“Costa Rica was just not enough…” – my thought as I found myself immersed in the coral reef at Bocas del Toro, Panama, staring at an octopus two meters away from my friend and me. Behind had been the Wilson Botanical Gardens, high elevation Oak Forest and Páramo, Tropical Rain Forest and the city of San Jose. What appeared all around was an entire new world that no swimming lesson, lecture, or job could have prepared me for.
Re-wind to the morning we all re-joined after midterm break at the OTS headquarters in San Pedro. Everyone was sharing what they had done over break with one another as we loaded our coaster to head over to our next destination. The long drive to the border of Costa Rica and Panama gave us some time to fall back into tropical student mode, since we had spent three weeks studying Spanish at the Costa Rica Language Academy before break. Stamps in passports, we walked across the Sixaola bridge into Panama. Less than an hour later, we were heading to Bocas del Toro and the Institute of Tropical Ecology and Conservation station by boat, phones and cameras out, capturing the beautiful scenery all around us.
The next day, our swimming abilities were measured as our lifeguard tried to orient us in the water with snorkels. We spent the afternoon visiting a reef close by for more practice. The cool clear water and hot sun were the perfect combination. It still confounds me how one second you can be in a boat, enjoying the view of the Caribbean water all around, and then the next in an entirely different setting after a splash into the water, surrounded by fish. The corals were green, red, yellow, and purple. There were fish and urchins everywhere. I’ve spent summers along the lake in Chicago, but this was totally different. It was easier to float and become dehydrated. There were more things to avoid touching or lean on in the water; I grew up competing in swim meets around the city and play waterpolo back at my university. But my appetite and weariness were much higher after our days in the reefs.
The next few days involved working with a PhD candidate who studies coral reefs and would be leading another faculty led project observing damselfish behavior along the edge of a coral reef. Damselfish are very territorial, and tend to defend their food and reproductive territories. In pairs, we set up pieces of sea grass held in clothespins at the edge of a damselfish territory, half a meter, and a meter outward. After some hours, the clothespins were collected and the herbivory measured. Along with this, we also observed Damselfish behavior over ten minutes and recorded the number of times and at what distance the fish chased intruders to defend their territory.
There we were, floating on lifejackets to hold still over the water watching damselfish, when my friend points and tries to vocalize “octopus” underwater. I look over to the coral she was pointing at. At first I could not see the octopus. I looked closer and there it was, changing colors as it moved through the coral and along the sandy ground to camouflage itself against the surface it swam over. We probably watched the small octopus for nearly an hour, amazed. For the rest of the week, we continued to find other animals like crabs, a manta ray, starfish and so many other cool fish that are probably not even found in my aquarium back home. With a few healing jelly stings and a couple shades darker, I couldn’t imagine what other experiences remained in the closing semester here. Not bad for school in November.
Yocelin Brito Bello
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign