Rainforests & Reefs

2016 Rainforests & Reefs of Central America Field Report

Rich Pagen|July 5, 2016|Field Report

Wednesday & Thursday, April 13 & 14, 2016 - San José, Costa Rica / Puerto Caldera / Embark Sea Adventurer / Golfo Dulce

We converged in San José for the same reason: to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of Central America. We stopped first at a coffee plantation, where we roamed through the grounds, learned about the process of producing shade-grown coffee, and sampled the beverage on the porch of a rustic wood hut. From there we visited the town of Sarchi, with its beautiful “wedding cake” church and a central plaza that showcased the largest oxcart in the world. Late in the afternoon, we boarded the Sea Adventurer, our home for the next two weeks. We settled in before gathering together as Expedition Leader Lia Oprea introduced us to the staff, and Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons gave us an overview of the ship. Following a wonderful dinner served in the dining room, we were well ready for a good night’s sleep.

We woke to calm seas and the mountainous terrain of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. After breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs and came ashore at Casa Orquideas on a black-sand beach. This remarkable site is part botanical garden, part pristine tropical forest. We set out on a network of trails to explore; rufous-tailed hummingbirds visited brilliant red-and-yellow Heliconia flowers in their never-ending quest for nectar, while a variety of tanagers and honeycreepers feasted on ripe fruit at the bird feeding station outside the main house.

After beachcombing with accompanying hermit crabs, we headed back to the ship for lunch, before reaching the mouth of the Rio Esquinas. As we set out to explore this mangrove estuary, a pouring rain was our constant companion. We maneuvered into channels and around shallow mud bars in the river, and at one point a spectacular rainbow appeared. 

Once back onboard, we dried ourselves off in preparations for Captain Denis Radja’s welcome aboard cocktail party. We mingled over champagne before he told us the history of our ship and introduced us to some of his staff. This was followed by a festive dinner prepared by our executive chef, Jan Jocob.

Friday, April 15 - Isla Coiba, Panama

This morning we arrived at Isla Coiba, the site of a former penal colony established in 1919. This prison, which had the reputation of being a very difficult place, was closed down in 2004, and now stories abound that it is haunted by the ghosts of prisoners. Because the island’s dubious history protected it from colonization, it has remained in very pristine condition.

After breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs for a tiny rocky islet called Granito de Oro, and landed on a small but gorgeous sandy beach where we spent the morning. Some of us admired the spectacular scenery from the vantage point of a kayak, watching a common black hawk perched on the highest point of the island as we paddled along. Others waded off the beach to snorkel out to a rocky outcropping for our first look at the underwater world here in the Pacific. Cortez rainbow wrasses were everywhere, facing their yellow-striped bodies into the incoming current. Panamic fanged blennies sat perched on prominent rocks, grazing on filamentous algae, while a local butterflyfish called barberfish, flitted around in pairs in search of tasty bits to eat.

We ate lunch back onboard and repositioned to the main island. There, we went ashore at a cluster of ranger station buildings, where we went off to explore the area on some of its hiking trails. Large rainforest rodents called agoutis searched the grounds for bits of fallen fruit, while a king vulture was spotted overhead amongst a group of soaring black vultures. Eastern kingbirds sallied out for insects from the treetops, while some of us had great looks through the scope at a perched roadside hawk.

Some of us hiked up to a high point with sweeping views down over the bay, while others returned to the beach to lounge or go for a swim. By late afternoon, the ship’s restaurant and bar staff had set up a bar with cold drinks and we watched the most beautiful orange sunset. The barbecues were lit, and we had a lively dinner ashore.

Saturday, April 16 - Isla Coiba

We awoke to a bit of rain as we set out to spend our second day exploring Isla Coiba. Some of us got up for sunrise, a Zodiac ride ashore to a sheltered beach, and a hike on a wild trail called Sendero de los Monos. The rain let up as we started into the rainforest, with towering buttress-root trees overhead, and giant lianas weaving their way up the massive tree trunks. We walked silently through the dimly lit understory, with the sound of howler monkeys echoing in the distance and barred antshrikes calling from the vine tangles. The trail climbed up a ridge and dropped down the other side to another remote beach, where the Zodiacs were awaiting to whisk us back to the ship—and breakfast! 

After relaxing over omelets and oatmeal, we headed out for one variety of watersports or another. The divers and snorkelers explored the area reefs, watching giant damselfish aggressively defend their algae patches from intruders, and a white-tip reef shark circling below. Stripebelly and guineafowl puffers watched us cautiously, unaware that we had no intention of eating them and the neurotoxin in their tissue that protects them from many predators. Meanwhile, the kayakers fanned out over the tropical waters.

