Monday, July 9, 2018

Day 11- Return to Panama City , "Old Town", and Farewell

Our last day began before sunrise with our luggage out on our cabin decks at 5:15 for transport to the dock where our two boats would take us to Boca Town for a flight back to Panama City. It was raining pretty hard so our luggage and backpacks were wrapped in garbage bags to stay dry and put into the bow of the boat. A 35 minute rainy boat ride brought us to the dock at Boca. We traveled to a small airport where one propeller plane travels back and forth to Panama City a few times a day. Fortunately we made our flight without any major delays.

It was a quick flight to Panama City and we were so happy to see Claudio and Daniel again! This time we were off to the Metropolitan Park for our last hike and opportunity to learn about trees. Metropolitan Park is a huge area of rainforest right in the heart of Panama City. It is one of the largest urban forests in the world. Many people were out on the trails for a Sunday morning hike.

Here we met up with an American, Dr. Brian Sedo, who has a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and has been a post-doctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute since 2014. Soon, he will be leaving with his family to take a faculty position in integrative biology at Univ of Texas in Austin, while continuing his research with the Smithsonian.

The focus of his work is primarily on trees and the central role for plant chemical defenses against insects and microbes in the maintenance and generation of plant diversity. We hiked to the peak of the park with him, stopping along the way as he pointed out trees and explained his research. His research demonstrates the integration of chemistry and biology as he has been pioneering analytical chemistry techniques to study the chemical underpinnings of plant-insect and plant-microbe interactions, especially in tropical forests throughout Central and South America, where there are hundreds of tree species. In Panama he is studying the metabolites of 2000 tree species to understand the role that chemical defenses play in sustaining ecological diversity and driving the evolution of new species of trees. 

Along the way were mesmerized by long trails of leaf cutter ants and the patterns in different leaves of trees.


                  Watching leaf cutter ants coming back with leaves and going to get leaves

                      Patterns everywhere!

Our hike was mostly uphill. We made it to the peak, 135 meters above sea level (was Frank counting steps?) and were treated to a panoramic view of Panama City. Still amazed how we could hike in such hot, humid weather and not let it deter us. With all the wonders surrounding us, we just did not notice the discomfort like we would have at home.

                                                                           We made it to the top!

We hiked back down the trail with Brian continuing to fill our heads with the wonder of trees and their role in biodiversity. I don't think we will ever look at a tree the same way again.

We said goodbye to Brian and headed down the beautiful causeway near the Biomuseo, with Panama City's skyline and ships entering the canal in the background, to a restaurant for another delicious lunch. World Cup soccer fever was still evident from the soccer balls hanging over the tables.

After lunch, Jim, who missed our Panama Canal visit due to his flight delay went off to the Miraflores Locks and the rest of us went to the Centro Artesanal to shop for molas, jewelry, and
 and local crafts.

                        Hummingbird mola made by a Kuna woman. Notice the intricate beadwork on her legs

After a stop at our hotel to freshen up, it was time to explore Casco Antiguo, the old city of Panama. The first city in Panama was established by the Spanish Empire in 1519 on the Pacific Coast and was a vital center for conquest of and trade with the Americas. It was sacked by pirates in 1671 and moved to the location we visited today. The buildings were once located within a protective wall where only remnants of the wall stand today. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today it is undergoing extensive refurbishment to preserve its historical and cultural heritage.

The cobblestone streets are lined with Spanish colonial buildings, old churches, and chic caf├ęs. One of our stops was the Church of San Jose. It had an impressive gold plated alter and one of the rooms displayed an extensive and amazing nativity of Jerusalem.

We also saw ruins that housed the Jesuit Church and Panama's first university. The arch that still stands is testament to Panama not having any devastating earthquakes over the centuries (nor do they have hurricanes!). A piece of evidence that convinced the engineers of the Panama Canal to build the Canal in Panama instead of Nicaragua.

