The Coral Gardens of French Polynesia

To be among the coral gardens of French Polynesia is like swimming in the Garden of Eden. The coral has been growing here for 500 million years. But this paradise could vanish by the end of this century. In our lifetime we may be cast out of the garden along with everything that swims within it.


The coral gardens of French Polynesia are extraordinary in color and diversity.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas


A clownfish hides in a bed of stinging anemones off the island of Mo’orea.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Tropical reefs have lost more than half of their reef-building corals in the past 30 years, according to a 2015 WWF report. It is a fact that since the beginning of the 20th century, sea surface temperatures have steadily increased. Coral polyps unable to cope with unusually warm temperatures become stressed and expel the colored microscopic algae living in their tissue. Without the algae the coral dies of starvation and what is left is a skeleton of white bleached rock.


The friendly eye of a pufferfish belies the fact that some species have a toxin called Tetrodotoxin, which can be 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas


A Pacific Guineafowl Pufferfish, in its black phase, the jazz musician of reef fish.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

There is hope, however, for coral in French Polynesia because of a concerted effort here to protect and manage marine areas. From the Marquesas to the Tuamotos and the Society Islands there are a series of UNESCO reserves, protected maritime landscapes, and regulated fishing and anchorage areas. And they are enforced. When I inadvertently dropped the anchor of Flying Fish in a patch of sand in a restricted area of the lagoon of Mo’orea, the maritime gendarmerie were quickly on the scene to suggest a different anchorage.


The flange of a Giant Pacific Clam undulates with iridescent color.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

What can one solo traveller do to preserve this underwater Garden of Eden? Aside from the obvious (like dropping your anchor in the correct spot) the effort of awareness on all levels is essential. It is in that spirit that I offer these images of the coral gardens of French Polynesia.

For a compendium of reef awareness issues and programs log on to:

A pair of Blackwedged Butterflyfish swim in a shallow tidal pool reflecting the surface of the water.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

The coral gardens of Taha’a are spectacular above and below the surface of the water.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Tahaa sunset bora

A small motu off the Polynesian island of Taha’a, with the caldera of Bora Bora at sunset.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Track the passage of Flying Fish here:

The Many Faces of the Marquesas


She could have just walked off the canvas of a Paul Gauguin painting.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

For nearly a month it was as if Flying Fish had been sailing off the face of the earth. Then, at sunset on one clear afternoon, the peak of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas was outlined on the horizon. By morning our anchor was secure at one of the great landfalls of ocean voyaging, the exquisite Bay of Virgins. Towering basalt cones resembling giant phalluses mark the entrance to the bay. French sailors originally named it the Baie des Verges (Bay of Penises). When the missionaries arrived they were outraged so they inserted the letter “i” making it the Baie des Vierges, which translated to Bay of Virgins (as if somehow that made the name less provocative.) Meanwhile, the indigenous Marquesans must have thought all of this was hilarious. Until, of course, they realized that the arrival of outsiders was literally wiping their civilization out of existence.

The Marquesan name for this group of 10 islands is Fenua Enata (Land of Men). The archipelago covers over 1,500 square miles of the South Pacific. It is a land of crenellated mountains, waterfalls, deep fertile valleys, and a dark coastline pounded by relentless surf. As early as 500 AD, seafaring Marquesans sailed and paddled their oceanic canoes thousands of miles to the islands now known as Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. A thousand years later, Europeans were following the same sea routes. In 1595, Spaniard Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra sighted the Marquesas by chance. He thought the islands to be uninhabited but near Tahuata hundreds of light-skinned natives, naked, tattooed, and unarmed, paddled out in canoes and boarded the ship. Mendaña ordered a gun fired and the frightened natives jumped overboard. Then the Spaniards began shooting the Marquesans as they swam to shore. To be certain that nobody would forget his legacy Mendaña carved his name and date into a rock—and then left three bodies hanging from trees in a nearby village. When he departed, Mendaña left three large crosses and over 200 dead Polynesians in his wake. In the years that followed slavery, alcohol, firearms, and syphilis would further reduce the population until 95 percent of the indigenous people of the Marqueseas had died.

