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Fish Story : This Summer, as He Has for 10 Years, Marine Biologist Bob Warner Will Journey to the Tiny Man-Made Island of Ukkup Tupo to Watch His Research Subjects Change Sex

May 03, 1987|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.

THE WARM SEA, THE PALM TREES ON the horizon, the mighty breakers crashing on the beach . . . hold on, forget that last part. That's back in Santa Barbara, where Bob Warner, a marine biologist at the University of California, lives most of the year. No, this is Ukkup Tupo, a Panamanian island that isn't on any map. There aren't any mighty breakers on this shore, and there's no beach either. This island, for which Bob Warner gives up his Cape Cod-style house in Santa Barbara every summer, rises just inches above sea level. You'd have to call it organically artificial: It was created by Kuna Indians, who dragged in the necessary sand in their dugout canoes.

Warner, a bearded scientist with a sense of humor, was drawn to Ukkup Tupo because of his interest in the reason that fish change sex, a subject he has pursued since his graduate-student days at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the early '70s. Scientists had known of the peculiar phenomenon since about 1930. In some species, all fish are born female, becom-ing male if they live long enough to reach a certain size. There are also species in which males become females. How they do this wasn't the question. Fish are pretty simple creatures, and changing sex is a minor retooling of their physiology. What mattered was why . Warner hypothesized that sex change is an evolutionary response to their inherited mating patterns.

When he finished at Scripps, Warner received a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama in order to work in the San Blas Islands, where Ukkup Tupo is located. It was the perfect place for his research: an archipelago on the north coast of Panama, protected by a barrier reef, out of the hurricane path, full of postage-stamp coral islands. The water is 82 degrees the year around and crystal-clear. "It's like having an aquarium," Warner says, "without the trouble of maintaining it."

If it is a place apart, it is inhabited by a people apart--the Kunas. They have the highest rate of albinism in the world and are among the world's shortest people (most stand under five feet). Legally they are Panamanians, but as a result of a series of rebellions they are virtually autonomous. They govern themselves by a sort of nationwide parliament, the congreso , that convenes every three or four months. In the interim, each village holds a congreso every night, a combination of town meeting, gossip-fest and party.

The Kunas fascinate anthropologists. Not only do they have a close social life, but they are aggressive entrepreneurs as well. They will gladly pose for photos, but it will cost you 25 cents a shot, every shot. They don't have much else to sell but molas , the famous blouse panels the women make using a technique of reverse applique. They stack and sew together several bright pieces of cloth and then spend weeks creating designs by artfully cutting through the upper layers to expose the colors of the cloth below. When a tourist ship coming from the Panama Canal docks at Carti, one of the larger Kuna islands, dugout canoes from all over the archipelago swarm there to sell molas .

The Kunas are basically a serious people who don't smoke or drink, but whenever a girl reaches puberty, they celebrate with a fiesta that involves not only secret ceremonies but also a three-day blowout of eating, smoking tobacco and drinking chicha , the local sugar-cane wine. "He who does not get drunk on chicha at the fiesta," a Kuna proverb says, "will not enter into the house of Baba Dummad, God the Father." When a fiesta is on, the Kunas drink with religious intensity and a surprising degree of organization. One morning is the specific time for the old women to get drunk; the afternoon is the men's shift.

A couple of years after Bob Warner arrived in the San Blas Islands, in the mid-'70s, a Kuna named Juan Garcia figured that the Smithsonian researchers were there to stay and decided to build a private island to rent to them.

How do you build an island? You fill a dugout canoe with sand, broken coral (which looks rather like Cheetos and which the Kunas call chiwi ) and hanks of sea grass. You dump the mixture in a shallow spot. Half the sand washes away almost immediately, but you keep bringing more sand and more chiwi and more sea grass, and some rocks to anchor the edges. This is how Ukkup Tupo, also known as Sandy Island, came into being.

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