Bus2Antarctica: Isla Coiba — Panama’s Prison Park

Andrew Evans has reached Panama, and it about to cross into South America. Here, he explores the former penal colony of Isla Coiba.

Whenever people talk about the phrase “comfort zone,” I think about sharks. Most travelers use the term to compare cultures–how in some countries, everyone’s up in your face while in others, they allow you breathing room. Through personal experience, I have learned that my comfort zone with a shark is about 20 feet away. If they start getting any closer, my heart races a bit, I breathe a little faster and I start trying to locate my nearest exit. 

On my first day in Panama, I swam with three white-tipped reef sharks. No biggie–the largest one was only about five feet long and honestly, they were kind of cute. The first one swam quickly away when I approached–I had invaded his comfort zone. The second time I saw one, I poked my head up to call over some fellow snorkelers–here was a beautiful shark right underneath us–but when I looked back down in the water, the shark wasn’t there anymore. I spun around and saw that now he was right behind me, about 15 feet away, doing his fast turns and waving his snout through the schools of fishes around him. Now he was invading my comfort zone.

Sharks are signs of a healthy coral reef–that every character in the ecosystem has shown up for play practice and is reading his part on stage. Snorkeling around a healthy, living, breathing coral reef is an amazing thing. You soon realize that every species swimming with you has their own concept of a comfort zone: the jacks swim two or three in a row, soldier-like, the moray eels are deep in their holes baring their teeth, the parrotfish grind their clumps of coral and the really tiny guys school en masse, moving like a traffic jam of mopeds and tricycles.

As an avid diver I love visiting coral reefs–I am always disappointed by the dead and dying reefs but also relieved to discover the healthy ones like I experienced near Panama’s largest island. Today, Isla Coiba National Park is a 675,000 acre park that combines a pristine marine reserve with a huge piece of virgin rain forest. That such a place has withstood Panama’s darker periods of history is miraculous, and yet this darker history is precisely why such nature has survived until today. From 1919 until 1991, Coiba was Panama’s largest penal colony–a tropical Alcatraz where both murderous criminals and non-violent political prisoners were locked up, forgotten, and often killed. Many of these disappeared people (Los Desaparecidos) were the unfortunate victims of Panama’s despots. To this day, Coiba still haunts the memory of many Panamanians.

The bright side of this tragedy is that for ninety-odd years, Panamanians have steered clear of Coiba, leaving an abundant nature intact that includes the thriving coral reefs that I swam through. The underwater beauty was just magnificent and I keep having to remind myself that in a few days I’ll be back on the bus with my knees bent up to my chest and my neck pillow deflating. Until then, I will enjoy the liberating feeling of swimming underwater.

Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photo via the National Geographic Sea Lion.