Day 9 |
Sep 29, 2009

San Blas Islands, Panama

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 09°33.152’N, 078°57.153’W

Weather: Bright sunshine with slight sea breeze

Air Temperature: 27°C or 87°F

Sea Temperature: 27°C

Wind: 5 – 10 knots

Today was another spectacular day for me – another afternoon spent in the ocean surrounded with marine life!

But, let’s start at the beginning of the day. The ship had arrived at our morning’s destination late in the night and had already anchored, which was nice since it meant that we had pleasant calm conditions to sleep peacefully.

We were visiting two of the San Blas islands today – firstly, the small village of Kuna Indians on Wichub Wala, and later in the morning, the uninhabited island of Wailidup. Our first views of the settlement on Wichub Wala were a surprise! I knew these were small low-lying islands, but I did not fully appreciate how ‘low-lying’ they actually were! The highest point on these small coral reef islands looked to be only a couple of feet above sea level! In fact, it is feared that these islands may become inundated by the ocean within only a few more years as the sea level keeps rising as a result of global climate change. Already, a few of the locals were telling me how over the past few years they have experienced some impacts from the rising waters – one main problem being that the plane runways are regularly underwater now, and they have had to close them down many of them because the planes cannot land.

Before we could disembark, we had to wait for the local chief to arrive to clear us. As we waited we watched several dugout canoes come alongside selling fresh fish and, unfortunately, large marine snails (like triton snails and conch shells) for souvenirs.

Once we had permission to land, the Expedition Team loaded us into Zodiacs and drove us over to a jetty to join local guides for a tour of the small village. It was absolutely charming! The Kuna Indians have decided to maintain their culture and still wear the tradition garments and jewelry – including mola dress and brightly coloured bead work on their arms and legs. The place was alive with colour – nearly every house had amazingly intricate mola artwork displayed outside their homes. Although Spanish is a non-native language for them, most of the ladies spoke enough Spanish that we could communicate without too much problem.

As a final touch to the tour, several of the men and women performed some of their traditional dances with pan-flutes and maraca (gourds filled with seeds that they shake).

From this village, we had a choice to return to the ship for a while or transfer directly to the other small sandy island where we were going to have lunch and spend the afternoon snorkeling, swimming and kayaking.

Wailidup was a beautiful tropical oasis. The white sand beaches were offset by the turquoise waters. As soon as we arrived I was in the water snorkeling, showing my fellow snorkellers the underwater wonders. It was really a beautiful reef. I spent over 4 hours in the water leading snorkel tours up and down the reef. I was able to point out so many animals –it was amazing. We saw many different types of marine worms, white, black, red and brown sea urchins, red sponges, purple sea fans, convoluted brain coral, 4-spotted butterflyfish, fire coral, arrow crabs, snails (including one very large conch!), trumpetfish, blue tang, large orange starfish, sea cucumbers…the list goes on and on. By the time I got out of the water at the end of the day I was as wrinkled as a prune, but it was well worth it.

Back on the island, guests enjoyed lazing in the shade of the coconut trees and bobbing in the shallow warm waters, and listening to the multitude of stories being told by our three local guides – Panama Pete, Ian and John. These guides are an amazing resource of information about the culture and wildlife of the region. We are so lucky to have them traveling with us for the next few days!

Recap & Briefing in the evening was great fun. I started out by showing some of the underwater photos that I took while snorkeling today and highlighted the most interesting acts about each animal. Robin West, our Expedition Leader, then briefed us on the planned activities tomorrow - the passage through the Panama Canal. We were especially glad to hear that we were going to be allowed to make the passage during the daylight hours!

Finally, Hans-Peter (our botanist) and JJ (our general naturalist and birder) presented the group with a special treat – a taste of local foods! The day before, in Puerto Limon, our tour operator had gotten us some examples of local food from one of the street vendors, and JJ had gotten the traditional cooking instruction from his family (JJ is from Costa Rica), and had organised the galley chefs to cook it up for all the guests to try.

This included plantain (a hybrid banana-like fruit that has to be cooked before eating), peach palm (a starchy seed that is boiled and eaten with mayonnaise), and fresh papaya (or paw paw). I personally think, given some of the expressions on the guests’ faces as they tasted these ‘delicacies’ that these will not become regular recipes offered as part of our menus!