It took two and a half weeks of bites (i.e. blood), sweat, and, yes, even some tears, but we managed to make it to Bocas del Torro in one piece (more or less). That’s not to say the rest of the trip wasn’t amazing, it was a privilege getting to hike the many forests of Panama while interacting with enlightening STRI staff scientists. But who wouldn’t look forward to three days of snorkeling in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean?
On our trip between Fortuna and Bocas we stopped at a small, family owned cacao plantation to learn about diseases that affect cacao as well as how it is processed to produce dried cacao seeds as well as chocolate. This farmer strongly believed in natural and sustainable agriculture; he refused to utilize synthetic pesticides to stave off herbivores and disease. In order to cope with threats such as fungi, the farmer routinely combed through his crops in search of diseased fruits to clip from the trees. We were lucky enough to try some of the unprocessed cacao fruit (so delicious!) and even some other fruits he grew on the plantation (like manzana de la corazon). It was impressive to learn that, with minimal help, this farmer could sustainably and naturally grow and process his own cacao. Of course he made sure to let us buy some of his 95% chocolate bars before we left.
Snorkeling in Bocas was lots of fun. I was lucky enough to have some experience snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef before coming, so I was able to dive down and see a lot of the reefs up close. The first day we visited two different sights to compare the differences in reefs between mangroves and coastal areas.The second day we learned about The ARMS Project and went out to areas where the ARMS were located. ARMS are artificial substrates placed in coral ecosystems in order to sample the biodiversity and abundance of small marine organisms, which make up the majority of species found in the ocean. Before developing The ARMS Project there was no standardized method to sample these organisms. After sampling, organisms are identified through (some) morphological characteristics, but mostly through genomic metabarcoding. The genomic metabarcoding is similar to barcoding, however instead of looking at a single microsatellite marker tens of thousands are analyzed for describing the species found. Finally, the third day involved traveling to an open water reef in order to observe more species of coral and fish. The water was so beautiful and warm I never wanted to get out! (even at the risk of being stung by jellyfish) Bocas was the perfect ending to our course.
I want to thank all of our instructors, especially Carlos and Owen, for making our amazing experiences possible. I also want to thank all of the students for being so fantastic in such tight living conditions; it’s not easy to find large group of people who can so consistently get along. I will always relish my Panamanian adventures with you guys! You’re all going to be amazing researchers and I hope to have the privilege to collaborate with you in the future.