Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Curiosity in the Coral

Photo credit: Andrew Kolasinski “Snorkeling And Dolphin Watching In Bocas Del Toro, Panama” July 18, 2015 (Blog- Brain- Coral- Caribbean)
Photo credit: Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (Aerial Isla Colon)

I’m sure if the words “coral reef” and “island paradise” were typed into Google, what I saw around Bocas del Toro, Panama would show up under the search results. Everything seemed so surreal. The landscape around me seemed like it was painted or animated into existence. Along the horizon laid mangroves and the mountains of Panama which framed the clear, sparkling ocean that blend into the sky. Above us hung a few puffy, cottony clouds and a bright sun which radiated right to the ocean floor.
With flippers on our feet and snorkels at the ready, my partner and I nodded to each other as a signal that we were ready to enter the water. So, we flipped off the side of the small boat into the reef. When I adjusted myself so that I could see the reef, a whole new world opened to me. The green loops of soft coral hugged brain coral and bright pink and red colored hard corals. Popping out of the sediment in the spaces in-between the hard coral was the blazing fire coral and black sea urchins of every size. Floating and maneuvering around these living organisms made me feel paranoid, excited, and enthralled. I knew touching the coral would cause me pain and damage the coral, but I wanted to look closer at it and know more about it.
Pecking at the various corals were numerous schools of fish like butterfly fish, striper fish, and angel fish. Whenever I dove down to inspect the coral further, there was more to discover. Hidden in alcoves of coral and rock were crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. Eventually my body felt natural in the water and I could control my movements in a way that didn’t scare off the fish. This allowed for a very large school of small grunt fish to surround me. It was like they invited me to join them and their family. So, I swam with them for a small period to see where they went. They took me over new pieces of coral, near the mangroves where bigger fish weaved in and out of the barnacle-covered roots, and then they finally escorted me to the deeper part of the reef. Right before the drop off into the deep ocean water.
It was hazy, dark, and mysterious. I could only see the bigger parts of the coral that were closer to me on the sea floor. What I couldn’t see and what was unknown about this area called out to me. So, I descended as much as I could. The coral and rocks were bigger in these deep waters, but alas I could not stay down long enough and go out far enough to uncover all the area’s secrets. Though I lacked the ability and equipment to dive down deep under the surface and see what lies below, I still felt the urge to know. What was down there? What types of creatures reside there? What things haven’t I seen? What are the creatures doing? What do they eat? Where do they live? These, and a million other questions, whirled through my head. The more curious I became, I felt increasingly envious of scuba divers. My basic fins, mask, and snorkel would be able to handle these waters and the pressure would be too high for me to handle without the proper equipment.
Though still inquisitive and enchanted by the deep parts of the reef, what I did see still amazed me. Being surrounded by bright colors and life unlike any I had seen before was incredible and having the privilege to learn all about it was even better. I can only hope to one day return to the reef (snorkeling or scuba diving) so that all of my remaining, burning questions of how life works there will be answered, only to allow for new ones to spring-up. 

Jessica Andreone
Syracuse University

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