It’s a Beach Day!

Beach day! Everyone gets pumped when they hear those words. Heading out on this delightful excursion is a decision made at breakfast: Sunny skies? Yes! It’s go time. So everyone throws on their bathing suits, something to cover up from the sun (we’re a mere nine degrees off from the equator which, for gringo skin, that basically means dead on), something to read, a camera and extra sunscreen for sure.

We pack the boat with kayaks, boogie boards and perhaps a stand up paddle board or two, load up the cooler with icy cold drinks (don’t skimp on the cerveza!), snacks and a picnic lunch. Once everyone is in, we point the bow of the boat to the Zapatillas, a pair of low-lying islands that, along with the barrier reef behind them, help keep Tranquilo Bay tranquilo, protecting it from the open sea.  Like two little shoes stepping forward one after the other, the forested Zapatillas islands sport long sand beaches while our calmer, protected waters back at the lodge make for purely mangrove ecosystems.

These sand beaches are a very important feature for more than just sandcastles, they provide nesting habitat for various sea turtles that occupy our Caribbean waters during the nesting season, May through October. Sea turtles that nest on the Bocas del Toro beaches include Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and the Green sea turtle. For this reason, we have a lot of respect for these islands, which are included in the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park which also covers great stretches of coral reef from the Zapatillas across the forests of Isla Bastimentos itself–an entire third of the island–and finally the mangrove coast and islets on the mainland-facing side of the island. While spotting a sea turtle is rare (the females haul up onto the beach after dark and the young emerge mainly at night) there is the odd baby sea turtle that gets caught up in the roots surrounding it’s underground nest and needs a helping hand to get to the water.

As we get settled, settling into our chairs, slopping on sunscreen and taking a swig of cold water, some folks might want to take a walk around the picturesque island. Meanwhile, others may decide to kayak the clear waters, take a stab at a stand-up paddleboard or catch a wave on a boogie board if the “surf’s up”. The sloping beach leads down into the warm Caribbean water and you can use a mask to hunt for fun shells or simply bob over the gentle waves and soak in the sunshine.

Alvaro or Sanchez, our gallant boat captains, might break out the machete to show the lengthy and skilled process of opening a coconut so guests might drink the delicious, lightly sweet water (with some of it inevitably dribbling down your front) before cracking it open and sharing the rich meat. They often pack a fishing rod, too and are always happy to give a casting lesson!

The captains are always good for helping build a sand castle, too. Together with some gung-ho youngsters, we’ve made some pretty impressive creations. On one of our trips out to the Zaps, a nine-year old wanted me to help her build a thatch palm hut. We got to work while her parents took a stroll around the island and they were pretty bowled over when we welcomed them back with a little palm thatch “casita” where we’d set all our chairs and felt like we’d for sure come out on top if we were stranded on a desert island.

With a lovely picnic lunch courtesy of the hardworking kitchen staff, we munch away and stare out across the shimmery blue waters and the lapping waves. A hermit crab just may saunter through “camp” and a spotted sandpiper might bob-tail it’s jaunty self across the sand down by the water. The Zapatillas, while small, still have their share of wildlife. Sloths live in the trees and turtles and caimans wallow in the flooded forest of the interior. Yellow-crowned night herons roost on the far side of the island and, during migration, you can see heaps of warblers and falcons and other birds of prey passing through. And on the boat-ride to and from the island, there’s always the opportunity for a dolphin enounter so be sure to keep eyes on the lookout!

Beach day can be as active or relaxed as you want it to be, in fact, there’s even plenty of time for it to be both! The guests decide how long they want to stay and when it’s time to go. Depending on the snorkeling conditions, we may have a chance to snorkel right there off the beach or, if it’s not excellent visibility, we can stop at another of our favorite snorkel spots on the boat ride back to Tranquilo. That is, if we haven’t already tired ourselves out from another delightful beach day!

Appreciating our Mangroves

You might recognize mangroves as those bushy trees that grow in the saltwater tidal zones of warmer climes, standing on root systems that form a complex, intertwining network that appears as if no living thing could navigate its way through. But rather, mangrove ecosystems are responsible for supporting a glorious abundance of life, much more than is apparent at first, second, even third glance!

In fact, mangroves provide an enormous multitude of environmental contributions and ecosystem services which benefit a plethora of species (including us!) as well as contributing to the health of the environment itself.

The Salt Life: How Do They Survive?

