March 6, 2012

Coiba, Panama
March 5, 2012
© Kip F. Evans – Mission Blue
We awoke eager to go diving but were delayed as the dive boat was held up helping our companion ship, the Sea Hunter, to launch their DeepSee submersible.  Biff Bermingham, Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute here in Panama, showed Sylvia a map of the current Isla Coiba marine park, highlighting which areas are protected, as well as where fishing is still allowed. Local people hope to get support to protect more of the ocean in the surrounding area.
Finally around noon, I took my first dive at Coiba off  “Desert island” with Sylvia Earle, Kip Evans, David Shaw, Shari Sant Plummer and Beverley. When I first got into the water, I saw a large silver plate-shaped permit swim away followed by other big fish with jack like shapes, and long tail fins with rainbow colors. I swam gently along, kicking my Ruby flippers from Sylvia, careful not to touch any coral for fear of damaging it. There were broken pieces of coral rubble on the bottom that were covered with a red algae. I understand that these corals were damaged in El Niño storms. The white coral fragments have recently bleached and if they don’t get back their covering of algae soon, they will not survive.
© Kip F. Evans – Mission Blue
On this dive, we saw schools of Sargeant Major fish, several Cortez rainbow wrasses atop coral heads, a few guinea fowl puffer fish, bright blue Cortez damsel fish, sharp-nosed puffers, jacks, butterfly fish, Moorish idols, parrot fish, one white tipped reef shark and many other beautiful species.  There were so many new species of fish that I had to get help identifying them from the scientists onboard. On our second dive, Shari saw a giant moray eel and Kip saw a white nudibranch and a Wellington’s razor fish along with a green-headed blenny.
Later in the afternoon, we took a boat out to the whale shark dive spot at Isla Canal de Afuera. At times, the currents converge to create an abundant feeding ground where the whale sharks gather to filter feed. Alas, today the whale sharks did not get our ‘meet up’ message. Instead, Sylvia saw curly green algae called Halimeda. She also found a Moon snail egg case. I saw schools of fish, a yellow Arothron dog-faced puffer fish, a giant trigger fish, several queen angel fish, parrot fish, butterfly fish, damsel fish, a neat flower sea urchin, a spiny urchin, wrasse, trumpet fish, soldier fish under rock crevices, mounds of yellow whipped cream coral, small grouper, barnacle pocked coral heads, the invasive crown of thorns starfish, and what looked to be an octopus arm under a rock. 
Photo: (c) Jenifer Austin Foulkes
One of our dive guides explained to me that a group of educators have started a program to paint murals of whales and ocean life in local towns here in Panama. They then volunteer to go into the schools to teach children about ocean conservation. He said that he believes that the next generation will need to be the ones to lead the way to increase and maintain marine protected areas. As we’ve seen worldwide, these areas serve as a ‘bank’ in which fish can grow, spawn, and then spill over into adjoining areas, keeping the ecosystem supplied with increasing numbers and diversity of fish and invertebrates. 
Here’s to a future with larger and more numerous fish, snails, coral and all around a more healthy, robust ocean ecosystem.
By Jenifer Austin Foulkes
Oceans Program Manager, Google


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