On Friday, we hopped in the boat at 0900 to take a half-hour ride to a freighter sunk about a mile off the Panama Canal entrance. This roughly 150′-long cargo ship was intentionally sunk in the mid 1970s, and we wanted to observe how much coral growth and fish activity the wreck contained now, 30 years later. That close to the canal entrance, we weren’t expecting good visibility, but were pleasantly surprised when we broke through a murky halocline at 15′ and could clearly see the wreck, located 45′ below. For a fairly recent wreck, the freighter had considerable coral growth, especially on the sheltered stern side, where we spotted a few sea cucumbers and starfish. On the exposed top deck, multiple schools of fish flitted around, including a group of docile spadefish that let us drift next to them, just inches away, without flinching. One of the most impressive finds on the dive was a large blue tang, measuring about ten inches in length, that darted in and out of the exposed substructure and we coasted overhead. Overall, a great wreck; unfortunately I, assuming the worst for visibility, neglected to bring the Gates housing–make that one more lesson learned: always bring the videocamera!
Today was the day we’d been planning quite some time for, the day we’d make a dive past the century mark! I know some of the readers of this blog will yawn at that number, but for myself and most of the divers on this trip, who are not deco-trained, any opportunity to further our training at depth is eagerly anticipated. The dive plan was laid out thoroughly, and Dr. Illife and Terrence gave everyone a few simple tasks to do at depth; they also cautioned us on the effects of nitrogen narcosis as depth increases, but all the students seemed to think, “We’ve felt fine at 90+ feet, how much worse could that extra ten feet be?” (I bet you can see where this is going…) Well, we did the dive, spent ten minutes at 110′, and then carefully rode our no-decomp limits as we gradually ascended the reef. Back on the boat, I was chagrined to hear of a multitude of minor problems that had occurred at the bottom–people forgetting to do some of the tasks, (which only involved giving our safety divers a time check at 5 minutes, a PSI check at 8, and then a “one minute until ascend” warning at 9 minutes,) or losing track of time, or even unintentionally breaking the strict 110′ depth limit we had set, and almost running into deco! I personally had felt no symptoms of narcosis, and had no problem completing the tasks mentioned above, but quite a few people appeared to have been hit in some small way. Terrence revealed that that was the point of this dive, and the tasks he and Dr. Illife had assigned; nitrogen narcosis does not necessarily manifest itself in obvious ways, but even at just past 100 feet it can have a considerable effect on a diver’s ability to function properly. I was glad to have passed the test, as it were; that dive was certainly an eye opener, and a reminder of the caution and alertness all divers must display whenever diving the limits of recreational scuba (and beyond.)
…But not all of today was about somber lessons! After lunch, while some of the group finished a rocky shoreline survey for the last research project, myself, Dr. Illife, and four other students went on a rain forest hike. We started on a sizable dirt trail, fording numerous streams as we viewed the wide variety of flora, but after about an hour the trail ended in a thicket of date palms, and we decided to bushwhack ahead and try to summit the large hill, or loma, that we’d already started to climb. The next half hour was a grueling experience, as we braved mud, entangling vines, spiky trees, and ants the size of my thumb (only slightly exaggerating,) but in the end it was worth it, for we made it to the top and had a stunning vista of Portobelo Harbor, Drake Island, and the Caribbean sea stretching out in front of us. The path down was just as challenging as going up–at times we had to use nearby vines as ropes and essentially rappel down the steeper portions of the loma–but the grins evident on our mud soaked faces when we returned to the trail made it clear that we had had quite the adventure. On the way back, we encountered a truck that had skidded off the trail, a group of young Panamanians splashing in a pool that, judging from their startled looks, mistook us for Los Diablos Blancos, and a passing flock of chickens, but we still made it back just in time for dinner! …Though we did have to clean up a bit, first.
