Moving Slowly

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A blossom from the White Shaving Brush tree.  Photos: © Jeffrey Cardenas

I am moving slowly, focused today on the extraordinary detail and variance of nature that make up the land and sea—and people—of Las Perlas.

In every exhibition of natural beauty there is an incongruity that seems to accompany it. Example: The Panamic Cushion starfish is a carnivore with an arsenal of hydraulic tube feet, but its five arms are vulnerable. If one arm is attacked or damaged this sea star has remarkable regenerative powers to re-grow a new one. The White Shaving Brush tree has razor-sharp, inch-long thorns on its trunk and branches but it blossoms into a flower of fragrant and delicate white stamens. The flower bursts open with a popping sound at night but by noon the next day the flower is finished and it drops gently to the sand. Three million years ago colliding tectonic plates pushed up these islands and an ancient reef rose to the surface creating a land bridge between the Americas. The rocks of Las Perlas exhibit both an historic record of this cataclysmic event and a lasting vision of natural art.

This is a reality check of new sights, scents, and sounds. It reminds me that everything is changing and nothing is as simple as it seems.

Flying Fish is anchored near the remote Isla Espiritu Santo. This is a beautiful but foreboding coastline. A 15-foot tide hides jagged rock outcroppings that rise without warning out of great depths to the surface of the Pacific. Many of these rocks are uncharted. And, in areas near the big island of Isla Del Rey where streams drain into the ocean, the water is turbid. Visual navigation is essential here. I move slowly.

Also unsettling along this coastline are the geographic names given to the islands. Entire civilizations of indigenous people were wiped out here by Spanish conquistadors. The charts read Punta Matadero (Slaughterhouse Point), Punta Mala, and Isla Entierra Muerto (Island of the Buried Dead).

Author and cartographer Eric Bauhaus made a brief entry in a guidebook noting the remains of a whaling station lost in the jungle near Isla Espiritu Santo. The station was set up long after the Indians were gone and now it, too, has disappeared under the dense forest and wild tangled mass of vegetation on Isla Del Rey.

I take the dinghy ashore. Fragments of pre-Columbian pottery have been found on this beach. Steam rises from the wall of vegetation that borders the sandy beach. The jungle is impenetrable without a machete. There are plenty of tools aboard Flying Fish but who would have thought to bring a machete? A local mariner, that’s who. Every fisherman aboard the passing cayucos (dugout canoes) carries a machete.

By a small fresh water stream I see a familiar leaf in the wall of vegetation. There is an ancient mango tree growing here. I push my way forward through the tangle and when I reach the tree I see that all undergrowth below the mango tree has been cleared. Excitedly, I see a brick, and then a hand-hewn piece of wood. When I look closer, however, the brick is only a rock, and the wood is not timber–it is simply driftwood etched by the sea and pushed up into the jungle by a storm. I find no remains of a whaling station, or the indigenous people who once lived here. Just as well. I don’t need to see any bones on Isla Entierra Muerto.

Nearby, in the isolated fishing village of Cañas on Isla Del Rey all eyes stare at Flying Fish as I sail into the bay. Men lying in hammocks under the palms trees watch me silently and without welcome as I wade ashore. They offer no response to my greeting in Spanish. I can only imagine their thoughts. “What now? What does this odd looking stranger want with us?”

Then, around the corner of a house a little girl breaks the tension and hands me a stalk of bananas. Another little girl shyly offers me a basket of sour oranges. I realize the most beautiful detail in nature can be the simplicity of a child’s innocent smile.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Las Perlas

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Isla Bartolome in the Las Perlas Archipelago on the Pacific Coast of Panama is truly a rare gem.  Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Today I entered the Pacific Ocean, and for Flying Fish it is exciting new water.

Just 30 miles from the coastline everything has changed. The sea is clear and full of life. There are whales and tuna. More than 200 islands make up the 90 square miles of Las Perlas. The islands are built upon a living reef that is rich with tropical fish. I snorkeled today amid a school of several hundred snapper that were completely unconcerned by my presence. Along the shoreline, hardwood jungles come down to sugar sand beaches. Thousands of orchids cover the trees in this maritime habitat. There is a stunning tree in bloom now called guayacan that is a solid mass of electric pink flowers. Shells cover the beaches. The islands are named for a history of pearls that were once found here in abundance.

