Rainforests & Reefs

2014 Rainforests & Reefs Field Report

Olga Stavrakis|March 30, 2014|Field Report

Saturday, February 8, 2014 - Belize City, Belize / Lamanai Ruins / Embark Island Sky: Our adventure began with a visit to the beautiful ancient Mayan site of Lamanai. Leaving our hotel early, we headed north toward Orange Walk where we climbed into powerful motorboats for the exciting 24-mile cruise up the New River.

Lamanai, which means ‘submerged crocodile,’ was first settled around 1500 B.C. Once home to over 20,000 people, the cleared and reconstructed portion of the site represents the most impressive urban area of the city, architecturally-speaking. After disembarking, we followed a jungle path lined with huge corozo palms to reach the Temple of the Masks. Here, we were captivated by two beautifully designed and masterfully reconstructed Classic Period masks.

A number of us climbed to the top of the High Temple, where views of the New River dazzled us as it cut through the thick forest. From this height, the rest of the site looked like an undulating sea of green lumps and extended far toward the western horizon.

Walking through the series of palaces and sunken courts of the ‘royal district,’ we entered the Jaguar Plaza which faces the giant and impressive Temple of the Jaguar Masks. Named for the sculptures that adorn the lowest level of the outermost structure, the jaguar masks remain well preserved and quite clearly visible to this day.

We soon retraced our steps back to Belize City and boarded the Island Sky. Climbing aboard, we were welcomed with a delightful array of sandwiches and sweets, as well as tea, coffee, and champagne. There followed a series of mandatory safety drills as well as the snorkel drill which prepared us for tomorrow’s exploration of Belize’s fabulous coral reef.

Sunday, February 9 - Lighthouse Reef: Half Moon Cay, a tiny white-sand island which became a bird sanctuary in 1981, today serves as a nesting ground for the endangered red-footed booby and a large colony of frigatebirds. Following breakfast, we set out to shore or, for serious snorkelers, a diving platform.

Onshore, Dennis Wille and Greg Homel set up scopes on a viewing platform in the middle of the nesting colonies, which allowed us to view chicks inside some of the nests. The beach on the Cay is quite lovely, dotted with coconut palms even though the reef itself is farther out to sea; it served as the perfect place for beginners to try out their gear and follow the fish swimming among the turtle grass.

For the more advanced snorkelers, there was a diving platform over a rich part of the reef scouted by Conrad Weston and Jack Grove. Some parts of the reef were quite deep, but all were stunningly populated with fish in brilliant colors, drifting in and out of brain corals, sponges, anemones, and small crevices in the rock.

After lunch onboard, we returned to both the beach and the deep water sites so everyone got a chance to experience both environments. Back onboard, we made our way to the lounge for Captain Håkan Gustafsson’s welcome cocktail party followed by a festive dinner featuring a choice of lobster thermidor.

Monday, February 10 - Roatán, Honduras: The bird-watchers were the first group off the ship today; they headed east to the far end of the island, where they walked through a mixed forest of native oak and pine and encountered Yucatan vireos, Brown-crested flycatchers, and Caribbean specialties such as white-crowned pigeons, gray hawks, and roadside hawks.

The rest of us took buses to the Carambola Botanical Garden created 25 years ago in a small gorge opening out into Sandy Bay. Our guide was the originator of this garden, and he explained how he reclaimed farmed land and planted fruit trees, as well as carefully selected ornamentals. The jungle then grew up around and between his seedlings and all he did was cut away aggressive plants to favor those he wished to maintain. At the end of our tour, he treated us to a fruit snack of heavenly papaya, sweet bananas, and an excellent aromatic cantaloupe.

Some of us chose to also explore the bottom of the sea on a glass-bottom boat, led by Jack, who provided explanations and identifications of the rich and varied sea life below. We all met later at the lovely seaside town of West End where we enjoyed a vigorous dance performance by a Garifuna ensemble which featured the John Canoe, a dance of African origin performed just about everywhere African slave communities existed.

After lunch onboard, some of us enjoyed an exhilarating zip line experience, while others visited the Las Palmas Resort, where they could lounge on the beach or explore the shallow reef not far from the bar. The more serious snorkelers were picked up by Zodiacs and taken to an old shipwreck.

Everyone returned to the ship for our first recap; Kevin Clement recounted a hilarious encounter with a rare protected giant hermit crab; Rich Cahill showed us how logwood bleeds a red dye when soaked in water; and Olga Stavrakis summarized the importance of the Lamanai Ruins.