The halfway point of this trip found our group hard at work on a number of research projects. On Monday, we took a day off from diving; the morning was spent on a flat-bottomed boat, touring a series of mangrove swamps to collect data on the organisms found in such an environment. Besides the numerous crabs that scuttled up prop roots, across tree branches, and (occasionally) all over our boat, we spotted kingfishers, giant termites nests, scarlet ibises, green- and blue herons, squirrel cuckoos, and a two-toed sloth (who was moving far faster than one would normally expect a sloth to.)
That afternoon, we returned to the shallow bay we had explored on the 11th, in order to conduct some quadrant surveys on the large sea grass beds found there. Yours truly spotted a pair of small squid hiding among a fallen branch, and then discovered why it is a good idea to wear a weight belt when filming underwater, even if just snorkeling in swim trunks: I had to grab a rock about half the size of my head in order to sink down far enough to get a decent shot of the cephalopods.
We had originally planned a deep dive to 110′ for Tuesday morning, but had to switch plans when Terrence had to make an impromptu trip to Panama City that wouldn’t bring him back until later that afternoon. We delayed that dive until Wednesday, and instead revisited two sites near Drakes Island. At the first site, a large and and (apparently) curious Queen Angelfish followed us around the reef for the majority of the dive, while during the afternoon trip I got some excellent footage of a school of tangs and parrotfish grazing the algae off of a large brain coral specimen. That evening, I took the Gates housing to film some coral transects that we had set up just offshore from the hotel, and discovered another important thing to check for when shooting: make sure there is enough tape left! Fortunately, I got the footage I needed with not a second left to spare, and was able to unwind afterwards, playing guitar with some of the locals and learning a couple of new songs.
Up until this point in the trip, all of our dives have been fairly close to shore, on fringing reefs generally within a quarter of a mile of land. Well that changed today, when we had the amazing opportunity to take a half hour boat ride offshore to dive a Cobia farm. This farm consisted of an octohedral shaped net (think two pyramids aligned base-to-base) that stretched a good 75′ tall, from 15′ feet at the mooring line to 90′ at the bottom, where a series of chains anchored it to 2-ton cement blocks at the ocean’s bottom, in 150-160′ of water. Inside the net were countless masses of Cobia, schooling around and feeding off a central support pillar–apparently over $1 million worth of fish were contained within that cage. We descended it in a ripping current and swell, crawled/slid down the top pyramid, then flipped over the side and descended, hand over hand, down the overhang of the bottom half–when we later watched the footage I had shot, Terrence remarked how we all looked like a group of howler monkeys descending down a massive jungle gym (it certainly felt that fun!) Our evening was spent relaxing after the strenuous (but thoroughly enjoyable) dive; at one point Ray, our go-to guy for just about everything at the hotel, produced a set of acoustic guitars and he, another student on the trip, and myself made our way through a series of songs, from Hotel California to Wish You Were Here, while other group members joined in on vocals and even bongo drums. Who knows, maybe at next Saturday’s live music night, the Tropical Ecology Class of Texas A&M might be playing a set or two for the patrons of this wonderful establishment!
Today was a blast, but also a blur; it seems that, now that a routine has been established, these days will start to run by quickly, and all to soon I’ll be aboard a plane bound back for the US of A. But until then, I’ll keep enjoying every minute of the time spent here, and logging all my wonderful experiences.
Today’s first dive brought us back to the site where I’d first tried out my camera system; but this time, we planned to dive with the current–much to the relief of my legs, which were already sore enough after the lunges we had done for PT this morning while cradling full tanks. And what a difference going with the current makes! Even with the camera, I maintained the same air supply as most everyone else on the dive, and the payoff was great when we hit a vast swath of healthy reef at 20′ near the end of the dive–beautiful color, lots of fish, and a wide variety of corals to log and identify. Shortly before our second dive, a large thunderstorm rolled through our neck of the rainforest, forcing us to change our planned dive–of another coral tube system (for which I had my gloves ready!)–and instead head the opposite direction to a wall dive in somewhat reduced visibility. We rode out, already drenched and with reduced expectations of the dive to come, but as soon as I jumped into the refreshingly warm water and watched the raindrops pattering on the sea surface as I free descended, I knew that this was going to be an enjoyable dive. And I was not disappointed, for we all experienced one of the most relaxing and pleasant dives of our trip yet, an easy cruise along the reef wall at 70′, followed by another great spur-and-groove coral reef at 30-20′. I personally was able to practice with the camera a lot, not having to worry about a tugging current or steep drop-off, and saw some great sights, the most notable of which was a mature female reef crab, whose carapace measured a good 10-inches wide, at least; we all observed her from a safe distance, none eager to accidentally be on the receiving end of her vicious claws.
