After hours on a bus, waiting in line at customs, a walk across the border between Costa Rica and Panama, another bus ride, a boat ride, and a walk up to the station, I arrived to our field station in Bocas del Toro on a sunny November morning with just a backpack. Our week at the comfortable, modest station we stayed at in Panama was full of firsts for me. For the first time I saw mangroves, snorkeled, swam in the Caribbean Sea, and saw coral reefs up close. The beaches were beautiful, with soft white sand, crystal clear turquoise water, and lush palm trees. The station is also bordered by tropical forests, offering the best of both worlds for experiencing Central American wildlife.
Swimming up close to Pete’s Reef, a fringing reef in Bocas del Toro, was easily the most surreal experience of my study abroad program. I have never seen such a variety in colors, shapes, and organisms in one square meter as in a square meter of coral reefs. Swimming in the reef for just a few hours, I saw more species of fish than I have probably seen in my life up until then,in addition to marine invertebrates like starfish and sea urchins.
Unfortunately, as coral reefs are in drastic decline globally due to ocean acidification and rising temperatures, opportunities like mine will become more and more rare for future biology students to experience. As we prepare for a new administration to enter the White House, it is important to keep in mind how real global change in our environment is, and how it threatens everyone on the planet. The disappearance of coral reefs put the entire ocean at risk, affecting not just those who are lucky enough to be able see and study them, but all of us. Seeing the coral reefs up close reinforced in me the importance of protecting our most fragile ecosystems, and for anyone who is skeptical about the importance of environmental protection, I would recommend trying to take the opportunity to see for themselves.
Sarah Lawrence College