Tuesday & Wednesday, February 11 & 12 - At Sea / Isla de Providencia, Colombia: Tuesday our lecture series began in earnest; Jack led us off with Sea Divided: Marine Life on Either Side of Central America, followed by Greg who discussed the varieties of birds we may expect to encounter. Olga presented The Caribbean Melting Pot: Maya, Carib, African and European, and Kevin finished the day with Under the Brave Black Flag: The Real Pirates of the Caribbean. Our recap included a short quiz and explanation of endemic tropical fruits by Dennis, and a short history of Isla de Providencia by Rich, explaining how this island ended up as part of Colombia.

Come Wednesday, we were surrounded by some of the most beautiful reefs of the Caribbean; the locals of Isla de Providencia say the sea appears in seven distinct shades of brilliant blue. The birders arrived by Zodiac first and made a circuit of the island, the highlight of which was observing the endemic Providencia vireo, along with a rare close-up view of a mangrove cuckoo. Walking around the mangroves of Santa Catalina Island, they encountered multiple white-crowned pigeons and got an intimate view of a nesting green-breasted mango.

The snorkelers headed for the reefs, the more advanced group headed to Margarita’s Garden, a beautiful underwater area with many species, including fairy basslets, wrasses, parrotfish, French grunts, and a school of about 20 squid!

Those on the cultural tour first visited the parochial school where we donated school supplies and talked with the children before they treated us to a wonderful dance performance. Our next stop was the home of ‘Frenchy,’ a long term resident originally from France, where we sampled coconut and hibiscus flavored popsicles. After a visit to a beautiful white sand beach, we stopped at several lookouts, including Halley Park a high hill which people climbed to get a good look at Halley’s Comet.

Back at the pier, a lively local band played island music, and a couple in century-old costumes danced along. Soon we all joined in and the mood was one of lively frivolity. Too soon, it was time to leave with an afternoon at sea to look forward to.

Thursday, February 13 - Puerto Limón, Costa Rica / Tortuguero Canals: We came alongside Puerto Limón and set out for the ecologically diverse Tortuguero Canals. The Canals are one branch of a natural system of waterways which has been used for transportation and commerce in the past. It opens out to the sea but extends inland through protected forest and farmland.

We began near the sea and worked inland, the boat captain moving slowly and quietly through the surrounding forest, bringing us in closer when birds or beasts were sighted. We did not have to wait long to spot our first resident of this region, a green kingfisher. From there the list grew—we saw a variety of herons, some gracefully gliding over the water right next to the boat; white egrets; black-cowled orioles feeding on banana flowers; stingless Central American bees; a two-toed sloth; howler, spider, and capuchin monkeys; jacanas; and anhingas, or snakebirds.

At the landing we enjoyed a delicious snack of bright red sweet watermelon and succulent pineapple while some of us danced calypso or bought souvenirs in the little shop.

In Limón, a number of us walked through the market where the locals were friendly and welcoming. Dennis bought a crate full of tropical fruit for us to sample, while Jack took a group to the fish store, and a number of us purchased superbly-fresh ceviche.

Back onboard, we enjoyed the continuation of our lecture series. Rich started with his discussion on the Panama Canal entitled, The Land Divided, the People United. Jack continued his talk on reef fishes, using colorful slides to explain the diversity of reef life. Our evening recap was short and dinner was festive; we ended our day anticipating tomorrow’s visit to the historic town of Portobello, famous for gold, pirates, and the visits of Spanish galleons.

Friday, February 14 - Portobelo, Panama / Colon: Portobelo was established by the Spaniards in the early colonial period, to hold gold and silver brought from Peru and Mexico until the convoys of galleons arrived to transit the treasure to Spain. Naturally, this created a magnet for pirates, including Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. For protection, the Spaniards used an unusual type of defense—they built a series of small forts on the landward side and two at the entrance to the bay.

We landed by Zodiac at a small pier in front of Fort Santiago and walked into the sleepy little town which today, seems no different from any other town. We visited a museum that once recorded and monitored all of the King’s treasure, walked to the San Geronimo Fort, and stopped at the Church of the Black Christ, famous today as the target of a yearly pilgrimage taken by 30,000 people who walk across Panama.

Back at the Zodiac landing, we were entertained in Fort Santiago by a Congo dance group before we repositioned to Colon, where we took buses to the Panama Canal Expansion Site and Observation Center. We saw the huge new channel with all its gates, concrete walls, pipes, and pools—all absolutely still and abandoned. Work has stopped due to a budget overrun and the whole place had a somewhat eerie stillness about it.

Back in Colon, some of us explored the shopping area, returning to the ship in time for recap and a briefing on tomorrow’s activities.

