AdventureCentral AmericaPanamaScuba

Sunday, February 15: Coiba Island

Dive 1: Las Frijotes (The Beans)

Our first dive was to “The Beans”, where we saw a handful of white tipped sharks and some big eyed trevaly. It was lovely, easy dive with a gorgeous safety stop at a colorful pinnacle filled with so many fish it looked like an aquarium.

Rainbow Runners

Lovely pinnacle

Heaps and heaps of fish

Me, voguing and hamming it up for the camera. “America’s Next Top Model” – here I come.
Photo by Eric Cheng

After the dive I fell asleep in the shade of the upstairs deck for a very peaceful thirty-minute nap while people spoke French nearby and Latin music played overhead. And at some point during my snooze we were roused for our second dive.

Dive 2: La Viuda (The Widow)
This was – as E would say – “a dive through snot”. Not the nicest of terms but metaphorically accurate since the water was full of silt, algae, and small, long thin jellyfish that are relatively invisible until they are right in front of your eyes. This was a bad dive to choose not to wear my new gloves, since the exposed skin was an extra handicap and stung quite a few times. Slimy little buggers.

Shortly after we landed on the bottom the group located a massive long-tailed stingray laying in the sand – Photo op! Seconds later I discovered that I had descended with a dead battery in my camera. $#*)($*@!!! This happened a few times on Cocos, too, and I now vow that every morning I’ll remember to switch camera batteries when I wake up. Pinkie swear.

Big Old Ray
Photo by Eric Cheng

Underwater Papparazzi
Photo by Eric Cheng

I hovered above the giant ray and watched it surrounded by our four photographers and one videographer got their fill of shots. While I waited, Ben tapped my ankle and pointed to a little fish hidden in a fan coral: a long-nosed hawkfish. A rare find, though I didn’t know this until alter we discussed it over dinner.

We also found a number of frogfish and Eric took some lovely photos of a big yellow one against a coral almost as crazy-looking as the frogfish.

Frogfish, with me in the background
Photo by Eric Cheng

Crazy-looking frogfish from another angle
Photo by Eric Cheng

Eventually Ben pointed us in the direction of the second pinnacle and then went to locate James. E and I kicked across a sandy plane, and I need to take a moment here to laugh at how sometimes “speaking” through the regulator is an effective form of communication. Because when a tiny long thin jelly fish hit my upper lip I squeaked at the sharp pain and E heard me and covered his upper lip with his hand. We continued to swim, one hand on our cameras and another covering our lips from the clever little stingers. But we still couldn’t see the pinnacle. E made a series of noises through his regulator that I easily understood: “Uh uh uh uh uh?” (“Where are we going?”) And I replied through mine, “Uh uhuh.” (“I dunno.”)

This greatly amused me, especially since it did us no good when – 20 seconds later – I looked around and realized E was gone. In a matter of kicks in different directions we had lost each other. There was nothing around me but green muck, water, and a few rocks. I couldn’t see the faint silver of his tank, or his grey and black fins, or even the bubbles from his regulator. I was aaalllllll alone. The scuba rule for this situation is to look around for one minute and then slowly ascend to the surface where – if your buddy does the same – you’ll find each other again. But I knew Eric would continue the dive alone, ever in search of a great shot. Still, I looked around for a minute and then began to slowly ascend. Ten feet higher the green muck turned into pale blue, and there I saw two steady streams of bubbles coming out of the muck: Ben and James were on the pinnacle so I swam down and enjoyed the fish of pinnacle for the last ten minutes of our dive. A few minutes after we’d surfaced Eric and the rest of the group appeared and we all had a good laugh about lost buddies and overshooting pinnacles.

Eric had a headache from the morning dive, either because he was dehydrated or because he was skip-breathing (bad E) so he had a post-dive nap while I met the rest of the group for a lunch of octopus salad, fish, and potatoes. Otmar decided that he would take a group of interested parties to the Coiba Prison ruins – so I woke Eric, we loaded up on sunscreen, bugspray, and Oreos, and off we went.

Trip to the Prison
Coiba Prison, which was a high-security penitentiary from 1919 to 2004, is now a dilapidated series of structures used by the Panamanian Police simply for upkeep. There are three prisoners still on the island; but these are prisoners who are serving their last year of sentence and are assigned to Coiba as a reward for good behavior. Their work on Coiba generally includes some manual labor and upkeep, and probably gardening. It’s a nice place to serve your last term, if you ever find yourself in a Panamanian prison.

