Panama Pacific Coast 2010

N 07° 35' W 81° 42'

Worth every penny

May 16, 2010

Being a national park it is not surprising that there are entrance- and anchoring-fees associated with Coiba and the surrounding islands.  Some cruisers are reluctant to pay such fees on principle feeling, I suppose, that if they get no services in return why should staying at this place be different from other free anchorages.  Others are put off by the high price of these fees and we had heard widely differing accounts of how much one might be expected to pay.  Unless you anchor near or go to the park headquarters, the likelihood of being visited by a ranger asking for fee payment is relatively low in most of the anchorages, so some cruisers seem to regard visiting the islands as a bit of a gamble, sometime you will have to pay, sometimes you will not.

Once we decided to leave Isla Jicaron and go to the northeast part of Isla Coiba, we knew that we would be very likely to see a park ranger.   But that was all right because we had already decided to visit the park headquarters and pay for our visit anyway.  We would pay entrance- and camping-fees in national parks on land without question so we did not think that it should be different here, especially as the fees are probably important contributions to paying for the park’s protection.  Still, since we did not know exactly how much we would be charged we were a bit concerned not to stay too many nights before we found out.  Since our first two anchorages had not been as interesting as we had hoped we were also ready to get some guidance from the park rangers about the best places to snorkel.

We left Isla Jicaron on Saturday morning (May 15th) and were able to sail in a good breeze for most of the rest of our anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Coiba.  We had debated about stopping in Bahía Damas on the SE side of the island where a large coral reef is described in our books.   However, one of the charts indicated that area was reserved for scientific research and permission was needed to anchor near there so we decided that we would ask the rangers about that for future reference.  As we passed the north end of that bay, we could see the rather depressing remains of the main prison camp, which despite its beach-side location could certainly not be confused with a Butlins (a chain of British holiday camps).

Randall had suggested stopping on the northeast side of Coiba near the tiny islet of Granito de Oro where our cruising guide suggested there was “absolutely amazing snorkeling”.  Although the anchorage just north of the islet seemed rather exposed, the weather stayed calm and we discovered that the snorkeling around the islet was, well, absolutely amazing. 

With a white-sand beach, black rocks, and a few small trees the islet itself was very cute and even where we had anchored in deeper water (40ft -12m deep to keep away from any coral) the water clarity was good enough to just make out the sandy bottom.  So once anchored we quickly launched the dinghy and motored into the islet to go snorkeling.  But just as we were dropping the dinghy anchor on the sand inside the reef, a park boat appeared with two rangers and two young assistants and they came over to see us.  They were very friendly and were happy when we said that we would stop at the office the next day to pay our fees.  We were told it would cost $20 per person for the entrance fee and $30 per night to anchor so that was not too bad.  They wished us well with our snorkeling, saying that it was very good there and headed back north to their office.

Randall waded ashore to read the welcome sign and park rules for the islet.  The only unexpected one was the suggestion to wear sufficient clothing for sun protection or use non-oil-based sunscreens to help protect the coral.  Luckily we had some of those.  There was even an aerial photograph of the islet with various snorkeling routes marked so this was clearly a popular destination.  And then we found out why.

It was such a joy to be in the clearest water we had seen in the Pacific.  As soon as we approached the flat coral reef just off the beach we started to see species of fish that were new to us including clown razorfish, Pacific razor fish, Mexican goatfish, yellow-fin mojarra, Pacific creolefish, reef hawkfish ,and the vivid Guineafowl or golden puffer.  This fish can be black with white spots like a Guineafowl or in its golden phase is a very bright yellow that is visible from a long distance (being highly toxic it can afford to be conspicuous).   Then as we rounded the rocky north end of the islet there was more variety of corals and many species of fish including our old friends the parrotfish, flag cabrillas, sergeant majors, giant damselfish, king angelfish, barberfish, and many others.  But the most amazing new discovery for us were the extraordinary Moorish Idols which look a bit like a butterfly fish but are actually have a whole family of their own.  They paid very little attention to us so we could get quite close and examine their bold and complex markings (look up a picture on the internet…they are wild!)  I am now intrigued to see the animated film “Finding Nemo” again to see if there is one represented in it because I am sure that I saw one there before but I did not believe that it was based on a real fish.

As we finished our short, late-afternoon snorkel we were passed by a small white-tipped reef shark which kept a respectful distance from us.  Other than a nurse shark that we saw at Isla Bayoneta in Las Perlas, this is the first shark we have seen snorkeling in the Pacific but this has likely been a function of poor water clarity and just not seeing the sharks rather than not having been around them before.  We both agreed that we like clear water and being able to see our snorkeling companions much better.

In considerably higher spirits, we settled down for the evening and watched a small cruise-ship, The Pacific Explorer (perhaps up to 150 passengers) as it came around from near the park headquarters to anchor just south of our islet.  We were not sorry to have their company overnight and as it worked out they took over the islet with snorkeling, kayaks, and beach activities the next morning while we went inland so we did not interfere with each others’ activities.

When we visited the Park Headquarters on the main island we were greeted by the ranger who had talked to us the previous afternoon and he was very friendly and helpful.  According to our boat length, the anchoring fees could have been $60 a night (which would have been a bit steep) but we think we got the lower rate of $30 because we were staying for multiple nights (our Spanish could keep up with the fee outcome but not the whole explanation).  We looked around the small Visitors’ Center which had interesting descriptions of the islands’ and park’s histories and then, we walked along a couple of trails including a steep one up the hill (maybe 600ft, 200m high) overlooking the bay and the Park Headquarters.  Although we did not see the famous scarlet macaws or king vultures that survive on Coiba, just as we were setting off on the trails we did get close looks at some large iguanas, a bare throated tiger-heron (which obligingly stretched it neck and wings for us to get an excellent view), a white-throated capuchin monkey, an endemic Coiba Howler monkey, and an endemic Coiba agouti.

By the time we returned to Tregoning the Pacific Explorer was getting ready to leave so in the late afternoon we had a short snorkel on the southwest side of the islet.  Although it had been gloriously sunny during our hikes (which fortunately were mostly under tree canopies) the afternoon had become cloudy but with such clear water even the absence of direct sunlight did not spoil our explorations.  We saw at least one turtle (probably a hawksbill) on this snorkel and had seen several coming to the water’s surface to breath while we were on Tregoning.

The following morning we set off for our third and final snorkel at Granito de Oro and for this we planned no less than a circumsnorkel off the whole islet and associated rocks.  Actually, we had no choice about the latter because being low tide the links between all the outlying rocks and the main islet were exposed so it was quite a long swim.  Still, the visibility remained spectacular and the fish where plentiful and patient with our presence.  We saw several white-tipped reef sharks cruising around the edge of the deeper water and Randall saw one other species that looked bigger and less streamlined, perhaps a bull shark.  Although they kept our attention as we swam along the steeper sections of reef that dropped off into deeper water, these individual sharks are presumably very used to people in this location and, much to our relief, they showed no threatening behavior.  But we did make a mental note to avoid snorkeling at dawn and dusk when they are more likely to be feeding…there are limits to how close we wish to encounter the wildlife.

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