The Bocas del Toro (“mouths of the bull”) Biological Station is located on the north end of Isla Colón in an area known as Boca del Drago (“mouth of the dragon”). Isla Colón is the northern-most of five large islands and hundreds of smaller ones that form the Bocas del Toro Archipelago (Map 1). Set in Almirante Bay on the Caribbean side of western Panama, this collection of islands is sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of Central America”. This is because, after having been isolated for 10,000 years by geologic activity, each of the islands has evolved its own unique biota.
Named for Christopher Columbus who sailed into this region in 1502, Isla Colón is approximately 14 km long and 7 km wide. Isla Colón is composed primarily of limestone, and has a hilly topography supporting primary and secondary tropical rain forest. This island has a 5 km beach (Bluff Beach) on its east side, mangroves on its west side, and caves in the interior. Bluff Beach is one of the important sea turtle nesting grounds in the archipelago. Isla Colón has the highest human population in the archipelago, with most individuals living in the town of Bocas del Toro located on the far side of the island from our facility.
The culture is primarily Afro-Caribbean but with important input from Latino, Chinese and the indigenous Ngöbe people as well. Spanish is the “official” language but English is commonly spoken. Many Ngöbe speak only their native dialect. There are only two roads on the island, both originating in the town of Bocas. One road travels along the eastern margin of the island to Bluff Beach and the other cuts through the island’s interior to Boca del Drago, where our facility is located.
Town of Bocas del Toro
This provincial seat of about 5000 is located 35 minutes by bus and 25 minutes by boat from the field station. Bocas del Toro has many amenities including hotels and pensions, restaurants, bakeries, vegetable markets, parks, a bank, ATM machines, hospital, dentists, police and fire departments, bars, beaches, dive shops, bicycle and scooter rentals, and an airport providing daily service to Panama City. Bocas del Toro can be accessed by air (1 hr), from the mainland city of Almirante by ferry (1 hr) or by water taxi (30 min). Bocas del Toro residents are very friendly and thousands of tourists visit here yearly. South of Isla Colón lies Isla Bastimentos (“place for provisioning”) which is home to Bastimentos National Marine Park. Isla Bastimentos’ geology is similar to Isla Colón’s, with a hilly interior, mangroves on the west side and a 6 km beach (Playa Larga) on its east side. The remaining large islands are Isla Solarte, Isla Cristóbal, Isla Popa, and Isla Cayo Agua. Isla Popa has the largest Ngöbe population of any of the islands in the group. An additional interesting site is spectacular Bird Island, a protected nesting place for brown-headed boobies and red-billed tropicbirds, among other species.
Parks and Preserves
Three protected areas occur withing the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Bastimentos Marine Park covers an area of 13,226 ha and was primarily established to protect the abundant coral reefs in the region, but protects a swath of the island’s interior as well. The most spectacular coral reefs occur near Zapatilla Cays, which lie to the south of Isla Bastimentos. Just northwest of Isla Colón, across the Bocas del Drago inlet, lies a region of Panama’s mainland known as the San San Pondsak National Preserve. This Raphia palm swamp preserve is about 40,000 acres in size. The Soropta Canal runs along its eastern edge from Almirante Bay at the base of the Soropta Peninsula to the Changuinola River 15 miles to the north and then continues to the San San River. The preserve is home to a myriad of animals including manatees, peccaries, caiman, crocodiles, poison frogs, four species of sea turtles and many species of birds. The Soropta Canal was built in the early 1900s by the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita) and used to ferry bananas from Changuinola to Boca del Drago where they were loaded onto waiting ships. Isla Pajaros, or bird island, is located on the north end of Isla Colon. This small rocky islet is the home of a pelagic seabird nesting colony that includes brown boobies, and red-billed tropicbirds. This preserve is the only known nesting site for red-billed tropicbirds in the entire southwestern Caribbean.
Bocas del Toro lies 9 degrees above the equator in the wet tropical zone (Holdridge Life Zone scheme). The average annual rainfall and temperature are 4000 mm and 30°C (86°F) respectively. In general, the wet season (invierno) extends from May to December and dry season (vierno) from January to April. However, rain occurs at all times of the year, only less in the dry season.
