Birds, Monkeys, and Business in Panama

March 19, 2005 | Tags: Americas

Richard Cahill, March 2005

"Why would anybody want to visit the Isthmus of Panama?" This is the most common question that well-seasoned travelers hear from their neighbors. And, when I ask these same travelers to tell me why they picked Panama as a destination, the most common answer is: "I've always wanted to see the Panama Canal." Then they follow that with: "But when I told my neighbors that I was going to Panama, they said I was crazy to go to that Noriega country." Two things about this always puzzle me. One, how do these knowledgeable, well-seasoned travelers always end up living next to those sorts of neighbors? And two, why do people come to Panama with the sole ambition of seeing the canal? Granted, the Panama Canal ranks among the world's greatest engineering achievements, and a transit of its length should be on every traveler's shortlist of goals, but Panama offers so much more. I thought I should set the record straight and pose my reasons as to why you should explore the country.

I grew up in this wonderful place of Panama, a small, everybody-knows-everybody country, which gives you a great feeling of belonging and where your friends can never be far away. This explains the friendly and spontaneous personalities of most Panamanians.

Not many people know this country as a travel destination. That's because we Panamanians just got the promotion started about ten years ago. Coincidentally, after aspiring to a nine-to-five job, I fell into the ecotourism profession at approximately the same time. I must admit, at first I thought it would be easier to become a Panamanian astronaut than a naturalist guide. But it was a time of fresh starts for a country that had gone through an invasion in 1989 and was now free of a military regime, and was full of new ideas and hope for the future.

So why is Panama such an attractive destination? First, Panama sells accessibility. Where else in the world can you dive two oceans in the same day or see five species of monkeys before lunch? Panama can be reached from any major city in the United States; the U.S. dollar is the official currency; and most Panamanians speak English.

Second, Panama provides many opportunities to experience amazing natural habitats filled with stunning wildlife. With its 960 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, and countless plants, the isthmus is a land bridge where the rich biodiversity of North and South America congregates, offering great possibilities for the wildlife enthusiast. Making a concerted effort to protect the country's natural bounty, the Panamanian government has set aside 30 percent of the land as protected wilderness, including roughly five million acres as national parks. Among these protected areas are Bastimentos National Park, where sloths and Montezuma oropendolas lurk in the treetops, and poison-dart frogs manifest themselves as flashes of red in the green vegetation; Isla Coiba, once a penal colony and now one of the largest marine reserves in the world; and the Darien Gap, the last great wilderness in the Americas.

Finally, Panama is home to seven indigenous cultures, including the Kuna Indians of the Caribbean coast. The Kuna, who inhabit an idyllic paradise of more than 350 islands, are a semiautonomous tribe best known for their molas, dazzlingly colored applique tapestries. The mystic Choco Embera, native to the primeval jungles of the Darien, are also noted crafts-people. The woodcarvings they fashion from cocobolo, a dense hardwood, and their colorful palm-weaved basketry have become icons of Panamanian identity. Recognizing Panama's depth of natural and cultural attractions, and wishing to delve further into Central America's best-kept secret, Zegrahm Expeditions recently adjusted the itinerary of its Rain Forests and Reefs program to include additional time in Panama. I was aboard Le Levant for this past January's voyage, working as a naturalist, and that expedition was one of the highlights of my guiding career. During our six days in Panama I was able to reveal to travelers the gifts of my homeland, from San Blas in the Caribbean to Coiba in the Pacific. Whether we were snorkeling and diving, meeting with native peoples, or hiking through dense forests, every day brought some further discovery. (And, not to worry, we managed to fit in a daylong transit of the canal.) We visited other countries, each with its charm and attributes--and perhaps a certain national pride colors my judgment--but for me Panama was the high point of our journey.

Outrigger Canoes of Oceania

March 19, 2005 | Tags: Oceania

Dick Dewey, March 2005

To me the perfect icon for Oceania's tropical island people would be the common canoe, crafted from a single log and fitted with an outrigger for balance. This ubiquitous little boat typifies not only the craftsmanship of island people, but is a world-class example of environmental sustainability at its very best. The canoe of today, virtually identical to those described by Captain Cook, is still constructed of local natural materials and recycled when its journeys are finished. These boats are the family wheelbarrow, the easiest way to visit grandmother, the fishing platform, the traditional village workboat, as well as the local hot rod for competition-hungry young boys.