As interesting as the prison was, the best part of the story is how we got there. The panga ride to Coiba Prison was an hour boat through gorgeous islands and waterways, so naturally the cameras were snapping.

E and Me – self-portrait

Gorgeous islands

Interesting photo phact: E took my point-and-click camera and put his polarized sunglasses in front of the lens and had me take the picture above. This demonstrates what a “polarized lens” does for a camera – the blues and greens are so brilliant. I really need a better camera…

Partway to the prison we ran into Boris who sat in the middle of the water on the stalled zodiac. El Capitain Bernardo got it started again and we were all back on track. The reason Boris brought the zodiac is because the shore of Coiba Prison is too shallow for the panga, so we’d need to climb into the zodiac to get to the island itself. Unfortunately the zodiac broke down again just off the shore. There was a great deal of back-and-forth on the walkie-talkies, an attempt or two at mooring the panga on an old buoy, and finally they resorted to a more manual process. Boris and Chickie – a young 15 year old who didn’t know how to swim before his time on the Yemaya – climbed into the water and dragged the zodiac to shore.

Manual motors
This process amused the prison guards who had come to the beach to observe the entire 45 minute process, and we entertained ourselves by taking photos of diving pelicans. So though it was hot and slightly tiresome, it was worth every moment.

Pelicans, with guards in the background

Pelican lunchtime

Lovely pier

An armed but smiling guard gave us a tour of the old, overgrown prison structures. We also walked past the graveyard on the way to the Coiba Prison Aeropuerto (complete with with a cow).

Penal de Coiba

Crumbling hospital building

Guards – service with a smile

Nice penal view

Though not so luxurious

Prison Graveyard

Prison landing strip (with a cow waaaaaay down at the other end)


Post-Prison Hydration – By the time we’d ended our long, hot hike of the island, the zodiac was working again so we actually motored back to the panga in style.

The trip back to the Yemaya was during a sunset full of brilliant blues, oranges, yellows, and purples. It was so lovely that – even after we landed on the boat again – E and I took up position on the bow to quietly watch while the sun disappeared behind the islands and Venus shone bright.

Zodiac and sunset

The Yemaya at Sunset

Sunset from the bow of the boat. Venus is that bright light high in the sky

As peaceful and wonderful as that sounds and as refreshing as the follow-up shower was, I belatedly discovered that I’d missed a night dive. I LOVE night dives and was so sad that I missed the announcement. But this was easily assuaged by the knowledge that 80% of the group passed on the night dive and because the time allowed me to pepper James with questions about his fantastic humpback story.

Humpback Story:
A few years ago James Moskito – who runs a great white shark operation based out of San Francisco – received a call from his boat captain about a humpback whale entangled in crab lines. After many hours of phone calls to the appropriate approving authorities, James and his team had the okay to get into the water to free the humpback. He got into the water to assess the situation and soon realized that the poor whale was essentially hog-tied among 20 different crab trap lines. He approached the whale directly, carefully swimming toward her big eye so she could see him approach, and he gently stroked her skin as if to say, “It’s going to be okay… but you have to stay still.” He said she immediately stilled and let them do their work, which involved cutting miles of rope from her blubber, cutting into her skin to get to some of the deeper embedded rope, and even opening and climbing into her mouth to untangle the knots from her baleen. For hours she stayed quietly and patiently still, moving only when she needed to breathe. After they had completely freed her, she swam a few figure eights around the team and their boats, and then approached James from below and rose until she gently nudged his chest with the top of her head.

“Like a dog nudging you,” he said. “Saying ‘thank you’. And she went to each person in the water and nudged them. Then she went to the boat and the zodiac to give each of them a nudge. And then she came back around and did it again. And again. She probably nudged us each six or seven times. She was thanking us. We had a vet on board who of course can’t say that she was thanking us, but she was *thanking* us. It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

The story was picked up by the press within a few days. You can read about it here.

I can’t remember exactly what we had for dinner, but I can tell you that Juan Carlos’s tiramisu was one of the best I’ve EVER had. And I’ve had a lot of tiramisu at some fantastic restaurants. The evening ended as many of them do when I travel with Eric: he had opened his laptop to edit photos and – within minutes – a crowd of people gathered over his shoulder to see his pictures and ask questions about dive locations, experiences, and camera settings. At 11:30 I told them all goodnight and turned into bed.