the local currency, bound to the US$ with an exchange rate of 1:1) and usually available for 1-2$ per bottle.

 

So how is it to live in a touristic little fishing village, where you share your everyday life with locals and passing-through tourists? I’d best describe it as my personal paradise, although there are potentially troubling facts I haven’t considered up front: Let it be the humidity which will keep you and all of your clothes, towels and bedsheets moist and damp all day long (assumed it doesn’t rain anyway. Have I mentioned that rain season lasts from around April until November with various amounts of rain per day?), the mosquitos and ants, which make it impossible to leave your lunch unattended for even a second or just the complete and utter loss for any kind of date and day-related issues (thanks to my shifts in Panama Dive Center I’m at least able to keep a rough track of time). But all those small little mischiefs stand in no relation to the love and gratitude I have towards this special place! Let it be the long evenings with good friends and a nice bottle of wine, the sunsets on the beach, the first time trying to ride a wave on the beaches that brought up internationally-known surf legends, the infinite richness of the local flora and fauna or the breathtaking ‘other world’ that hides away right under the surface in Coiba National Park. With its about 400 residents Santa Catalina really is a village and if you plan on staying for longer it won’t take you long to get a grip of the vibe. Everyday someone else takes over the task of filling your day with passionate, spanish music from around midday to long after the sun set, you’ll see more and more familiar faces throughout your daily routine, most of more than happy to integrate you into the community and you’ll start to realise which are the best and cheapest fruit trucks.

 

Like mentioned before – Santa Catalina is a potential paradise. Whether it will be for you depends on your personal principles and values but the foundation the setting itself offers is a fairly fascinating one and there is no other way of knowing as to try involve and engage in the laid-back and relaxed lifestyle in an environment where others are usually restricted to a few days of their yearly paid-leave.

-By Nina Berti

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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