Mangroves occur worldwide within the salty and brackish waters of earth’s tropical & subtropical latitudes and withstand the twice-daily rise and fall of the tides. Rather than denoting one particular species, the word “mangrove” in fact makes up more than 80 tree or shrub species known as “halophytes” meaning able to survive in saltwater conditions. Red mangroves achieve this by using salt-filtering taproots to filter out freshwater from the salty environment in which they exist. Other species, such as our white, black and tea mangroves, excrete salt through glands on their leaves, leaving a surface of dried salt crystals.

The Submerged Life: How Do They Breathe?

Mangroves truly live in conditions that are nearly intolerable. Not only do they have to constantly extract or exude salt from their system, but also there’s that pesky universal dependence on oxygen that all life shares, leaving these trees with the complicated job of obtaining enough with which to grow and thrive despite twice-daily inundation and roots sunk into oxygen-deprived mud.

But mangroves have evolved unique adaptations to survive against all these odds and colonize an otherwise unoccupied and ultimately harsh environment. Special aerial roots in some mangroves reach slowly downward from taller branches and take in air, as do specialized underground roots in other species that send up “pneumatophores”, or upward facing roots, which gather oxygen at low tide. The prop roots of the red mangrove have tiny holes called “lenticels” which close when submerged at high tide and open as the waters recede to gather the essential oxygen.

A Forest of Roots & How it all Begins:

Some species, like the red mangrove, grow upon prop roots, meaning the base of the tree is supported aerially by a multitude of bowed roots that plant into the mud and provide a wide support system allowing the tree to withstand constant tidal and wave action including storms, hurricanes and even tsunamis by dissipating wave energy. This provides essential protection to coastal  communities and can mean devastation in strong storm surges for regions where mangrove forests have been removed.

Mangroves are actually able to grow their own, unique ecosystems, practically from nothing more than a bit of sand! Areas that once might have been a shallow sandbar can grow into a completely established mangrove island in a matter of 50 years or so.

Mangroves seeds are known as propagules, meaning they are actually living seedlings before they even fall from the parent tree. Red mangrove seeds are elongated and as they float in the shallows they’ll slowly turn vertical when ready to root so as to more easily lodge into the mud. If unable to root, the  seedling will alter its density to float horizontally again until it senses more favorable conditions. In effect, the seed is actually “looking” for calm, shallow waters appropriate for a young mangrove to begin to grow and thrive..and more are always sure to soon follow. As soon as a root network is formed, fine silt and sediments floating through the slow moving water collect and the resulting substrate is better able to support even more mangrove seedlings, eventually forming a forest.

A Thriving Ecosystem Results:

And so begins the construction of an ecosystem that will not only support a fantastic diversity of species, including some that are endemic (found nowhere else) to mangrove forests, but the intricate tangle of roots also supports and provides a protective nursery for young fish that will grow into many of our reef and commercially harvested species.

But not just fish benefit from the shelter and protection from larger prey and food offered by a healthy functioning mangrove system and its thick network of prop roots. In fact, mangrove roots themselves are literally coated with life—crabs, snails, barnacles, oysters, worms, sponges, algae, anemones, shrimp and a great deal more.

And all of this life provides a massive food supply to support even more life across the food web. Wading birds such as night herons and green ibis nest and feed in mangrove forests, various mammals like crab-eating raccoons, common black hawks and even monkeys will hunt among the prop roots searching out crustaceans and kingfishers will lurk hidden on a branch waiting for the perfect fish to reveal itself from the shaded shallows.

American Pygmy Kingfisher
Mangrove Periwinkle

Even snakes, lizards and frogs can use the mangroves as their hunting grounds. And then there’s the menagerie of ants, spiders, moths, and scorpions that feed among the branches and nest in hollowed twigs above the water. And if you’re lucky, you might find a blooming orchid growing off a mangrove branch and you’re sure to not miss the termite nests nestled in the high crooks of these salt-soaked trees.  

Life Has Leaf Litter to Thank:

So among all of these species, how is all this life supported by a “simple” collection of salt-loving trees? Where does this food web begin, you might wonder? Well, the growing mangroves drop leaves throughout the year, directly adding nutrients to the water and sediment below. When you see yellow leaves sprinkled among the greenery of the red mangroves, they’re not just dead leaves, they’re a special  means of extracting the salt that they are taking in. The mangrove system will direct it all into specific individual leaves (known as the “sacrificial leaf”) which turn yellow and die, falling into the water beneath.