We returned for lunch, and set course for the Darién coast, which we would explore tomorrow. During the afternoon, Pamela Matson presented her talk, Sustainability in Central America, and Annette Kuhlem followed with, The River as a Life Vein, the Forest as a Shelter: The Emberá People of Panama.

During breaks in our afternoon education, time out on deck watching for flyingfish flushing in front of the ship was a popular pastime. We finished the day with recap, a briefing about tomorrow’s plans, and a delicious dinner.

Sunday, April 17 - Mogue River, Darién Province

This morning, we looked out at the Darién region of Panama, one of the wildest and undeveloped parts of Central America. The area surrounding the border with Colombia is known as the Darién Gap which, with no roads, is the missing link of the Pan-American Highway.

The waves and swell pounding the black-sand beach of Playa del Muerto were impressive, and the Zodiacs had to wait outside the breakers for a lull in order to make it safely to the beach. Our plan for the morning was a cultural exchange with the Emberá people, who were immediately recognizable by the temporary blue tattoos all over their bodies. The body art is actually created by the application of an extract from a fruit known as jagua, which stains the skin and lasts for several weeks! The villagers welcomed us ashore, and we danced along with some local musicians playing percussion as we watched the exciting approach of incoming Zodiacs.

Once ashore, we walked along the beach and up to a gathering point in the trees, meeting locals along the way who were cooking various food items we could sample. We watched a dance performance under a large thatch-roof, then had the opportunity to browse and purchase some local Emberá handicrafts, including wood carvings and intricate basket work. Some of us had jagua tattoos painted on us, which arguably didn’t turn out quite as neat as those of the villagers, who seem to be immune to the need to sweat!

Back on board, we enjoyed lunch out on deck, gazing at some of our last looks of the Pacific Ocean. Afterwards, we joined Rich Cahill for his talk, Panama: A Created Country. Rich Pagen followed with, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships Have Built an Empire.

After a delicious dinner, we rendezvoused for dessert, popcorn, and a showing of the film, Panama Canal: Gateway to the American Century, before heading to bed.

Monday, April 18 - Panama Canal

During the early morning hours, the Sea Adventurer picked up the pilot off the southern end of the Panama Canal and began our daylight transit of one of the most impressive engineering feats in the world. Originally started in 1881 by France, the canal was finally completed by the United States in 1914. This 48-mile long waterway greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America. 

We passed beneath the Bridge of the Americas and entered the Panama Canal proper.  Throughout the day, we heard commentary about the canal from a local guide over the ship’s PA system, and by the end we had learned so much. The weather was perfect, and we spent most of our time out on deck taking in the scene. 

After breakfast, we arrived at the Miraflores Lock and watched with fascination as the water level rose, lifting the ship up to the next level. Many of us had earlier told friends and family to go onto the Panama Canal website to try and see us on the Miraflores webcam; we waved at the camera just in case!

In the late afternoon, our local guide Patricia Holmes gathered us in the lounge so she could answer any specific questions we had about the history and engineering of the Canal. We then returned to the outside decks to scan the area for wildlife, spotting black vultures soaring overhead and groups of magnificent frigatebirds duck-bathing in the fresh water, a good long way from the coast. 

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Gatun Lock and admired the train-like cars that pulled cables that had been attached to the ship, moving us along through the lock. Soon we had come out the other side, into the Caribbean Sea, having undertaken and completed an exciting historical journey!

As the ship moved out into the open sea, Rich Cahill gave his perspective on his home country in a talk called, Panama Today, followed by recap and a delicious dinner served by the galley team.

Tuesday, April 19 - San Blas Archipelago

We awoke to some gentle rolling our first morning in the Caribbean Sea. A flock of brown boobies escorted us on our way to the San Blas Archipelago, soaring effortlessly in the brisk winds. After a relaxing breakfast, we joined Jack Grove for his talk, Oceans Divided. During the late morning, we arrived in the San Blas Archipelago, a series of 378 islands stretching along the north coast of Panama all the way to Colombia. The islands are home to the Kuna people, who run the islands as an autonomous province with minimal interference from the national government. They are famous for their textile art called molas, which literally translates to ‘clothing.’ These brightly colored panels are used to adorn the blouses worn by the women.

We landed on a small wooden dock and set out to explore the village. We visited the school and presented supplies to the principal, and met many of the children, who were dressed in their school uniforms. We wandered among the houses, meeting the local people and browsing the molas and other crafts they had for sale throughout the village.

