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Stars, Bubbles and Bars

Destination: Puerto Viejo

I bounced out of bed this morning, excited about today's diving adventures and exploring Bocas del Toro's famous Starfish Beach, also known as Boca del Drago. Unlike yesterday, the sun was shining brightly and our boat departed from Bocas Watersports promptly at 9:30 a.m.

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Oddly enough, the day's main attraction was not the colorful coral and wildlife under the sea, but our tour guide himself. About 15 minutes (and 60 feet deep) into the dive, Leandro began blowing gigantic bubbles that looked exactly like smoke rings.

The bubble rings floated to the surface, maintaining their shape. Even more impressive was that he could blow one large ring and then shoot smaller ones through it. I was left dumbstruck by this incredible trick, and had to try it for myself.

My bubbles looked more like fizz from a coke can. In the process of attempting to copy Leandro, I had to lie belly-up, with my back facing the ocean floor. It is extremely difficult to feel the loss of buoyancy in this strange orientation, and I rapidly began to sink. Realizing this, I flipped over -- and scraped my entire left side against some rocks and stinging coral. Blowing magic bubbles would take some more practice, preferably in a pool or sandy spot.

Leandro and I moved through vast coral gardens of the dive site known as Hospital Point, through underwater clover patches, and fields of anemones and vase sponges.

My favorites were the feathery black and beige anemones. Their graceful legs fanned out like flowers, which, when threatened, spun together and evaporated into their elongated tubes faster than seemed possible. Another type looked like Medusa's head, with sticky, lime-green tentacles wriggling about in a bundle. When bothered, this anemone would slither into the nearest hole like an alien creature.

Again, I couldn't help but dwell on the differences between diving in the Caribbean versus diving the Pacific. It is impossible not to notice how much clearer and bluer the water is on the Caribbean -- but great visibility is a high price to pay for the complete lack of sharks and other dangerous carnivores (albeit this is a personal choice -- many saner people prefer calm and relaxed adventures over heart-pounding predator pursuits).

As an underwater photographer, water clarity is extra important. Normally, there are particles between myself and the subject that I am photographing. These particles get in the way, and necessitate that I get very close to the animals. This is a difficult task when capturing images of jittery fish. In Bocas del Toro, there were often no particles, and many photographs came out as if I were above the water and in broad daylight.

The calm waters and general absence of currents and surges are another plus for diving the Caribbean. This effect creates a relaxed atmosphere, almost like diving in a swimming pool. My favorite technical aspects so far were the warm water and lack of thermoclines, or cold layers of water that surprise divers at certain depths. Here, I would never need to wear a wetsuit -- except to ward off the occasional jellyfish. As a huge fan of nonrestrictive clothing, getting stung is a risk that I am willing to take for the sake of comfort.

Before we knew it, the dive was over. Jack from Bahia del Sol Bed and Breakfast offered to take us out to Starfish Beach on his boat, and we happily accepted. The tropical shore was even more beautiful than we had imagined, lined with palm trees and thick rainforest.

Immaculate waters were littered with hundreds upon hundreds of orange starfish. Some were the size of a baseball, and others the size of a large coconut; some were mating, others eating or "walking" at a pace too slow for the human eye to comprehend -- but we knew it was true by the long trails left behind them. The best part was that there was absolutely no one on the beach but us. For a few hours, these turquoise waters were all ours.

An hour later, Jack practically had to drag Kim and me back to the boat. We had to return to the hotel before sunset. As we neared Isla Colon, Bocas' main island, the archipelago's nightlife began to look extremely attractive.

After a quick shower and a bite to eat, we took the $1 dollar water taxi to the renowned Bocas Aqua Lounge, a bar and youth hostel near the center of town. Kim and I were impressed before we even set foot on the dock -- which is complete with a large saltwater swimming pool.

Above this pool is a diving board, and to the right of it all sits a massive trampoline floating in the water. The two of us fit right in among the other happy young travelers hanging out at the bar; even better, tonight was ladies' night and we had hours of free drinks to look forward to. Despite our plans to get to know other venues in town, Aqua Lounge's awesome music and laid-back, 'anything goes' vibe were irresistible -- and we stayed there until last call.

Stars, Bubbles and Bars in Pictures

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