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Day 3 - October 23, 2011 - Contadora Island, Pearl Island, Panama

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist lecturer

Co-ordinates: 08º37’59”N, 79º02’06”W
Weather: sunshine all day!
Air Temperature: 29ºC


Well…this certainly was my kind of day! A full day on a tropical island with white sand beaches, clear blue skies, calm clear warm ocean waters and lush tropical forests. We were on a paradise island off the coast of Panama.

The Pearl Islands are well known for several things, including the world’s most famous pearl: the La Pelegrina pearl. The history of this pearl spans over 350 years, and it has survived both the French Revolution (1789 – 99) and the Russian Bolshevik revolution (1917). An African slave found it on Pearl Island in the mid-16th century. In exchange for it, the slave was granted his freedom. It has been owned and worn by several European kings and queens, including Queen Mary I. In 1969 this pearl came up for auction at Southby’s in London and Richard Burton bought it as a valentine’s gift for Elizabeth Taylor (for a measly $37,000).

Most recently, this island received worldwide recognition because two episodes of the reality TV show ‘Survivor’ were filmed here in 2008 and 2009. In fact, we landed on the exact beach early in the morning at 7:30am to head off on a bird walk. Unfortunately, evidence of the filming was obvious – discarded rubbish everywhere and abandoned houses lining the beautiful beach.

The 65 guests that headed off on the birding walk and had a fabulous time. From what I was told, there was plenty to see, and our local guides “Panama Pete”, Igua, Jon and Joshua, along with our own Expedition Team members Patricia, Claudia and Hans-Peter, pointed out many species of birds, insects and plants.

While the birders were off on their adventure, the rest of the Expedition Team was busy setting up the beach where we were to stay all day. We brought all the snorkel and kayak gear across so that it was all ready for the guests to arrive.

My job, of course, was to get everyone in the water for a great snorkel. Although there was almost no coral, it was still nice snorkeling – there were plenty of fish. There were black and yellow angelfish, grey mullet, yellow and black butterflyfish, turquoise blue parrotfish, and many more. Some folks even saw a stingray and a turtle!

I must have spent over 5 hours in the water running guided snorkel tours and pointing out all the amazing fish so everyone could enjoy their beauty.

During the scouting in the morning, our Expedition Leader, Shoshanah Jacobs, and Assistant Expedition Leader, Daniil Elterman, discovered a unique little island, only a 10 minute Zodiac ride away, that was a bird sanctuary. Hundreds of pelicans, brown boobies and frigatebirds were roosting in the trees. So…as an added activity, we offered zodiac tours around this little island. It was delightful! The birds seemed totally unbothered by the zodiacs, so we were able to get fantastic up-close views.

The real highlight of the day for many of our guests (but unfortunately not me – I didn’t get tot see this!) was the sighting of two adult humpback whales very close to the beach. It just so happened that three Zodiacs full of guests were in the exact area and got to see these magnificent beasts up close-up as they cruised along near the surface of the ocean. Humpbacks come to these warm waters to breed and give birth before they head back to polar regions to feed.

Last Zodiac was at 5pm, and it was a huge rush to get all my underwater photos downloaded and into a PowerPoint presentation for Recap & Briefing by 5:30. But I managed and was able to go over a portion of the fish that we had seen today. Many of these same fish types will be seen again in a couple of days when we snorkel again offshore of another beautiful small sand island.


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