It is with this history in mind that I pull the dinghy of Flying Fish quietly into the bay at Tahuata where Mendaña had caused so much mayhem on his visit a half a millennium ago. A corridor of banyan, cashew, and wild almond trees shade a cobblestoned walkway. A lazy dog barely twitches an eye as I walk by. The foundation of a me’ae, an ancient Marquesan place of worship, is situated on high ground overlooking the bay. This me’ae would have most certainly been here when Mendaña arrived. Nearby, I hear the soft sound of sweet music from a ukulele. A young girl who seems to have stepped directly out of a Gauguin painting is playing the instrument. She sits on a rock wall near the cemetery of a Catholic church. A three or four-year-old boy, naked, dances soundlessly to the music. I sit nearby and the girl acknowledges me with a smile. Then she continues to play an enchanting set of chords as if she is the only person in this world who can hear the music.

The island of Fatu Hiva was impossibly scenic. Tahuata was spiritual. But Hiva Oa was the island where Paul Gauguin would choose as his final resting place. The life and death of Gauguin has fascinated researchers for over a century. He arrived in the Marquesas in 1901. Gauguin had quit his job in France as a stockbroker; he abandoned his wife and five children, and then sailed to Polynesia where his artistic genius blossomed. He built a two-story house in Hiva Oa with wooden frames on which he carved his favorite epigrams including “Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses (Be in love and you will be happy). Gauguin wore shoulder length hair, a velvet cowboy hat, and reportedly had repulsive manners. And, he was plagued by bad health. He drank to excess, took drugs, had syphilis, and despite the attentions of his 14-year-old mistress Vaeoho, he died 1902. There is a post-mortem legend in Hiva Oa that on the day he died his Marquesan neighbor, Tioka, went into Gauguin’s house and found him lifeless. Following a Marquesan custom, Tioka bit Gauguin’s head, but the great artist was dead and he did not stir. The faces in his paintings can be seen everywhere in the Marquesas.

henri &

The Marquesan people–and their dogs–possess the spirit of mana.  Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas


As these children prepare for a school presentation their faces reflect the purity of their island heritage.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

On the island of Nuka Hiva is Baie Hatihue, a remote and lovely spot that captured the attentions of Robert Louis Stevenson. I anchor Flying Fish in the bay and go ashore in search of fruit. An entire stalk of bananas costs me the equivalent of $5 in Polynesian francs. With the bananas on my shoulder I catch the eye of two lovely Marquesan girls braiding each other’s hair and giggling at the sight of me. I set down the bananas and point to my head. I cannot speak French or Marquesan but I needed a haircut and with a pantomime of scissors I convince the girls—to their great humor—to open a makeshift barbershop for me under a breadfruit tree. One of the girls runs to her house and brings out a pair of scissors with rounded tips, the kind that would commonly be used by children to cut construction paper. She sits me on a tree stump next to a crowing rooster and piglet on a rope, and starts whacking away at my mop of gray hair. She is laughing so hard that I think she might put my eyes out with the little rounded-tip scissors. The commotion causes a dozen people in the village to come out of their houses and share in the merriment of a white-haired foreigner with a stalk of bananas getting a haircut next to a piglet on a rope. It is one of the most terrifying—and erotic—moments of my life.

The eroticism of the Marquesas, and French Polynesia in general, can be as innocent as a haircut under a breadfruit tree. Or it can be as contrived as the paintings of Gauguin or the literature of Melville. In 1842, Herman Melville, then only 23 years old, deserted his whale ship in Nuka Hiva and went native. He was only off the boat a month but the island inspired his classic book, Typee, a loosely autobiographical first novel that includes the usual literary drama of getting chased by cannibals, ect,. But the passage in the book that endures is when Melville’s character Tommo describes the rapture of an idyllic canoe ride with his young island lover Fayaway. She stands in the canoe and using her naked body as a mast and her tapa cloth robe as a sail. The book was a huge success, particularly the uncensored first edition. Gauguin and Melville “invented” the Polynesia that those of us who had never visited the islands had come to know. And in the modern media this invention continues.