All this “detritis” (dead organic matter) that collects on the seafloor beneath creates a rich leaf litter layer that is full of nutrients. This is the food supply that supports the microorganisms below the water, including bacteria  and fungi. These organisms, called detritivores or decomposers are key species that assist in the decomposition process. Microbes and aquatic invertebrates feed on the decay and the young nursery fish and crustaceans in turn feed upon them. And on up the food web a multitude of species is sated, resulting in a plethora of thriving, well-fed life.

When Mangroves Are Around, Everyone Benefits:

And as if all this weren’t enough, mangroves are also crucially important in their role in cycling and storing carbon, even more so than primary rainforests, throughout tropical ecosystem, helping to reduce this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Mangroves also prevent coastal erosion and filter rainwater runoff.

Yet despite how essential mangrove ecosystems are to so many species, it is sadly true that, despite protection and restoration efforts, over half of the world’s mangroves have been removed for development (including for tourism, agriculture expansion, shrimp farming, marinas and roadways) in recent times.

According to the Mangrove Action Project, “We have already lost over half of the world’s original mangrove forest area, estimated at 32 million hectares (app. 80 million acres). In 2007, less than 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of mangroves remain. The current rate of mangrove loss is approximately 1% per annum (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization), or roughly 150,000 hectares (370,050 acres) of mangrove wetlands lost each year.”

Green Kingfisher

Mangroves are precious ecosystems that we can’t afford to lose. To become aware of their importance is the first step and to realize that they are declining can perhaps help move us to action to ensure their preservation through restoration and protection. By supporting organizations that work to protect mangroves and sharing with others about the essential ecosystem services these coastal forests provide, we are taking steps toward helping maintain these biodiverse treasures.  

Day Tour @ Tranquilo Bay

Bocas Day TourWe are really excited to be offering a day tour @ Tranquilo Bay starting this week.  People in the community and a number of visitors to the archipelago have contacted us over time and asked us about providing use of the grounds and facilities to travelers within the archipelago.  We have worked through all the challenges so that we may offer an awesome experience to our day tour participants without effecting our wonderful guests.  So, we begin offering day tours this Wednesday.

Kayaking PanamaWe have coordinated with a botero to provide transportation to and from Tranquilo Bay from Isla Colon at a reasonable price which makes it easy for people to sign up and head out to Isla Bastimentos for a jungle and ocean experience.

Bocas del Toro SnorkelingWe have added a new Day Tour page on our website for you to learn all about it.  As of today, the tour will be available on Wednesdays and Thursdays for up to ten people each day.  Please contact us if you have any questions or have a larger group that would like to visit.

 

Women in Science

Gender bias?  Here in Panama, at Tranquilo Bay, not so much, but in many other parts of the world, yes.  When many people think of women in science they do not think of the same people who my daughter brings to her mind.  Why, well, we are blessed to live on a spot on this earth that brings many scientists to us.  And believe it or not, the majority of the scientists that we have met working here in Bocas del Toro, are women.

We welcome scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute out to our place to study whatever it is they are studying.  We figure it helps science, we learn something and our kids have an opportunity to meet new scientists on a regular basis.

We have naturalist guides who are on site to work with our guests who have both studied different sciences and who teach us about biology, nature and many different types of science on a daily basis.

We have group leaders who are scientists or naturalists of some form that visit us on a regular basis.

We have a family member who studied ecology and is working with TIDE so that she might become a marine biologist one day.

Why this conversation?  Well, one of the scientists we met in October 2015 is also a National Geographic Photographer.  Clare Fiesler contacted us to see about working with us on a kayak circumnavigation of Isla Bastimentos while she was studying at STRI.  She and her buddy, Becca Skinner, used two portable Orukayaks to complete this expedition.  They stayed the first night with us.  Both of them have shared some details about their adventure on Nat Geo’s blog and Instagram account.

Since then, Clare suggested that a group of students from UNC Chapel Hill spend some time documenting Bocas del Toro and she kindly gave them our name.  The result is this award-winning multimedia website created by the students under the supervision of a great group of professors and coaches.  Clare was one of the coaches.

Bocas del Toro Documentary

Several years ago, Clare worked on a  project:  “Outnumbered:  Portraits of Women Scientists.”  She explains a bit about the project in this video.  You can also get more information here:  http://college.unc.edu/2014/11/12/outnumbered/.

Most recently Clare used words to explain in An Ecologist’s Guide to Writing Obituaries about the “death” of the Great Barrier Reef as well as obituaries as a genre.  We take writing very seriously around here as part of our school curriculum so when we find people who are skilled with this craft, we learn whatever we can from them.