We walked along the extensive plaza and looked out over low tide toward the modern skyline of Panama City. 

Several Kuna families set up tables where they sold their molas. We bought molas from a Kuna woman in her colorful dress. I could not help but admire her squid printed skirt! I bought an owl mola to remind me of the wonderful visit we had with Ileana and her owls. 

Families were out walking on the promenade in their Sunday finery. It was a beautiful spot to come full circle in experiencing Panama. We saw some women in the town square, dressed in their traditional dresses. Little did we know we would be seeing these same women again later in the evening!

We walked to Nomada, a trendy restaurant for our final farewell dinner. 

The mango margaritas, local beer, and fresh frozen lemonade was most refreshing! Panama is known for its fresh fish and the sea bass and ceviche did not disappoint! 

The special surprise of the evening (Claudio always had a surprise for us!) was when a group of folkloric dancers and musicians came in and performed for our group. Colorful, upbeat, foot stomping, hand clapping lively music and dance! The women wore polleras, a traditional dress dating back to Spanish colonialism that takes two years to hand embroider the delicate, rich needle work. Adorned with necklaces of gold and pearls, a large pom pom in the front and back, and hair combs of pearls and flowers, their outfits can cost up to $6,000! They danced so beautifully, swirling their skirts while the men loudly tapped their shoes and made  motions with their straw hats. They invited us to dance with them and take photos with them afterwards.

Pom pom front and back

Exquisitely detailed needlework

Enjoy the video!

We ended our evening with a tribute to our phenomenal guide, Claudio, and our excellent driver, Daniel (who later, at her bequest, took Luiza out to the local microbrewery to try the local brews. No communication issues as Luiza speaks 5 languages).

With Claudio as our amazing and beloved guide, and his wealth of expertise, we experienced STEM firsthand in a country rich in biodiversity, marine life, scientific research, cultural treasures, and engineering marvels. 

                                                                   Best guide and ambassador for Panama!

                                                   Claudio and Luiza show off their Embera tattoos!

A huge thank you to Claudio, Daniel, Joyce (my co-leader), our STEM education leaders and their spouses, and Holbrook for making this year's STEM Educator's Expedition a success.  To coin a word I saw on a sign on one of our transport vehicles to the airport, our 2018 STEM Expedition was simply PANAMAZING!

Day 10- Tranquilo Bay, Pouring Rain, and Relaxation

This morning we awoke to torrential rain, thunder, and lightning. Not bad, for 1 out of 10 days thus far in a tropical ecosystem where it is either rainy or rainier! With umbrellas in hand, we met for breakfast and tried waiting out the rain so we could travel by boat to Zapatilla Cay to learn about the sea turtle research being done there on population density, reproductive biology, and migrations. The Bocas del Toro archipelago is a rich nesting ground for hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtles. The panga would have to land close to the sandy beach and everyone would have to wade out of the boat as there is no dock there.

The sky cleared a bit. Some chose to stay back and others decided to make the boat trip, with the likelihood of getting wet on the way. The water was rough and choppy and the sky greyed again. The swells increased. About two thirds into the boat trip, it was decided to head back as it was too unsafe to go any further and a landing would have been risky.

A drenched Kathy returns!

Soaking wet!

After drying off, we gathered in the lodge and Jim gave us an overview of sea turtles, nesting, and sea turtle research in Panama. He showed us a video of the man we were to meet who has dedicated his life to saving the sea turtles. Chencho Castillo was a former turtle fisherman who one day questioned why he was killing so many of these magnificent creatures for money, gave up turtle fishing, and has devoted his life to protecting the turtles. We were sorry not to get to meet him or the research team on Zapitilla Cay, but were glad to be safe.

The afternoon was free for bird watching, hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking. Standing on the porch of the lodge, we spotted a couple sloths in the cecropia trees. One sloth was carrying its baby on its tummy. 

