Blog | Oceana USA

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Thursday, March 10.

After a week with only Coiba's blue waters and the deep green of its forest in sight it is a shock to come to a city. The capital of Panama is a battalion of skyscrapers standing guard along the bay - a city as surely as New York.

Sea horse

(c) Houssine Kaddachi / Oceana 2005

There are no fish on land, but there is a group of people working hard to protect Coiba and Panama's marine assets, and our time here has been an opportunity for busy collaboration. On Monday we held a joint press conference with MarViva to announce the arrival of the Ranger, discuss some preliminary conclusions about the conservation status of Coiba, and show a preview of Mar's documentary footage. The next day, lo and behold, we were front page news: one of Hussein's photos of a coquettish seahorse welcomed us to breakfast. The level of media interest in Coiba now is testament to the success of MarViva and their colleagues at the Smithsonian in making the park an issue of national importance...

[To read the rest of this entry follow the link below]

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Thursday, March 4.

We left Coiba. At Panama City I am getting on a plane back to the States; I hope we have a headwind all the way to shore.

It is 1:00 on a sunny afternoon. There is heavy boat traffic off Panama and Tom, our captain, is conferring with Aitor and Carlos in the cockpit. Sole - Soledad Esnaola Scotto, that is, of Zoea - is in the cabin; it is a good time to hear about the past week's dives.

Aitor and coral

(c) Houssine Kaddachi / Oceana 2005

Me: How was the diving at Coiba?

Sole: There is less life than at Cocos, and the diving conditions - currents and waves - were more difficult. Also, the island hasn't been nearly as explored by divers, so many areas are unknown; no one knows what's under the water. But it makes it interesting as well.

There is coral - a lot for this area of the Pacific - but there is a lot of bleaching because of the temperature of the water and because of El Niño. It's a natural phenomenon, but to what degree we contribute with climate change, changes in the temperatures of the ocean and the earth - all of this effects currents, water temperatures, fishing, everything. It's all related.

Mar is on guard but unoccupied. We can talk to her too.

Mar Mas with puffer

Mar filming a puffer fish.
(c) Houssine Kaddachi / Oceana 2005

Me: What were you expecting in the Coiba dives and what did you find?

Mar: For me Coiba was an island rediscovered. In 2002 my producer and I began preproduction for a project that was meant to center on Coiba and the closure of the prison... but for various reasons the project was delayed. So to be able to work with MarViva at Coiba has been a reunion with friends and a second encounter with their very original work.

I was so impressed by the consciousness that everyone has about what it means to protect Coiba - the park rangers, the ecopolice, everyone. I hope that this enthusiasm and this model will be exportable to coastal oceans as well.

As far as the diving is concerned, there is still much to do at Coiba. Almost nothing has been done. From the little we were able to see in the time we had -- because we only had three days, we did just ten dives -there is an incredible diversity of life.


School of rays.
(c) Houssine Kaddachi / Oceana 2005

The richness of Coiba at the level of benthic (bottom-dwelling) species is particularly striking. The sea floor is blanketed in coral. There's a lot of gorgonia. They are mostly small, growing, and there's a good deal of bleaching. Even so, the water is full of seaweeds, full of small invertebrates. We had the chance to see bream that I had never seen before, fusiliers we had never seen. We did a few dives in sandy areas and saw tons of all kinds of rays. It was fantastic. Coiba needs five years of diving work, because it's an enormous island. And it will take resources to begin the work of understanding all of the island's potential.

...In many of the dives we had the sensation that we were the first, that no one had ever dove here before. It's a magnificent sensation. It gives you some perspective on where we're working, and what it is that we're doing.

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Wednesday, March 2.

Cell barracks at Coiba

Former prison cells on Coiba.
(c) Angie Arias / Oceana 2005

At perfect noon we are sitting on damp wooden benches atop a hill on Coiba with thirty uniformed police. One by one they stride to the podium at the front of the open air hall, give an extravagant salute, and accept a diploma rolled in bamboo from the Vice Governor of the Province of Veraguas. In the audience, besides us Ranger crew, are park rangers, MarViva staff, two television reporters and a handful of model convicts serving the last of their time.

This is the graduation ceremony of Coiba's first class of Eco Police. Coiba was a prison; now it is a park, and as the conventional police leave the ecological police are coming to stay. Unlike the park rangers, they can carry guns, and they lend an authority to the implementation of the park's new laws for which everyone seems grateful.

Grave at Coiba

One of Coiba's cemeteries.
(c) Angie Arias / Oceana 2005

We spent all the morning on land. It was just barely enough time to figure out exactly who is living on this island and why. First, there are conventional police, who are leaving. Second, the graduating class of eco police, some of whom will stay. Third, prison inmates. After the prison on Coiba closed, and the inmates were sent to the mainland, the police who remained on shore realized the extent of the work necessary to maintain the base and requested that a handful of well-behaved prisoners be sent back to help them out.

One of them, Antonio, gave us a tour. The base looks like a semi-abandoned city. There are concrete barracks along the beach, a roofless church presided over by vultures, a cluster of administrative buildings in varying stages of disrepair. The prison buildings themselves are overgrown with vines but the rusted bars are as unyielding as ever and you can still swing a cell door shut with a clang. In each cell, Antonio says, lived 15 to 20 men. Yes, it is true that the guards locked themselves in while the prisoners roamed free at night and yes, there was violence of every kind. There are two cemeteries on Coiba where those who died here are buried in anonymous graves.

EcoPolice swearing-in ceremony

A new eco-policeman receives
his diploma.

(c) Angie Arias / Oceana 2005

That all seems very far away. Today, now, the graduating eco police stand stiffly in their army green suits, black caps, black boots tied to the knee and sing the anthem of the Panamanian police. Birds join. Down the hill, across the trees and concrete cell barracks, we can see the blue of the bay.

Who would believe that there is an island in the Pacific inhabited by scientists, park rangers, convicts and nature police who live and work together? But this is Coiba - a jail become a haven that prisoners help to guard, a marine sanctuary protected through a century's chaos by the very presence of danger. What a story. What a place. The park rangers and eco police seem happy to have us, and Oceana's Carlos Perez is invited to join in the ceremony. It is an honor to collaborate with this group - to have the chance to help, with our documentary efforts, promote the conservation of this island in whatever way we can.

[editor's note, by Jason]: We now resume Sandy's Journal, back in Coiba, on March 1...

It is late in the afternoon, the sun is about to set, and after a morning of diving, filming and interviews on land everyone is - briefly - back on the boat. The compressor is rattling away on the stern deck, filling tanks. It's deafening. Thankfully it won't be long until the tanks are ready and the film crew heads off again for a night dive. In the time we spend anchored the boat is like an airport. People come, people go, news bulletins flash over the radio or across one of the cabin's white boards, fleetingly, and in the interest of sanity it is best to accept that you will never know exactly what is going on.

Later in the night we will all be onboard. Sandra and whatever willing volunteers are around will make a meal; at the dinner table there will be time to talk about the day past and the day to come.

The last months of 2004 were hectic regarding beliefs on Global Warming, the Greenhouse Effect and other controversial subjects. Do you remember?

On November 8th a report was released by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme on the Arctic Climate Change. It revealed that the average temperature was rising two times faster in the arctic than in the rest of the world. (see Thu Nov 11th: Four years of studies in 140 pages)

Then, on Sunday November 28, 2004, The Observer published: Greenhouse effect 'may benefit man' Claims by pro-Bush think-tank outrage eco-groups. This article was about a report that The International Policy Network (a charity based in the UK, and a non-profit (501c3) organization in the US). This report, according to The Observer, was published just to feed a controversy about global warming. This report was denying the legitimacy of scientific studies or discussions on the issue and attempting to prove that global warming was nothing but a song for the birds.

Here is, for example, a sentence from the introduction of the report that you can find here (pdf file)

Contributors to this report have become increasingly concerned that the public is being fed a series of exaggerated claims regarding likely future climate change, based on inaccurate models.

And a part of the conclusion of the first section of the report: The scenarios underlying climate change `predictions'

The short answer is that we simply do not know how much warmer climate will be in 2100. In fact, the degree of (compound) uncertainty is so large that merely by providing temperature intervals, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is extremely misleading.

The Observer also stated that the melted Arctic will be beneficial for mankind by increasing fish stocks.

Well, reading Daniel Howden's and Ben Holst's article in The Independent published on the 5th of January, competition over the Arctic has already begun: it is a new international `cold war'.

The Arctic finds itself on the front line of the race to claim the North Pole, a modern scramble for the Arctic that has pitted tiny Denmark against its NATO ally Canada, with Russia and the United States lurking in the wings.

But this open competition is not only about fish stocks...

What is for some an environmental catastrophe might be a great commercial opportunity. Diamond finds in Canada's Nunavut have already fired a mining rush and propelled the country into the ranks of a top-three producer. Ottawa is counting on tapping what the government suspects are major natural gas reserves in the Beaufort Sea, the Frigid Zone bordering the Yukon and Alaska, where diplomatic swords were crossed with the US when it tried unsuccessfully to auction off the area to oil companies last year.

But what really made me sick is this sentence:

The centuries old bane of Arctic explorers could become a reality thanks to global warming, cutting thousands of miles off the shipping routes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and delivering a windfall to any country able to tax its users.

There always seem to be people who are trying to deny the existence of a theory or of a scientific study, or at least confuse the issue, while others are trying to get rich from future impacts.  Wouldn't it be great if we were spending as much time and money trying to stop or mitigate the problem?

Related post on the blog:
Fri Dec 10th: