Island Time

Finally, something new! We deviated from our standard, unvarying itinerary today with a stop at Taboga Island located just off shore of Panama City. In fact, the island sits within eyesight of Panama City’s skyscrapered periphery and thus it’s also surrounded by massive freighters waiting for their turn to enter the Panama Canal. There are two reasons why we visited the island: 1) This week is a photo tour with two National Geographic photographers on board, so any extra opportunity for a good photo shot, we jump at. And 2) Our hotel manager, Erasmo, has an apartment on the island where he spent much of his childhood and he wanted to give everyone a private tour. So just after lunch we took the Zodiacs to shore and spent a few hours exploring the colonial streets. At first impression, the small town reminded me of the Caribbean. All the houses were painted in bright colors like blue, pink, yellow, and green, and the residents were complying with typical Caribbean attitude – that is, lounging around, chatting with neighbors, and overall, taking it easy. At the center of the town was a large white church, but I found the barber giving a gentleman a haircut in the street more photogenic. We followed Erasmo through the narrow streets, the photographers with 2-foot long lens snapping photos every step of the way, until we arrived at his three story, bright red apartment house. The first two stories belong to his relatives, but the bottom level – complete with an airy balcony overlooking the harbor – is his getaway from the bustle of Panama City. There we enjoyed cold lemonade while looking at the numerous sailboats in the bay and the larger container ships farther off in the distance. Then it was back to the ship because the Panama Canal Authorities basically dictate our schedule once we’re anchored outside of the Panama Canal. If we’re late for our appointment, we might not get another until the next day! And that wouldn’t be good…

A New DER!

Here’s my Daily Expedition Report for the week. Passing through the Panama Canal. Again!

2 February, 2012
Gulf Islands and the Panama Canal

We left the tiny paradisaical islet of Granito de Oro in Panama’s Coiba National Park late yesterday afternoon and sailed a total of 190 nautical miles along the rugged Pacific coastline to reach the Gulf of Panama. We woke to a very windy morning as the National Geographic Sea Lion continued on her way toward our morning destination – the remote islands of Otoque and Bona. Due to a number of breaks in the mountain chains that parallel the Pacific coastline, trade winds are able to blow over the Gulf of Panama and as a result, they push away the surface waters. This allows nutrient-rich waters from below to up-well, bringing with them a high volume of essential food sources for marine birds and other wildlife. To the delight of many of our birders onboard, we had the opportunity to explore these islands by Zodiac, catching sight of a variety of species including magnificent frigate birds, brown pelicans, blue-footed boobies, brown-footed boobies, and even a predatory peregrine falcon, arguably the fastest animal on earth.

Once back onboard, we picked up anchor and headed deeper into the Gulf toward the colonial town of Panama City. Miles before we could see the cityscape, however, we passed by quite a few large ships carrying heavy cargo. They were either heading toward the Pacific entrance of the canal, like us, or had just finished their transit and were on their way to other destinations. As we waited for word from the Canal Authorities as to when our transit time would be, we enjoyed cocktails and ceviche on the aft bridge deck. Panama City was visible on the horizon and shipping vessels and passenger ships alike flanked us on all sides.

At last it was our turn to enter the Panama Canal. The pilot, mandatory for all vessels crossing the Canal, came onboard as did a dozen or so line handlers who would help ensure our safe passage through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks. Despite it being a night crossing, the locks were well lit and the lights cast an almost supernatural aura over our proceeding. Dinner was a Central American buffet feast and many of us decided to enjoy it out on decks as we continued to make our way through the first two sets of locks in the Panama Canal.

Becky Timbers
Wellness Specialist

Anteater in the Treetops

I saw an anteater today! My first one, so it was very exciting. We went ashore at Barro Colorado, an island in Gatun Lake, late this morning after a very early crossing of the first half of the Canal. About half of our guests arrived late yesterday, due to delayed flights, so our Canal transit time got pushed back. And back, and back. It worked out beautifully, though, because instead of entering the locks at 11:30ish last night, we went through at 6 or so this morning. Which meant that I didn’t have stretch class, but it also meant that the guests got to see the Canal in the daylight and didn’t have to stay up super late after flying in from the States. So we went ashore at BCI a little later than usual, but still did the regular hikes and Zodiac cruises. My group was just about back to the research station where we started when our guide looked up and saw an anteater slowly making its way along a tree limb. It stopped and began clawing at a hole in the branch and then stuck its head inside and slurped out some delicious termites. It was very cool.

Last week when we were at Barro Colorado Island, I saw another new species. A poison dart frog. It was a teeny tiny one, but still a poison dart frog and still beautiful.

Since I’ve been to Barro Colorado Island so many times, I tend to get rather bored on the trails. So, to keep me engaged and un-bored, I’ve started bringing my camera along each time and looking for interesting details to photograph. Here are some of my favorite shots.