Village craftsmen, their skills little changed over thousands of years, handmake every canoe. Each builder fashions, with no other tool but an adz, time-honored seaworthy designs, that with the tweak of an angle can change a boat from an open-ocean vessel to a lagoon-based cargo boat.

The majority of the outriggers we see on the islands are dugouts 10 to 22 feet in length. There are, however, much larger canoes. These, while few in number, are so magnificent they dominate the beach view. One place to see them is gorgeous Kitava Island, which we will visit on Faces of Melanesia. Be on deck as we approach because we will be greeted by an incredible display of many approaching war canoes, each paddled by dozens of powerful men. The image is one of strength and speed.

As you stroll through the village, look closely. No two canoes are the same. Long or short, stocky or slim, tall or low to the water, curved or straight-bottomed, each is a product of the carver's culture, tradition, training, experience, and log availability. Sliver-thin boats are easily paddled in calm lagoons, while stocky canoes plug along the lagoon shore to the next village, hauling heavy or bulky cargo such as food, firewood, or the occasional pig.

The part of the boat called the "outrigger" is a lesson in utility, grace, simplicity, and strength. Each outrigger is a long, buoyant, tiny trunk of a tall forest tree. Neatly shaped, each is attached parallel to the hull by booms, rigged slightly bow-high to make the canoe climb a swell instead ?of diving through it.

Understanding the function of the outrigger is easy; it keeps the canoe from rolling over. How and where the outrigger attaches to the canoe depends on the island culture. Some societies tuck the outriggers in close to the canoe, while some push them out fairly far. Likewise, depending on the island, the two or more booms may be covered by sticks to haul light cargo, or left open. The rowers may paddle off either side of the canoe if the opening has enough space, but more likely the paddling is done only on the side of the canoe away from the outrigger. The most common fastening material is quarter-inch twisted rope made by village men out of coconut husk fibers.

While the outrigger resolves the stability issue, it poses a problem of forward control. The drag of the outrigger continually pulls the bow of the canoe towards the outrigger, forcing the boat to travel in circles. The common trick used to compensate for the drag is by a quick and powerful outward twist of the paddle at the end of the long power-stroke. I learned this well when a fisherman invited me to take his 12-foot ("or so") canoe out for a paddle. A small crowd gathered to watch the fun. With my first proud, powerful stroke, the little bullet beneath me shot forward and then went into a stubborn turn. Correcting the turn with the paddle, I came to nearly a dead stop. To the tune of much sidesplitting laughter from the crowd, I repeated this forward-turn-correction-stop motion until the kind fisherman successfully showed me the little wrist-twist at the end of the stroke that was needed to keep the boat on track.

The adaptability and stability of the finished outrigger canoe was made clear one day when I met a disabled islander. Paddling past, he had stopped by for a mutually curious chat. He had returned to his home island only five years before, the victim of a car accident in Guam. Now he gladly spent much of every day in his boat rather than holed up in the village. The function of his canoe was much more than that of a walker or wheelchair (both impossible in the village). Here he was, a young father able to get around on his own, enjoy nature, teach and play with his children, socialize, play taxi, help other villagers haul stuff, fish for his family, and, he laughed, "get plenty of exercise in a beautiful place!"

What thrills me when I see these beautiful boats is that each is proudly owned and appreciated for its inexpensive village utility. Each is admired for its graceful lines and craftsmanship as we might admire a new car. Each is carefully housed in its thatch canoe house, and each is the keystone of a family's function and value in the community. They are also safe and fun to just paddle--once you learn that little wrist-twist at the end of the paddle stroke.

To see outriggers, as well as the myriad other cultural and natural attractions of Oceania, join Dick and the rest of the expedition-leading team on Faces of Melanesia. Our 2005 voyage departs 18 October, and the 2006 program begins 26 October. Our Circumnavigation of New Guinea, departing 07 March 2006, also explores these regions. Please call our office for more details.

Zegrahm Expeditions at Fifteen

December 20, 2004

August 1990 - Zegrahm Expeditions begins operations.

November 1990 - Zegrahm opens its Seattle office. Along with overseeing Zegrahm programs, a staff of four employees also handles reservations for Eco-Expeditions, a sister company running small-group safaris. Gradually over the years, we add in-house air and marketing departments.

March 1991 - Zegrahm operates its inaugural expedition, to Vietnam, one month after the travel embargo to that country is lifted.

October 1991 - Recognizing the necessity of protecting Antarctica's environment and ensuring travelers' safety, Zegrahm Expeditions and six other travel operators form the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which follows the multinational Antarctic Treaty System's guidelines for appropriate, safe, and environmentally sound travel to the Antarctic.