Of course, in this part of the world there is always a dark history that seems to cast a shadow on paradise. Spanish conquistadors Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro invaded these islands which were ruled then by King Toe (yes, King Toe). The pearl beds were looted and the indigenous people were extinct by 1518. One notable pearl survived, La Peregrina, the largest pearl ever discovered. An African slave found this perfectly symmetrical 56-carat teardrop pearl on the island of Santa Margarita and La Peregrina made its way through the various treasuries of European Royalty before ultimately ending up in the jewelry box of Elizabeth Taylor, a gift from her husband Richard Burton. (Historical note: Elizabeth Taylor once lost La Peregrina. After some anguished searching she looked down at her puppy who was happily chewing on the world most famous pearl.)

The modern history of Las Perlas is as bizarre as its past.

In 1979, The Shah of Iran went into exile on the island of Contradora in Las Perlas. Panamanian Dictator General Omar Torrijos had taken in Shah Mohammad Reza under heavy American pressure because the U.S. didn’t want him in New York. Panamanians rioted. Torrijos made no secret of his dislike of the Shah, calling him a chupon, a Spanish term meaning an orange that has had all the juice squeezed out of it. Torrijos taunted the Shah of Iran by telling him “It must be hard to fall off the Peacock Throne and into Contadora.”

Later, the Las Perlas slipped onto obscurity until the islands were discovered as a reality TV destination. More than a dozen shows were produced here including the American television show Survivor which filmed three episodes in Las Perlas. Most notable, however, was a Dutch reality TV show called Adam Seeks Eve. It was promoted as a “unique love experiment.” In the production of Adam Seeks Eve everybody is naked, of course, but the twist comes midway in each episode when a “second candidate” (also naked) is introduced to compete for the affection of main character. Deserted island drama ensues.

Flying Fish is anchored in the lee of Contradora today. The Shah of Iran gone, he died in 1980. There are a few naked people on the beach in front of me, just regular French nudists, fortunately no TV cameras. I may just stay right here until I get voted off the island.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

 

The Panama Canal

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A Panamax cargo ship containing 5,000 automobiles is maneuvered to within several feet of Flying Fish in the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

So much has been written about the Panama Canal and yet nothing can prepare a sailor for what he sees and he feels when making a first transit in his own vessel.

The Canal is an engineering endeavor that has been compared to the construction of the pyramids. It has been named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Author David McCullough called it, “one of the supreme human achievements of all time.”

It has also been called the “greatest liberty ever taken with nature.” The loss of biomass when this 48-mile swath was cut between two oceans is incalculable. Mountains were moved, the land bridge between the north and south American continents was severed, and more than 150 square miles of pristine jungle was submerged under a new man-made lake.

Finally, there is the loss of human life. Some 27,000 men and women died to make this canal. They died of malaria, and yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. Workers died in dynamite blasts, crushed under tons of rock by landslides, and poisoned by the venomous bites from the spiders and snakes that they were displacing.

I don’t pass lightly as I transit the Panama Canal in Flying Fish.

To put some of this in perspective here is an abbreviated historic timeline: The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.

In 1788, U.S. interest was first expressed when Thomas Jefferson encouraged a canal as a less treacherous route than going around the southern tip of South America.

Beginning in 1826, U.S. officials began negotiations with New Grenada (present-day Colombia), hoping to gain a concession for the building of a canal. Fearing (correctly) that his country would be dominated by an American presence, president Simon Bolivar declined American offers.

In 1877, Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse surveyed the route for France and negotiations were completed with Colombia to build the Canal. The French, however, were unprepared for the rainy season during which the Chagres River became a raging torrent rising up to 35 feet over its banks. Black clouds of mosquitos emerged from the standing water and thousands of Canal workers died of yellow fever and malaria. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889, after spending $287 million, losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, and wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors.

Seeing an opportunity, the United States stepped into the void in 1903, and encouraged a coup d’état on the isthmus. U.S. warships blocked sea lanes preventing Colombian troops sent to put down the rebellion. The new country of Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt famously stated, “I took the Isthmus.” The New York Times called it an “act of sordid conquest.” The New York Evening Post said it was a “vulgar and mercenary venture.” It is often cited as the classic example of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.

