It was time for a break from the jungle life, so we packed our bathing suits and headed south all the way to Bocas del Toro, a series of islands off of Panama’s Atlantic coast to see some marine ecology firsthand. Every day, we donned our snorkels and flippers and hopped in the boat to visit to the coral reefs.
The first day we snorkeled, I was fascinated! There were translucent moon jellies, flowery looking fan worms, coral of practically every color, and fish of all shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns. Before this semester, I had no training or background knowledge in marine life beyond watching Finding Nemo (which, for the record, means I knew pretty much nothing applicable since Finding Nemo takes place in the Pacific Ocean and I was in the Atlantic). To me, fish were fish and coral was coral. However, we soon learned from Andy Shantz, the leader of our Faculty Led Project, that there is a lot more going on under the water than just fish swimming in circles.
For example, fish can be gardeners. The Damselfish, which was our study subject for the project, cultivate algae gardens. Not only do they weed and tend their gardens, but they also patrol them constantly to keep other algae eating herbivores out. These fish are very territorial and very aggressive. It was fascinating to float and watch as another fish came too close to the damselfish’s territory and was aggressively chased away. Fish don’t just swim in random patterns. Like a land animal, every move is calculated.
Worms in the ocean are interesting. Fan worms are everywhere on the reefs, and they don’t look anything like terrestrial worms. They are small brown tubes attached to coral with a fan of white, brown, pink, and purple tendrils sticking out of the end. What really interests me about these worms is their defense mechanism. Whenever something gets too close or passes by the tendrils too fast (this could be a fish or a human hand), the worm quickly pulls its tendrils into the tube part and snaps shut. This seems like an extremely effective mechanism to avoid being eaten, as the worm snapping shut startles predators (or the humans experimenting with them).
Time seemed to fly by in Bocas, likely because we were having so much fun exploring and learning about the extremely dynamic marine environment. At the end of the week (after about 20 cumulative hours of snorkeling), we were ready to head back for another jungle adventure, but we left Panama with a few jellyfish stings and a lot of great memories. – Mackenzie Coden, Northwestern University