On the dock at Nuka Hiva, these grouper will feed a dozen families.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Lilly and I visit Baie Hakatea to hike the royal road in Hakaui Valley and to visit the ancient sites of pae pae and tahua. The trail terminates at the remote and wild 1,500-foot Vaipo waterfall. Along the trail we are stopped by Teiki and Kua Matio, a young couple who offer to make us, for a fee, a traditional Marquesan lunch when we return from the hike. We agree. The ancient road and me’ae are spectacular. The waterfall is stunning. The home of Teiki and Kua is situated in manicured grove of fruit and coconut trees. They have roasted goat and miti hue (river shrimp) prepared for us along with traditional taro and breadfruit. Teiki is like a character out of central casting: half of his face is tattooed and a large boar’s tooth is pierced through his ear. It is all too … perfect. I am told later that this was the site of the television show Survivor Marquesas. A film crew spent months here making it look, well, Polynesian. I feel something inside of me deflate. It is as if we have finally stumbled across something raw and untouched—and then it turns out to be a movie set.


A boar’s tooth in the ear and the scowling face tattoo of Teiki Matio can do nothing to harden the the beauty of his wife Kau’s smile.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

The Marquesas, I discover, is full of ironies like this. The islands are among the most isolated in the world and the inhabitants have learned, like all of us, to do what is necessary to survive (no pun intended). Nonetheless, we see a place the way that we want to see it. In the Marquesas I will remember poisson cru made with raw coconut milk being squeezed through cheesecloth. I will remember scalloped hammerhead sharks and mellon-headed dolphins. I will remember the sacred me’ae with massive 600-year-old banyan trees growing among the ancient foundations of moss covered basalt rocks.

And especially, I will remember the many faces of the Marquesan people who have endured a dark history of warfare, occupation, and disease brought about by those of us from the outside. The Marquesan people exist because they possess the spiritual power known as mana.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here:


Flying Fish at anchor in Baie Hatihue on Nuka Hiva.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas



Pacific Ocean Reflections

It is only with a calendar that I am reminded it has been nearly six months since my departure from Key West aboard Flying Fish. My reality now is that I have lost track of time. On the ocean, under the sun and stars, I don’t know the date or even the day of the week. This is not as frivolous or irresponsible as it might seem. It is simply a new way of living. Complete and present. It is a privilege and I am grateful.


The passage of time becomes less defined on a transoceanic passage

The 4,000 miles and 24 days from Panama to Fatu Hiva, Polynesia were never counted individually. Each day blended into the next in a smooth transition determined by the celestial cycle. The sun would rise and it would set, the moon would wax and it would wane. There was none of the drama of scheduling and itineraries that can sometimes be all consuming in land-bound life. When the wind shifted we adjusted our sails.


Lilly wrangles the spinnaker aboard Flying Fish on the downhill run to Fatu Hiva

I sailed with my daughter Lilly. The passage was pure tradewind sailing. The wind blew from the east and Flying Fish sailed west. After five days we passed the Galapagos to starboard. The islands have become an expensive cruise ship destination that discourages unguided visits aboard sailboats. Flying Fish continued on toward Polynesia. We confronted none of the tumultuous seas and violent storms that Flying Fish will certainly encounter later during her circumnavigation. For these 4,000 miles and 24 days Lilly and I were given the gift of tranquility at sea.


Crossing the Equator, becalmed, nearly 1,000 miles from land

Sailing with Lilly was a gift. She understands the rhythm of the wind and ocean, and their resulting dynamics on the performance of a sailboat. She is strong and determined. But there was a wide gulf of 31 years between father and daughter aboard Flying Fish, and it was exacerbated by the fact that Lilly and I live on opposites sides of the earth. The relationship between the two of us occasionally chafed like a rope against a sail: Her Dad was hard of hearing, he couldn’t see clearly, he was cognitively slow and responsively sluggish. For Lilly it was like sailing with the Old Man and the Sea–Come on already, pull the fish in and let’s go home! Still, Lilly had my back on this passage. She kept me onboard the sailboat. She made beautiful, creative meals every night. She outlined a program of exercise and yoga for us. She even tried to teach me French. I will miss the time that Lilly and I spent together crossing the Pacific Ocean.

