The Next Lindblad Model?

Finally! Off the boat at last! It’s been a long two months down here in Costa Rica and Panama on the Sea Lion, but we made it through and now we’re in San Jose relaxing at the endearing Hotel Aranjuez (thanks, mom, for the recommendation). We left the Sea Lion just after lunch yesterday amid the turmoil of a new rotation coming in and an old one on its way out. It was good to see people I haven’t seen for awhile, but I was also ready to start my vacation!

This past week was actually a rather memorable one for me, though, in terms of Lindblad trips. I had a very light work week massage-wise (which I wasn’t sorry about), so I went on a few more outings than I normally do (I can go on any hike or Zodiac cruise I want to when I’m not giving massages, but I typically stay on the ship and work out or catch up on emails). It was a photography-orientated trip, so we had two guest photographers – Ralph Lee Hopkins, a National Geographic photographer, and Richard Maack, a professional freelance photographer from Arizona. The guests ranged from point-and-shooters to semi-professionals with two or more SLR’s strapped around their necks.

Towards the beginning of the week we stopped at a new beach in Coiba National Park that I’d never been to. The landing was difficult – our Zodiac drivers had to bring the Zodiacs in stern first on a rolling wave – so catching the Zodiacs when they came in was exciting and drenching wet. The beach was also home to massive hermit crabs and tide-pools that harbored strange-looking nudibranchs, sea stars, little fish, and snails.

For my last week I also got to lead the horse-back ride at Caletas, just outside of Corcovado National Park. There were about six riders plus myself and we had a nice morning riding along the rainforest trail and out onto the white-sandy beaches as the waves crashed into the rocks.

Later that day I was recruited by our National Geographic photographer – Ralph Lee Hopkins – to do a brochure photo shoot at the base of a waterfall at San Pedrillo. I’d never done a photo shoot before, so I was excited! He had me wear a bright blue top, black carpris and a safari-style hat with a chinstrap. Before taking the brochure photos (for Lindblad’s expedition catalogue, although the photos we took will probably never make the cut), he shot me doing some yoga poses with the waterfall at the background. It was so much fun! Maybe my next career will be a yoga model???

So now here we are, enjoying the expansive breakfast at Hotel Aranjuez, with no plans for the day expect to relax, maybe walk around if we feel motivated, enjoy a nice dinner and perhaps a movie. Tomorrow we board a plane that will take us to Ecuador and our mountain biking/hiking escapade and Galapagos adventure!

The Pearl Islands

It’s Carnival time in Panama, which – for us on a boat – doesn’t mean much except for the fact that the places we usually visit will be over-run by Panamanian families hitting the beach for a good time over next several days. So instead of trying to muscle our way through the crowds to stake out a landing on shore, we’ve made a few adjustments to our itinerary. To me, this is a blessing, because if you read my last entry, you might have gathered that any deviation from our unvarying course from Costa Rica to Panama and back again is more than welcome. This morning we would normally be doing Zodiac cruises at a group of islands called Otoque and Bona (known for their abundant bird life), but instead we visited another group of islands in the Bay of Panama called the Pearl Islands. Also rich in bird life, we did two rounds of Zodiac cruises here and I managed to secure a spot on the last Zodiac on the second round. I’m not a birder, but I enjoyed spending an hour off the boat in the sunshine, bobbing around in a Zodiac. Here are a few pics that I took. We also saw a young frigate bird that had fallen into the water. Despite being a marine bird, frigate birds are pretty much doomed if they get their feathers wet. Their bodies are so light (less than two pounds!), they can’t lift themselves out of the water if they happen to fall in. We came across him struggling to lift off out of the water while exploring one of the islands by Zodiac. Later one of our naturalists went back over to pull him out of the water, dry him off, and send him on his way, tired, but apparently fine.

After the Zodiac cruises, we repositioned the Sea Lion a short ways to a beautiful tiny island called Bartolome. One side of the islands consists of a large sandy beach peppered with broken bits of shell and coral and the other side of the island is formed of fascinating rock formations. I didn’t walk around the island today, but I have in the past and it’s quite beautiful. We spent about an hour and a half at Bartomole before we had to pick up anchor and commence our 205 mile run to Coiba National Park, where we’ll visit some more new places and islands. On the way we spotted a few humpback whales, an army of feeding pelicans, a few dolphins, floating turtles, and eerie underwater waves of red algae.

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…

Coiba DER

Sorry I haven’t been more inspired to post anything else besides DER… But nothing too exciting has happened!

Coiba National Park
7 February, 2012

Today was a beach day. After traveling all night from the Gulf of Panama and around the  Azuero Peninsula, we arrived early at a small gem of an island called Granito de Oro, or Little Grain of Gold. Granito de Oro is a small islet located in Panama’s magnificent Coiba National Park, which is also the third largest marine park in the world, second only to the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos. The island consists of a large, white, sandy beach, a few palm trees, some rocky outcroppings, and hundreds, if not thousands, of hermit crabs. We brought ashore some beach chairs, refreshments, flotation noodles, snorkels and masks, and kayaks and prepared for a day of swimming and enjoying the clear, refreshing water of Coiba National Park.

The largest island in the park, also known as Coiba, is unique because in the 1970’s the island was used as one of Panama’s most stringent penal colony complete with several prison camps. Tourists were not allowed to visit the island, so no development in terms of resorts, hotels, or homes were established. As a result, the forests and reefs remained untouched and pristine. When scientists and researchers started doing studies in the areas, they found that there was three times more predators compared to other areas that were not protected. That meant that there was a lot of food and wildlife diversity present to support such high numbers of predators. The government decided to shut down the prison on Coiba and in 2000, 271,000 hectares were established as a National Park, only 51,000 of which is mainland, the rest is marine area.

