April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Starfish are Cool

(Kevin uploaded the pictures, but this is April's story you are reading.)

Well, if you are going to be jealous of our time in Panamá, now is a good moment to do so...we just spent a week snorkeling in one of the most beautiful places in Pamaná, an area called Comarca Kuna Yala.

The word comarca signifies that the area is a semi-autonomous region of Panamá that is populated by one of the several indiginous peoples of Panama, in this case the Kuna Indians. Kuna Yala is also known as the San Blas Islands...this being the name it was given in Spanish colonial times. But the Kuna who live there prefer and use the name Kuna Yala for the region.

In many ways the Kuna are very protective (rightfully so) and controlling of what a tourist can do and where they can go and how...but it is the picture of paradise (literally some of the tropical paradise photos you have seen are from Kuna Yala.) Kuna Yala is an area of beautiful coasts, white sand, coconut trees and water so clear that I could see my toes clearly when I was in water shoulder deep. It is said to be home to some of the world´s best snorkeling...I don´t have enough experience to know if it was the world´s best...but it was fun enough to keep me swimming for hours each day for 6 days.

In our snorkeling search for colorful coral and lots of fish, we also found some white sand dollars the size of dinner plates and big starfish. We saw lots of starfish, many different kinds and colors. The above photo is of some starfish that we found in about 12 feet of water. They tend to crawl along the bottom slowly looking for food. They were numerous and easy to borrow for a photo prop. Or to just play with for about half an hour, as April did in shallow water near one island.

When you first pick up a star fish it pulls in all of its tenticles and goes all rigid in your hand. It seems as if it is not capable of moving. But if you have a bit of patience eventually the animal will start to put out its tenticles and feel around. On their underside they have a line of tenticles that run along the middle of each leg, going from the tip to the center of the star. Their mouth is located at the center where the 5 lines of tenticles meet. Each tenticle has a suction cup type tip for grabbing things, and aiding movement.

When the starfish is not holding itself stiff for protection, it is suprisingly soft and yielding to the touch...kind of like incredably thick velvet, but with armory bumps sprinked in the pattern. It is easy to see the bumps, but if you are patient and have a keen eye for observation you can also see little velvety sensors on the upper surface of the starfish that help them perceive and respond to touch stimuli.

For those who are interested enough to wait (it is a bit like watching turtles move...takes a real interest and lack of hurry), starfish are quite flexible. They are capable of folding almost in half to turn themselves over or to go over the edge of a surface (like the edge of my hand). They conform their shape to the surface that they are on and move with undulations of the hundreds of sucker tipped tenticles.

In the below video you can see the tenticals moving pretty clearly.

(Watch the starfish suckers move him along Kevin's hand)

We also saw lots of types of corals including fan corals, vase corals, brain corals and many others that I don’t know. We saw itty bitty colorful fish in all the nature video colors, and big fish with all sorts of colors too. We saw big schools of blue fish and others of yellow fish and grey fish. One fish, two fish, red fish blue fish....

We saw many schools of minnow sized fish where the school had to number in the hundreds of thousands of fish...you could be in the middle of the school and have a hard time seeing out of the school for all the fish and flashes of sun from their bodies. We also saw anemones, sea cucumbers, lobsters, conch (brought a big one back to the hotel and had it for lunch the next day), crabs, sea grass and pelicans.

One thing I don’t mind not ever seeing again was a small school of Barracuda. They were making me nervous, so I popped up to the boat where our guide was following us through an off shore reef and had the following conversation:

me- Are barracuda dangerous?

him- How big is it? (spreading his hands shoulder wide as an example)

me- (thinking...this conversation is not going the way I had hoped) This big. (spreading my hands to about 4 feet wide)

him-Oh...how many are there?

me- (thinking...I really am not being reassured at all by these questions) 4 or 5 of them.

him- Oh. (what felt to me like a long pause for thought here) They will just go away.

me- I am not seeing very many fish here.

him-They are probably hiding from the barracuda. Barracuda are brava. (brava is a word most often used with animals, and can have many context driven tones or connotations...but usually means mad or aggressive)

me-(thinking....If I see them again I think I will be ready to hide like the other fish!)

Of course, we did fine...we didn’t snorkel in that area for long. I am glad to have seen barracuda, but don’t feel a particular need to see them again. We had a great time snorkeling...can’t wait to go again.

Can you see the two starfish that are in the above photo?


Todd said...

Wow that starfish blends in well with your hair

Ginna said...

What wonderful pictures and the video is fantastic. What a memorable 10th anniversary trip!
Love, Mom C.

Linda said...

cool times! can't wait to see you guys and hear more stories!

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