Coiba Island, Granita del Oro
With barely a swell from the open Pacific, we traversed the rich and calm waters of the Gulf of Panama during the night, streaks of phosphorescence plankton surging off the bow. National Geographic Sea Lion arrived at Coiba Island in the early morning, putting down our anchor at Granito de Oro, a small but exquisite tropical islet just ¼ mile off the main island. Coiba and its complex of dozens of islands and offshore reefs are considered the jewels of the eastern Pacific. They have the finest and most intact reefs, unspoiled rainforests, and a high rate of endemism among animals that are unique to the islands. So special is Coiba that it has been designated a Panamanian National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation given to only a few special and important places on our planet. Coiba Island’s past human is history also dramatic, having been a prison for over 80 years, serving as a remote holding cell for 1,200 prisoners. Now, it’s been returned to its rightful inhabitants, the fauna and flora of this rich and special place.
Eager to explore our first Pacific reef, we landed on Granito de Oro where the kayaks readied for action. Some took the opportunity to paddle off and around the island in single and tandem boats, while others began their snorkeling adventure by swimming right off the beach to the nearby corals. The water, slightly tinged with the rich nutrients that make these reefs so productive, was warm and made snorkeling easy. Many fish, in a great assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors were abundant everywhere we looked. Some spotted a turtle, others a small shark, others trumpet fish, angelfish, puffers, and the vividly colored parrot fish of several species. When all were tallied, more than 46 fish species were seen, indicating the remarkable abundance of these waters.
After spending the morning on the islet, lounging, reading and enjoying the calm, we embarked back on the Sea Lion, raised the anchor and steamed a few miles to the main Coiba Island where we landed at the ranger station, one of two small settlements where government and navy personnel live and from where they protect this vast preserve that now covers hundreds of square miles of land and sea. Upon landing on a broad beach we were treated to a lunch that had been set up by the ship’s crew, complete with brownies for dessert. Black vultures lurked nearby, ready to hop forward for any scraps left behind, not nearly so elegant on the ground as they are when soaring.
Birding was easy, as a fig tree directly over our heads provided fruit for numerous species while simultaneously giving us shade. Orange-chinned parakeets, tanagers, flycatchers and others were seen on it branches. After lunch many of us took a bird walk around the grounds, seeing golden-napped woodpeckers, tiger herons, white-tipped doves and a multitude of other birds. The highlight of the walk was a beautiful 18-inch-long male Basilisk, also known as the “Jesus Christ lizard” for its habit of running furiously over the surface of the water when confronted with escaping a predator in hot pursuit.
After re-boarding the ship at 4:00pm we set our course for tomorrow’s next destination, Golfito Costa Rica. Carrying the great luck of the last few days along with us, we again encountered clear skies, calm and nearly windless waters as we moved north along the coast of western Panama, its coastal mountains appearing like a hazy blue apparition on the starboard horizon. After a late afternoon talk in the lounge on the historical geography of Central America and the Caribbean, we had a recap over drinks during which the naturalists showed us spectacular film that they had taken and edited today of our snorkeling adventures in the morning, allowing us to better understand, through their descriptions, what we had seen.
As the sun fell, the relative remoteness of this coast became apparent: few lights of towns and settlements broke the darkness. As the night became whole, the stars in their immense profusion came out with a vengeance. Although tropical humidity often makes star gazing difficult, we were lucky tonight and the firmaments seemed to be so close as if allowing us to reach out and touch them.