The construction of the Canal was completed in 1914, some 401 years after Panama was first crossed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The United States spent almost $375 million to finish the project. It was by far the largest American engineering project to date. The Panama Canal joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, changing international trade forever. The 48 mile-long pathway through the Isthmus of Panama created a significant shortcut enabling ships to avoid the lengthy and hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America via the Straits of Magellan.

After World War II, U.S. control of the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it became contentious. Relations between Panama and the United States were increasingly tense. Many Panamanians felt that the Canal Zone belonged to Panama.

In 1974, negotiations toward a settlement began. On September 7, 1977, the treaty was signed by United States President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s de facto leader Omar Torrijos. After a period of joint American–Panamanian control the Canal was taken over in 1999 by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the Panama Canal Authority.

Since the Torrijos-Carter treaty in 1977, the Canal has been officially and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations. This means that if any nation were to attempt to seize the Canal, every other nation in the world would, presumably, defend it. Panama has no military, nor do they need one, to protect the Canal.

It was estimated in 1934 that the maximum capacity of the Canal would be around 80 million tons of shipping per year. Canal traffic in 2015 reached 340.8 million tons. An expanded Canal began commercial operation on June 26, 2016. New locks now allow transit of larger, Post-Panamax ships, capable of handling more cargo. The expansion has cost nearly $6 billion. All vessels crossing the Canal must pay a toll based on their weight and length. The largest ships now pay well over $1 million to transit. In 1928, American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. His rate to transit was 36 cents.

This is the paradox of the Panama Canal. Modern engineering wonder. Environmental holocaust. Graveyard for tens of thousands of people. And yet, superlatives alone cannot accurately describe the feeling of transiting the Canal. To be upon these waters in Flying Fish was simply humbling.

 

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Río Chagres, Panama

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The Río Chagres is the only river on earth that flows into two oceans–the Atlantic and the Pacific

At the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama all that remains of what was once a thriving indigenous community and critical point of defense are the crumbling walls of the fortress of San Lorenzo. Rainforest has overgrown the coral rock fortifications. The edges of the jungle echo with riotous flocks of green parrots and the unearthly guttural roar of howler monkeys.

Flying Fish is staged at the entrance to the Panama Canal, waiting for transit. We are not alone. Dozens of ships are queued offshore including massive Post-Panamax container ships, some of which are longer than 1,200 feet. The Canal operates 24/7, every day of the year. The Canal pilots and advisors, however, do not. Many have cancelled their transit assignments over the holidays. One Canal agent today said that it has caused “chaos” at the Canal Authority.

Chaos is not a good way to start a new year. Which is why I chose to spend my downtime in the Río Chagres rainforest.

The Río Chagres is one of the most important rivers in the world and yet it remains relatively unknown despite its history and current global significance. Some 80% of the water that is needed to operate the Panama Canal originates from the Río Chagres watershed. Each boat that crosses the locks needs about 52 million nonrecoverable gallons of fresh water and the Chagres provides it.

Despite its industrial use to the Canal, this watershed is rich in biodiversity. The Río Chagres National Park includes 320,000 acres. In a 1996 Audubon Society annual census there were 525 species of birds recorded here on just one day. There are said to be more species of plants here than in all of Europe. Jaguars, anteaters, coati, and troops of monkeys inhabit this dense, dark, and wet environment.

The river and its habitat have borne witness to an extraordinary history of human greed, agony, and ingenuity. The Río Chagres valley contained rich veins of gold until it was removed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513. When the Chagres gold was gone the Spaniards turned their attention to Peru and shipped that treasure back to the Old World along a trade route that included the Chagres. More gold fever came centuries later when a nugget was discovered in California and thousands of miners transited the Chagres as they crossed the isthmus to the Pacific.

Today water from the Río Chagres carries the bulk of the world’s trade goods–another form of gold–across the 50 miles between two great oceans.

Tomorrow the Río Chagres may carry Flying Fish from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

For this moment I am content to sit in the solitude of this jungle and listen to the song of a toucan.