Snorkeling at Coiba

The boat ride from Santa Catalina to Coiba National Park was the bumpiest boat ride of my life.  There was just enough space for 10 passengers and the driver.  We sat on hard unpadded seats, going at super high speeds and getting our necks yanked around.  We were told to watch for dolphins and whales, but it was so bumpy I don’t think anyone even stood a chance.  Halfway there, it started raining – at first soft, then hard.  After what seemed like forever, we pulled up on the beach at the visitors center/museum.  While the torrential downpour continued, we used the bathroom and explored the museum. 

I’m quite glad that we made the stop at the museum.  Reading about the site really increased my appreciation for what I was about to see.  Coiba is an incredibly special place.  It not only has protected status as a national park, but also as a UNESCO Special Zone of Marine Protection.  The majority of its acreage, both land and water, has remained untouched by humans for at least 500 years.  The park supposedly has some extraordinary hiking trails, however they are quite remote and difficult to get to.  For this reason, most visitors experience the park through snorkeling or scuba diving.

Coiba is part of the same island chain as the Galapagos, and like the Galapagos, has “exceptionally high levels of endemism of mammals, birds, and plants due to the ongoing evolution of new species” (whc.unesco.org).  My explanation can hardly do it justice, so I recommend visiting the numerous scientific websites that exist to get a better idea of just how special this ecosystem is.

On our tour, we snorkeled at 3 different sites.  The first site was a free-swim to explore at our own leisure, whereas the next two required the group to stay together and swim specific routes.  This was important because the current is actually very strong.  Throughout the three sites, we saw bioluminescent fish, several species of pufferfish, needlefish, reef sharks, Hawksbill sea turtles, and much much more.

My favorite moment was watching a young sea turtle fight with a pufferfish over a piece of food.  It actually swatted the fish with its flippers!  I did not bring an underwater camera so instead I sketched the scene afterward with colored pencils.

Unfortunately at one point I suddenly felt stinging all over my thighs and my left arm.  I twirled about wildly, trying to see whatever jellyfish had stung me.  I didn’t find out until later that I had inadvertently swam into a bloom of invisible stinging plankton!  I swam to shore and screamed for a moment, then I got over it and went back in the water.  The salt water actually eased the stinging, but my legs were covered in red welts.  They remained tender for the rest of that evening but were normal by the next day.  It was a small price to pay for the ability to spend a day in such a marvelous place.

In between snorkel sites 2 and 3, we stopped for lunch on an island.  The tour guides has packed large ham & cheese sandwiches – nothing too impressive, but sufficient.  We had a little bit of time to wander around the island examining the wildlife.  In some mucky water opposite the beach, a crocodile appeared.  Some kids started throwing it pieces of bread, which surprisingly the crocodile gladly snatched up.  We also saw a large lizard, beach vultures, and some Cara Caras.  The nature viewing was absolutely sensational.

I feel so lucky for having been able to experience Coiba.  I hope that Panama and the world continue to treasure and protect this incredible place for generations to come.

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