This morning we had the opportunity to experience the high diversity of marine life and healthy coral reef present in Coiba. Snorkeler’s caught sight of a variety of different fish such as sergeant majors, damselfish, parrot fish, and many more. In the afternoon guests had the option to return to the beach for more snorkeling and swimming or to stretch their legs on the Monkey Trail located across the channel on Coiba Island. There we saw great sightings of the rare lance-tailed manikin and crimson-backed tanager.

We returned to the ship in the late afternoon and after the National Geographic Sea Lion picked up anchor, we continued on our way. We were soon joined by several dolphins who entertained us as the sun set by playing in our wake. Tomorrow we will wake up in Costa Rica!

Becky Timbers, Wellness Specialist

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

Peach Palm Goodness

One thing that I love about traveling to exotic (and not so exotic) places all over the world, is the discovery of new and exciting, not to mention delicious, foods. I consider myself a pretty strict vegan when I’m home and can cook for myself, but when I’m on the road, I like to keep my options a bit more open for the sake of not stressing about what my next meal will be, but also so I can enjoy the local culture and traditions in the form of authentic cuisine. Some of my favorite food-related memories of my travels have been:

– Fresh coconuts in Thailand (obviously)
– Finding a little vegetarian cafe in the midst of numerous meat-heavy cafes in Gdansk, Poland
– Eating the best tom-kha (green papaya) salad at a vegetarian restaurant in Bangkok
– Having the most delicious coconut ice cream (not vegan) I’ve ever tasted from a small family-owned ice cream shop called La Fuente in La Paz, Baja
– Guiltily enjoying a marzipan delicacy and hot latte at the world-famous Niederegger Cafe in Lubeck, Germany
– Watching the women at my rural home-stay in Kenya make fresh chapatis over an open fire. They were the best chapatis I’ve every had

– Eating a bowl of noodles with my fellow classmates at a small noodle shop in China after spending the day walking around a shopping. By the time   we sat down, we were starving and the noodles tasted absolutely fantastic

– Browsing the open markets of Luang Prabang in Laos and uneasily eyeing things like fried bats, baskets full of freshly caught fish, entire honey combs straight from the tree, various assortments of dried sea-life, and more…

The list could go on and on, but the main point I’m trying to make is that a big part of traveling is enjoying the local cuisine and trying new foods that you never seen or heard about. I can’t say that I would go as far as eating meat, but I wouldn’t be (and haven’t been) above tasting meals and dishes prepared with dairy and eggs, despite the fact that I much prefer to eat a vegan diet. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans.

So when I saw a new item on the salad bar a few weeks ago, I was eager to try it. What I saw was a bright orange, walnut-sized vegetable. Or fruit. I couldn’t tell. After confirming with the head steward that I could eat it (it’s vegan), I asked what it was. In English, the fruit is called peach palm and in Spanish it’s known as pejibaye. It kind of looks like half of a pitted apricot, but much brighter orange. Tasting it, the texture reminded me of a very dense egg yolk (or what I remember the texture of an egg yolk to be) and the flavor reminded me of… I’m not sure. Slightly sweet and mild, kind of nutty, and really good! The peach palm fruit grows in clusters on (surprise, surprise), a palm tree, which is also well known for producing heart of palm, another delicious local delicacy. To harvest the fruit, they cut down the ripe clusters from the palm and then boil the fruit in salty water for 1-3 hours. Then they remove the peel and either eat them like that, or process them in cans or jars.

Wanting to know more, I did a little bit of internet research to see if I could find any nutritional value on peach palms. I did, and here’s what I found. Per 100 grams, palm fruit has 164 calories, 2.5 grams of protein, is high in vitamin A as well as vitamin C, and contains a whole lot of fiber. Like most fruits vegetables (if not all), it’s very good for you and tasty! I only hope I can find it when I get back to the states…

Coiba National Park DER

Another Daily Expedition Report from the National Geographic Sea Lion!

24 January, 2012
Coiba National Park

Sun and beach were the prominent themes for today. We spent the entire morning and much of the afternoon swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and sunbathing on a small island called Granito de Oro in the warm, clear waters of Coiba National Park. The park is one of Panama’s largest national parks and is the third largest marine park in the world, smaller only than the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos National Park. In addition to being one of Panama’s largest protected areas, Coiba Island – the largest island within the national park – served as a prison many years ago and still houses several penal structures.

We went ashore at Granito de Oro just after breakfast and subsequently spent several hours enjoying its allure. We made available both single and double kayaks for guests to enjoy and the crystal clear water was more than ideal for snorkeling. A few of the varieties of fish that we saw included several species of puffer fish, yellow and black striped sergeant majors, bright blue and green parrot fish, Moorish idols, king angel fish, and even a white-tip reef shark. For those wanting a bit more activity, one of our naturalists led a longer kayak paddle across the channel from Granito de Oro and along the opposite shoreline lined with mangroves.

We returned to the ship for lunch and then had the afternoon to either shuttle back to Granito de Oro for more swimming and snorkeling, or to relax on board with a good book. It was also a busy afternoon for massages! Guests also had the option to stretch their legs on a nature walk along the Monkey Trail. Although there were no monkey sightings, guests heard their calls in the distance. Even more exciting was a glimpse of the unique mating dance of a male lance-tailed manakin, a small black bird with pale blue wings.

Tonight we will leave Panamanian waters and enter into Costa Rica where our voyage and adventures will continue. Tomorrow we visit the beautiful botanical garden of Casa Orquideas.

Becky Timbers, Wellness Specialist