The Super Moon brings extraordinarily low tides to the anchorage at Isla de Fuenche, Gulf of Panama. Photos: © Jeffrey Cardenas
I have never been much of a rock guy. Rocks don’t give me that warm, fuzzy feeling I receive from softer elements like water when I am on a boat, or clouds when I am in the air. Unexpected rocks cause anxiety for both mariners and pilots. I have always felt that rocks are cold, inanimate, lifeless–they’re rocks.
Then I sailed to these islands in the Gulf of Panama where there are 15-foot tides. Twice each day the receding water exposes an undersea province of stone that speaks an archaic language revealing the origin of these islands millions of years ago. Last night was the Super Moon and it brought extraordinarily low tides to my anchorage at Isla de Fuenche. Many of the exposed rocks are ancient coral reefs that have been pushed to the surface of the ocean by tectonic forces. Geologists call it “marine sedimentary limestone,” but what I see in these rocks is fossilized proof of life. I see an imprint in a boulder where brain coral was once attached. Individual coral polyps are etched into the surface. What is now static was once alive. Millions of life forms lived right here. There were communities. Some colonies thrived while others struggled and then simply died out. The life and death recorded in these ancient coral reefs parallels the life cycle of the human beings who settled on these islands.Panama is a young landmass, relatively speaking. The rise of the isthmus three million years ago was the “last big episode of global change,” according to former Smithsonian Geologist Tony Coates, who has also written that the changing shape of Panama played a significant role in ocean circulation coinciding with the last Ice Age. Three million years ago was the Pleistocene Epoch when glaciers covered huge parts of the earth. One could argue now that the melting of the glaciers are an indication of the next “big episode of global change.”
There are no active volcanoes in Las Islas Perlas as there are in other parts of Central America, but as I look out beyond my anchorage I see volcanic history. The hilltops on some of the islands rise in sharp conical shapes. But, because of these rocks, erosion has not yet worn down the islands. The geological youth of these islands creates a spectacle at low tide. Mounds of basaltic lava have melted into layers of black obsidian separated by volcanic ash creating an unpredictable–and beautiful–patchwork of strata and uplifted angles.
On Isla San Jose, I talked with a local fisherman about a distinctive rock offshore called The Monkey. It is a round boulder weighing tons and it balances improbably atop a rocky base that rises over 100 feet out of the ocean. I struggle with my Spanish when I ask the fisherman for an explanation. I start to say, “How is it possible…” He cuts me off with a wave of his hand. “Como…? Digame.” — “How…,” he says? “You tell me.”
It would be good to be a student of rocks, but even a curious person can’t know everything. The acclaimed American writer Rick Bass (from whom I swiped part of the title to this essay) is a trained geologist who can look at a layer of strata and clearly describe its geological origin. My eyes just see pattern, shape, and color in rock formations that seem beyond possibility.
The secrets of rocks are withheld in antiquity. Three million years ago on this little island as the continents shifted the sky rained fire and molten rock and ash. I cannot imagine the mayhem here as the earth changed. But the rocks remember. And in their own way of communicating they are trying to explain it to us.
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