Saturday, February 15 - San Blas Archipelago: Following a predawn snack, most of us climbed into Zodiacs at 6:15AM, on a fairly calm sea under slightly cloudy skies, and headed toward the shore in the dark. Near the shore, we navigated between and around dark grotesque shapes of submerged trees, finding the opening to the Rio Charcon that took us inland just as it started to get light. Gliding quietly through the narrow river lined with red mangroves, we spotted a number of herons, egrets, flycatchers, kiskidees, caracaras, kingfishers, brown-hooded parrots, and a number of other birds.

We arrived back at the ship for a hearty breakfast and repositioned, anchoring off Acuatupu Island where we disembarked, for a visit with the Kuna Indians. The inhabitants of the island, mainly women and children, set out their wonderful and colorful molas and beadwork. All sales are conducted by women who make the molas themselves—for the Kuna, tourism is an important source of income. Zegrahm made a donation to the village Sayla, elected chiefs, who were lying in hammocks in the community center.

It was interesting to get a glimpse of this challenging island life. The Kuna were the first indigenous group in Panama to get political autonomy and land rights and they cling tenaciously to their culture.

After a delicious shipboard lunch, we repositioned to Hollandes Cay, an idyllic ‘desert island’ with crystal-clear, light blue, comfortably warm water. The island is no more than a small thin strip of white sand shaded with coconut palms surrounded by a spectacularly rich and diverse coral reef where snorkelers saw an astonishing diversity of fish, healthy colorful coral reefs, and at least two rays.

This evening we enjoyed our Zegrahm celebratory cocktail party, with Jack reminding us that the company objective is to travel with an awareness and appreciation of the world around us and to learn as we leave our footprints in the sand.

After dinner our talented and energetic crew put on a special show to raise money for the Philippine disaster relief fund. They presented a variety of entertaining songs and dances that ranged from whimsical impersonations of Elvis to the stately traditional candle dance.

Sunday, February 16 - Panama Canal: Today we crossed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, an accomplishment that has only been possible for 100 years. We met our Canal Interpreter, Edgar, who narrated from the bridge, explaining everything that was happening around us in great detail. He pointed out that the Canal operates essentially without any machinery, purely by water power and gravity, and we watched in awe as we entered the first chamber of the Gatún locks.

It was a perfect day for the slow measured passage from one ocean to another, and most of us enjoyed lunch with a view on the shaded Lido deck. The pace made it possible to observe all the details of the operation, which remains one of the great wonders of human technological achievement.

In the afternoon we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and entered Miraflores locks, perhaps the most spectacular of all because there, just ahead, lay the great Pacific Ocean.

The evening ended with a recap consisting of questions and answers fielded by Rich, followed by a briefing on the day to come.

Monday, February 17 - Playa del Muerto, Darién Province: As the sun rose, we cruised along the hilly rugged coast of the Darién jungle on our way to the Emberá village at Playa del Muerto. Several Emberá men, dressed in red loin clothes and adorned with boar’s teeth and black body paint, came out to greet us and led the way through the rocks to a safe landing. A small band with a drum and flute played on the beach as graceful lovely women and rosy cheeked little children came running from a path in the forest to greet us warmly. The women had also dressed for the occasion—their chests remained bare except for a cross hatch of body painting and many strings of colorful plastic beads mixed with necklaces of silver coins.

We were all greeted with warm smiles and enthusiasm; the children took us by the hand and led us to the path which climbed up a stair cut out of the local clay, to a huge thatch structure which served as a guest house. Along the way, they had set up a cooking demonstration where they exhibited drying fish; chicken wrapped in banana leaves and mixed with mashed banana; and thick rice gruel.

Seated on benches in the guest house we first listened to music by the local ensemble and then watched a performance of several dances executed by girls of different ages. Among the Emberá, only women and girls dance. When the program ended, a small market was quickly set up, displaying exquisite basketry made of specially prepared palm fibers, wood carvings, and woven animal masks; the Emberá are famous for their basket-making skills.

It was much too soon to leave, but we were soon headed towards Isla Coiba, with our lecture series continuing in the afternoon. Greg discussed, So What is Birding Anyway?, followed by Olga’s presentation, Ethnic Communities of the Caribbean: The Garifuna, Kuna, and Emberá.

Earlier in the day, Rich had set aside some logwood to extract the dye and using the concentrates, he scarified a few Zegrahm shirts to the experiment. The results were quite spectacular—beautiful purple and red stripes and circles contrasted with triangles of bright yellow.

