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Sunday, July 15, 2012 - Page updated at 07:00 p.m.
Beauty and the beasts in Panama park
By elaine Glusac
The New York Times
A loggerhead turtle swiveled its spotted head toward me, then disappeared beneath the waves as I slipped over the side of the boat with my snorkel, mask and fins. Instantly, a Technicolor underwater world revealed itself: pastel-patched parrotfish, big-eyed red squirrelfish and a school of purple finned sturgeonfish darting in and out of orange stag coral and purple sea fans. I followed a slow-moving grouper into deeper water and suddenly, swimming out of the depths, six white-tip sharks emerged, sending me thrashing in the boat's direction, calling for a lift out.
Coiba National Park in Panama, an isolated marine preserve 14 miles off the Pacific Coast, is a paradise for nature lovers, but it is not without its perils. Sharks, crocodiles and (gone but not forgotten) an infamous prison, all contribute to the frisson of danger one experiences in this bio-diverse park, whose boundaries encompass the 194-square-mile Isla Coiba, 38 other islands and more coral reefs than Panama's neighbors in the eastern Caribbean, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador.
Established in 1919 as an offshore penal colony, the islands held up to 1,300 offenders over the life span of the remote penitentiary. The prison began closing in 1990 to make way for Coiba National Park, founded in 1991. In 2005, the year the park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the last convict was released.
Between the prison and the preserve, Coiba, which is part of the same underground mountain chain that includes the Galápagos Islands, was never commercially developed, and more than 85 percent of the forest remains primary growth. The area has emerged as a rich laboratory for scientists studying coral, mammals and plants. Coiba's 760 species of fish, 33 kinds of sharks and 20 species of whales and dolphins plus rare birds like crested eagles and scarlet macaws appeal to travelers; no more than 60 guests are allowed each night.
A faraway place
Befitting a penal colony, Coiba is not easy to reach. No major tour operators, scheduled flights or ferries visit the island. Most tourists arrive on pangas, small outboard boats that depart from Santa Catalina, a surfers' town on the mainland, five hours from Panama City.
The boat ride alone is 90 minutes one way, meaning anyone seeking more than a cursory acquaintance with Coiba books overnight trips based at one of the six cabins at the island headquarters of the Autoridad Nacional Del Ambiente. The agency prohibits camping in the park to minimize human impact, and its cabins, really concrete bunkers, include private bathrooms.
The experience, featuring limited electricity, is far from pampering. Guides must pack in all food, water and generator fuel. The trips generally cost about $200 to $300 per person per night.
Ricardo Brady, a U.S. expatriate who owns Santa Catalina Boat Tours, takes tourists out to Coiba. Looking every bit the vagabond surfer in faded board shorts, his gray hair in a ponytail, he took me and my family in his 25-foot panga.
With the 60-horsepower engine at full throttle, we roared north up the rugged coast. It was a bone-jarring ride, but one alleviated by sightings of aerialist porpoises and flying fish that seemed to race the boat. Smaller islets ringed in blond sand preceded the much larger Coiba, whose mountainous profile soon filled the horizon.
As the shallower water turned turquoise, Ricardo announced we were in the park and suggested a stop at tiny Granito de Oro, a snorkeling spot where four tall palms picketed an apron of sand. Here we spied vivid Moorish idol fish and yellow puffer fish in the aquarium-like calm, supplanted by larger tuna as we rounded the rough windward side.
Soon, Victor, our watchful driver, urged us back into the boat, and we continued to Coiba for an inland exploration. Coiba has few hiking trails, but 15 navigable rivers allow access to the forest depths. As we made our way down one, mangrove trees I had seen elsewhere as bush-size soared into the sky, sending thirsty shoots down from 20 feet overhead.
Anchoring offshore, we waded to the ruined prison in Damas Bay, where the original 1919 prison, a concrete and now roofless warren of cells, sprouted weeds behind rusted iron bars. The jail was one in a series of buildings that included a hospital, a church and soldiers' barracks spread out beneath the palms.
Patrolling the eerie compound, a soldier in army fatigues with a knife tucked under his belt waved us in. Muttering, "La isla del diablo," he escorted us to a cellblock with poured concrete bunks behind corroded bars. He pointed to rotting offices up the hill, saying that was where the dictator Manuel Noriega had his enemies interrogated. Sharks, crocodiles and currents discouraged escapees, we were told.
After an hour we all felt the urge to flee and raced back to another deserted island, Rancheria, for a restoring sunset swim before heading to our accommodations at the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente station.
Spooky prison stories aside, crocodiles remain a deterrent to wandering off alone on Coiba. Although Tito, a croc who frequents the station, was nowhere in sight, we heard about him from the few other travelers gathered in the concrete dining pavilion, which, once the rangers switched on the generator, was lighted by a bare bulb. (The generator would remain on until sunrise, powering the air-conditioners that were unexpected luxuries in the cabins).
At daybreak, when howler monkeys shrieked from the trees and sunrise painted the glassy water pink, we waded out to Ricardo's boat and headed to an island where scarlet macaws feed. We drifted in beneath an almond tree grove where dozens of macaws spread rainbow-colored feathers as they flew from tree to tree.
Speeding on to the island of Afuera, we paused by cliffs topped by a lighthouse. . I jumped overboard in a cove. Below the surface, hundreds of bright fish schooled among the coral. A manta ray vanished behind waving sea fans. My husband and I swam to a point where larger fish — tuna and barracuda among them — swam. We fought to hold our positions, kicking against the current, when suddenly one, two, then six white-tip sharks swam into view, impelling us back to the boat.
It was a heart-stopping parting befitting the beautiful — and occasionally beastly — Coiba.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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