Sunday, April 14, 2013

What I learned in Panama

What I learned in Panama:
A brief list of my favorite acquired knowledge since January 9, 2013
in no particular order


  • Much, much more Spanish
  • To understand spoken Spanish
  • Confidence to express myself in Spanish
  • Men treat women differently here than where I'm from
  • Panamanian men 40+ years old have a thing for young, foreign women
  • How to cheer on a sports team in Latin America (very useful)
  • If you need anything from anyone in Panama, expect it to take two weeks longer than you think it should take
  • How to drive in Latin America
  • Pura vida=everything
  • How to get into grad school
  • I am extremely, extremely excited to be working in marine science (before I was just very excited)
  • I really like studying marine invertebrates, and I think I will for my PhD
  • I have SO much more to learn about marine invertebrates and inter- and subtidal ecology
  • How many marine invertebrates are affected by tidal cycles
  • The Friday Harbor Labs are exceptionally well known and I should take summer courses there
  • The statistical program R!
  • I need to stay updated on the science of my field
  • To identify dangers in marine field work and what to do if you get hurt
  • To do field work in a variety of tropical environemnts
  • Long sleeves are better than sunscreen
  • I would value living in one geographical location for more than 3-4 months at a time
  • Don't store electronics in communal fridges
  • To get by day after day not knowing what I'll be doing until five minutes before it happens
  • To have an extremely flexible schedule
  • How to have goals but not expectations (still working on this one)
  • My favorite party beverages
  • I still wish I liked beer
  • It doesn't matter how hot it is outside--you're going to be cold when you go into any building thanks to air conditioning 
  • To be okay with constantly sweating
  • That Seco is a gringo-killer (thankfully I learned this the easy way)
  • The ups and downs of dating people from a different culture (also learned this the easy way)
  • To SCUBA dive!!!

Lo que aprendí en Panamá
Una breve lista de mis favoritos conocimientos nuevamente adquiridos desde 9 enero 2013
ordenados al azar


  • Muchísimo más español
  • Aprender español hablado
  • La confianza de espresarme en español
  • Hombres tratan a mujeres diferente aquí que de donde soy
  • A hombres panameños que tienen  40 años o más les gustan mujeres jovenes y extranjeras
  • Animar un equipo de deportes en America Latina (extremademente útil)
  • Si pides algun servicio en Panamá (ejm. ayuda con una conección de internet) calcula que hay dos semanas más de que pensabas para hacerlo
  • Manejar en America Latina
  • Pura vida=todo
  • Ingresarse en un programa de estudios de posgrado
  • Estoy muy, muy, MUY emocionada estudiar ciencia marina (antes sólo estaba muy emocionada)
  • Me gusta estudiar invertebrados marinos y creo que los voy a estudiar para mi doctorado
  • Hay un MONTON de aprender de invertebrados marinos y la ecología inter- y submareal
  • Cómo los invertebrados marinos son afectados por los ciclos de mareas (y la luna)
  • Los laboratories de Friday Harbor son excepcionalmente bien conocidos y debo sacar cursos allá durante los veranos 
  • ¡El programa estadística R!
  • Tengo que mantenarme informada de las noticias en mi campo de ciencia 
  • Identificar riesgos marinos y qué hacer si estás dañado 
  • Trabajar en el campo en una variedad de ambientes tropicales
  • Mangas largas son mejoras que bloqueador
  • Preferiría vivir en un lugar geográfio por más que 3-4 meses a la vez
  • No guardes dispotivos electrónicos en refris comunitarias
  • Vivir cada día sin saber que vas a hacer hasta que cinco minutes antes de que ocurre
  • Tener un horario extremadamente flexible
  • Tener metas sin expectaciones (todavía aprendiendo esto)
  • Mis bebidas favoritas para las fiestas
  • Todavía espero que me guste la cerveza
  • No importa qué calor hay afuera--siempre vas a tener frío al entrar cualquier edificio gracias al aire acondicionado
  • Estar cómoda sudando constantamente
  • Seco mata a gringos (suertamente aprendí esto sin haber morir)
  • Los altos y bajos de una relación con una persona de otra cultura (aprendí esto sin haberlo hecho también)
  • BUCEAR!!!