November 1992 - Zegrahm participates in the first circumnavigation of the island of South Georgia by a passenger vessel.

July 1993 - Zegrahm launches inaugural adventure travel exploration of the Kuril Islands, in the Russian Far East.

November 1993 -Zegrahm helps organize the first expedition to the frozen reaches of the Weddell Sea to visit emperor penguin colonies.

March 1995 - Aboard the World Discoverer, Zegrahm links the remote Polynesian destinations of Easter Island, Pitcairn, the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas on a single itinerary.

April 1996 - Zegrahm adds the final continent to its list of destinations when it charters the Coral Princess, a specially designed catamaran, to explore the northern coast of Australia from Cairns to Darwin.

May 1997 - With a goal to be the first travel operator to take civilians into space, Zegrahm forms Zegrahm Space Voyages (ZSV), partnering with an aerospace company and pilot training school to offer suborbital flights. As a prelude to space flights, ZSV operates Aquanaut Adventures in the Florida Keys and a cosmonaut-training program in Star City, Russia. In July 2001 Zegrahm sells ZSV to Space Adventures, who ultimately takes the first civilian aboard the International Space Station.

August 1997 - Zegrahm achieves another adventure travel first when it successfully circumnavigates Baffin Island by icebreaker.

February 1998 - Zegrahm creates its DeepSea Voyages division, using manned submersibles to explore the ocean depths. Notable achievements include participating in the inaugural passenger dives to the Titanic and an exploration of underwater volcanoes in the Azores, both in 1999, and the Bismarck in 2001.

November 1998 - With the departure of West Coast of South America, Zegrahm operates travel programs on all seven continents within the same calendar year for the first time.

December 1999/January 2000 - Realizing a plan ten years in the making, Zegrahm's First Light expedition departs for the Ross Sea. At 0015 on 01 January 2000, travelers on board the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov are the first people on earth to witness the first dawn of the new millennium.

August 2001 - Zegrahm retraces the path of the historic 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska.

May 2002 - Zegrahm becomes the first travel operator to explore Russia's long off-limits Sea of Okhtosk aboard a passenger vessel.

December 2002 to March 2003 - Fulfilling a promise to return to the Indian Ocean "when we find the right ship," Zegrahm launches a series of expeditions to the Seychelles and Madagascar aboard the elegant sailing vessel Le Ponant.

July 2004 - Across the Top of the World becomes another history-making voyage for Zegrahm, a journey by icebreaker from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean via the North Pole.

2005 - As the new year begins, Zegrahm and Eco Expeditions merge and continue to seek new lands and to devise novel ways to reveal the world to travelers. In 2005 we will launch our inaugural expeditions to Libya; our first circumnavigation of New Guinea; Flight of the Condor, an air safari exploring five South American countries; and in another industry first, our Circumnavigation of North America using exclusively chartered aircraft.

Tasmania: An Introduction

December 20, 2004

Claire Ellis, December 2004

Tasmania, actually an archipelago of more than 300 islands, is ideal to explore by ship. As one of the world's most mountainous islands it has a breathtaking rocky coastline that shows its dramatic role in the separation of Australia from Antarctica many millions of years ago. Also, because the island is relatively small, in contrast to mainland Australia, journeys from port to port are overnight.

Our expedition, on board the Clipper Odyssey, will include the northwest coast and the picturesque fishing village of Stanley, the beautiful east coast and Freycinet Peninsula, Maria Island, the Port Arthur Historic Site, and Hobart and the chance to see the island's unique wildlife, including the rich array of endemic birdlife.

A new experience in the far northwest corner is the Dismal Swamp, an intriguing ecotourism adventure. Travelers can explore one of the largest sinkholes in the world, formed over thousands of years by dissolving dolomite. The forest within the sinkhole is thick with endemic Tasmanian timbers--blackwood, myrtle, tea tree, sassafras, native laurel, and giant man-ferns. We walk a maze or take a 160-yard slide into the sinkhole.

In the hills behind the tiny city of Burnie are lush meadows and hidden streams where the elusive platypus can be spotted. Within Burnie we have the chance to visit the Creative Paper Mills and see artists at work, or to learn the story of the local Aborigines at the Tiagarra Aboriginal Centre.