Over lunch, we repositioned to Holandes Caye, where we would spend the afternoon snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming off the beach. Calm conditions and excellent visibility awaited us as we explored the reef, admiring a diversity of coral types including brain corals and sea fans. A six-foot-long nurse shark rested on the bottom, while schools of brilliant yellow bluehead wrasses swam above the reef.

In the evening, we donned our most colorful outfits for a very festive Zegrahm and Stanford Travel/Study cocktail party, out on the back deck. We admired the creative outfits on display and celebrated all we had seen and done on this trip so far, as well as the partnership these two travel companies have shared over the years.

Wednesday, April 20 - Colon

Early this morning, we arrived at Colon at the northern end of the Panama Canal. The city was founded in 1850 as the Atlantic terminus of the Panama Railroad, and was then under construction to meet the gold rush demand for a fast route to California.

We boarded buses and headed to the Panama Canal visitor center in Gatun, where we had a unique opportunity to view the final stages of the Panama Canal expansion project. This $5.25 billion project is expected to be completed this year, and is intended to double the capacity of the Canal by creating a new lane of traffic and increasing the maximum width and height.

We stood out on the observation deck, looking down upon the construction below. In the distance, huge ships were moving through the Gatun Locks, the same locks we passed through just a few short days ago.

We wandered down the road a bit, looking at birds and coming across a troop of howler monkeys. These largest of the New World monkeys are the only ones who specialize in feeding on leaves. We got some great looks as they bounded from tree to tree before returning to the port and perusing the shops or enjoying a beer at a local café before we sailed for Costa Rica.

After lunch, Jack gathered us in the lounge for his presentation, Ocean Divided – Part 2: Sea Currents and Marine Life on Either Side of Central America. Following the talk, we headed outside to watch the distant coast of Central America go by, before joining Peter Vitousek for his talk, Costa Rica’s Geological, Political, and Conservation History

Following an interesting recap, we mingled over dinner and a drink in the bar before heading off to rest up for our arrival tomorrow back in Costa Rica.

Thursday, April 21 - Puerto Limón, Costa Rica / Tortuguero Canals

We arrived this morning alongside the pier in Puerto Limón, not far from Isla Uvita, the island where Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor in Costa Rica in 1502. This port city is the capital of Limón province, where until 1948, the Costa Rican government did not recognize Afro-Caribbean people as citizens and restricted their movement outside the province.

After a short drive out of the city, we arrived at the Tortuguero Canals, a series of interlinked waterways and navigable lagoons that spread north up the coast. We boarded boats to explore the area for wildlife, and were very happy with what we found—both species of sloths were spotted, including one with a baby holding on tightly to its mother. We also passed a tree decorated with the hanging nests of Montezuma oropendulas; these large and conspicuous members of the blackbird family were making their spectacular calls while simultaneously nearly flipping their bodies upside down. On the muddy river edge, iguanas basked in the tropical sun and a crab-eating raccoon explored the bank for edible morsels. Several troops of howler monkeys moved through the trees overhead, while a pair of Amazon kingfishers called raucously to one another as they dove into the murky water for fish.

After lunch on board, we joined Kevin Clement for his presentation, Under the Brave Black Flag: Pirate Fact and Fiction. Following tea, Rich Pagen followed with his talk, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef.

After a recap that wrapped up with a tribute to recently deceased musician and performer, Prince, we told stories of the day over a delicious dinner.

Friday, April 22 - Isla de Providencia, Colombia

This morning we arrived off a remote outpost of Colombia called Isla de Providencia. This mountainous island lies halfway between Costa Rica and Jamaica, and was the site of an English Puritan colony founded in 1629. Today, the 5,000 residents seem more Caribbean than Colombian, with English and creole spoken as the main languages.

Some of us went ashore for a tour around the island in the back of local pick-up trucks, visiting several viewpoints overlooking the gorgeous coastline, and stopping for a visit at a school. Others headed out to go snorkeling or diving, which was excellent in such a remote locale. We boarded local covered boats, and were led to some of the best spots on the island. Stunning orange-and-blue queen angelfish eyed us curiously as they drifted over the reef, while yellow stingrays rummaged through the sediment in search of tasty morsels hiding out of sight. 

After lunch, some of us boarded kayaks to explore the rocky coastline. Others decided to go snorkeling or diving, spotting the bizarre and boxy smooth trunkfish, as well as a massive nurse shark that was patrolling the area. Southern stingrays were relaxing on the sand in various locales, and even a few common lionfish were observed.