18 Times Through the Panama Canal

Yesterday marked my 18th passage through the Panama Canal. I can’t say that I have been out on deck every single occasion (as interesting as it is, 18 times through the Panama Canal can get a bit repetitive), but last night I did enjoy the cool breeze and rising (almost) full moon as we slowly made our way through the locks and out into the Pacific Ocean. I felt slightly bad for the guests because we transited each set of locks (the ones on the Caribbean side and the ones on the Pacific) at night. Usually we make one night crossing and one day crossing with a stop at Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake in the morning. But we have no control over what the Panama Canal Authorities tell us, so this week we were raised and lowered in the locks by moonlight. Crossing at night, though, is personally my favorite because the locks are lit up brightly and the lamp lights set a golden glow over everything. It gives the experience a more surreal and dreamlike feel. Here are few pics that I took last night. I’ve been playing around with my fisheye setting, so let me know what you think!

Yesterday was also my first time doing a Zodiac cruise at Barro Colorado Island. I usually do one of the hikes, but after returning to the ship last week with a series of red bites all over my body (chiggers?), I was hesitant to return ashore yesterday. I’d never done a Zodiac cruise at BCI, so I thought it was about time I did. And it was surprisingly pleasant! I was in C’s boat (he was the navigator) and we meandered along the coast of Barro Colorado Island with a guide from BCI pointing out some interesting tidbits. I was hoping to see a crocodile, but no such luck. We did see some howler monkeys, a few iguanas, lots of birds, and several massive ships cruising down the Panama Canal. It wasn’t too hot either, thanks to the nice breeze and scattered cloud cover. It was a great way to spend the morning and I didn’t come back with any bites!

Stuck in Colon

When I wrote about my trip to Florida, I promised that I would post some manatee pics as soon as I got them from C. So here they are! Aren’t they cute?!

I’m sitting in a little coffee shop in Colon. I just finished thoroughly cleaning the spa (it’s a constant battle against mold down here) and now I have some free time to relax and run a few errands (like buying some healthy breakfast foods). We just finished our first trip from Costa Rica to Panama. It went smoothly and we saw quite a few good wildlife sightings. Lots of monkeys (capuchins’ and howler’s), but the most exciting sighting was of a tayra, which I spotted on Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake (in the middle of the Panama Canal). Our guide had never seen one in the wild and she’s been living and working on the island for 8 years! A tayra, as I learned, is in the weasel family, but it has longer legs and are larger than most weasels. If our guide hadn’t told us what it was, I would have guessed it was a panther because it was big, had a long tail, and was jet black! Very cool.

Image from

I also used C’s underwater camera at Granito de Oro, a small island that we visit in Panama’s Coiba National Park. Here are some of the images I took. The don’t nearly do the real thing justice though…

Since our last trip started on a Tuesday, we now have four lay days in Colon in order to get back on a Saturday to Saturday schedule. Colon, as I have mentioned before, is not a nice city. I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the next few days, but I’m sure I can find some things to keep me busy!

Massage Etiquette

I thought I was done with coincidences for awhile after discovering that senior deckhand Ian Strachan and I played together as kids in Maine, but today turned up another surprise. We were hiking through the tropical rainforest of Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and I started talking to a couple in my group. They mentioned that they’re from Connecticut, and naturally, since my mom grew up there and my grandparents still live there, I asked where in Connecticut they were from. Stonington, they replied. Since that’s the town over from where my grandparents live (Mystic) my response was, “oh, do you know Dave and Ginny Schimdt?” knowing that it was a shot in the dark. But yes, they know Dave and Ginny Schmidt. Quite well actually, I think they said that they ran into them at the grocery store the other day. It really is a small world.

On a completely different note, I’d like to share a list of massage do’s and don’t’s that I came up with last week. Several of them arose from an awkward (not in a bad way) and rather humorous massage I gave the previous trip. It was an older gentleman who was not in the best of shape, to say the least. To make a long story short he pretty much directed me in what to do, saying “when are you going to get to my feet”, “when are you going to get to my hands” and then halfway though, he fell asleep. When he started snoring and blowing air out from between his lips and scrunching up his face into a ball my first thought was “be careful who you marry.” Several times I had to turn my head to keep from laughing. But from that I came up with a few rules for massage etiquette. Here they are:

1) Wash your feet. Please.
2) Don’t talk (much). It’s hard for the massage therapist to concentrate and it can’t be very relaxing for you.
3) You may think your leg or arm is too heavy to lift, so you try to help by lifting it yourself, but it’s actually much easier for us if you stay limp. Not to mention more relaxing and more beneficial for you.
4) Unless it’s a really horrible massage, don’t try to direct your massage therapist. Asking “when are you going to get to my feet” is kind of rude.
5) If you have a cut or a rash or open sore, please let your massage therapist know. In this case surprises are not fun.
6) Be on time. Even five minutes early if you can. You’ll get a longer massage and we won’t have to rush.

That’s all I came up with, but I’m sure there are many more to add. Let me know if you think of any!