Eye to eye. This Pacific Sailfish was far too beautiful to kill for supper

There is a wealth of riches that come from moving slowly. The feeling of wind on the back of your neck is a caress. Stars are crystalline. When a porpoise surfaces close to the boat on a calm night it is possible, literally, to breathe in the scent of her exhale. Landfall came too quickly for me at the end of this passage. It was like awakening from a good dream. But, awakening from a good dream and finding yourself in French Polynesia… that is a very fortunate reality.


Sailing the tradewinds and looking for land 

NOTE: One the many wonderful things that take becoming accustom to at sea and in French Polynesia is the disconnect from Internet, email, and social media. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and encouragement from those of you who follow the voyage of Flying Fish. Please understand that my lack of communication and response to your comments and correspondence does not reflect any lack of gratitude. Thank you for being here with me.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here:

Landfall: French Polynesia

bay of virgins

Flying Fish at anchor in the Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands.                                    Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

After 4,028 miles and 24 days at sea, Flying Fish has made landfall on the Marquesas Island of Fatu Hiva in the spectacular Bay of Virgins.

There is much to report on this journey but Internet connections are rare among these beautiful and isolated islands. We will post photos of the passage when we can.

For those who have followed the Pacific passage of Flying Fish, know that Lilly and I are grateful for your love, encouragement, and prayers.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here:


School children in the village of Hanavave in Fatu Hiva practice for an upcoming ceremony.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Sailing with Lilly

Lilly JV

Lilly and Dad, 31 years ago, watching the schooners sail back into Key West at sunset

Flying Fish takes flight this week on the 2nd Leg of a three-year circumnavigation. For this passage I will have serious backup. Our daughter Lilly will join me across the Pacific to Tahiti .

This is no ordinary Key West kid on a sailboat. The family legend is that in Mom’s last month of pregnancy her labor was induced by a rough boat ride in a fishing skiff. Lilly soon followed us into the world. She tried a conventional lifestyle by earning a degree in Journalism at the University of Florida. The ocean’s siren was more persuasive. Lilly continued her education at sea and relocated to Maui where she now sails as a captain with USCG 100-Ton Master credentials.

I asked Lilly to note a few of the highlights from her work abroad in just the past 12 months. In her words:

Big Island, HI–Seeing lava dumping into ocean
Havana–Driving around in classic cars with my girlfriends
Bahamas–Swimming with sharks
Virgin islands–Seeing Tortola before the hurricane devastation a few months later
Sardinia and Corsica–Mooring within a fortress at the harbor of Bonifacio
Croatia–Picking and nibbling on raw figs and wild fennel sprouts on the island Komiza
Istanbul–Cruising between two continents
Greece–Sipping rosé at sunset on the sea walls of Hydra
Sicily–Sailing alongside the smoking volcano of Stromboli
Thailand–Swimming alone on a pristine reef near crowded Koh Phi Phi and exploring  the hongs of Phang Nga National Park
Maui–Coming home and hiking a steep mountain trail during the lunar eclipse while listening to whales breathing below

After all that, why Lilly would want to sail with her old man remains a mystery.

Maybe it has something to do with love.

Stay tuned… It’s gonna be a great ride to the South Seas!

Lilly palm.JPG

Master & Commander Lilly Cardenas        Photo: © Joanna Rentz

Track the passage of Flying Fish here:




Soft corals sway in the current at Islas San Jose, Gulf of Panama.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

The aviation acronym CAVU–Ceiling And Visibility Unrestricted has always been an expression that evokes endless possibility. Go as high as Icarus, just don’t let the sun melt the wax in your wings.

I don’t know if there is a maritime equivalent to CAVU for water clarity but when I am underwater here, drifting with the current, I feel in the slipstream of life just as surely as if I were flying. I float past green lobsters, yellow porcupine fish, and pearl oysters as large as the palm of my hand. When I remember the waters of Las Islas Perlas I will always think of them as CAVU.

The Secret Lives of Rocks

hole in the wall

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.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAorange rock.meOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast 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.flying fish platanal.smPanama 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.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here:

Moving Slowly

Version 2

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:

Las Perlas


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:


The Panama Canal

Panama Canal

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: