sandy's blog

Featured Photo -- Grey Angelfish Pair (Pomacanthus arcuatus)

Posted Fri, May 13, 2005 by sandy

Not only are oceans and ocean life vital to human survival; the underwater world has always fascinated and inspired us. Few of us, though, have the chance to explore that world ourselves.

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Ranger video excerpts online

Posted Fri, Apr 15, 2005 by sandy

Wow - the first excerpts from the Ranger's footage, rough cut, are online. The site is in Spanish, but no matter; throngs of feeding sharks transcend language.

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Sandy's Journal -- Panama City and goodbye

Posted Tue, Mar 15, 2005 by sandy

[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]

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Sandy's Journal: Diving at Coiba

Posted Tue, Mar 15, 2005 by sandy

[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.

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Sandy's Journal: An unusual ceremony - graduation of Coiba's EcoPolice

Posted Tue, Mar 15, 2005 by sandy

[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.

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Sandy's Journal: Work at Coiba

Posted Tue, Mar 15, 2005 by sandy

[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.

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Sandy's Journal: Patrolling Coiba

Posted Mon, Mar 7, 2005 by sandy

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal was written by Sandy on Monday, February 28.

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Sandy's Journal: Coiba

Posted Wed, Mar 2, 2005 by sandy

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Sunday, Feb. 27.

La Isla de Coiba is the largest island in the Central American Pacific - approximately three times the size of Manhattan, or twenty times larger than Coco´s - and only 12 miles off the coast of Panama. It is the site of the Central Pacific´s most extensive coral reef system; a feeding and calving ground for blue whales, humpback whales, orcas and tropical spotted dolphins; and home to sharks, manta rays, billfish and tuna. Four species of threatened sea turtles nest on Coiba´s beaches. Crocodiles patrol its mangrove-lined shores. On the Panamanian mainland the island is famous, but not for its biological richness. For the past century the word "Coiba" has inspired fear.

Until last year Coiba was a federal prison. Panama´s most dangerous convicts were sent here - dangerous either to society or to the prevailing political regime. The jail was dispersed, with prison camps at various points around the island, and further dispersed because, according to legend, the prisoners were given leave to roam the island at night... while prison guards and timid inmates locked themselves in. Violence was a fact, not all of it perpetrated by man; in addition to the crocodiles, 15 species of snake, including lethal fer-de-lance and coral snakes, live on Coiba.

The prison population gradually dwindled as the twentieth century came to a close, but still The Panama Guide (Second Edition, 2001) warned visitors that "due to the continuing presence of the penal colony the safest place to anchor is off the biological station located on Punta Machete on the northeast tip of Coiba... The police are very friendly and if you want to go on any island trails one of them, equipped with weapons, will go as a guide and protector." Of Jicaron, a smaller island in the Coiba archipelago (in addition to Coiba the group includes eight smaller islands and 40 islets), the guide writes: "This island, separated from Coiba by a wide channel has strong currents which make it safe from any lurking fugitives. No one lives here and the beauty of the lush landscape can take your breath away. We rated Jicaron as the most wildly beautiful stop in Pacific Panama."

Others have been drawn to Coiba's beauty, and the history of the island has not all been dark. A Smithsonian scientist, Alicia Ibañez, has been living and working on the island for several years, attended by a guard and assisted by an inmate, Mali Mali, who finished his sentence and stayed to continue work on the project. Today he is a government park ranger and the island´s most knowledgeable guide.

The prison closed for good with the evacuation of the last prisoners in July of 2004. No one knows for sure what crimes led them to Coiba, what in human life has been lost in the island´s past. In any case the inmates, collectively, have repaid a debt: their presence has kept this place almost completely immune from industrial degradation. Coiba and its archipelago were made a national park by decree in 1991, and last year the park status was made law.

