A fortnight ago, we crossed the border into Panama. The stark difference from Costa Rica was easily evident, and I felt an unexpected homesickness for my foster country as we ventured south. Those thoughts were blown from my mind by the strong wind that buffeted us as we rode an hour on a small boat to an island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. The area is well known for the highly differentiated color variations found in the isolated island populations of Oophaga pumilio (my old frog friend from La Selva). However, we weren’t there to investigate the terrestrial fauna. We were going to be exploring the ocean.
Although I am a resident of the Pacific Northwest and therefore have access to many beaches, the shores of Washington and Oregon are chilly and ill-suited to long periods of swimming, so I had never snorkeled before. I was a bit apprehensive, with my previous ocean experiences all being in frigid water, and I wasn’t sure how we would be able to swim for hours at a time. The Caribbean Ocean quelled those fears quickly, as it is really quite warm. It felt like bathwater, and I found myself getting too hot rather than too cold during our long periods of submersion.
By far, the most exciting part of the snorkeling experience was diving. I had never been good at diving as a child, because the pressure of increasing depth always bothered me. I guess all I needed was a distraction from the discomfort, which I got in the form of the amazing diversity of life on the seafloor. I relished the sensation of swooping down over corals and fish and watched them as I floated slow-motion above, with a perspective unachievable when observing land critters. I cursed the limitations of human lungs and tried to stay underwater as long as possible before we were herded back to the boat and taken, dripping, back to our station.
This was by no means my first formal experience with marine biology. During high school I volunteered at the Seattle Aquarium, where I stood in front of the exhibits and fielded questions from aquarium guests. Although I was very passionate about marine biology at the time, I was constantly anxious that I would not know the answer to a question, and that made the experience less enjoyable. Additionally, rumors spread through the program that the only careers to be had in the future of marine biology were as corporate scientists, looking for loopholes to justify deep water drilling or continued unsustainable fishing practices – the exact sort of career I most wanted to avoid. Thus, although I did enjoy my time watching shark videos, standing outside in the brisk winter air with the marine birds, and instructing children on proper Touch Tank etiquette, my passion for marine science dwindled.
I had come to think of marine biology as a cog in the corporate machine, but doing research at Bocas del Toro changed my perspective. Our research had a spirit of conservation rather than of human use and potential environmental damage. It was heartening to participate in data collection that was interesting without violating my desire to preserve the ecosystems and organisms I study. Looking forward, I find myself daydreaming of being a marine biologist like I did when I was younger. I hope that I’ll be able to work some sort of oceanic component into my future research as I progress through my continued education after Costa Rica.