My children have met a number of female scientists and a number of people named Clare, but only one female scientist named Clare.  So when I tell them that Clare is in Bocas del Toro working on another research project they immediately know to ask, “Mom, are you talking about the Clare that did the kayak project?”  They do this because to them, Clare isn’t the only female scientist they know so they have learned to identify her in a different way.  I wish that more people had the same perspective on life – we can work towards whatever interests us and it doesn’t need to fit a specific mold.  We can make it into what works for us.  Clare’s camera and her words are some of the tools she uses to expand people’s horizons and help tell people’s stories.  Many of those stories touch science in one way or another.

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Underwater Chorus

Snorkeling Bocas del ToroPhoto. Juvenile Caribbean Blue Tang (Acanthurus coeruleus)

Historically birds have surprised and filled the life of humans with their calls.  In the past, mostly as pets in cages, where some species were more desired than others because of their songs or the ability to speak.  Parrots are very well know for the last skill.

Caged Bird Graphic

Source: http://krutishah0703.blogspot.com/p/caged-bird.html

More recently people are interested in enjoying these melodious creatures in their natural habitat.  Bird watching is growing around the world, year by year.

Golden-collared Manakin

Photo. Male Golden-collar Manakin (Manacus vitellinus) displaying on its lek

We (humans) always have related the songs in nature to the birds. What if I tell you fish sing? A few days ago I was reading an article about singing fish.  They have proven that fish do sing.  It make sense, living creatures need to communicate, animals as different as insects, frogs, birds, whales … do it, so, why not fish?

This study occurred in Western Australia, and during a period of 18 months they recorded and identified seven different choruses, from different species of fish, happening at dawn and at dusk. Those choruses are used by the fishes to regroup, settle territorial disputes or find food.

If you want to read the full article, visit: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2106331-fish-recorded-singing-dawn-chorus-on-reefs-just-like-birds/

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Longsnout Seahorse

Snorkeling Bocas del Toro

One of the most intriguing, secretive and unknown species of the Bocatoranian marine wildlife is also one that occupies a privileged place in everyone’s personal wildlife universe: Seahorses. The Longsnout Seahorse, Hippocampus reidi is the species found in Bocas del Toro.

Many of us have enjoyed seahorse cartoon characters, bathroom stickers, pictures, and documentaries. We have seen them in aquariums or dried out in local market as souvenirs.   In some cultures they use them as a traditional medicine.

For many years I believed that they were just a Bocatoranian myth, but local neighbors remember the times where they were often seen under their docks or attached to sponges on the dock posts. I have never seen them on Isla Colon, yet I was lucky enough to find one some time ago. What makes it more incredible is that the one I found is within swimming distance of Tranquilo Bay’s dock.

In the very same area in which I found it, I continue to see it from time to time. One important thing that I have learned is that the times I have seen it are when I am choosing to have a very slow mode snorkeling experience. Because seahorses are not good swimmers they have an amazing camouflage system in the bony plates covering their bodies. This is their only defense against predators.

Panama Seahorse

There are many interesting facts about seahorses; I am just going to give you some of them that I believe curious enough to be shared.

Their unusual reproductive strategy is one of them, the males are the ones that will carry the eggs after the female lays them in a special abdominal pouch on the male (where they are fertilized). He will incubate them and 14 days later he will give birth by opening the pouch to the tiny (0.2 inches) young seahorses that are identical yet smaller than the adults.

They are generally believed to mate for life, but what scientist have confirmed through the data collected is that some seahorses do have monogamous relationships in which they stay together for several mating seasons in a row.

Seahorses are considered an important species in the aquarium trade. They are one of the most exported marine ornamental fish species in Brazil.

With all that interest and curiosity that seahorses awaken in the human mind, many sea horse populations are on the decline given that they have been collected as aquarium fishes, used in folk medicine, and sold as souvenirs.

Another important threat is that they are included in the by-catch of shrimp boats in the USA, Mexican and Central American ocean waters.

Even with all this pressure on seahorse populations, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the species are considered “data deficient” so they are not included in the IUCN red list of endangered species.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (C.I.T.E.S) includes our Longsnout Seahorse in their list as “Threatened”, in the Apendix II CITES 2004.

This is a good example of how important it is that scientists continue to study the Longsnout Seahorse in order todeterminewhether or not its population is stable and what conservation measures might need to be initiated. If we do not even know if there is a problem … how are we going to fix it?

Kayaking near Tranquilo Bay

panoramicocean

Due to Tranquilo Bay’s location in a nearly untouched forest area within the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and the fact that it is surrounded by protected waters that hold an incredible collection of coral and sponges, we have almost an unlimited range of things to do and discover right off of the dock.

