Nice Work if You Can Get it! - Dr Charlotte Braungardt


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Nice Work if You Can Get it! - Dr Charlotte Braungardt

I want to bring our model of integrating ocean science into sail training to the Caribbean, where our tall ship Pelican of London sails for a while each winter (only that’s summer there).

I’m traveling in Costa Rica and Panama to build relationships with scientist and institutions, generate interest for organisations to bring local youths onto the Pelican for a voyage of discovery.

It’s not difficult to be taken in by the tropical charm and outlook of Costa Rica. Governed by people who care about health and education and are committed to environmental conservation and restoration, it’s people are warm and welcoming and there is music everywhere.

I’ve discussed a potential collaboration on a marine ecology module offered by Universidad Veritas with Dr Alejandra Barahona Castro.

One angle to make this happen is shark research in the Caribbean within their study abroad programme. The molecular biology labs here already receive confiscated shark carcasses for identification and we agreed to explore research synergies with contacts I have back in the UK.

I joined the Pelican in Bocas del Toro, Panama, for a visit to the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Restoration in Bocas del Drago.  Hidden at the boundary between primary rainforest and farmland, the station is only accessible by a narrow creek through the mangroves.

Apart from undertaking research and forest restoration projects, Dr Peter Lahanas and his colleagues also host study groups for summer schools centred around field and laboratory work. As their expertise includes tropical terrestrial and marine ecology, we discussed the possibility to use Pelican as platform for residential excursions to remote, uninhabited islands and coral reefs next year.

The Bocas del Toro archipelago has a lot going for it, including ecotourism and research, pristine ecosystems and National Parks, indigenous communities and high biodiversity.

But there are also the typical downsides of modern life: rubbish smouldering near poor communities, and plastic pollution and raw sewage on the beaches around the corner from modern hotels promising island paradise. I am still discovering how society works here, and cannot comment yet on topics such as waste management and environmental education,  laws and law enforcement here.

Thursday morning and I’m up at 5:30 to meet Carlos Chiari at Shelter Bay Marina. He’s an employee here and also an environmental educator and field guide and takes me around the forest behind the marina. It’s made ground from excavating the marina basin, has been used by the USA to defend the Canal in both world wars and is increasingly reclaimed by nature.

The forest is not as diverse as native primary rainforest and features introduced and invasive species, such as oil palm and elephant grass, but still provides habitat for many insects and animals. In a couple of hours with Carlos, I saw bats in old bunkers and toucans in the canopy, leafcutter ants on the ground and termite highways on trees. We heard howling monkeys, watched coatis foraging on the forest floor and followed the antics of a troupe of white faced capuchins moving through the bush.

Carlos is a gold mine of local knowledge beyond ecology – he’s equally happy to discuss geology, biogeography, history and the culture of Panama, and a few hours with him are a great introduction to this fascinating country. We’ll definitely recommend this to Ocean College when we next stop in Shelter Bay with European students on board.

Many visitors will remember this marina for its super yachts and free swimming pool, exotic cocktails and nice showers. But I think it is special for something else: this marina sets time aside for one of its employees to provide high quality,  environmental education, and Carlos does it for the love of nature. Where else have you come across this?

My next stop is Panama City and the Biomuseo. I didn’t know what to expect here, other than the architecture of Frank Gehri and exhibits of local ecology.

What I experienced was a warm welcome from Diego Castillo, who brought to life this excellent exhibition for me, and enthusiastic and constructive talks with him and Victor Cucalon about setting up a project that will get local kids to join the Pelican for sail training and ocean science.

Biomuseo itself is all about storytelling and immersion...

Instead of lots of text, expert guides engage visitors of all age groups and backgrounds in the vivid and well thought-out exhibits that complement Gehry’s architecture and surrounding environment perfectly. Interactive and tactile installations inspire curiosity in a way I rarely experienced in a ‘museum’.

Biomuseo’s outreach philosophy is created by its employees and to me, that’s the foundation of a promising partnership with Seas Your Future.

The coming weeks and months will show where the ideas we generated here will lead us. Reaching out, finding common ground and seeking collaboration is an inspiring, creative and worthwhile activity.

As a friend commented recently: “Nice work if you can get it!” I agree, especially if it means traveling to somewhere close to paradise (and lots of contrast) and learn from so many gifted people committed to scientific research, ecosystem conservation and restoration, and environmental education.

Seas Your Future is the operating name of Adventure Under Sail,
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