First Explorations of Starfish Beach

Bocas Marina
Bocas del Toro, Panama

With just a few hours notice, we decided to pull out of the slip for awhile and explore the area on the north end of Isla Colon that we missed last time. We were joined by Neil and Kathy on Attitude and Tommy and Cynthia on Moondancer at a lovely anchorage at a perfect swimming beach known by the local expats as “Starfish.” The water is deep up to 15 feet from the beach, sloping up just like a swimming pool, with a clean sand bottom and a good protected anchorage a short dinghy ride from the restaurant at Bocas del Drago. On the way north, we passed Steve on Serenity cruising south. We stopped for a chat and anchoring instructions, and Steve asked if we planned to do any fishing. When we said “no,” he tossed over a light pole with a little lure on it, saying it might be fun to do a little jigging – he caught and released a lot of fish just for fun. We thanked him, found the anchorage, and Ole started jigging. No fish. More about THAT little experiment later.

We spent the first day just lazing around the swimming beach, Ole practicing his snorkeling and me just hanging out getting a terrific sunburn (including the eyelids), joined by Kathy gaining confidence after her spectacular skiing accident in February, learning to swim with a steel plate and bolt through the ball of her femur…I took full advantage of the wife points I earned by having the new impellor put into the dinghy outboard – finally, we have reliable transportation to and fro!

The second day we took a dinghy expedition across to the mainland for some snorkeling. Although the water wasn’t too clear (might have been the wrong tide), the variety of coral, sea fans, and sponges was superb. Neil spent some time in “show and tell” bringing up weird sea creatures, including a starfish attacking a small conch, locked together in mortal combat, and what he called “the largest one-celled animal in the world,” a round, metallic looking crustacean-y sort of thing. After the great snorkeling, we caravanned over to the restaurant for great whole deep fried snapper and cooooolllllddd beer, and something we hadn’t had before – lobster-stuffed patacones (soft, smashed, deep fried plantains).

Tommy and Cynthia needed to get back to town for some radio parts, so we and Attitude spent the afternoon taking the dinghies south to Ground Creek for some river exploring and impromptu snorkeling in the mangrove lagoon. Although the bottom was mud and grass, making for a dark look, the water was clear enough to spot some small rays hiding in the bottom. Snorkeling the mangroves is very spooky, but really gave me an understanding of “how they make islands.”

When you look at mangroves from the surface, they look like brushy trees standing on their tiptoes, and you assume the tangle of roots goes all the way to the bottom, anchoring the whole thing in place. But when you look at them from under water, you really see that the roots are shoots from above, growing slowly through the seawater, dangling from older branches above and allowing colorful coral, shellfish, and barnacles to grow on them and weight them down until they ultimately reach the bottom. It’s almost like the mangrove islands are semi-floating mats of tangled vegetation anchored by just a few older roots. Once the mat is big enough, more roots reach the bottom and the natural cycle of decay adds humus to the tangle, until it ultimately fills in and becomes “earth.” Great snorkel!

Again, we probably left it too late to find much in the way of wildlife cruising up the little river, but it was full of atmosphere!

Friday, we pulled up anchor and cruised just a couple of hours south to a parenthesis of mangrove islands joined by a shallow reef called Martin Perez. The anchorage was quiet, and the snorkeling wasn’t the best, but we did have an amazing experience of being caught in a huge current of millions of tiny iridescent fish near the shore of one of the islands. The cloud of fish was so huge that it was almost disorienting to lay and watch as the fish floated with the varying mini-currents and thermals in the water. Along the shallow water near the reef, the corals weren’t huge, but we did see quite a few things we had never seen before. My favorite were the little gray angelfish that seemed to come out to stare at us as we floated by, their yellow-ringed eyes following our every move. The second day out, as we were snorkeling among them, there appeared to be a hatch of some kind, as we could see clouds of teeeennnny plankton-sized fish coming from the coral heads patrolled by the angels. Maybe they were staring at us to protect their billion babies. Kathy and Ole got fascinated watching a starfish “walk” – that’s how you know you have too much time on your hands.

We stayed until Sunday, getting back to the marina so we could prepare for a road trip.

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