Coiba separated from continental Panama about 12,000 to 18,000 years ago when sea levels rose. Plants and animals on the new island became isolated from mainland populations and over the millennia most animals have diverged in appearance and behavior from their mainland counterparts. The island is home to many endemic subspecies, including the Coiba Island howler monkey, the Coiba agouti, and the Coiba spinetail, all of which we hope to see during our Panama and Costa Rica cruise along the Pacific coast of southern Central America.
There are several theories as to the origin of the name “Coiba.” From maps drawn in the 17th century, we know the island was named “Cobaya.” Later charts show different names or indistinct combinations, but “Coiba,” the term today accepted, has a direct relationship to the “Caicique Quiebo,” or the Coiba Cacique Indians who lived on the island until about 1560, when they were conquered by the Spanish and forced into slavery. The name Coiba, however, was not restricted to solely the island, as chroniclers and conquistadors of the Spanish-American period also used this to refer to a province on the mainland inhabited by “Indios cuevas.”
Only a few references to Coiba can be found for the first few centuries of her written history, but we know famous pirates such as Hawkins, Dampier, and Sharp used the island as a refuge along with the other islands in the Gulf of Panama such as Otoque, Taboga, and Pacheca which we also visit on our Central America cruise.
In 1919 a penal colony was established on Coiba, beginning a new era which lasted nearly a century, ending only as recently as 2005. In 1920 the lands of Coiba were declared not available for purchase, and any private lands to be turned over to the government by expropriation, sale or private arrangement of the owners. The penal colony was maintained practically unaltered by the passage of time over the decades and into the 21st century, with a population of prisoners that varied, but once reached into the thousands.
A new role for Coiba opened with the declaration of the island as a National Park on December 17, 1991. As early as 1995 the government began a gradual reduction in the size of the penal colony, with the long-term plan of complete removal of all prisoners. This has, indeed, happened.
Coiba National Park total area extends over 270,125 hectares (1,042 square miles), of which 53,528 hectares (206 square miles) is land and the remaining 216,543 hectares (836 square miles) is marine reserve. Apart from the main island of Coiba, the park includes around eight smaller islands in the immediate surrounding area.
Extensive pristine and fragile mangrove forests, rivers, and rainforest now make up the island itself. Entering estuaries by Zodiac during our Panama and Costa Rica cruise, we cruise the still waters while herons, egrets, bat falcons, howler monkeys and iguanas perch, hang and hide in the trees. Tiny coconut-palmed islets off the main island (such as we visit on our Panama and Costa Rica cruise - one named “Granito de Oro”) invite us to don snorkeling equipment or use a kayak to peer through the clear waters and look onto the coral reefs and rich marine habitats surrounding us. Indeed, Coiba is surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific Coast of the Americas.
Coiba’s unique location has given rise to an extraordinary biodiversity not only on land, but in its marine life as well. In the past, this area had an ancient connection with the Caribbean Ocean, as evidenced by related species found in both bodies of water; it is presently situated where several ocean currents mix, both warm and cool, consequently harboring life forms from both. During some times of the year when the waters are at their coolest, Coiba acts as a corridor and gathering ground for some of the large pelagic species such as manta rays, yellowfin tuna, marlin, swordfish, and whale sharks, not to mention humpback whales, orcas and more who often show up during our time spent around Coiba on our Central America cruise. Frequently the Pacific spotted dolphins come to ride our bow as we approach the island, anxious to arrive and start our explorations both above and below the cerulean sea.
In Panama’s Coiba National Park scientists from Panama and the U.S. working together have discovered 45 new chemicals extracted from corals, sponges, fungi, and bacteria that show great promise as cures for cancer and a wide range of tropical diseases. In fact the cyanobacteria—also known as blue-green algae—have yielded Coibamide A, a compound extremely active against cancer cells, named for Coiba. Veraguamide A, an anti-cancer compound named after the Panamanian province of Veraguas and Santacruzmate, an anti-parasitic compound named after the island, Santa Cruz.
The entire Coiba National Park was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005 in acknowledgement of its importance in many dfferent respects, but also as part of a marine corridor that runs from the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica all the way to the Galapagos in Ecuador.
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