One of things we can do is take a kayak into the Caribbean Sea.   We often do this directly from Tranquilo Bay’s dock. It is an excellent summary of Bocas del Toro’s many possibilities.

Panama Birding

We start early to avoid paddling under the harshest sun. We glide over calm waters into a mangrove channel. It is here that we can see some interesting wildlife: from cushion starfishes under our kayaks to the beautiful Snowy Cotinga flirting with the top of the trees; or a Keel- billed or Yellow-throated Toucans flying over our heads in the wider areas of the canal; or the Yellow Mangrove Warbler calling at the dense mangrove edge.

bluejeansfrog

If we feel like it, we stop at Isla Popa and check for different color morphs of the famous Strawberry poison dart frog, with their green and orange tones, to the light blue legged ones.

After experiencing the richness of our “over the water” world, on the way back we discover what the underwater world has to offer.

kayaksnorkel

Endless platforms of coral reef covered in life and color, playful shining fishes, countless brittle stars, mysterious feather-dusters, sponges, crustaceans, ascidians are all visible under the ocean. Each of these animals lets you witness their daily life. Textures and shapes curving underwater are a colorful live work of art.

snorkel

On the end of our kayak trip, it is a good time to compile and archive our memories of all the amazing things we saw within a kayak distance from Tranquilo Bay.

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How to: SNORKELING

Snorkeling PanamaIf we are planning on discovering Bocas del Toro’s underwater treasures, there is one important thing that has to be always on our minds … All the crazy shapes with strange textures and designs, in the brightest colors surrounding us while snorkeling, are life forms that belong to one of the most intricate and fragile ecosystems over the face of the Earth …. So, we have to be absolutely careful in our movements, and avoid touching anything while we are in the water.

If you haven’t ever experienced snorkeling, first of all … do not worry.  It is a very exciting experience and you can make it even smoother, by using some tricks.   At Tranquilo Bay our solution to make it easier is using a neoprene life jacket, as it will help to keep you afloat comfortably.  By not having to struggle to keep yourself afloat it allows you to calmly focus on enjoying the colorful fishes and coral in front of your mask.

Bocas del Toro Snorkeling

On top of using jackets, we also have the best grounds upon which to practice.   Tranquilo Bay’s dock is located in waters where the coral is deep enough so that beginners can enter the amazing world of snorkeling in a safe and instantly rewarding way.

Bocas del Toro reefs are often shallow. At a “flipper distance” from the surface of the water where we are floating may be home to the reef, but there will be always an edge where we can safely enjoy the underwater world. So, search for your comfortable depth on the edge of the shallow reef.

Biodiversity Temple SnorkelingTo fully enjoy the reef systems, I would like to suggest that snorkeling is a stress less pleasure.  It requires very gentle movements, very soft fin strokes, open eyes, and a lot of curiosity and patience to search with your eyes in the cracks and holes where many creatures hide.   If you move like a sloth, your chances of finding the most amazing creatures that inhabit the reef will increase immensely.   You might have a chance encounter between the different actors that inhabit these biodiversity temples (otherwise known as the Bocatoranian Reefs).

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How to put on a mask

How to Put on a MaskIt’s a few simple steps to put a mask on the correct way.  To have a successful snorkeling experience it is important choose the right mask and adjust it properly.  Today I am setting  together some simple tips to help you with mask selection and a proper handling.

Choosing the right mask

  1. Put the mask on your face and press slightly, don’t put the strap behind your head.
  2. Inhale a small amount of air through your nose and release your hands.
  3. The mask should stay on your face.

If it does, that means the seal of the mask is good, and you are using the right type of mask for your face shape. You can also try this when you put the snorkel in your mouth, move some face muscles to help to see how well mask seals.

It is very important to push your hair away from your face. If you are already in the water, and is water leaking in to your mask, a little bit of hair can easily be the reason why is water getting in to your mask.

The strap

  1. A common mistake is to put the strap directly on your ears; the proper place is behind/around your head. What holds the mask is a good seal, not how tight you put the strap behind/around your head.
  2. Masks have different adjustment mechanisms, check, when you have it in your hand how it works, to know, in case you need to adjust the strap, how to release it or tighten it.

Keeping the mask from fogging

  1. Spit into the inside face of the mask when the mask is dry.
  2. Move it around your fingers a bit.
  3. Rinse it in the ocean and you ready to go!

Snorkeling PanamaWell, I hope some of those simple tricks are useful for your next snorkeling experience. I hope you get your snorkeling gear on and get in the water to enjoy the underwater world soon!