Electric Fish in Soberania

Obviously I can't get enough field work, because the day after the Punta Culebra-egg mass-canoe experiment I went with Cassie to help our friend Alex collect electric fish in a stream. Alex is a
Master's student at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) and is studying the divergence in electric signals across populations of knife fish. He needed to collect 40 or so Brachyhypopomus occidentalis from a shallow stream and then record their signals.

We drove to Parque Nacional Soberania, which is about 45 minutes north of Panama City. It's famous for bird-watching  Once we got to the park, we took the most ridiculous roads and I thought the car was going to fall apart. Every ten or twenty seconds we'd hit a hole or bump that made us fly a few inches up from our seats. It took significant physical effort to stay upright. Along this route we also saw one of Alex's favorite flowers, "the hot lips, colloquially referred to as "labios de Chomba," which roughly translates to "lips of black women." According to Rigo, who works in the STRI freshwater fish collection and was driving the truck, Chomba is a local name for African women.

Labios de Chomba flower. Image taken from Google images.

The collection process was really cool. We splashed through ankle-to-thigh-deep, cool and extremely refreshing water throwing down a rod with electrodes attached to either end. When in the water, the signals from the fish are conducted through the electrodes to an amplifier which converts the energy to audible sound. The sound came out as intermittent pulses which were of a lower pitch for larger fish. When we heard some pulses, we'd wave the rod around just under the surface, listening for where it was the loudest to pinpoint the location of the fish. The fish don't tend to swim away when we do this, so it is easy to find them this way. To catch them we'd use a large net to scoop up the water and top layer of substrate, then check to see what we got. I wish I had pictures, but no one brought a camera!

After about an hour of this, we caught about 30 fish and decided it was time for lunch. We put away some field equipment while Alex prepared what he brought for us, which was the epitome of field food: tortillas, re-fried beans served out of the can, a red pepper sliced with a swiss army knife, a pouch of tomato sauce, and some shredded cheese. I liked it, but it was not so appealing to Rigo, who nearly preferred hunger to these "tacos de Alex."

We finished eating and relaxed while Alex prepared the electric recording apparatus. Cassie and I tried to help, but apparently we were inconceivably sleep-deprived because after about 20 minutes we fell asleep on a bed of jagged rocks and slept for nearly an hour. When we awoke, Alex was still going so we helped him finish. Basically we stuck each fish inside a tube in a cooler of water. At each end of the cooler were wires which would record the fishes' constant electric signals. As Alex tallied up the fish, he taught us his efficient way of tallying, which utilizes dots and boxes instead of just lines.

This image shows how to count from 1 to 10. I think it is much more 
organized and easier to read than the traditional tallying method.

Once we finished recording and tallying, we headed out. It was only the late afternoon, but by now Alex was so tired he was "fishing" the whole way home in the car--by "fishing," or "pescando," as Rigo says, I mean his head was bobbing in and out of sleep as a bobber on a popular fishing line. I'm really glad we got to help him, and I hope the data we got helps with his project!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Experimento en el Mar

This year I spent Easter at the beach!

Working at the beach, that is. We wanted to know more precisely what time the moon snail egg masses hatch. We figure they can only hatch when they are covered in water at high tide. So we weighted down ten egg masses and stuck them in the intertidal. Then every hour for six hours around the time of each diurnal high tide (twelve hours a day total) we went out in the canoe, pulled up the weighted eggs and checked to see if they hatched.

So, starting on Saturday at about 3 pm to Tuesday morning, we lived at the lab. During the high tide we'd ride our bikes over to the beach (5 min ride), check in with the guard who manned the gate at the marine museum and then jump in the boat. The high tides, luckily, were at about 6 am and 6 pm each day, so we didn't have to change our sleep pattern too much. We'd check roughly at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 am, then again at those hours in the pm. It was sort of annoying to go back to the lab for only 30-45 minutes before having to leave again, but we got used to it.