After the dives, we gathered around the big screen TV at the bar to review the footage I had shot so far, which amounted to about an hour’s worth; it was interesting to watch the noticeable improvement in the footage quality for each dive, as I became more and more used to handling a camera underwater. Terrence even offered some great tips and suggestions for further improving my camera skills, which I will gladly utilize on tomorrow’s dives. The evening found us all enjoying succulent grilled carne asada and live music from our dive master’s local band; I even had the opportunity to join in on the guitar for a rendition of Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” and promised to practice with the dive master all of next week so that I can try a few more songs at the next performance. Until then…
‘Twas the fourth day in Panama, and already a distinct routine had set in place. I arose to the (now expected) 630 knocking on the door, signaling PT time with Terrence–there’s nothing like working out with a former Navy SEAL to give perspective on how out of shape you are. After the vigorous workout, we all snorkeled out into the bay to free dive a sailboat sunk in roughly 20′ of water, where Terrence once again showed us all up by doing laps around the 32′ vessel like the dolphin we’re pretty sure he secretly is. Breakfast at 730 sharp, then setting up gear for a 900 launch to our first boat dive of the day: Las Tres Hermanas (The Three Sisters.) I was able to get some great footage on this drift dive, including of a pair of scorpion fish and a large, rust colored trigger fish that no one has yet been able to identify. After the dive we motored over to a shallow lagoon to explore a red mangrove habitat and the shallow tidal zone, where I witnessed a tiny coral shrimp, no bigger than my fingernail, attack what I first took to be a drifting piece of seagrass, only to exclaim in surprise when I noticed the crab legs sticking out–my first ever decorated crab sighting!
Lunch followed the lagoon, then an hour break to nap, shoot pool, or catch up on our coral identification research, and by 1400 we had all loaded into the boat again for the second dive of the day: a downed Beechcraft airplane next to a series of coral swim-through caves. Due to earlier rain, the visibility at the plane was less than ideal, but it was still great to observe all the fish taking refuge in the shadow of an intact wing, and to stick my head into the fuselage and observe the sponge and coral growth inside the gutted shell. More intriguing were the coral tubes, which required a bit of dexterity, patience, and perfect buoyancy control in order to navigate through spaces barely wider than myself that rose and descended as much as fifteen feet and were often silted out–certainly not for the faint of heart, or inexperienced diver. Some of our group who had been diving in just a rash guard and swim trunks (and sometimes not even the rash guard!) emerged from these swim-throughs with a number of battle wounds and vows to wear a full wetsuit from then on (yours truly merely made a note to bring gloves next time any tight spaces and sharp rocks are involved.)
The evening was, as it always has been, a time for decompression; a time to enjoy the scrumptious local fare (I have developed quite the affinity for fried plantain) go over the dives of the day, discuss the dives to come, and then break up to listen to music, practice our trick shots, read a book, or just simply hit the sack early; these days are jammed packed, and by the time 2300 rolls around, it is a relief to collapse into our single beds, ready to fall into sweet slumber until seven hours later, when we’ll do it all over again.
