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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

Si vous avez eu la chance de plonger dans le parc national de Coiba au Panamá, vous avez sûrement eu l’occasion d’admirer la variété de poisson-globe présent sur le site. En effet, ces petits poissons intrigants parcourent la réserve en nombre nous éblouissant par leur variété de couleurs. Cependant, nous en savons bien peu sur cette espèce, sur ses particularités et ses habitudes. Cet article a donc pour but de répondre aux questions que l’on pourrait se poser sur le poisson-globe afin de le connaître un peu mieux.

Pour commencer leur vraie appellation ?

Au-delà de poisson-ballon, poisson-globe, puffer fish, leur réelle appellation est Tetraodontidae, en effet, bien moins simple à prononcer. La signification de ce terme barbare est pourtant aussi simple que quatre dents en grec.

A quoi ressemblent-ils ?

Étant donné qu’il existe 121 espèces de puffer fish il est possible de rencontrer des individus de tout type. Leur point commun est la forme de leur corps, allongé et globulaire. Les tetraodontidaes possèdent tous cinq nageoires, deux pectorales, une dorsale, une abdominal et  une anale. Leur peau est dure, lisse et sans écaille. Au niveau des couleurs certains portent des couleurs vives qui annoncent leur danger et leur toxicité tandis que d’autres ont des couleurs plus discrètes leur permettant de se fondre dans leur milieu. De plus, de nombreux individus ont la capacité de changer de couleur pour s’adapter aux changements de l’environnement. Ces changements peuvent être discrets, variations de teintes, de contrastes, ou très surprenant, changement total de couleur de jaune citron à noir tacheté de blanc. Au niveau de la taille, là aussi tout est permis, il est possible de rencontrer certaines espèces de poissons-ballons de 2.5 cm de longueur tandis que d’autres atteignent au maximum environ 100 cm de longueur.

De quoi se nourrissent-ils ?

Le régime alimentaire des poissons-globes est principalement composé d’invertébrés et d’algues. Ils possèdent quatre dents, deux centrées sur la mâchoire supérieure et deux en face sur la mâchoire inférieure. Cette dentition a l’apparence d’un bec et permet aux plus grands spécimens de rompre les crustacés qui leurs servent aussi de nourriture.

Pourquoi gonflent-ils ?

Les puffer fish sont très lent et il leur est donc très difficile de fuir leurs prédateurs à temps. Ainsi, gonfler leur permet d’effrayer leurs assaillants. Le poisson-ballon peut en effet atteindre jusqu’à trois fois sa taille initiale, impressionnant ! Pour atteindre une telle transformation le poisson-globe utilise l’impressionnante élasticité de son estomac et  ingère rapidement une grande quantité d’eau ou d’air si nécessaire. Il ressemble ensuite à une sorte de balle, la plus part du temps recouverte d’épines, ce qui dissuade la plupart des prédateurs.

Quels sont leurs autres moyens de défense ?

Malgré leur lenteur les poissons-globes ont une très bonne vue, ils sont capables d’orienter leurs yeux indépendamment. Ils ont aussi une très bonne capacité à manœuvrer. Ces deux atouts leur permettent de repérer toutes menaces à temps pour se cacher ou gonfler.

En plus de se gonfler certains  tetraodontidaes sont recouverts d’épines qui apparaissent à l’inflation et qui les rendent non préhensible. De plus, la quasi-totalité des puffer fish produise de la tétrodotoxine, une substance très toxique présente dans leurs organes internes et leur peau. Il semblerait qu’ils créaient cette toxine en synthétisant les bactéries présentes dans leur nourriture. Ainsi, si le prédateur parvient à attraper le poisson avant qu’il ne se gonfle, il risque de le regretter. En effet, cette substance 1200 fois plus dangereuse que le cyanure est létale pour quasiment tous les prédateurs. La dose de cette toxine présente dans un seul poisson-globe peut tuer jusqu’à 30 humains adultes, et il n’existe pas encore de remède connu. Donc sous leur air inoffensif les tetraodontidaes cachent un réel potentiel meurtrier, qui les classerait même comme le second animal le plus toxique au monde après la grenouille dorée empoisonnée.

Comment se reproduisent-ils ?

Dans la plupart des cas en eau salée, le mâle entraîne la femelle vers la surface où elle libère entre trois et sept œufs qu’il féconde par la suite. Les œufs restent à la surface et éclosent après environs quatre à sept jours. Cependant, une espèce de poisson-globe démarque, le puffer courtship. Ceux – ci créent des nids qui sont de réel chef-d’œuvre architecturel afin d’attirer les femelles. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV1C_HvP8P0)

En eau douce la tâche est plus compliquée pour les mâles, qui doivent se différencier des autres pour être choisi par la femelle. Celle-ci l’entraîne ensuite dans un endroit protégé afin de libérer ses œufs qu’il fécondera. En captivité on a pu observer que le mâle protégeait les œufs jusqu’à éclosion.