We had a couple interesting encounters with animals while doing this experiment. The first night when we went out after dark we almost ran into an armadillo.

Armadillo at Punta Culebra beach.

Then, when we went out on the sand, I noticed there were round stones all over the beach. Further inspection revealed that they were hermit crabs. There were hundreds of them running in all directions, chasing each other, fighting, feeding, and whatever else hermit crabs do. I thought it was absolutely adorable and I spent quite a bit of time photographing and filming them.

I love this picture. It's like it's dancing in the spotlight!

More hermit crabs, fighting for room in an empty coconut.

Then the next day we found an intruder by my bike! There was a large iguana hanging out around the back of the lab.

Now that we are done with this experiment we need to look at the times things hatched and try to figure out what it means!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bocas del Toro

I just spent a fun weekend in Bocas del Toro with Nick!

Map of the province of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We were in Isla Colon, in the northeastern part of the archipelago. 

We took a night bus--8:00 pm on Friday to 6:00 am on Saturday--to Almirante, a town on the Caribbean side of Panama by Almirante Bay, then a taxi to a water taxi, which put us on Isla Colon, the island of the surfer Bocas Town in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro!

It wasn't quite that simple, however.

After getting to the water taxi and buying our tickets, I realize I don't have any of my snorkeling gear with me, which I most certainly had on the bus before. It must be in the taxi! I scramble back to the street from the ticket building to find that our taxi had already taken off. I ask another driver to take me back to the bus terminal, figuring that our first taxi-man was probably going back and forth from the terminal to the water taxi all morning. He seemed to immediately understand my situation and hurriedly (and perhaps recklessly) drove me back to the bus terminal. Ten hopeless minutes passed in which I planned to buy new fins, a mask, snorkel, and swimsuit, but then, wait, was this taxi that just pulled up the same one that took me before? Yes! Can you open your trunk please; I think I left a maleta azul inside... yes, that's precisely it, thanks! Then I cram myself in the five-seater car with six other people and get a free ride back to the water taxi where Nick was waiting.

We arrive in Bocas town at about 6:45 am--well before most of the town opened. Our first task is to orient ourselves, then locate food, a hostel, and the dive shop where we would begin our course that day.We find the dive shop, La Buga, first, and also the sign outside that advertises vegetarian food. Perfect! Nick and I are both vegetarian. Unfortunately, it was not yet open, but a gringo worker there tells us a place down the road that is hopen and has local breakfast food. We go there and get some hot breakfast (mmmm patacones y arepas...), and then a room in the Hostal International, located across the street from La Buga. Also perfect!

The dock in the back of La Buga where we leave for diving trips.

After breakfast we throw our stuff down in the hostel and go to La Buga to begin the course. This consists of watching 5 lecture videos, which takes all morning and part of the afternoon. We took a break for lunch, of course, and got some vegan food at La Bugita, the cafe associated with the shop. After finishing the videos were are told we have to complete a list of questions for the five chapters in the dive manual, which doesn't sound as fun as going surfing, so we change and rent a surf board instead. We can do the homework later at night, but now it is getting late in the day and we can only go surfing while the sun is out!

The whistling parrot, perched at La Bugita Cafe. He spent the majority of his free time whistling cat calls. As a pet parrot at a dive shop in the Caribbean, you can imagine how much free time it has.

Breakfast at La Buga. We brought our own this day. Nick is reading the dive manual. Correction: Nick is contemplating whether an object that is negatively buoyant would displace water with more or less mass that the mass of the object.

 View toward the town from La Bugita.

Surfing is great! We get a water taxi to a good surf spot and I let Nick go first since I know I'm a terrible surfer. He surfs for a couple ours, then comes back to shore and hands me a coconut! We sip fresh agua de pipa from the coconuts atop a sunny hill and realize how picturesque this all is. . .

