September 29, 2009
Panama´s Coiba National Park is known as the Galapagos of Central America, aka the Disney version of the natural world: a cheery, tropical creature-filled place.
Motoring up to Isla Coiba, a humpback whale breaches and crashes back into the depths. Bigger than the boat, it leaves a still, turquoise slick upon the surface. Soon there are others to watch, mothers teaching their calves the first thing or two. It gets me wondering about these places-where nature displays a loopy abundance- and how few and far between they have become.
What does it take to keep something wild?
Coiba has remained intact for bizaare reasons. Though it was first popular with pirates, later colonists stayed away. Probably because of the murderers. Starting in 1919, the main island held 22 remote prison camps. Surrounded by shark-infested waters, Coiba was the perfect cell. Paradise it wasn`t. Brutal conditions propagated disease and illnesses, torture was practiced and those who attempted escape simply disappeared.
Over 400 inmates are still missing, their fates absorbed into the mute surroundings of open sea and lush tropical forest beyond the deforested areas farmed in labor camps. Bahia Damas, the largest colony, makes a grim visit, overgrown with sharp grasses, its airless rooms slick with grime, indelibly dark in the hard sunshine. Here the few remaining guards (there are a few prisoners left) seem as eager to see a visitor as an inmate would be.
A paradoxical paradise.
The prison visit makes it hard to get in the water to go snorkeling, though the color shimmers turqoise and the beach is powder-white. The home of whale sharks, green moray eels and hammerheads, nature here comes equipped with its own security. But I go anyway, mostly because the other snorkelers brought their five-year-old. If she can, I can.
A puffer fish weaves through sand outside the reef. There are moorish idols the size of dinner plates, irridescent Pacific jack and the hundreds of inch-long rainbow wrasse which cloak my passage.
Whitetipped sharks are shadows on the sea floor. When one flits by my heart gulps. Do you know how hard it is to let that happen? As travelers we become connosieurs of sensation, but we rarely fear and admire in the same breath.
I see other things both beautiful and strange. A leatherback turtle flaps away. Rounding the islet, the current tugs, making my progress feel like the minnow´s escape.
And it is.