Tuesday, February 18 - Isla Coiba: Our morning began with an early continental breakfast in preparation for our first landing of the day, Punta Clara on Isla Coiba, which served as a penal colony from 1919 until 1996 and is now a national park. The old buildings remain in various states of disrepair and the place is inhabited a small contingent of military guards. The national park is home to a number of tropical and subtropical birds including the magnificent scarlet macaw.

We landed on the shallow white sand beach and immediately saw several macaws in a tree, a yellow caracara, and a number of seabirds. Those interested in birdwatching walked along the beach, searching the trees for additions to the bird list, while the rest of us headed up into the old buildings of the penitentiary.

Once we returned to the ship, we were treated to a wonderful and abundant brunch while we repositioned to the tiny white sand island of Granito de Oro – or ‘little grain of gold.’ We disembarked for a few hours of spectacular snorkeling, fish watching, and sun worshipping. The island was small enough to swim around and some of us stayed in the water for several hours.

Back aboard, we heard Conrad speak on Neotropical Plants, followed by an early tea. Later, we had the opportunity for a nature walk at the Ranger Station before a spectacular barbeqeue provided by our excellent Hotel Department. Everything we needed had been transferred to the shore, including plates, wine glasses, full bar, music, and tables.

After we were invaded by pirates—led by our own captain and Wendy, our Hotel Manager—we danced, drank, and celebrated the wonderful night, just as a waning moon rose brilliant orange over beautiful Isla Coiba.

Wednesday, February 19 - Granito de Oro: Some of us spent a relaxing morning snorkeling, while those of us more ambitious left the ship for the distant shore early for a nature walk; they saw troops of howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, lancetailed manakins, white hawks, barred antshrikes, and a white-throated robin. Later in the morning at Rancheria, a small island now belonging to the Smithsonian Institution, we got excellent views of a bat falcon dive bombing and a great black hawk directly over our heads.

The air felt cool, the sun shone bright, and the water was warm. The fish on the reef remained as spectacular as they had been yesterday; Jack found a yellow-colored pufferfish which, although poisonous if consumed, was passed around gently and then left to go on its way relieved that it was not somebody’s lunch.

We were soon on our way to Costa Rica, as Dennis discussed Symbiosis, Piano, and Rain Forest, followed by Kevin’s presentation on Rain Forest Architecture: It’s a Jungle Out There.

This evening, Captain Håkan Gustafsson hosted a lovely cocktail party in the lounge, presenting a number of the crew who work in all parts of the ship to make our voyage comfortable, elegant, and fun. Everyone came on stage and sang a medley of songs to see us on our way and make this unforgettable voyage even more memorable.

Thursday, February 20 - Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica: Our first outing in Costa Rica started in the pitch black of morning; we boarded Zodiacs and headed into the Rio Esquinas, an estuary opening out into the lovely Golfo Dulce. We made our way through the dark toward the fog-shrouded mouth of the river.

Gliding quietly through the mangroves, we were excited to see perched scarlet macaws and a massive grouping of white ibis. Further inland we found flocks of southern lapwing, gray hawks, snowy egrets, and yellow-crowned night herons. Beyond the mangroves the river continued into a more forested lowland environment which brought us a dazzling array of forest-edge birds such as tanagers, flycatchers, hummingbirds, ospreys, and hawks. It was a wonderful experience.

During breakfast we repositioned to an anchorage opposite the Casa Orquideas botanical garden, created by Ron and Trudy MacAllister over 25 years ago and today is one of the beautiful gems along the shores of the gulf. We were met by local guides and taken to various parts of the gardens, each exhibiting a specific collection of native and imported plants. The brilliant flowers and succulent fruits attract a wide variety of birds and insects which flit about fearlessly in the branches above; two scarlet macaws flew by overhead several times.

After a guided walk, we enjoyed a taste of local fruits and made our way back to the ship for an afternoon of reflection, recaps, and, sadly, packing for tomorrow. Greg, Kevin, Jack, and Rich went over some of the highlights of the voyage that will remain memorable for each of them, and Conrad’s slideshow reminded us of all the wonders of this unique and beautiful planet we discovered and explored in the last two weeks. A spirited auction followed to benefit the Philippines disaster fund, with various items up, from Kevin’s hand-painted map of the voyage to a bottle of Chili Wille’s hot sauce.

Filled with magnificent memories of exciting adventures in two oceans—of sea, sand, and coral reefs, of painted bodies and bright-eyed children, of trees and flowers and birds and bees and lizards…and…tomorrow we sadly tear ourselves away from this paradise and think about our next Zegrahm expedition.

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