31 January, 2017

The Panama Coast...

Isla Bona
Isla Bona is a small unihabited island in the Golfo de Panama due south of Panama City , near the island of Otoque. Bona has huge bird colonies which its larger neighbour lacks, because a fishing village there has introduced domestic predators such as dogs, cats and rats.

From DIBs launched frtom the stern of Sea Lion, we were able to get close to Bona where we saw close-up brown pelicans, magnificent frigate birds and blue footed boobies in great numbers, plus quite a number of crabs! Conditions were very windy and quite rough, but we managed to keep our cameras fairly dry if not ourselves. Eric, our DIB pilot, skillfully manoeuvred the DIB to give us good close up views allowing naturalist Margrit to give excellent commentary. It was an excellent if wind-blown and splashy outing, and some nice photos follow.

Brown Booby.

Cheerful bunch of fellow expeditioners in their DIB.

Female magnificent frigatebird.

Male magnificent frigatebird.

Great interest in this fishing boat.

Here's where we clamber up onto the Sea Lion from the DIBs.

Isla Iguana
Weather was perfect as we headed just west of south to cross the Golfo de Panama, so we could round the Peninsula de Azuero and head west towards Costa Rica. Many passengers took the opportunity to read and sunbake. Dolphins enjoyed this long journey too, and we saw many chasing the Sea Lion and surfing in its bow wave.

Isla Iguana is a tiny island on the way, only a spot on the map, and we stopped there for an afternoon's R&R. The Sea Lion can only visit here a high tide. Windy and rough, there was a lot of spray and a wet landing, but luckily we were all equipped for swimming, so no harm done.

There is a very pleasant, sandy beach (with lots of tiny hermit crabs scampering around) where we swam, and a small reef 100m offshore to practice our snorkelling. The swimming was delightful on this hot day, the snorkelling was hampered by not very clear water and not many fish either. Everyone learned how to use their gear though.

Lindblad probably get into trouble if they lose anyone, so they enforce strong safety precautions on the beach. Whenever anyone is in the water, there is a lifeguard waist deep, and there's a safety DIB on duty patrolling the snorkellers.

Washed up on Isla Iguana.

What made this location fascinating was the hundreds of magnificent frigate birds swirling overhead, taking advantage of the strong breeze. The ship's doctor, who doubles as a resident orntithologist, tried to count the birds aloft, reckoning on about 500. There is a rookery behind the dunes.
Coiba National Park
After an overnight passage, we called into Coiba National Park. This is newly declared, and the only bigger marine national parks are the Great Barrier Reef Park and Galapagos National Park. Lindblad need a permit to visit here.

Some little boat had beaten us to our intended morning destination, so we scuttled off to Rancheria Beach for the morning. This proved to be an idyllic location, we swam, kayaked and stand-up paddle boarded.

Taking to the stand-up paddle board like a pro, at Isla Rancheria.

View of the white Isla Rancheria beach from a kayak.

Chilling out at Isla Rancheria.

Boats on the beach.

In the afternoon we scooted (maybe 2km) to a tiny island, Granito de Oro, a little grain of gold. It lived up to its name. The snorkelling here was fabulous, indeed its website claims Granito to be one of the 10 best dive sites in the world. Regardless, the water was crystal clear, the fish were varied, and it was maybe 2-3m deep. We were able to snorked right around the little island.

Hundreds of Panamic Sergeant Majors at Granito de Oro.

Bicolor Parrotfish.

Unknown fish species at Granito de Oro.

Moorish Idol.

Coming bcak from Granito de Oro. Later, that sand seemed to be completely underwater.

29 January, 2017

Onto the Sea Lion and two days in the Canal...

We had to link up with Lindblad again to join our next expedition, and to do so, we met an incoming group flight at Tocumen Airport. A group of about 20 then boarded a bus to take us to Colon, about an hour away on, mostly, a 4 lane divided road. On the way, we stopped over at Miraflores Locks, and it was good to have another viewing.

