Panama is where ‘two oceans kiss’: it is the narrowest strip of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Caribbean waters which are warmer, saltier, more dense and rich in nutrients, make the perfect habitat for one of the most diverse coral reefs in the world.
Meanwhile, the deeper and cooler waters of the Pacific combined with highly active currents and a high concentration of plankton, host impressive schools of fish and marine mammals, attracting every year millions of tourists and nature aficionados. Unfortunately, these two radically different but equally fascinating ecosystems are not in pristine conditions anymore and have to face the global threat of plastic pollution.
About the photographer
Irene Mendez Cruz is a passionate French-Venezuelan wildlife and underwater photographer who has recently graduated from Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University.
Her passion for the natural world and conservation has led her to work in South and Central America, in both video and photography, with renowned institutions such as the Galápagos National Park, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Her book Kiss of the oceans is a celebration of the marine wildlife around Panama.
View more of her photos on her website.
To view the images as a slideshow, click on the arrows in the top right hand corner of the photos below.
Found in the Caribbean, the great star coral is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. It is particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic activities and natural diseases such as the black band disease. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Caribbean reef squids are social creatures that communicate through a variety of complex signals by changing skin colour and pattern. Not just for camouflaging or hunting, but also in courtship rituals. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Not more than 3 inches longs, the small and territorial seaweed blenny hides and nests in very small crevasses inside rocks, sponges, abandoned shells or even human debris. © Irene Mendez Cruz
The magnificent feather duster is a type of sea worm and a common species over the Caribbean. Its extremely sensitive feathered tentacles can quickly retract inside a tube if the animal feels threatened. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Porcelain crabs have specialised front limbs with feather-like endings that they use to filter the water and feed on plankton. This one is filter feeding in the comfort and safety of fire coral. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Sponge brittle stars cling onto sponges, soft corals and gorgonians to seek refuge in space-limited environments but also to feed upon the organic matter found at their surface. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Reef urchins are herbivore creatures that play a key role in the maintenance of healthy coral reefs in the Caribbean. They help in the survival of coral by controlling and grazing fast spreading algae. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Today, the marine ecosystems of the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts of Panama face multiple threats ranging from non-stop boat traffic through the canal, to overfishing, climate change and plastic pollution. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Famous for its ability to puff up if threatened, guineafowl puffers, found in the Pacific, can also change appearance over time. Originally black with white spots, this one finally reached its golden stage of life. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Pacific crevalle jack are an important commercial fish in Panama. They are widespread in the tropical eastern Pacific and will form medium to large school as an anti-predation defence mechanism. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Despite being a dominant bycatch species in commercial fisheries and the lack of data regarding their population status in Central America, round stingrays are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. © Irene Mendez Cruz
The gorgeous and vivid red colour of the panamic cushion star gives it a characteristic look. In Panama, this species can be found around the Gulf of Panama, off of Coiba and Pearl Islands. © Irene Mendez Cruz
Whitetip reef sharks are extremely docile during the day but aggressive hunters at night when they scan the floor for bottom dwelling creatures, such as octopus, crabs, lobsters and bony fish. © Irene Mendez Cruz
This octopus, found in the surrounding waters of Coiba National Park, a UNESCO World heritage Site, is a true master of disguise. It is perfectly camouflaged to blend in against the volcanic ocean floor. © Irene Mendez Cruz
The impressive crown-of-thorns starfish can reach up to 1 metre in diameter and is covered in venomous spines. It voraciously predates on coral, which can have dramatic consequences on coral reef ecosystems. © Irene Mendez Cruz