Barro Colorado Island and the Panama Canal

Dec 14, 2018 - National Geographic Quest

The last day of our trip found us anchored just off one of the most important Neotropical research stations in the world, Barro Colorado Island (BCI).  After the damming of the Chagres River to create the passageway of the Canal in 1914, the Gatun Lake covered most of the flooded area, 160 square miles, and at the same time formed a few “islands and islets” within the lake.  BCI is the largest of them all and has been run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as a research station since 1923.  Most of the world’s known information about the seasonally dry rainforest has come from this particular institute. 

We had two ways to explore it, via Zodiac or on foot, walking the trails of the main research area. We had a third option for those who did not want to explore BCI: the tropical rainforest aerial tram. Off we went on our different excursions, and all of them paid off.  We came back with reports of monkeys, toucans, American crocodiles, moorhens, jacanas, parrots, agoutis, coatis, and brocket deer.  The most amazing part of navigating the lake waters was to enjoy the forest views, and all of a sudden a giant Panamax vessel laden with thousands of containers silently makes its way between the evergreen tree branches!

After coming back from the hikes and after a wonderful lunch, the third pilot of our trip arrived, at 1:00 p.m. sharp, and began repositioning us further north towards the Gatun Locks, the last three locks before exiting into the Caribbean Sea.  With unbeknownst good luck, we began our transit right at 2:00 p.m. and we had a magnificent view of the working of the locks, locomotives, rowboats, tugboats and our companion vessel in the locks.  If this was not enough, as we exited the last set of locks and the Caribbean Sea opened to us, a final gust of wildlife faced us:  cocoi herons, a great blue heron, a group of black vultures feeding on a dead crocodile and a large American crocodile just on the bank of the waters. 

We could not have asked for a better ending to our transit.  With an incredible set of memories, stories, and feelings, we wrap up this fantastic neotropical trip until our next adventure.  

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About the Author

Isabel Salas Vindas


Isa Salas is a Costa Rica born biologist, who loves her country and teaching about it.  Known for her professionalism and experience in the field of animal behavior, Isa earned her master's degree in biology from the University of Costa Rica, where she also engaged in research for the chemistry and biology departments. Isa has carried out specialized projects on mantled howler monkeys for Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio), and is one of the country’s experts on howler monkey sexual and social behavior. 

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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