The part of Colon we drove through to get to the massive container port (next door to the west's largest free-trade zone), where the Sea Lion was docked, looked very poor. The slums we saw in Panama City are more than replicated here, but Felix, our guide for the bus trip, told us the government is staging a massive reinvestment (urban renewal?) program for the city.

On arrival, we were positively rushed onto the Sea Lion. It seemed that the pilot was already on board, and if we didn't go now, we would lose him and our slot on the canal! Our cabin, #106, is on the Bridge Deck (the uppermost of 3 passenger decks), had two single bunks, and was relatively spacious compared to #6 on the Pan Orama II.

The Sea Lion was docked in Colon port, a massive terminal processing container ships.

We learned that the Sea Lion has 39 expeditioners this trip, maybe only half full. The passenger list revealed 6 Aussies (we haven't met them yet) and the rest from the USA, some from Canada. We met the expedition crew. The Sea Lion is US registered, and the officers are all American. The Expedition Leader, Chris and most of his team (Fico, Margrit, and two Jose's, all naturalists) are from either Panama or Costa Rica. It's good to see Lindblad NG employing local experts in senior positions. Other staff were Amy (wellness), Sarah (video) and John (doctor), all from USA.

Jose Perez, our Panama Canal expert, gave running commentary as the passed though Gatun Locks.

Immediately after we left the dock, we entered the canal and arrived quickly at the Gatun Locks, a set of three steps up into Lake Gatun. We shared the 1000ft long locks with a larger cargo ship, in front of us. The Panamanian Jose (Perez) is a canal expert, and gave a detailed commentary on how the docks work, as we traversed them. Apparently, the daylight passage through the Gatun Locks was a rare privilege - it's usually at night for the Sea Lion.

Now at full elevation, the ship in front of us slowly motors into Gatun Lake, still under control of the mules. Getting dark, we were very lucky to get a daylight passage through here.

The drivers of the mules which, with ropes, position ships in the centre of the locks, must be amused when ships loaded with passengers sipping prosecco, and with accompanying commentary, are passing through. The Sea Lion at only 9m wide, is a breeze for the mule drivers. They must have to be very careful when Panamax ships are passing through! Sea Lion pays USD8,000 to transit the canal in one direction.

Anchoring on Gatun Lake is limited to two vessels at a time, but somehow Lindblad have arranged for the Sea Lion to receive a permit. Under the command of the pilot, who must be on board whenever any large vessel moves, we were guided to a suitable overnight anchorage, where we spent a calm night.

All movements on the Panama Canal are strictly controlled by canal pilots. A pilot boarded the Sea Lion at about 05:00 and we motored a short distance from our overnight anchorage to a bay on Barro Colorado Island, the largest in Gatun Lake, a National Monument, and the home to a large Smithsonian sponsored biological science research facility. Access is strictly controlled, but Lindblad have made the necessary arrangements, naturally.

Professor Egbert Giles Leigh gave us the background to the research here. He proved to be an eccentric academic prone to droll humour, and his presentation was not only informative but entertaining. Barro Colorado Island (BCI for short) is special because it was created when Lake Gatun was flooded for the canal, capturing a large range of animal life which has since thrived in relative isolation, making it perfect for behavioural studies. Of particular interest is how such a realtively small place can support huge diversity - the answer basically gets down to different species making demands on different resources.

The briefing we received on DIBs was much the same as on the Orion for Zodiacs last year. (The Sea Lion cannot carry Zodiacs because US regulations require US made inflatables. The crew were clearly of the opinion that the French made Zodiacs were a better brand, they don't leak!) There would be wet landings and very wet landings, but not today, where we could offload onto a pier. There were 2km and 4km "strenuous" bush walks as options, and DIB cruises as an alternative.

Marcos from the research station was our guide for the 4km walk. Throughout the walk (steep up and down hills on half buried besser blocks as stepping stones) we could hear howling monkeys howling - sometimes they were very close/loud, but still very hard to see and much harder to photograph. Spider monkeys swung through the trees with great ease, but they don't pose for pictures!

Marco, our local guide on Barro Colorado Island. He admitted it was his first guiding assignment.