Un plat ?

Leur toxicité rend les poissons-globes très compliqués à manger. Effectivement, seule une préparation très précautionneuse les rendent propres à la consommation. Malgré ce danger le tetraodontidae est devenu un met d’exception au Japon, sous le nom de FUGU. Malgré qu’il ne puisse être préparé que par des chefs diplômés, chaque année plusieurs personnes sont hospitalisées et meurent intoxiquées par le fugu. Sa consommation reste interdite à l’empereur. Ce danger ne fait pas peur aux japonnais et ce met atteint des sommes exorbitantes : un plat à base de fugu coûte entre 20$ et 50$, le poisson entier est vendu entre 100$ et 200$. Dans d’autres régions du Japon certains éleveurs de puffer fish les ont rendus non-toxiques en surveillant leur régime alimentaire et les rendre ainsi simples à consommer.

Une population en danger ?

Bien que dans la réserve de Coiba on puisse croiser les poissons-globes en nombre, cela n’est pas le cas partout dans le monde. En effet, certaines espèces commencent à être menacées par la pollution, la pêche et la destruction des récifs. C’est le cas notamment du puffer chinois dont la population a décliné de 99% en 40 ans, ainsi que du Canthigaster cyanetron, du red ligne puffer fish et du dwarf puffer récemment classées comme espèces vulnérables d’extinction.

– Anaïs Yvinou

 

Webographie

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

Requins-marteaux, plongées nocturnes et Jicarón

À la mi-avril 2017, le personnel du Panama Dive Center a pris quelques jours de congé pour faire un long voyage au parc national Coiba. Deux jours de plongée incroyable qui nous ont permis d’accéder à des sites trop éloignés pour les excursions habituelles. Une nuit sur l’île de Coiba avec de délicieux plats, beaucoup de bière et de vin le tout en bonne compagnie afin de bien conclure la haute saison au Panama.
Nous avons quitté Santa Catalina le 21 avril vers 9 heures du matin. Mais, comme ceux qui ont plongé avec Panama Dive Center se souviennent que personne ne quitte Catalina sans avoir pris son café du matin. Sur deux bateaux, Aracelli et Yuri, avec nos deux capitaines Rubén et Eddie accompagnés des assistants Jorge et Solin, douze plongeurs enthousiastes sont partis à Coiba. Après deux heures de trajet, nous sommes arrivés à Contreras, l’un des plus beaux lieux de plongée dans le parc national, situé au nord de l’île de Coiba. Nous avons pu plonger sur les sites de plongée Montaña Rusa et Sueño de Pescador connus pour être plein de vie. Nous avons pu profiter de grands  bands de barracuda, de jacks, et de rais mais aussi de nombreux frogfishs et de requins à pointes blanches. Cependant, malgré cette faune impressionnante, notre visiteur préféré, a été un requin-marteau qui nous a fait l’honneur de passer à Sueño de Pescador, sans se rendre compte que nous l’observions tous, éblouis.
De retours sur l’île de Coiba, nous avons profité d’un bon déjeuner et d’une petite randonnée sur l’île. Nos « Divemasters in Training » ont quant à eux dû organiser leur plongée nocturne. Une fois le soleil tombé, quatre d’entre nous les ont ainsi accompagnés exploré la beauté du monde subaquatique de nuit, sur un site proche de l’île principale. Ce fut une experience fantastique! Notre capitaine et notre assistant n’ont pas voulu nous accompagner effrayés à l’idée de nager dans l’obscurité à l’heure où le crocodile de l’île, Tito, et ses amis ont l’habitude de visiter les plages. Mais observer les créatures sous l’eau lors de leurs routines  nocturnes était, au moins pour nous quatre, l’un des points forts du voyage et, au final, personne n’a été mangé par un crocodile. Nous avons terminé cette incroyable journée de plongée par délicieux dîner, quelques bières et des verres de vin.
Le lendemain, nous sommes partis à Isla Jicarón, une île à part au sud du parc national Coiba. En raison de son emplacement, très éloignée de Santa Catalina, beaucoup d’entre nous ont découvert de nouvelles espèces ainsi qu’une flore différente. Cette plongée était donc source d’excitation pour tout le monde. Nous avons plongé sur deux sites : la cathédrale où nous avons pu observer les formations spectaculaires de la roche volcanique, et la lavadora, en français la machine à laver, qui doit son nom aux forts courants qui font basculer les plongeurs de droite à gauche ou parfois même en mouvements circulaires comme dans : une machine à laver. Nous nous sommes bien amusés et avons pris beaucoup de plaisir.

Après ces dernières plongées et un long retour à Santa Catalina, notre voyage d’équipe a pris fin. Nous avons profité de chaque moment au maximum, grâce à tous ceux qui se sont joints à nous et ont fait de ce voyage une expérience inoubliable.

Freediving in the Pacific of Panama

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!

Antennariidae – also known as Frogfish

Giant Frogfish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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