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On Location: Haines’ Research in Bocas

by | Jun 22, 2023

Mallorie Haines on left.


Written and photos by: Mallorie Haines


Rising junior and women’s basketball guard Mallorie Haines is spending four weeks in Panama this summer with The School for Field Studies, a study abroad program designed for environmental research and stewardship with initiatives all over the world. With a passion for marine biology, Mallorie is spending the next four weeks studying human impacts on the ecosystem and will share a journal entry with Wildcat fans after each week of her once in a lifetime experience.


Hello again Wildcats! 

This week, I have to start off by telling you about my most exciting excursion yet, which was scuba diving! This was by far the highlight of my trip thus far. While I still have not seen a shark, I saw hundreds of other species on the reefs. The most beautiful fish species in my opinion are male parrot fish, which typically have a combination of four or five different bright and reflective colors. However, my favorite has to be the Bi-color Damselfish. They are called the farmers of the sea, as they protect their own little patches of algae on the coral or seafloor, and are extremely territorial. Even though they are smaller than the size of my palm, they are fearless, and will swim straight up to your mask to stare you down and protect their little farm. It’s very cute.

I also saw a Green Moray eel, a Mantis Shrimp, a seahorse, and a reef squid, which are all incredibly fascinating creatures. I also have a new love and appreciation for coral. An interesting fact: the color of coral comes from the algae that grows on it, not from the animal itself. Yes, corals are animals, not plants! This algae can be neon blue, green, yellow, pink, purple, orange, etc. and when combined all together on one reef, it is absolutely amazing to see. The amount of life that coral reefs support is unimaginable.

During the first couple days of last week, we talked a lot about the complexities of Marine Protected Areas, and specifically the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park (BINMP) here in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Marine Protected Areas are sections of the ocean that are prohibited for human use in efforts to preserve the biodiversity of marine life, along with several critical habitats such as mangroves and coral reefs.

MPAs are created with the hopes of avoiding fish depletion, habitat degradation, and maintaining ecological services. However, just because marine areas are labeled as protected, it does not mean that this is always the case. For example, here in Bocas, you are still allowed to hook and line fish in the BINMP. Other human stressors are also permitted here, such as snorkeling, diving, and boating. So is the area truly protected? Much of our discussion has been based on this question, as well as what exactly the social implications are that come with establishing a section of the land/water as protected.

For example, does the marine park include the complex habitats that need protection? Were the voices of the Indigenous communities that live within, or around, the boundaries of this park considered or recognized? While the area is protected on paper, who is actually enforcing these guidelines in the park? These are all questions we have been asking as we visited the marine park ourselves on Tuesday. 

I also went on a trip to the Bahía Honda community on Isla Bastimentos this week. Bahía Honda is home to the Ngäbe-Buglé people, who originally started giving tours of the bat caves on the island, all in partnership with the Ministry of Environment of Panama, Miambiente, as a means to boost indigenous tourism and educate more people about their community, values, and traditions.

I had the privilege of taking this tour myself, and learned so much about the Ngäbe and their cultural values and stories. The tour to the bat caves requires a peaceful boat ride through the mangroves, where it is common to see sloths, white faced monkeys and a variety of birds. My group got extremely lucky to see seven different sloths on our tour. While Bahía Honda used to expect about 1,000 visitors every year, that number has severely decreased, as other tourist agencies have discovered the bat caves, and take tourists directly to them, completely surpassing the indigenous community on their way. This is just another way in which these foreign agencies have taken money away from the local Ngäbe people, while also stripping valuable information away from the tourists themselves. Education from this community allows for tourists to better understand and respect the habitats and environment they are entering, creating incentives for further preservation of the area.

As far as what is going on here in the community, there is an extreme shortage of water on the island due to the lack of rain this season. The aquifer has run dry, and the water from the wells has been brought to the restaurants and hotels in town. This has upset the locals tremendously, as they still have no water while tourists are being catered to first.

I have included a picture of the protest I witnessed in the street a couple nights ago. Families have blocked the roads, placing empty water jugs across the length of the street in order to send their message. It has been incredibly powerful and uplifting to see how this community has come together as one to fight this issue, and as of right now, it seems that they are succeeding. I still love using the Spanish language to talk to the people of Bocas about issues like these, they are extremely passionate and I love hearing their perspective. I was also able to play basketball with a few local kids that are around my age last Wednesday. We played with all FIBA rules, and they call zero fouls, but I love it! I had so much fun, and hopefully I will go back sometime this week.

Thank you for reading if you have gotten this far! This trip has been extremely fascinating so far and I have learned so much about my environment.  All of this research, again, is so important to study, as the issues happening here in Bocas also happen all over the world.

See you next week!

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