Barro Colorado Island, The Panama Canal

Dec 10, 2017 - National Geographic Quest


A cup of coffee on deck in the cool of the pre-dawn tropics, listening to the resonant calls of howler monkeys on Barro Colorado Island (BCI) is close to the perfect beginning to a day.  Add in a golden sunrise and the incongruity of massive, heavily laden container ships passing silently through the nearby navigation channel of the Panama Canal, and it reaches perfection.

Our goal this morning is to explore BCI, home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Once a hilltop, this 38,000 acre plot became isolated as an island when the Chagres River was dammed to form Gatun Lake, the source of water that fuels the Panama Canal.  Because of its location and island status, BCI is an ideal tropical biological laboratory, which the Smithsonian has operated here since 1923. We explore by foot and by Zodiac.  Hikers enter into the heart of the rainforest; Zodiac cruisers have a panoramic view from the lake.  Howler monkeys, a coatimundi (an omnivore relative of raccoons) and agoutis are spotted, as are toucans and trogons.

Back on board for the afternoon, a pilot from the Panama Canal Authority embarks to guide National Geographic Quest through the remainder of the canal—Gatun Lake, the Culebra Cut, Pedro Miguel Lock, Miraflores Lake, and the two Miraflores locks.  We enter the navigational channel at one p.m.  The view from the dining room is perfect.  By four p.m. we enter the Pedro Miguel lock which we share with three other vessels.  We transit as a foursome through the two locks at Miraflores as well.  Along the way, Lindblad-National Geographic naturalist Gabe Ortiz provides commentary about the history and operation of this engineering marvel. 

It is a fine day for bird watchers.  A sampling of sightings includes magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, great-blue herons, great egrets, black-bellied whistling-ducks, black vultures, and a peregrine falcon.

We emerge into the Pacific near sundown, pass under the Bridge of the Americas and into the Gulf of Panama where we spend the night in preparation for tomorrow’s explorations of the Pearl Islands.

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About the Author

Larry Prussin

Expedition Leader

Larry has been a naturalist for more than 35 years.  His experience includes extensive work in environmental education in Ohio, Vermont and Yosemite National Park where he was program director for the Yosemite Institute.  He has been a ranger at Mohican State Park, Lehman Caves National Monument, and Glacier Bay National Park where he first met up with Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic in 1990.

About the Photographer

José Calvo

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Nicknamed “Indio” (Indian) because of his powers of observation and quiet nature, José has almost two decades of experience working as a naturalist and photography guide; as well as being recognized as an expert birder and nature photographer in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is rich in biodiversity — over 893 bird species have been recorded in the country. Since very young José spent all of his free time in the outdoors in the forest, where he soon fell in love with the birds. He particularly enjoys listening to their calls, and watching their behavior. Oddly enough, another one of Jose’s passions is science and technology, and because of this, he was among the first in Costa Rica to experiment with digital photography. As the technology quickly improved so did his love for it.  He truly believes that nature photography is the perfect combination of both of his passions.

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