 Then it's my turn to surf. Um, it's been a few years, but I know theory behind it, so I give it a shot. I catch a couple waves but can't stand up and end up getting stuck on corals and slicing my thigh. Eh, but I'm okay, so we walk back to the dock to catch the water taxi back to Bocas Town. Oh, and, oops, I broke a fin off the board, which I will have to pay $20 for later. We review some photos from Nick's underwater camera, take the taxi back to the town and almost immediately realize Nick doesn't have his camera anymore. He goes back to the dock, sees nothing, and comes back a bit disheartened. We go to La Bugita again for a late dinner and then remember we have all our homework to do. We meander back across the street to the hostel and work before bed.

Sunday! Breakfast at La Bugita. Today we start our confined water session. That means we get to put on all the dive gear and get in the water! I am so excited. We get outfitted and walk off the dock into the 2-3 m deep water. It is so easy to float with this stuff on! Basically all we do is practice breathing and putting our gear on. We finish after a couple hours and explore the town to have lunch somewhere else. My camera is malfunctioning, so I put it in rice then stick it in the fridge while we go eat some delicious veggie tacos. I come back to get my camera for the open water dives to find a surprise: the rice bag is in the fridge with only the rice and my SD card! Someone made off with my (broken) camera, but at least they had the courtesy to leave my memories. The memory card was probably worth more than the camera at this point, anyway. and then it's time to take the boat to a real dive site!

The International Hostel where we stayed. This picture was taken from the dive shop. Quite a convenient location!

Me preparing to dive!

Jill, our dive instructor, teaching us about the cylinder and buoyancy control device.

This guy looked like he was having fun crushing cans, so I asked if I could join him.

The first site is a small ship wreck. OooOooOoo, sounds exciting! "What's the story behind it?" I ask Jill, our dive instructor. "No story, they just sunk it for divers." Oh.                                   Despite this anticlimactic introduction, the dive site is fabulous! It is a sea-encrusted piece of art, with colorful fish, corals, and algae all over. We swim around its exterior and I enjoy the three dimensions of diving. I examine up and down the sides of the wreck and we all go over the top, where there is a toilet sitting on what for obvious reasons I am going to call the poop deck. Jill sits on it and as I laugh into my regulator, I realize you totally can laugh in SCUBA gear and nothing bad happens. Qué bueno!

<--Nick diving!

Me diving! -->
We pass this St. Patrick's Day evening looking at the crafts the local vendors have to offer us. Then we go to a sushi restaurant and get some delicious egg rolls and salad! But it's not enough food, so we dine on cookies  from the mini super afterwards. Finally, we return to the hostel to finish our homework. Tomorrow we will complete our open water dives!

On Monday we continue diving! We eat more cereal at La Bugita and hop in the boat to complete the dive course. Today we go to dive sites named "white house" and "playground." They are both spectacular! Jill was nice enough to bring her underwater camera so we could have photos because she knows that Nick's was lost. She took an underwater photography course and took some great pictures of us; they follow.

Nick and me practicing neutral buoyancy. I'd never used my lungs for something other than breathing before!




 Oh hi.


Beautiful! It's really another world down here. 



Dive buddies.

A moray that Nick saw.

After our final dives, we learned how to calculate residual nitrogen levels in a diver's blood and then we took the final test. We passed! and had our pictures taken and we'll get our PADI Open Water certification cards in the mail in a few weeks. Exciting!

We want to go home that evening, but after some confusion we learn there is no space on the night bus so we have to stay another night in the hostel and wake up very early to take the day bus on Tuesday. That's fine, but it means an entire day is lost to sitting in a bus for ten hours. At least we will get home at a decent hour and get plenty of sleep! We take the water taxi at six am to Almirante, then buy bus tickets. This is about the point when we realize how badly we need to shower and how nasty my whole bag smells. Nothing I used the day before dried properly, so it likely was festering in mold and mildew. On the bright side, maybe we would get lots of space to ourselves on the bus. While waiting, we are offered some empanadas by a vendor, and since I hadn't had a proper breakfast, I buy one with plantains. I bite into it to find it is full with a tart, red filling: raspberry? In any case, it is delicious! Well worth the 50 cents.

