Like a mermaid on an underwater picnic, she floats gently in the current as slivers of sunlight reveal a garden of corals in the Golfo Dulce, in southern Costa Rica. Holding a basket filled with round, spiked corals, she collects one last specimen, then begins her ascent. As she breaks the surface, Socorro Avila, a research assistant who grew up on this gulf, joins Joanie Kleypas and Tatiana Villalobos – two more mermaids – and they swim towards the boat that idles nearby.
The three scientists deliver their bounty, passing round, spiked corals into the waiting boat. Handling each piece requires patience — some trail along a clear fishing line, while others twist into woven strands of a rope. As they untangle each precious item, the corals’ branches jostle, tinkling like porcelain dolls colliding. The team board the boat, doff their scuba gear, and head further into the gulf — one step closer to understanding these mysterious species.