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Ocean Science in the Jungle

One man's dream is another man's laboratory

During a vacation cruise in 1999, a conservation-minded European businessman moored his yacht for the night in a quiet cove off the Pacific coast of Panama. What he saw at dawn dazzled him.

“I saw this incredible bay,” Jean Pigozzi recalled. “I heard howler monkeys. I saw dolphins jumping around the boat. I saw red crabs running around the mountains.” He also spotted evidence of trouble in paradise: burned forests and damaged reefs.

Smitten by the natural beauty and concerned about its ruin, Pigozzi began buying acreage near the Panamanian coast. He now owns about 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) of sandy beach, rocky shore, and jungle. “I am interested not only in conserving the sea and forest, but in bringing science and high technology to conservation,” said Pigozzi. “That’s my dream.”

In 2001, he heard a talk by Dave Gallo, WHOI director of special projects, at a California technology conference. Pigozzi then approached the Institution for guidance on developing a program for scientific research on his land. He also contacted the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid. By 2001, he started building—not a beachfront resort but a scientific laboratory.

He named his project the Liquid Jungle Lab.

An opportunity for science
The hilly green island known as Isla Canales de Tierra could be mistaken for an out-of-the-way tropical resort. “It looked like paradise, but within all this beauty we saw a terrific opportunity,” said Jesús Pineda, an associate scientist in the WHOI Biology Department who helped scout the site for its research potential.

The isolated area offers researchers a chance to study ecosystems relatively untouched by pollution and development. The lab sits 250 km
(150 miles) southwest of Panama City and is accessible only by boat or
small plane.

Impressed by the pristine environment and Pigozzi’s commitment to science and conservation, the WHOI Ocean Life Institute (OLI) agreed to participate in the project. The lab will operate under a scientific cooperative agreement between OLI, Smithsonian, the Botanical Garden, and a foundation established by Pigozzi. Researchers will provide scientific and technical advice on the operation of the field station and use it for research.

“I am excited by the opportunity to see environments that no one has worked on before,” said Larry Madin, senior scientist in the WHOI Biology Department and Director of OLI. “We can launch small boats, study or collect drifting plankton or jellyfish, and then come back to the lab to work. Other researchers working on everything from viruses to dolphins are going to find similar opportunities.”

Research begins spring 2004
In March 2004, Madin led a team of nine biologists, ecologists, and chemists to the lab to begin developing research plans. Within a few years, Madin anticipates that dozens of scientists could be visiting to conduct basic and applied scientific research projects.

The lab is designed like a village, complete with modern laboratory and storage space, workshops, dormitories, an infirmary, a library, and conference rooms.

Future plans call for a shore lab with running seawater for experiments, a marina, a helicopter pad, and an airstrip.

“I fell in love with this place, and it turns out that it’s extremely fascinating for scientific reasons,” said Pigozzi, an independent venture capitalist. Pigozzi graduated from Harvard University in the 1970s and has since explored a range of interests, from selling supermarket carts to photography, magazine publishing, film making, and African art collecting.

“Some people at WHOI were asking, ‘who is this guy that hangs out with Michael Douglas and Mick Jagger?’” said Dan Stuermer, director of Development. “He’s different from the traditional WHOI supporter. But different might be good for us.”

Originally published: July 1, 2004