It was a pleasure to have the exercise, although it was hot and muggy. We were instructed to wear long trousers tucked into our socks with proper walking boots, to counter ticks. From a photographic point of view the walk was a little bit frustrating, too much time getting to the monkeys, too little time spent where they were. However tips from the expedition photographer (Costa Rican Jose Calvo Samayoa), about jungle photography in poor light, were helpful and greatly appreciated.

Rainforest tree develop these prickles for self-defence. We think they're called "crocodile trees".

So many leaf-cutter ants scurry though the forest that they mark their own trail. Each ant can carry 5000 times its own weight.

We're near the top of the canopy in this part of the rainforest.

This is a creeper just starting its journey up to the sun on a compliant tree.

Howler monkeys are very loud, but really hard to get good pictures of. A mum and baby here, if you look hard.

Henry piloted a DIB around the edge of the island for a different perspective, spectacular as it turned out. We saw a large, blue-grey crocodile, and spider monkeys hanging from tree limbs, quite interested in us.

By contrast, the spider monkeys are positive exhibitionists - fast movers though. [Photo credit: Gerald Levy]

American crocodile (we didn't know there were any!) looking for sun on the beach at Barro Colorado. [Photo credit: Gerald Levy]

Leaving Barro Colorado Island, after a canal pilot had come on board, we set sail towards the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Because the Panama isthmus twists like an S-bend, you actually travel in a south-easterly direction through the canal to get to the Pacific, west of the Atlantic. It's confusing and counter-intuitive.

It was dark by the time we traversed the 13km Culebra Cut, the canal's most difficult engineering challenge apart from the locks themselves, and part of Lake Gatun. The cut runs through the Continental Divide and passes under the subtly-lit Centennial Bridge, quite spectacular at night. We had driven over this bridge with Clemente, days previously.

Really hard to hold the camera still enough on a boat for this 0.6sec exposure.

The Centenary bridge behind us, we passed the single step Pedro Miguel lock, and then the double step Miraflores locks which lowered us 26m to the ocean level. It was 11pm, and the previously crowded visitors centre was closed. It was after midnight by the time we passed the Bridge of the Americas and our previous Country Inn hotel, both in relative darkness.

10:20pm as we creep into the Pedro Miguel lock.

And then, at the Miraflores Locks, the locks crew tug on the securing ropes from a mule before we manoeuvre into position.

We felt we had ticked off a serious bucket list item. The Panama Canal is something we all know about from school, but until this experience, we had no real appreciation of its workings or its scale and complexity. What a privilege to be able to observe it so comprehensively over the last week!

We went to bed while the Sea Lion ploughed into the Gulf of Panama.

27 January, 2017

From the Caribbean into Central America...

Our time in Cuba was up. We think all on the LNG Expedition found it an interesting and rewarding experience, even if the rocking of the Pan Orama II was off-putting for some. Our departure was on a brand new American Airlines Boeing from the tiny Cienfuegos airport. Departure bureaucracy was minimal, although we did have to prove our entitlement to enter the USA, a little tricky with ESTA being an online system. Luckily we had a printout to confirm our approval. The airport itself serves only two flights a day (the other from Montreal), yet managed to have a gift shop, duty free, a cafe and a bank all open.

After regrouping in Miami, we flew to Panama City half a week in advance of our scheduled embarkation on our next Lindblad-NG Expedition. We deliberately chose an out-of-town hotel, the only one we could find right on the Canal de Panama.

Panama City's famous Frank Geary designed biodiversity museum, about 2km walk from our hotel.

It should be a 30 min taxi ride from Tocumen Airport to the Country Inn and Suites at Amador, but we spent an hour for 1km in a huge traffic jam on a road approach to the Bridge of the Americas. Luckily, we were in no hurry. The driver told us this was a daily occurrence. We later found out that there are alternative roads to the hotel, but they went through Red Zones, not recommended for safe travel. In fact, on this drive and later ones, we saw that much of Panama City is very poor, with people living in dirty, crowded concrete blockhouses, and with debris and litter scattered everywhere.

Commuter buses roar around the streets of Panama City.