Some of us stopped after the snorkel on a small rocky island called Crab Caye, where we walked the five minutes to the top for a spectacular view of the area. We took the boat in close to an island with nesting frigatebirds and brown boobies; these seabirds are commonly associated with schools of tuna or other large pelagic fish, attempting to snatch up fish that are driven to the surface by the piscine predators below.

Back onboard, we got rinsed off and cleaned up for a very informative recap, followed by dinner.

Saturday & Sunday, April 23 & 24 - At Sea / Bay Islands, Honduras

With a day at sea, we took advantage of a leisurely morning before Dan Olsen’s Lost at Sea: The History of Navigation, and Pam’s Perusing Sustainability: An Example from Belize. After lunch we questioned Jack and Rich Pagen, who answered fish ID and biology questions. This was followed by Annette’s, Feathered Snakes and Sacred Ballgames: The Maya Empire in Eastern Meso-America.

We awoke near a remote group of islands called Cayos Cochinos; consisting of two small islands and 13 coral cays, this archipelago has a population around 100 people and is one of the least disturbed reef systems in the Bay Islands. We went ashore for an introduction to the marine protected area around Cayos Cochinos; from there, we boarded Zodiacs to a remote spot for a nature walk, where vireos were singing relentlessly in the trees, and impressive vines crept their way up from the ground to the treetops. This region is also home to an endemic dwarf form of boa constrictor, aptly named the pink boa. We landed in a shallow bay to walk inland to where one of the local boys had found a boa to show us. More gray than pink, the snake had the most mesmerizing eyes, with a black slit dissecting splotchy gray and brown.

Following lunch, Kevin and Dan took the kayakers along the island’s pristine shoreline, while Mike Murphy found an excellent spot for the divers to drop in. Snorkelers headed into a wonderland of rocky reef formations, where schools of barracuda cruised the shallows over sand, sea grass meadows, and the occasional sea urchin. On the reef itself, tiny purple and yellow fairy basslets oriented themselves upside down along the roofs of rocky overhangs, occasionally venturing out to feed in the water column.

Later, we came ashore at a small village of the Garifuna people, mixed race descendants of Central and West Africans and indigenous Central Americans. We found artifacts for sale, beer and fresh coconuts available to sip on, and a wonderful performance of local music and dance. As the sun went down, we returned to the ship for Captain Denis Radja’s Farewell Cocktail Party.

Monday, April 25 - Lighthouse Reef, Belize

We arrived on the eastern edge of the Belize Barrier Reef, at an atoll called Lighthouse Reef. Twenty-two miles in length, this is one of the healthiest and best developed reefs in the entire Caribbean. Our focus this morning was a small island called Half Moon Caye, the first nature reserve established in Belize, and the first marine protected area in Central America.

Some of us went off snorkeling and diving, where we watched bluehead wrasses swarming around a prominent coral head, cleaning parasites off large gray fish called drummers. Others landed on the small island itself, where we headed off on nature walks to admire this remarkable place. Hermit crab tracks were everywhere in the soft sand and large rock iguanas were basking all over the place. There were also a variety of migrating songbirds taking refuge in the vegetation, including a yellow-billed cuckoo and several male magnolia warblers, in their stunning black, yellow, and white breeding plumage.

But the highlight of the island had to be the seabirds, nesting all over the island’s trees. Magnificent male frigatebirds displayed to attract females, by inflating their bright red throat patches and shaking their heads around. Meanwhile, red-footed boobies sat upright in their stick nests, their bills the most beautiful light blue color. We spent considerable time on the raised viewing platform where, with the help of a spotting scope, we could see every detail of their faces and plumage.

After lunch, it was an afternoon filled with watersports—the kayakers headed out to explore this massive oasis, and the snorkelers and divers dropped in on rocky reefs, where juvenile yellowtail damselfish sparkled with the most brilliant iridescent blue spots. The snorkelers swam up into a slight current, drifting back towards the boat with schools of yellowtail snapper, and passing hovering sand tilefish that were touching up their burrows in the rubble.

Back onboard, we gathered for our final recap, during which the expedition team shared some of their highlights from our voyage of discovery. After a wonderful barbecue, we joined Sam Crimmin for her retrospective slideshow of our trip. The photos were amazing, and our experiences in Central America seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.

Tuesday, April 26 - Belize City

This morning we arrived off of Belize City, the final stop on our tropical adventure. We have reached the end of our exploration of the Rainforests and Reefs of Central America. The final days of this expedition have been dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, with whom we have shared this journey. 

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