Ten or more hours and a bunch of junk food and Fig Newtons and some raisin buns later, we arrive at the bus terminal in Panama City. What an eventful and fun trip! :)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

BAMBI and Canopy Tower

On Thursday, I went back to Barro Colorado Island--the pristine tropical forest in the man-made Lake Gatun in the Panama Canal. There is a weekly seminar named BAMBI where visiting scientists give an hour presentation on their research. This time I went to hear about some amazing field experiments being done on corals in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The link there is a BBC special that includes about 20 mins of coverage of this experiment. The general question being asked is: Will low pH oceans destroy corals? The short answer is yes. And the pH of our ocean is definitely decreasing.

We climbed a big tower before the talk, depicted in the following pictures.

The ascent.

Alternate view during the ascent. The tower is about 50 m up. 

Me at the top.

On Friday there was a big, free salsa concert starring Gilberto Santa Rosa. It was really great music and I danced until the skin on my feet was peeling! I basically repeated this dancing madness on Saturday night when I went downtown and danced salsa for about another three hours.

Then today I went to Gamboa with friends to climb a tall canopy tower. There was an excellent view of the canal at the top. It was really relaxing and fun. I really love being here and am so blessed to have met extremely considerate, intelligent, passionate people who love to share time with each other.

The path to the canopy tower.

View from the top of the canopy tower in Gamboa.

The view from the other side of the top of the canopy tower, showing the canal.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Field Work

I just found this picture of me doing field work at Chumical, which is a small town just west of the Bridge of the Americas. This photo pretty much sums up  my job here. This day we were counting and measuring a hundred C. marginalis from under rocks. We had three quadrants and we counted up to one hundred of the little snails in each quadrant. Essentially, we were poking through the intertidal and peeking under rocks for two or three hours. I saw a lot of cool stuff. I really like the sponges that live on and under the rocks because they have such a weird texture! They really don't seem like animals. They're like blobs of firm goo. I also saw a fireworm, which was cool.

This is what I do.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mar Caribe

Today I had my second encounter ever with the Caribbean Ocean! The first time was watching crabs two years ago. This time we went to a coworker's house who lives right on the water in Portobelo. We barbecued. The water practically touches her back patio at all times since there is basically no tidal difference on the Caribbean side (and it's pretty calm, I guess). On the Pacific side the difference between daily high and low tides is about five meters, though it varies depending on the phase of the moon. I'm not actually sure how this difference is measured, but it's just the standard that is used. I do know that this five meter difference means that at low tide there are at least two hundred meters of sand between the coastline and the ocean and at high tide there is zero beach.

Map of Panama showing Portobelo. I'm pretty sure it's spelled wrong here. Or maybe it's in English.

View of the Caribbean Sea from the backyard.

Allan by the grill. 

I did not eat the chorizo, but they looked cool!

We heated ripe plantains on the grill and they were riquisimo!

Brownies and yucca with lemon and mint. The yucca was my favorite dish.

Us at the end of our visit. Becky on the left lives there.

We played lots of volleyball and Frisbee before it started raining. It was weird to be in the rain because I haven't been in so long! I was only in rain a few times last quarter in Friday Harbor, barely at all during Portland's summer, and it hardly ever rains in Spokane where I was up until May of last year. It was weird to be surprised by rain considering I grew up in it. (I don't miss it yet.)

One of the coolest things we saw in the water near Becky's house was a Portuguese Man-of-War. This marine organism is a siphonopohore, which is a group of organisms that live and work together. It uses venom in its tentacles to sting its prey. Touch them and you will suffer!!!!!!! The Man-of-War is a known risk to humans and is actively avoided. When I first got to the house, I wanted to swim, but after seeing two of these I decided I value my skin enough not to. 

The first PMOW was so vibrant! What a weird creature.

The second was smaller and less pink.

Chau for now!