Several of us went off to hike a forest trail with Jim to a creek where we could watch hummingbirds bathe in the water. On the way we spotted another sloth literally hanging from a tree. 

Just hanging out!

Jim and Jay's sons gathered up more water apples for us.

When we finally got to the creek, it was so quiet and peaceful. We sat on the benches and just enjoyed the solitude and sounds of the forest. It wasn't very sunny so the hummingbirds were not interested in bathing. We did see a few take a quick dip. On our way back we spotted the tiny red poison dart frogs on a rotted log. It was dark in the forest so I had to take the photo with a flash which makes them look orange. They were actually scarlet red and no bigger than a nickel. Beautiful but extremely toxic!

We made it back to the lodge for dinner and back to our cabins to pack for our return to Panama City.

Day 9- Tranquilo Bay and Visit to the Smithsonian Marine Field Station

After breakfast we were back in the pangas again for a 35 minute boat ride over to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's marine field station on Bocas del Toro's Isla Colon.

Unfortunately our meeting with the Director, Dr. Rachel Collins, was canceled as she was stuck in Panama City and couldn't get a flight into Boca for 2 days. There is only 1 plane that goes in and out of the airport (let's hope we get back to Panama City!). However, one of the division directors, a Panamanian oceanographer who went to school in Brazil, met us on the dock and gave us an excellent overview of the research and the facilities which was then followed by a tour and visits with the scientists.

“From deep time to real time, Bocas del Toro reveals secrets about life.” 

This state of the art, environmentally friendly field research station, Part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station, hosts more than 300 visiting scientists per year. Scientists arrive from all over the world to ask questions such as why do corals all spawn on the same moonlit night? How does the carbon stored in tropical peat bogs affect global warming? How has the slow isolation of the Bocas islands over the last 900 years created a mini Galapagos? How do excess nutrients affect the growth and ecology of mangrove forests? Will rising temperatures put coral reefs at risk? How do sponges depend on their symbiotic algae? How have sponge communities changed over time? How many species of sponges are there? Do brighter male frogs get more mates? Why do strawberry poison dart frogs have such varied color patterns on Bocas del Toro?

The natural abundance of species here creates the perfect research platform for studies of land and sea life. Many species still remain to be discovered in this tropical ecosystem with its extraordinary biodiversity. We started off with a tour of the diving facilities.

Next we went to the outdoor wet lab. There were a wide variety of research projects taking place here. We met with scientists examining the interrelationships among species surrounding the Bocas del Toro shoreline, and one project involved investigating the effect of temperature and oxygen levels on sponges. How surprising to learn that individual sponge cells can recognize their own and aggregate with ‘likes’ but not ‘unlikes’! They were also looking at the different preferences for sponges that the "decorator crab" uses to adorn its carapace. Hypoxia studies are exploring the critical impact of sediments on organism survival, and the importance of mangrove trees as shoreline filters has been clearly established. We were particularly impressed with the number of young female scientists.

We visited another building where a scientist was studying the different types of poison dart frogs on the islands and why the colors differed from island to island. There were stacks of terraria outside containing frogs. We also observed a taxonomy class, attended by doctoral students and scientists from around the world. This particular class was on the taxonomy of marine polychaetes.

In another building researchers were looking at mangroves and scraping, identifying, and counting organisms growing at different levels on the mangrove's above ground root system.
We saw the housing where some of the resident scientists live. Quite nice!    

It was an amazing day for our STEM expedition- a firsthand dose of the science of marine biodiversity and such an appreciation for the vast research conducted by the Smithsonian throughout Panama. It is easy to see now why Panama is considered the hotbed of biodiversity. We wound our way back to the Smithsonian dock and departed for "Boca Town" for lunch and to wander around this funky little bohemian island town.

We returned to the lodge for an afternoon of relaxation, hanging out in the main lodge, snorkeling, kayaking, birding, or just reading, talking, sharing experiences. Livin' the vida loca!