Barro Colorado Island and Panama Canal Island, 1/23/2023, National Geographic Quest
National Geographic Quest
Costa Rica, Panama & Colombia
We did our first set of locks of the Panama Canal right after we got on board yesterday, and today we had our first full day of the trip. We did the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean end, where we were elevated 85 feet above sea level to reach Gatun Lake.
This morning, we paused our transit of the canal to explore Barro Colorado Island. The biggest mountaintop became an island when they built the lake, and it has been a protected tropical rainforest ever since. Nowadays, the area is run by the Smithsonian Institute. It is one of the most studied tropical rainforests on the planet.
After our morning activities, we were ready to continue our Panama Canal Crossing.
Federico Chacón, or “Fico” as he is better known by his friends, started guiding one-day nature tours on weekends and holidays at the age of 18 right at the time he started studies at the University of Costa Rica. It was just a part-time job, that wa...
The last day of our expedition exploring Costa Rica and Panama began with a lovely sunrise. The first sunrays revealed the lush tropical rainforest of Barro Colorado Island. Howler monkeys howled in the distance to announce their foraging area and ensure that no other troop would disturb them. Right after breakfast, we geared up to explore the Smithsonian Tropical Research Field Station. The station is located on what was once the highest peak of the valley of the Chagres River. After they dammed the river to create Gatun Lake, the peak became the lake’s largest island with a large diversity of plants and wildlife. We had a great morning exploring the island’s trails and their surroundings. Wildlife sightings brought joy to each of our guests. We learned about the different research done in the field station. In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to explore part of Gatun Lake. We were all impressed, knowing that the islet in the lake used to be hilltops. We explored little coves in the lake, and we enjoyed all that Mother Nature had for us to see. It was a great way to conclude our expedition this week!
In the early morning, we arrived to the Otoque, Bona and Estiva Islands near the entrance to the Panama Canal. On Zodiacs, we circumnavigated this important nesting site for magnificent frigatebirds, brown pelicans, and brown boobies. At this time of year, trade winds blow harder across the low, narrow isthmus of Panama, particularly around the canal. This effectively creates Panama’s dry season while causing an upwelling of cold waters, which brings up nutrients to feed plankton, then small fish, and then larger fish. The higher abundance of fish at this time of the year makes it a good place for birds to nest and raise chicks. The presence of so many birds created a feast for our eyes and for our cameras. Later in the afternoon, we proceeded to our appointment to cross the Panama Canal. This masterpiece of engineering that was built over a hundred years ago is the grand finale of our adventures in Central America.
Our adventure in Costa Rica was incredible, and today we woke up on the pristine, turquoise waters of Coiba National Park in Panama. The sunrise gave us quite a show as we enjoyed the sound of birds and a good cup of coffee at the beginning of our day. We dropped anchor at Canales de Afuera. With its white sand beach and lots of hermit crabs, it was the perfect place to enjoy a full morning of snorkeling. We were ready to get in the calm, clear water. It only took five minutes for somebody to say, “Look! There’s a turtle!” It was a good-sized hawksbill sea turtle. The excitement of several people was one of the most memorable moments of our day. The sea turtle was busy eating chunks of sponges. We talked about the diet of these reptiles, which includes a variety of species, including anemones, jellyfish, crustaceans, mollusks, and fish. The turtle is considered one of the reef’s important predators. We spotted a whitetip reef shark under a brain coral, and we enjoyed observing a green pufferfish and several soldierfish. We also found a crown of thorns, a starfish that feeds on hard or stony coral polyps. They are considered among the largest starfish in the world. Our day went fast, and we had a lot of fun visiting the archipelago formed by 38 islands and islets. It was an incredible excursion. Coiba National Park is one of Panama’s jewels. It is such a beautiful place, and it left us mesmerized.