The journey east and south down the coastline passes unspoiled and uncrowded beaches with names such as Bay of Fires, The Gardens, Binalong Bay, Chain of Lagoons, and Friendly Beaches, until we reach the pink-granite peninsula of Freycinet National Park and the aptly named Wineglass Bay. This perfect half-moon beach is listed as one of the top ten beaches in the world by Outside magazine. We go ashore and walk this beautiful bay and coastal region. Later, in nearby Coles Bay, we kayak or explore the beaches and the national park's interpretation center.

From Freycinet the journey heads farther south to Maria Island. The whole island is now a national park, and its history is a microcosm of Tasmania. French explorers first documented Aboriginal customs here; the British created one of Tasmania's first jails; and then in the late 19th century an Italian entrepreneur tried to create a Southern Hemisphere Arcadia with vineyards and a silk factory. Now Maria Island is one of the foremost places in the state to see wildlife, including Cape Barren geese and Forester kangaroos.

As we continue south, the views change to steep, dark dolerite cliffs that form narrow, cathedral-like columns, and the cliffs at the mouth of Port Arthur Harbor are said to be some of the tallest in the world. To sail into the harbor is to relive the journey made by thousands of convicts transported to Van Dieman's Land almost 200 years ago. Today, Port Arthur Historic Site is a picturesque village set on manicured lawns, and tells a fascinating Australian story.

The coastline from Port Arthur to Hobart shows a different beauty, and the wide Derwent Estuary frames the path up the river to Hobart, guarded by Mount Wellington. Hobart is much more than Australia's second oldest city. As the capital, it offers the best of amenities, but with a relatively small population, it is free of a larger city's usual woes. It is unpolluted, easy to explore by foot or car, and it takes only 15 minutes to be out in the countryside. It also has some of Australia's best colonial architecture, which makes for a beautifully proportioned city profile. Salamanca Place is right beside the harbor and is a perfect spot to wander and stop to browse for anything from fine crafts to fine wines. From Hobart we have many exploration opportunities, including a local wildlife park where resident naturalists present such species as wombats, possums, and endemic birds.

Before the expedition begins, our pre-voyage extension presents additional days among the landscapes and wildlife of Tasmania, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, the Tasmanian devils and quolls at Trowunna Wildlife Park, and the little blue penguin colony near Launceston.

The Bears of Brooks River

December 20, 2004

The annual return of Pacific salmon to the rivers of the north, in numbers beyond calculation, represents a massive delivery of protein and nutrients from the oceans to the land and the forest. The salmon drive that entire coastal ecosystem, and, in particular, they feed the bears.

To be sure, there are grizzly bears that live where the salmon runs don't reach and who never partake of that seasonal abundance. But those bears are smaller and less numerous than their coastal cousins. To see the biggest bears in the greatest numbers, you must come to where the salmon run.

One such place is the Brooks River in Alaska's Katmai National Park. The Brooks is only a mile and a half long, a mere connection between two lakes, but for sockeye salmon, it's the only gateway to the many spawning streams that feed the upper lake. So many fish crowd into the river that it seems to turn red and run backward. Midway along, they must surmount six-foot-high Brooks Falls. They mass in pools at the base, preparing to leap. For the bears, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet.

On any given day during the peak of the run, some 25 or 30 bears visit the area. Bears are normally solitary creatures, and sharing space with so many of their kind forces them to resolve some issues. They must establish temporary territories at good fishing stations in the river, and settle on a dominance hierarchy. An individual's position in this seasonal bear society must be constantly maintained, defended, and revised. These matters require a great deal of interaction--posturing, bluffing, displaying, and sometimes violence. There are winners and losers. Watching the bears at these times is like watching a Shakespearean play.

There are several kinds of actors on this stage. There are subadult bears, males and females, trying to make their own way in the world, but lacking experience and size. They find themselves marginalized and bullied by bigger bears. There are mothers with young cubs, who must be constantly wary of large males, but if confronted, are ferocious in defense of their offspring. Their tenaciousness wins them a place at the table. And there are the big males, ponderous brutes who are among the largest land predators on earth. When one of them arrives, the tenor of the proceedings changes. Territories shift around as they displace less-dominant animals, and a ripple effect spreads through the community.

It's a grand show, and one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet. And there's gallery seating available. The National Park Service has provided viewing platforms immediately above and alongside Brooks Falls, and by staying alert and adhering to the regulations, it is possible to stand almost shoulder to shoulder with these magnificent animals. You can watch them playing and fighting, struggling and thriving, and living their unfettered lives. Meanwhile the salmon leap and battle on, passing once more on their age-old cycle, giving again their gifts to the land and its inhabitants. The bears stand in, and partake of, a literal river of life.