Sylvia Earle Visits Isla Coiba Marine Park

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Sylvia Earle made a recent visit to the Isla Coiba Marine Park to scope out the local biodiversity. Accompanied by some friends from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as well as Google’s Oceans Program Manager, Jenifer Austin Foulkes, the team spent their time diving and enjoying the breathtaking scenery. Here’s a snippet from Jenifer’s daily blog along with her impression of the surrounding marine life:

Coiba Expedition: March 5th, 2012

By Jenifer Austin Foulkes

We awoke all ready to go diving but were delayed as the dive boat was held up helping our companion ship, the Sea Hunter, get their submarine in the water. So Biff Bermingham, Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute here in Panama, showed Sylvia a map of the current Isla Coiba marine park, highlighting what was protected, and explaining where fishing was still allowed, and that effectively since it’s not enforced, long liners extend 6 mile long strings with hooks and catch lots of fish. Large numbers of “artisanal” fishing vessels are allowed to fish in the park. No wonder we didn’t see a lot of large fish later. Local folks hope to get support to protect more of the ocean in the surrounding area, but the challenge will still be to get government and community buy in to police it.

A King Angelfish swims amongst the coral. Photo Courtesy of Jenifer Austin Foulkes

Finally around noon, I took a first dive at Coiba, Panama off  “Desert island” ( 7.644160°, -81.722050°) 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 these other big fish with jack like shapes, and long tail fins with rainbow colors. Upon figuring out the proper air levels to hover along the bottom, I swam gently along, kicking my Ruby flippers from Sylvia, careful not to touch any coral for fear of damaging it. There were rubble pieces of coral broken on the ground and covered with a red algae. I understand that these were damaged in El Nino storms. The white coral fragments have recently bleached and if they don’t get back their algae soon, they’ll die.

On this dive, we saw schools of Sargent major fish, several Cortez rainbow wrasses atop coral heads, a few guineafowl pufferfish, bright blue Cortez damselfish, sharp-nosed puffers, jacks, butterflyfish, Moorish idols, parrotfish, one white tipped reef shark and many more.

There was a second dive where Shari saw a giant moray eel and Kip saw a white nudibranch and a Wellington’s razorfish along with a green-headed blenny.

Later in the afternoon, we took a boat a farther distance to the whale shark central dive spot at Isla Canal de Afuera. At times, the currents come together in such away to create a great feeding ground that the whale sharks like to filter feed. Alas, the whale sharks did not get our meet up message. Instead, Sylvia saw curly green algae called Halimeda. She also saw a Moon snail egg case. I saw schools of fish, a yellow Arothron dog-faced pufferfish, a giant triggerfish, several queen angelfish, parrotfish, butterflyish, damselfish, a neat flower sea urchin, a blocky spiny urchin, wrasse, trumpetfish, soldierfish under rock crevices, mounds of yellow whipped cream coral, little grouper, barnacle pocked coral heads, the invasive crown of thorns starfish, and what looked to be an octopus arm under a rock.

Sylvia, still a pro diver. Photo courtesy of Jenifer Austin Foulkes

One of our dive guides explained to me that a group of educators have started a program to paint whales and ocean life murals in local towns here in Panama and then they volunteer to go into schools to teach children about the ocean. He said that he feels that the next generation will need to be the ones to convince to protect ocean areas as a bank for fish to grow, spawn, and then be there to spill over into adjoining areas.

Here’s to a future with larger and more numerous fish, snails, coral and all around a more healthy, robust ecosystem.

Learn more

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Guide to Plant and Animal Biodiversity in Coiba

Human Journey

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