We spent the last few days of the course in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, a small chain of islands and mangrove forests just off Panama’s northwest coast. It was an unreal way to bring the course to a close. We stayed in this little inn built on pilings over the water. Downstairs was a common area/dining room, open to the water. You could look down into the cracks between the floorboards and see the Caribbean glimmering dimly a few centimeters under your feet. When we had to make a fieldtrip boats would pull up to the dock directly beside the dining table. Upstairs, bedrooms flanked a hallway that led out to a water-facing porch, which was furnished with a few comfy chairs and, naturally, a pair of hammocks. Down the street from the inn was “downtown” Bocas, and at night we could walk down to the rowdier bars and hostels where holidayers, surfers, and locals mingled under rainbow lights and reggaeton. Good music, good food, cheap beer. I tried to make each day last as long as possible.
We spent as much time as possible out on the water. We took long boat rides out into the bay, sometimes winding our way through narrow passages between mangrove islands. Between the thick tangle of mangrove trees we could see stilted houses raised up out of the water, and among the arches of roots along the shoreline kids in dugout canoes fishing with long tails of net. Then, seemingly randomly one of the STRI scientists would stop us, and we’d put on snorkelling gear and slip into the sea to find we were right above some huge coral reef, or by a mangrove nursery sheltering schools of colourful tropical fish, and we’d cruise around for an hour or more just looking for fish, sponges, squid, jellyfish, and different kinds of coral. And then we’d get back on the boat and go somewhere else and do it again.
I’d never snorkelled before and on the first day I totally sucked at it. My mask didn’t fit properly, my fins were loose, and I couldn’t figure out how to clear my breathing tube, so I spent most of the time rubbing salt out of my eyes, splashing about ineffectively, and swallowing large amounts of seawater. By day two I’d figured out how to wear the goggles and realized that, hey, you can actually see fish and that’s pretty neat. By day three I was diving down to look at the massive sponges on the seafloor and surfacing with a whale-like spout of water from my breathing tube. Yeah, now I totally get why people go so nuts for snorkelling. It’s just super relaxing and almost therapeutic: when you’re just cruising around, gently fanning your flippers and breathing through the tube, you feel like you can stay underwater forever. Getting access to the world usually hidden under the surface never loses its appeal.
On the third day we got picked up at the inn by a pair of big, twin-engine STRI boats. We went way out into the archipelago, much further than we had on other days. There were actually some serious waves: at each crest the boat rocked forward and the sky spun over our heads and there was this stomach-churning moment of weightlessness before the prow tilted down and we slammed into the trough with a spine-crunching impact. This was hilarious rather than terrifying because our captain was none other than Dr. Owen McMillan himself, whose excitement at getting to drive the boat so irrepressible that he couldn’t help but yell “HELL YEAH” whenever the boat surfed a particularly monstrous wave.
Owen also noticed the savage sunburn I’d acquired on my left thigh, which red-and-white border traced the lower hem of my swim trunks like a 1970s map of communist vs capitalist states. When I told him that it didn’t actually hurt that much he tested my stoicism by slapping it, which is the most painful thing a teacher has done to me since Dr. Wilson gave me an A- in her third-year Literature class.
Okay but anyway it’s day three and we’re in this boat cresting these big waves and after almost an hour of cruising across the archipelago in the sunshine we stop in this kind of semi-sheltered bay, framed by an L of grey and red cliffs. We anchor and jump into the water and wade ashore with the waves snapping at our shins. There’s a thin crescent of beach and I’m disappointed because it’s not nice soft white sand, but instead feels kind of gross and sharp under my feet. But then the STRI scientist leading us for the day reaches down and grabs a rock off the beach. He motions for us to come closer, and points out how the rock is weirdly conical, and that the wider end has a wavy pattern of grooves. It looks like whale baleen. Because, explains the scientist, it isn’t a rock at all: it’s a three million year old piece of fossilized coral. I look down at the beach again and realize that it isn’t soft and white because it isn’t sand at all. Actually it’s made up of millions of fragments of shells and fossils.
We learned that the cliffs bordering the beach used to be sea floor, but are being pushed up out of the earth by the geological activity that shapes Panama (discussed here). Now they stick up out of the surface and are subject to erosion by waves, and as they are being eroded millions of tiny ancient shells and fossils, trapped in the rock when it was submerged mud millions of years ago, are being released. So many have been released that you can reach down, grab a random gob of beach, let the water and mud filter down through your fingers, and be left with a handful of ancient coral fossils, snail carapaces, and crab shells.
It was cool. The kind of experience I realized I’d only get in this course, because that beach definitely ain’t reviewed on TripAdvisor.
Now we’re back “home” in Gamboa, having finished the first course and waiting for the second to start. I miss Bocas already and am trying to work out how to return there for my research. But until then I’m lucky to have picked up a few souvenirs: the blue memories of the Caribbean, a bag of fossils and shells, and a pretty sore red hand print on my left leg.