We could sit on our hotel balcony watching the endless parade of ships entering and leaving the canal on the Pacific Ocean side. The traffic is not that heavy, about 50 ships per day, but our view was spectacular and entertaining, as we watched tankers, container ships and luxury cruise ships taking on pilots and positioning themselves for the 10 hour passage.

Canal view from our hotel balcony.

The Bridge of the Americas. We hear it's not quite high enough for the tallest ships.

A tasteful Korean War Memorial enhances the canal-front walk near our hotel.

The Albrook airport, an ex US Air Force base, is quite busy with domestic flights.

It's always a bit worrying to stay in an out-of-the-way hotel in case of a lack of bars and restaurants nearby, but this one had a TGI Fridays on the premises, a tiny 24hr cafe, and the Balboa Yacht Club was next door, not to mention a big swimming pool. This hotel, in the perfect location, was a good choice!

Our hotel (#2) in Amador had a great view of the canal.

The Yacht Club was little more than a large thatched hut with bar and burgers. It seemed to own the adjacent pier which, we discovered, was also a major ferry terminal. Mornings and afternoons were busiest, with many passengers (tourists and locals) going to nearby islands with beautiful beaches and luxury hotels. We saw that these islands competed fiercely for the tourist trade. At these times, the terminal area was a bustling but scruffy place, lots of mercantile activities going on, trolleys laden with produce, provisions and other supplies being wheeled around. There was way too much litter around, and no-one seems to clean it up.

The Balboa Yacht Club's pier and ferry terminal.

Panama (pop 4M) uses USD for currency, although it mints its own coins in the same sizes and denominations as the US equivalents (why bother?). Panamanians refer to the dollar as the Balboa. We found that prices here were quite low (espresso $1-2), and we notice that the country is keen to encourage wealthy enough people to relocate here - all you need for residency and or citizenship is a guaranteed income or a sufficient property purchase. This puts those "move to the sun" shows we see on TV into perspective - cost of living is low and the government is willing! Spanish is easy enough to learn, they say.

We didn't spend all our time watching ships from our balcony or lazing by the pool! We hired a local guide to show us around. Clemente was a native Panamanian who plainly loved his country - way back, his family were slaves on sugar plantations in Jamaica until they came here for the first attempt to build a canal. Interestingly, and accurately, Clemente corrected us when we referred to people from the USA as Americans. He said, "we are all Americans"! There doesn't seem to be any neat way of referring to US citizens specifically, though (maybe gringos?).

Getting around in Clemente's Toyota, we saw the Miraflores Locks in operation from a large, splendid and very popular visitors centre (2000). These are the closest locks to Panama City. A very good museum in the centre told us the history of the canal, with Clemente emphasising certain details, particularly how the original French attempt in 1881 was ill-conceived and failed partly because of the incredible mortality rate of the workers in the mosquito infested muddy conditions, not to mention the deadly snakes, spiders and chiggas. The causes of malaria and yellow fever were not known. (In the midst of this, Panama separated from Great Columbia and became a separate state in 1903.) The USA took over the canal in 1914 and applied much better technology and mechanisation. They learned from a Cuban doctor how mozzies caused disease, and took steps to eradicate them, simple things like clearing stagnant fresh water, paving roads and installing insect screens.

The Miraflores Locks have an excellent visitors centre, but the new larger locks (background) has none.

Electric mules use ropes to position large ships in the centre of the locks.

Egrets like the fishing in stirred up lock waters.

The Miraflores Locks hold vessels large and small, but newer "Panamax Plus" ships have to use the expanded locks.

The French plan, from Ferdinand de Lessups, fresh from his triumph of the straight-through 100 mile Suez Canal through a desert, was to make a deep cut right through the mountains to create another canal without locks. This proved to be just too difficult - there was a mountain range to cut through, a huge river (the Chagris) in the way, and the technology and engineering available at the time wasn't up to it. Plus there was a good dose of corruption. Eventually, the company went broke.

