June 12, 2009
Leaving Randall aboard Tregoning in San Andrés, on Tuesday morning (June 9th), I flew to Panama City to catch up with one of my very good friends from Gainesville, Kaoru. The only slight hitch in my journey was that I had not understood the announcement at the departure gate in San Andrés airport when they had told us to purchase our Tourist Cards for Panama. Luckily, when I arrived without it at the immigration desk in Panama City, it was a relatively simple procedure to go to the Copa Airlines baggage office where I could buy one for $5. On my return trip to San Andrés, I learned from this experience and kept asking where I could get the card for Colombia ($17) until the appropriate person showed up at the departure gate to sell them. It is basically a tourist tax but I knew that I would need the card for when we departed from San Andrés by boat.
Randall was really abandoned while I was away because Sea Star and Wind Song left on Wednesday morning to sail to Cayo Albuquerque about 25 miles south of San Andrés. Several other boats left as well so he must have started to feel pretty lonely in the harbor. We plan to catch up with Sea Star and Wind Song over the next few days, if they are still snorkeling in Albuquerque, if they have moved to the Nicaraguan Corn Islands, or once we sail into one of the coastal areas of Panama.
Once I left the Panama City airport, following Kaoru’s instructions I got a taxi to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) at Ancon, their main campus in Panama City. We met at the auditorium to attend a seminar and I was impressed with the large number of people in attendance. There are a few researchers and many support staff who work full-time at STRI but being the beginning of the summer semester at many US universities the population of researchers and students visiting STRI had recently increased. From there, Kaoru and I and her graduate student, Gerard (I’m sorry if I spelled it incorrectly) drove to Gamboa to the house of a good friends and colleagues of Kaoru, Joe and Helene. They were very gracious hosts living in one of the many large houses that were built by the Americans for staff who worked on the Panama Canal. Gamboa is inland of Panama City (which is at the Pacific end of the Canal) at the southern entrance of the Canal into Gatun Lake. The latter is an artificial lake created by the damming of the Chagres River through which the Canal runs. The headwaters of the river are in the hills near Gamboa and the dam and mouth of the river are on the Caribbean side of the lake. One of the islands in this lake, Barro Colorado Island (BCI), was a hill top that was isolated by the creation of Gatun Lake and is run as the main research site for STRI. Access is strictly regulated and there are many long-term research plots on the island. This was where Kaoru had been conducting various research projects over the last 24 years and was one of the main attractions of my visit, apart, of course, from seeing Kaoru!
Kaoru hosted a delicious dinner (including vegetarian sushi) for 8 people on Tuesday night and we then got up early on Wednesday to catch the STRI boat from Gamboa to BCI. The boat was full of workers, many of whom slept on the trip but I was very excited as this was my first passage along part of the Panama Canal. Once we arrived and Kaoru had shown me some of the facilities on site, we set off for a fairly long hike across most of the island. It rained on and off but once we were under the thick, rainforest canopy it was not too wet although it was steamy hot. The well used trails were protected from erosion by concrete block stepping stones and stairs and they were well marked, so it did not exactly feel very wild underfoot but the protection that the research site has afforded the animal populations means that there were plenty of creatures to see. After lunch we climbed a very tall observation tower (which was narrow and swaying a bit so not for the faint of heart) which gave us excellent views over the tree canopy and the Canal channel through the lake.
During our hike and climb we saw howler monkeys, red-tailed squirrels, and agoutis (large, tail-less and small-eared rabbit-like rodents), a brightly colored poison dart frog, and numerous birds. The latter included keel-billed toucans. red-lored Amazon parrots, spotted antbirds, crested guans (almost turkey-sized birds high in the trees), tinamous (chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds), and a large, very white raptor which might have been a grey hawk. We continued our bird-watching back in Gamboa that evening and the next morning when Kaoru and I walked up an observation tower that had spectacular views of the Canal and the headwaters of the Chagres River. Additional birds that we saw included: collared aracari (a small toucan), various tanagers and fly catchers, blue dacnis, a violaceous trogon, and several yellow-rumped caciques which build colonies of nests that hang down from tree branches. Amazon parrots proved to be quite noisy in the residential areas in the mornings and evenings so they reminded me of the morning chorus of chickens in Jamaica. I also saw some tamarin monkeys in Gamboa and as we returned from the tower there, we crossed a couple of columns of leaf-cutter ants, laboriously carrying their relatively huge pieces of leaves back to their nests. The residents of the neighborhood were also excited when some huge (6 inch-long) brightly colored caterpillars were noticed on one of the shrubs. I never did learn their name but they were impressive and presumably produced a large moth or butterfly.
Of course, as a talented botanist, Kaoru showed me many, many of the amazing plants of the area including the various Psychotria species that she is studying (how can so many species in the same genus closely co-exist in the forest?) and the tree upon which she had started her graduate work 24 years ago. The latter, Tachigalia veriscolor is a suicidal species in that each tree only flowers once and then dies. There is some synchrony to the flowering (about 20% of the mature population flower at the same time) and maturity is only reached when the tree is quite large. This is an unusual life pattern and Kaoru has been monitoring the growth of seedling that germinated after a particular flowering event in 1987. Some of these 24 year-old seedling were only 12 – 24 inches tall so they are incredibly slow-growing and can tolerate great shade, waiting patiently for a gap to open up in the forest canopy. I had heard Kaoru talk about this research so it was very interesting to see the plants and places to which she had devoted so much time.
I had a splendid time during my two full days in Panama and I tried to learn many things that I could pass along to Randall and the others when we eventually get there by boat. It was very interesting to see what parts of the Panama Canal would be like and we saw several ships and one sailboat pass through. The water was very muddy as they are doing a lot of dredging in anticipation of widening the canal but it will be a major task to widen the locks. We finished my visit with a delicious buffet dinner for Kaoru, Sachi (her 13 year-old daughter), Gerard and me at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve Resort on Thursday night and then I was delivered to the airport on Friday morning for an uneventful return to San Andrés. It was not only very good to see my wonderful friend Kaoru but the trip really made me excited about the prospect of our longer visit to Panama in the coming weeks.
Photos to follow when we next have internet access…which could be a little while from now…