With the mid-semester break coming up, we are reminded how quickly the semester is flying by. At the same time, if we stop to think about it for a minute, we can compare a snapshot of today with the first week of semester and realize how much we’re learning and synthesizing along the way. I smile when I hear the students talking about how they wish the great kiskadees or the red-lored parrots would be quiet, knowing that two months ago, most of them would have been hard-pressed to tell me what kind of animal makes that noise. Not only that, but whenever I am able to join the coastal ecology snorkeling trips, I am the one asking them for help identifying this fish or that type of coral.
The most exciting part of the coursework, however, has not so much been our increased understanding of the flora and fauna around us, but rather the process of integrating our understanding of the ecology with the pressing environmental issues of the day. Recently, we interviewed tourists on the island of Zapatillas to quantify usage and the demographic profile of visitors to one of Panama’s most heavily used Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). A week later we counted and described the behavior of unregulated tour boat operators taking visitors to see dolphins in nearby “Dolphin Bay,” located outside the MPA. These hands-on observations and data collection efforts have complemented accompanying lectures on protected areas and ecotourism to give us a fuller picture of the delicate balance among biodiversity conservation, recreation, and economic benefit to local businesses.