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Punta Galeta, where sea
and earth coexist

April 15, 2019


The Smithsonian’s first marine lab on Panama’s Caribbean coast invites visitors and researchers to experience the diversity of marine ecosystems within a protected space.

When visitors arrive at Punta Galeta, they are surprised to find such relatively clean sea water near the city of Colón, an important commercial hub in Panama. Despite being surrounded by ports, the location of the first marine laboratory of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) on the Caribbean is a protected landscape that remains as unaltered as possible. For local teachers and students, it is an optimal place for learning, through training workshops and scholarships to conduct research. For scientists, it is a privilege to develop their projects in this place where there is such a diversity of natural habitats.

Upon exiting the Panama-Colón highway and heading towards Punta Galeta, the first habitat that stands out is the lowland tropical forest that borders the road to the STRI research station. As it approaches the sea, the jungle transforms into a mangrove forest, one of the attractions of Galeta. A short boardwalk allows curious visitors to explore this ecosystem that is neither terrestrial nor marine, but a bit of both.

Four species of mangrove can be found within. Nearest to the coast are the red mangroves, the most striking of all because their roots grow mostly above ground. They thrive in the flooded soils near the ocean. Many of the marine species we consume—such as fish, crabs or shrimp— begin their lives among these roots that protect them from predators. These same roots help mitigate the impact of the wind and waves on the coast during tropical storms.

The other types of mangroves, white, black and buttonwood, live in areas less prone to flooding. All of the species help to mitigate climate change, sequestering carbon from the environment and storing it in the soil. They also retain sediment, preventing it from reaching the sea and muddying the waters. In addition to marine animals, insects, sloths, migratory birds, crocodiles and boas can be found in the mangrove forest.

Across from the mangrove forests of Galeta, stands a row of palm trees and a white sand beach. On a sunny summer day, the blue sea nearest to the coast is as calm as a swimming pool. Strong waves crash on the horizon, where a natural submarine barrier holds them back: the coral reef. This habitat, surrounding Punta Galeta, is the first obstacle between the sea and the land. Like the mangrove, it protects the coast from tropical storms. It also serves as shelter for many marine species: those born in the mangrove reach the reef as adults.

Between these two ecosystems, there is another one that is not so obvious to the naked eye: seagrass, a habitat that resembles an underwater meadow, lives between mangrove forests and coral reefs. A diversity of adult and juvenile marine species finds shelter and food within the seagrass beds. Like the mangrove, the seagrass habitat removes carbon from the environment. It also acts as a filter, retaining sediment before it reaches the reefs. Coral survival depends on this: if the surrounding water is cloudy, the small algae that inhabit them do not receive enough sunlight. Unable to photosynthesize, they die off, depriving corals of their main energy source.

For Matías Díaz, one of the twelve guides at Galeta, ensuring the protection of its different marine-coastal habitats is a priority. Not only to safeguard biodiversity in the area or help mitigate climate change, but also because of the importance of Galeta for science: Smithsonian research has been conducted here since the sixties. In addition, it is historically relevant: a few steps away remain the old structures of a United States military communications station during World War II and the Cold War.

Díaz does his part by educating visitors. In particular, he enjoys interacting with the younger ones. “Our work is important because we can change the mentality of students. They could be the next decision makers,” he says.

Maybe this way, with more conscious citizens and decision makers, mangrove reforestation projects near the station will continue. And those who remember the past may be able to relive the times when blue crabs were so abundant in Galeta that it was impossible to walk around without tripping over them.

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