Barro Colorado Island & Gatun Lake

Mar 16, 2019 - National Geographic Quest

Welcome to Central America, and welcome to the Panama! This is where one wakes to the sound of howler monkey and the Amazon parrots. Yesterday we did the first part of the Panama Canal by crossing the Gatun Locks, in three consecutive steps, which raised the National Geographic Quest 85 ft to the level of Gatun Lake. We dropped anchor outside the new set of locks in order to have a nice, restful night of sleep.

Today the crew repositioned the ship just a few miles south to position the ship in front of one of the most known and well-researched rainforests of the world. Barro Colorado Island (BCI) is a lush landmass totalling 3,750 acres in size. It was once part of a contiguous dense forest region but was cut off when the Chagres River was dammed in 1913. This was a vital step in the creation of the Panama Canal.

Its segmentation made this island an ideal choice for studying both tropical ecology and island biogeography. Since the 1940s, BCI is home to a research facility of world renown that is managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the island and surrounding peninsulas are one of the first biological reserves in the world.

In order to fully explore this place, we had the option of either walking through the forest or taking Zodiacs for a ride along the perimeters of this tropical paradise. As we landed to drop off those walking, a crowd of birds caught our attention. We followed them to find they were in the middle of constructing nests. Yellow-rumped caciques are in the weaver/oriole family, so it was really something getting to see them working on what would soon be their future homes. And from there the sightings kept coming: monkeys, anteaters, toucans…The Zodiac riders didn’t come up short either, getting to see an assortment of crocodiles, toucans, capuchin monkeys, and snail kites.

But the day was not finished, as we still had to cross Gatun Lake in order to reach the Pacific Locks from the Panama Canal. We did a later crossing, which actually was nice because it gave us a chance to appreciate night lights of Panama City. And so our first day of expedition went by through the magic of the rainforest and the wonders of the Panama Canal.

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About the Author

Margrit Ulrich


Affectionately called "Machita" ("Blondie"), Margrit is one of our most cosmopolitan guides with a family that hailed from Switzerland, France, and Germany before settling in Costa Rica's capital city San José where she was born and raised. Hence she blends the well-organized, perfectionist, and detailed personality of a Swiss watch with the easiness and effervescent enthusiasm of a simple tropical girl.

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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