Our third day in the Republic of Panama started with a bit of a setback, as, due to strong currents that morning, we were unable to dive the 18th century Spanish tall ship wreck that we’d planned on. However, we still had a good reef and drift dive in the current, and I started to shoot with the Sony HC3 video camera and housing that had been donated to the internship by Gates Underwater Housing. It’s quite the learning experience to be swimming up a strong current with a large box, no matter how neutrally buoyant it may be, and I wasn’t surprised to find I was one of the first divers to hit the 500psi mark at the end of that dive. The afternoon found us in a spur-and-groove reef formation, where one of the group managed to discover a rare marine arthropod called a sea spider (no word as to whether or not they have sea webs.) The best part of the day came afterward, when we stopped to snorkel in a shallow bay and discovered a pristine beach that housed three distinct mircoecosystems–a rocky tidal area, a sea-grass bed, and numerous miniature reef outcroppings. in less than two feet of water, we managed to find a scorpion fish, two stingrays, a porcupine fish, juvenile parrotfish, a school of guppies, and countless wrasse, brittle stars, and sea urchins.
Today was a day of many experiences, starting with our first boat dive of this trip. We loaded up our gear at 8:30 and jetted out to Drake’s Island, named after the infamous pirate Sir Francis Drake who rumors say was buried in a lead coffin not far away. We were uncertain what the visibility would be like, after having to deal with some silt on the previous night’s dive, but broke out a in relieved smiles when we moored in 35′ of water and could see quite clearly down to the sea bottom, and grinned even more when we jumped into the perfect, 83F water. Our first dive took us around a large circular reef, where I saw the biggest spiny lobster of my life (I swear his antennae measure a good foot long, alone!) as well as a mating pair of french angelfish and a juvenile spotted drum. After lunch (and the first of what promises to be many warm tropical downpours,) we headed back to the other side of Drake’s Island for a wall dive. Drifting along in a pleasant little current, we spotted a moray eel, more octopus gardens (but alas, no cephalopods yet,) and more exquisite specimens of coral; it’s quite remarkable how, for a coast with a significantly silty seabed, the coral just flourishes around here–not quite as abundantly as some pacific locations I’ve been too, but in size, some of the individual organisms give Hawaiian coral a good run for its money. The reefs here are definitely about quality, not quanity, and it’s been a pleasure so far to dive them.
But not all of our Panama trip is about diving! After our second dive, we hopped in a van and heading into the historic town of Portobelo, where we explored a 19th-century spanish fort, built out of local coral, as well as a local church that houses a giant carved statue of Jesus know as the “Black Christ” (for the dark wood used in the scuplture) that is annually paraded around town, carried on a platform supported by 80 men! Always eager for “authentic experiences,” we sampled the local soft drink of choice, which was (quite accurately) described as “moxie, but slightly more palatable”…definitely an aquired taste, that one. Upon returning to Octopus Garden, I attempted to maintain my run of victories at the pool table, only to be dethroned by none other that Terrence himself (don’t believe for a minute his claims of being “inexperienced” at pool.) Oh well, tomorrow holds the promise of a 18th century wreck dive, more excellent cuisine, and (hopefully) a shot at redemption at 9-ball.
Waking up at 4 AM is usually never fun, but when the impetus is a trip down to the Caribbean side of the Republic of Panama, well, I can manage. A five-hour flight out of Houston landed myself and the rest of the Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Tropical Marine Ecology class in Panama City, Panama, and after a short bus ride (including a requisite stop at the famous Canal for pictures) we found ourselves at Octopus Garden dive hotel, in the historic town of Portabelo. Within minutes we were introduced to the small (but very friendly) group of hotel staff, and set up in air conditioned rooms (a blessing in the humidity of this country, which generally is, at minimum, 80%!) After a delicious dinner of the hotel’s signature dish–octopus in a coconut cream sauce–we set up for our first Caribbean dive, a night dive in sponge reefs just a stone throw from the hotel’s ocean deck. 20 feet down, when the visibility cleared, we were treated to a long reef wall, replete with large coral specimens, parrotfish, schools of vibrant blue gobies, and a few spiny lobster, not to mention a number of the hotel’s namesake octopus nests, or “gardens”. After a few rounds of pool (yours truly remains undefeated at 9-ball,) we retired to our lodgings, ready to get up at 6:30 tomorrow for a long day of diving!