The American solution, aided by the geography of course and much more capable land moving equipment now available, was to create a man-made lake 26m above sea-level and build locks on both sides. Lake Gatun provides more than half the length of the canal, eliminating that much cut. The lake is fed by the rain soaked Chagres River which, we learn, provides hydroelectricity to run the canal plus enough water to keep the locks running (although the canal employs reutilisation basins to save water), thus making a virtue of the huge rainfall which was the enemy of the straight cut French design.

The canal, nevertheless still a mighty engineering feat, opened in 1914 under the control of Columbia, USA and France, imposing an indignity which long infuriated the Panamanians, leading eventually to student riots and deaths in January 1964 which triggered change. Panama finally negotiated full control in 1977, and took over in 1979. Clemente noted that the US's objective with the canal was military and strategic - Panama's is commercial, the canal is a good earner, making about USD8M/day from the ships, with operating costs USD1M/day. The largest ships pay USD0.5M plus, for a single passage.

From this visitors centre, we have only a distant view of the latest canal expansion project which opened only mid 2016. It's a pity not to be able to see the new wider, longer and deeper locks, and Clemente didn't think there was a plan to build a new visitors centre. For the record, the old locks limited ships to 294m long and 32m wide. The new ones are 366m x 49m. The widest ships can barely fit into the locks.

Through heavy haze, heavy canal traffic is seen near the Centenary Bridge.

In 1513, Vasco Balboa became the first European to cross Panama and see the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish immediately realised that here was a path between the two mighty oceans. They built the Camino Real or Royal Road and made an industry out of lugging looted Inca gold back to the Atlantic side and home to Spain.

The Centenary Bridge only the second to cross the canal in Panama City.

Clement took us to a heavily forested place in the Soberania National Park, about 20km out of town, where a remnant of this rocky road can be seen. Signposting called it Sendero Camino de Cruces, trail of crosses, apparently because of the many graves of people who died on this road, building it, using it. Clement forbade us from walking even 20m into this forest here. It's apparently unsafe, although there are other walking tracks in this park with appropriate security. The litter by the side of the road even out here was disconcerting.

A tiny part of the old Spanish gold road across Panama.

Clemente and his tour Toyota. He seems pleased with the success of his one-man business.

Stunning architecture characterises the modern downtown of Panama City.

Back in the city, we saw more poor districts as Clemente showed us around. We went to Ancon Hill, Cerro Ancon, the highest point in the city with great views over the old town and the very modern skyscrapers of Panama City, as well as a downtown airport which used to be the US base. Road access to the hill was fenced off (landslides?) and it took a strenuous 20min walk to get to the top.

Rather unwelcoming entrance to Cerro Ancon, but Clemente knew the way in.

View of modern Panama City downtown.

This is how to bypass a traffic clogged city with a new road.

On the walk up and back, we saw armadillos, sloths, and other large, camera-shy rodents whose names we didn't catch. They all scurried away as quickly as they could. And some birds, a turkey vulture on the ground (injured perhaps) and noisy toucans in the trees.

Ginger plant on Ancon Hill.

Toucans seen in trees on Ancon Hill.

Clemente, on a subject dear to his heart, took pains to show us street-fulls of roughtly painted murals commemorating the martyrs who died by American gunfire in those canal-zone sovereignty riots, but we didn't stop at any of them.

Ruins of the orginal Panama City, sacked by English privateer Henry Morgan in 1671.

Meanwhile Casco Viejo is being restored to old glory with modern businesses in heritage buildings.

And we got to drive through and walk around Casco Antiguo, a well restored historical old town which is miles away from Panama Viejo, the orginal city and the pride of the Spanish New World, but poorly defended and burned by a licensed English pirate in 1671.

Example of fine building restoration in Casco Viejo.

Panamanian indigenous art shops enliven Casco Viejo.

Tiny electric cars being recharged from their hat shop.

Tourists shopping in a malecon walkway yet to be improved.

Apart from that, we found that the Country Inn and Suites at Amador was a great place to regroup after Cuba, psych up for the Sea Lion, watch the ships from our balcony, walk along the malecon, swim in the pool and generally hang out.

Sunset over the canal.