At 5:30am we reunited in front of the magnificent Mélia hotel. It was dark, just as it was when we arrived the night before. When we stepped out front of the hotel I realized that we were right on Gatún Lake, it was just barely becoming light and we could hear the howler monkeys somewhere out in the jungle. We watched all different sized bats flying around the trees on the edge of the water. It was fun to make observations with Gary as bats are his specialty and he has lots of great bat stories. As the sky grew pink, we watched a toucan come to land in the tree right before us. It was the closest I have seen a toucan in the wild, quite special and beautiful.
We finally loaded the vans just as it was light enough to see. Driving through the strange neighborhood of abandoned buildings we came to a new crossing of the canal. We had visited the canal in several different locations but this was quite unique. Feeling quite small, we drove up right next to the enormous Panamax Freight ship, estimating that it was holding 675 cargo shipping containers; and drove across the canal on a tiny metal bridge, just barely big enough for our van behind the gigantic lock which looked especially intimidating from down inside the canal.
At 7:30 am we arrived to the warm wind and salty air of the Caribbean ocean. The beach was beautiful and unfortunately covered in plastic and trash along side the coconuts. Jorge informed us that we are walking along the Chagres formation, near the town of Piña, which formed 8 – 10 million years ago. The Chagres is deeper than the Gatún and Alajuela regions that we had been visiting for the past 2 weeks. We have now traveled from the Atlantic to the Caribbean ocean stopping to collect data at 4 different localities along the way. Today we were looking in the reef for shells, marlin bones (they had found an entire skull here before) and shark bones that would have been buried 100 meters deep in the ancient ocean. The scientists quickly spotted a small piece of bone submerged in the reef along the sandy beach. We began to chisel away and realized that it was much bigger than they thought, perhaps an entire skeleton that would need days of excavation. Meanwhile up the coast the interns had discovered some large bones buried in the cliffs. They presumed it could be a whale but again would take weeks to dig out of the cliff. It was interesting for me to observe the process of science. I wondered if excavating another entire marlin skeleton would add that much to the research database. What if they spent days digging up that bone only to discover that it was a fragment of the skull and nothing more? Would it be worth it to spend days destroying a cliff to see if a whale was buried beneath it? I do know that I will never look at rocks or cliffs in the same way again. I had never recognized that ancient fossils are buried in so many coastal regions, including right in my own beaches in Santa Cruz.
Before leaving, we jumped in the warm, salty Caribbean ocean. Next it was off to pass Fort Sherman and arrive at the San Lorenzo Castle. We were all delighted to see the howler monkeys, whom we had perhaps heard in the morning. There was a mama protecting her adorable baby. We ate fruit from the guava and mango trees and walked around the castle ruins that jetted out on a point where the Gatún river opened into the ocean. It was gorgeous and all I could think about was crocodiles!
At sunset we reconvened for our final poolside chat; the crepuscular birds were out and quite loud in chorus with the cicadas. In a large circle, we reflected on the last article about cone snails, which we had all grown to love. Finally we shared our positive memories, “ah ha” moments and take aways from the Panama experience. Tears were shed and inspirations shared from many different perspectives. Teachers and interns were happy to contribute to science while scientists feel hopeful for the future scientists being taught in our classrooms. Everyone will return to their homes tomorrow with inspiration to continue their work and memories from a unique adventure.