Preserved as it is, Coiba´s value is immense - particularly because of the island´s marine life. Coiba is a key link in the Pacific island ring that includes Coco´s and the Galapagos, and, as the member of the group closest to the continent, a protected nursery for juvenile fish that will migrate as adults. Keeping Coiba´s marine ecosystem intact, therefore, is critical to maintaining tuna and billfish populations that are fished and consumed all over the world.

On a more local level, Coiba should continue to provide for coastal Panamanian communities. Small-scale fishing is an ancient activity in Panama; the word "Panama" actually means "abundance of fish" in an indigenous language, and while the moniker no longer applies to nearshore areas invaded by industrial fleets in the 70s and 80s, it still fits Coiba. Under the new park rules small-scale fishing will be allowed here under close regulation. All boats must apply for a permit at the ranger station. Legal gear is one line and three hooks - sufficient to fish for a family or small community but no more. The hope is that Coiba can continue to support local fishing while also providing a marine nursery ground that will help to replenish fish populations along the more heavily-fished coasts.

The transformation of Coiba from prison colony to national park is new and happening now. On Wednesday the first class of Coiba Ecological Police will graduate from their training course and take up a permanent presence on the island. They will collaborate with the park rangers and with MarViva to enforce the new fishing regulations, which went into effect this weekend. Yesterday, for the first time, the park rangers collected miles of longline from two of four boats that had requested permits to fish in the park; the other two decided to leave park territory rather than relinquish their illegal gear. Tonight a MarViva/park ranger/ecological police patrol will head out to circle the island. With the change of the Panamanian government in September there is a new administration in power and Coiba´s rangers are all new, so for this first run Rolando Ruiloba, director of Coiba National Park, will accompany them to supervise. Mar will be there to film and I to write. Needless to say, the Ranger could not have chosen a more important moment to arrive.

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Sandy's Journal: Golfito, Briefly

Posted Tue, Mar 1, 2005 by sandy

[editor's note, by Jason]: This entry was written by Sandy on Friday, February 25.

We're back in Golfito for a few days to restock, shower, and get information about Cocos Island out to the wider world. Today we held a joint Oceana/MarViva press conference at the MarViva base. A bus brought the audience of journalists and cameramen from San Jose.

Xavier told the story of Cocos, which by now is familiar to some of us but no less impressive. It basically runs thus: Until very recently Cocos was a wilderness apart. It was a haven for pirates and the occasional whaler, but otherwise unvisited and unknown. In the 1970s, however, nearshore fisheries were rapidly depleted and fishing fleets began to frequent the island in force. Costa Rica declared Cocos and 12 miles of the surrounding ocean a national park (1978); UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site (1997), but the designations were meaningless in practice, industrial fishing continued on a large scale, and one of the planet´s most extraordinary marine treasures slipped into decline. It was only with the creation of MarViva and collaborative patrols, in 2002, that things began to change. And change they did.

As Xavier said, "The ongoing work around Cocos shows that professional partnership and loyal cooperation between governments, private companies, and NGOs gives results very quickly. In three years MarViva has done a number of important things here, and if we could copy and paste this approach in other parts of the world it would be one very good way to change the situation in the oceans."

There is, of course, still work to be done. Longliners linger at park borders, waiting for a chance to enter and willing to risk arrest - perhaps a further demonstration of continuing fisheries depletion closer to shore, perhaps testament to the success of the Cocos project in restoring the island's remarkable marine abundance, or perhaps some combination of both.

There were four organizations represented at the conference. Xavier Pastor, director of Oceana Europe; Micheal Rothchild, executive director of MarViva in Costa Rica; and Juan Pablo Camblor, director of Zoea, in Spain, all spoke. Mar Mas, founder and president of Kaisut Media and chief videographer of the Ranger expedition, had compiled a video of footage from Cocos, which we watched. It is easy when you are sailing, diving, filming to get lost in the details of the work, but here was its sum - four organizations pursuing a coordinated effort to assess the status of some of the most extraordinary areas of ocean in the world, and to convey to a broader public a vision of what the oceans are and can be. It was good to be in the audience, a thrill to see the pieces falling into place.

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