Three breaching humpback whales and a smaller baby humpback swam around the dive site, in what seemed like a formal invitation to jump in. I couldn’t have imagined a better omen.
We were on a liveaboard diving trip to Panama’s Coiba National Park with Coiba Dive Expeditions, and so far we’d seen quite a lot of life. This penal colony-turned-national wildlife refuge is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of the most legendary diving in the country – attracting endangered species ranging from sea turtles to hammerhead and whale sharks. Today marked day three of the 8-days island hopping around the park’s 430,825 acres.
On the ocean floor, a white tip reef shark and a small green sea turtle swam beneath me, drawing my attention to a giant Pacific octopus below. It was hanging out in the wide open, completely vulnerable – an unusual position for an invertebrate, given they tend to prefer safer, protected rock crevices.
As a diver, it is all too tempting to assign human emotions to various “expressions” and facial features of the marine life, even though these similarities tend to be completely coincidental. For example, dolphin and parrotfish mouths always seem to be smiling and “happy,” regardless of whether they actually are or not. On the other end of the spectrum, eels seem aggressive as they baring their teeth and sway back and forth; although they look about to strike this is misleading – this is simply how they breathe. Studying the stern facial features of this octopus, I was inclined to lump it into the “grumpy” animal category.
Octopi are some of the smartest cephalopods on the planet; they can mimic other animals, learn by observation, and predict the outcomes of World Cup games. I sensed that this creature was not only intelligent, but also particularly feisty – especially considering the invertebrate was – quite literally – spineless. It was probably protecting a nest of eggs nearby.
Instead of swimming away when we approached, it began to flash the most unnatural shade of neon green I’d never seen outside an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons. Changing colors is one of the ways that octopi communicate, and its message read loud and clear: “BACK OFF” (and in my head it added, “I could take you – all of you – with seven tentacles tied behind my…whatever I have instead of a back.”
Then I had a strong impulse to poke it.
This was more out of childlike curiosity than anything else – I just wanted to see what its tentacles and mushy bag of a head felt like. Thankfully this urge was quickly replaced by a vision of the creature latching onto my arm and never letting go. Then, not only would everyone judge me for messing with the wildlife (rule number one of things NOT to do while diving) – but I’d probably loose my regulator trying to escape its grasp, going down in history as the first person to ever die at Coiba by the hand of a gooey sack.
After changing colors failed to scare us off, it finally propelled itself away through a shiny school of Pacific spadefish that was encircling a rock. These fish, shaped like spades on a deck of playing cards, are roughly as long as an adult human torso and appear about as flat as a pancake underwater. Some are totally grey and others completely black, but to me the most hypnotic are the ones with black and white stripes. As I came nearer, the school abandoned its rock cover and began circling me, creating an absolutely mesmerizing effect. I was drawn to them like a magnet, and couldn’t have looked away if a hammerhead shark had swum past. The need to check my air consumption broke the trance, and it was time to come up.
At the surface, Chef Juan Carlos was waiting with refreshments. Coincidentally, he served octopus as an appetizer that night – although I seemed to be the only one that had a problem eating it. To accommodate my picky eating habits, he prepared a special soup made out of ayote, or acorn squash, which became a fast favorite among everyone on board.
Around sunset, dolphins jumped and played around our cruiseship – the immense MV Yemaya II – almost as if on cue. Devil rays jumped high into the air and belly-flopped back down again, possibly as a mechanism to shake off pesky parasites – but I like to think they do it out of sheer fun.
I couldn’t believe that people were once sent to Coiba Island as a punishment. To everyone on the ship it was paradise.