Bocas del Toro Biological Field Station
The Bocas del Toro Biological Station consists of a series of buildings located near Ground Creek in Boca del Drago, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Republic of Panama. (coordinates are: 9º 24’ 24” N, 82º 18’ 49 W; UTM coordinates: Zone 17P, Easting, 355780mE, Northing 1040093 mN) (Maps 1 and 2). This field facility was built on a small hill directly between tropical rainforest and marine habitats. Terrestrial habitats include primary and secondary forests, marshes, swamps, streams, pastures and low impact beaches. Marine habitats include mangrove forests, turtle grass beds, coral reefs, and estuaries.
Additional habitats accessible from the station include lakes and ponds, Limestone caves, rocky inter-tidal zones and high impact beaches. See (Ecosystems) for details regarding area ecosystems and habitats.
The ITEC facility includes several concrete and wood structures including a dormitory sleeping 36 in bunk beds, a kitchen-dining facility seating 60, a dive facility next to our dock and boathouse, and a garage/shop. The station is situated on a hill 2 min from the forest and 5 min. from our dock on Ground Creek. This facility is accessible either by boat from the Boca del Drago dock (5-10min) or from town (20-30 min).
The station can also be accessed from the paved road to the town of Bocas via a trail (15 min). The ITEC field station is completely “off the grid”. Our electricity is supplied by a 20kw diesel generator that generally runs for two hours in the morning and again in the evenings from 6:30-11:00pm. Fresh water comes from rain using a roof catchment system. Our drinking water is filtered using micropore ceramic filters. The ITEC station vehicles include a 4×4 pickup, a 4×4 utility vehicle, two canoes and four boats.
The ITEC Field Station is Growing. Over the next year or two we will add to the existing infrastructure with the construction of a new faculty residence building sleeping 16, and a new marine laboratory on ITEC’s coral reef. This facility will consist of concrete block laboratory equipped with solar power and a salt-water flow system and a staging building over the water. The marine lab will be connected to the station main campus by an elevated walkway traversing the mangrove swamp. A garage and shop will also be built on the main campus.
Sanitary and Laundry Facilities. There is approximately 1 bathroom with shower and toilet for every 8 people. There is a commercial Laundromat in town that washes and dries for about $4.50/load. Most residents at the station prefer this but washing basins are provided for those who prefer to wash their clothes by hand. There is a 24 hr turnaround for laundry washed in town. Laundry detergent, soap, toiletries, etc., can be obtained in the town of Bocas.
Dining and Meals. All meals are provided in an indoor dining area which seats 60. Meals are served buffet style provided at 7:30 am, 12:00 noon, and 6:00 pm. Breakfasts consist of eggs (scrambled, boiled or fried), pancakes or French toast and always served with fresh fruit (pineapple, cantaloupe, watermelon, papaya, etc.). Lunches and dinners are ethnically Panamanian, and include meat (chicken, beef or fish) along with a starch (rice, potatoes, yuca), a vegetable (green beans, peas & carrots, cabbage, broccoli or corn) and a salad. Vegetarian alternatives are provided with each meal. Bananas are provided when available and other snacks can be purchased at the station store or in town. Tang, coffee or tea is provided with meals; soft drinks and beer are extra.
Laboratory. Our laboratory contains a variety of analytical equipment including balances, microfuge, stereo and compound microscopes, dissecting equipment, dial calipers, assorted lab ware, aquaria and pumps, terreria, insect setting and preparation equipment, plant drying boxes, herbarium and insect cabinets, Berlese funnels, tool boxes, etc. A partial list of field equipment includes Pesola scales, sling psychometer, thermometers, 30m and 50m tape measures, spherical densiometers, photometer, dip nets, seines, surveyor’s flags, flagging, insect nets, UV light, plant shears, plant presses, etc.
Library. The main library contains 2000+ volumes and several hundred reprints covering a wide variety of topics. A printer, scanner and photocopy machine, slide, overhead, and digital projectors, chart-preparation materials, etc. are also available. Phone service and WiFi internet connection are available at the field station.
A Final Note. In order to maintain our integrity as a conservation organization, we ask that all program participants conduct themselves in a manner that reflects our conservation ethic. Actions that are contrary to these ideals, such as eating sea turtles or their eggs, hunting wildlife, causing deforestation or littering, jeopardize our legitimacy locally and at home. Participants should also bear in mind that each of us represents not only ITEC, but our respective countries as well, and should conduct ourselves in a befitting manner.