Today we were visiting two Panama islands: Isla Cocos and Isla Coiba. Because the Panamanian government restricts the number of tourists on each of the islands, the staff split us up into two groups: the McCaws and the Toucans. I was in the McCaw group, which was scheduled to snorkel first on Isla Cocos and then go to Isla Coiba for a hike.
Anyway, we set off for the short zodiac trip to Isla Cocos and as we neared shore, I thought I spotted a ray. The gal beside me on the zodiac saw it too so we asked our boat driver about it and he said it was only a rock. We weren’t convinced and once ashore, we hurried to put on our flippers and face mask and beat a quick path to the water. Once in the water, we swam out to the area where we thought we had spotted the ray and swam around a bit and … bingo a huge eagle ray swam directly in front of me. I popped my head out of the water and yelled to the three people who were swimming with me. Fortunately, the eagle ray stuck around long enough for the other three to see it before is glided away. Lucky us.
I then began to swim to this huge rock island where we had been directed to go and soon the sandy bottom gave way to large coral outcrops with huge schools of tiny fish know as Moorish Idol. We also spotted sergeant-major fish, parrot fish, razor surgeon fish, yellow fin doctor fish and a skinny grey fish with a loooong nose appropriately called a needle nose fish.
Once I reached the rock island, we swam around the island and back towards the beach. I continued to see gorgeous, multi-coloured fish, but no sign of sea turtles or sharks (hammer head and reef tip are known to be in the waters). All in all, I was in the water for an hour and half.
Back on shore some folks commented that they saw a white tip reef shark lazing on the sandy bottom while others saw a sea turtle. But no one else saw the spotted eagle ray!
Shortly after I arrived back at the beach, the zodiacs came to pick us up for the exchange. The Toucans were moved to Isla Cocos to snorkel and my group, the McCaws, was moved to Isla Coiba Ranger Station for a nature walk. The trip from Isla Cocos to Isla Coiba took about 10 minutes and once on shore, we took off our water shoes and put on walking shoes (or in my case hiking boots) for what I thought was going to be a nice little hike. However, a family of VERY aggressive capuchin monkeys had other ideas.
We started towards the path and spotted the family right in the middle of the path. As we approached, the monkeys chased away an agouti (looks kind of like a cross between a rabbit and very large rat with no tail) followed by a turkey vulture. Before we could figure out what to do, another guide yelled “McCaws” just as the birds (not our group) flew over our heads making their very distinctive screeching noise.
The McCaws flew around a bit before landing in some trees down the beach. The sighting was pretty awesome because these bird were scarlet McCaws and the only area they inhabit in Panama is Isla Coiba and even then it is a very rare sight. Unfortunately, they were really high up in the trees and the leaves on the trees were giving the birds camouflage.
After trying to take a few pictures, we decided to take a walk back towards the capuchin monkeys. There were still a large number in the middle of the path and one of the monkeys had picked up a coconut and was using the cement stairs leading up to the path as a tool to open the coconut.
We stood and watched for quite a few minutes before something spooked the monkeys and they took off into the adjacent bush only to pop out the other side. Our guide advised it would not be a good idea to try and access the path as the dominant male appeared to be very, very aggressive and would not be averse to going after us if we continued.
So we reversed direction and started towards the path that would take us up to an observation tower. We stopped to look out at the bay on the opposite side from the beach we had landed on and immediately spotted a crocodile in the waters. Ugh. One of our guides, Gabe, had told us the night before that the opposite side of the beach in the bay was a popular hangout for crocodiles. Initially, I thought he was kidding, but nope, here was one just hanging out in the waters.
We watched the croc for a bit before continuing on towards the stairs that led to the lookout tower. Fortunately, most of the walk up was shaded by low hanging trees, but every now an then we would be walking in full sun and man was it hot.
About half way up, we spotted another agouti looking for foods. The little guy was very skittish and immediately took off as we approached. We also heard howler monkeys in the distance, but no sightings.
Once at the top, we had a magnificent view towards Isla Cocos and its sister islands Isla Rancheria and Isla Granito de Oro. We could also see a handful of black vultures circling overhead as well as the occasional frigate bird. And as great as the view was, I think many of us were just happy to hang out under the shade of some very large trees. (Did I mention it was hot …)
Anyway, we started our trek back down the hill and spotted another of the spiney tailed (ctenosaur) lizard, which we had seen the day before. This one was a female who was covered in orange dirt from digging a nest. We are in mating season here in Panama so birds, reptiles and animals are preparing for the birth of the next generation.
Once we reached the bottom of the hill, we walked back over to the beach and … the McCaws were back and this time, they were in a tree right beside the beach. The distinctive screech was present and the four birds were feeding on seeds in the tree. Periodically the birds would disslodge a large nut and it would come down with a thud. As a result, we could not simply walk under the tree, look up and take a picture. We had to stay around the perimeter of the tree and hope that one of the birds would move out from under the leaves and into few. Fortunately, I stayed patient and simply watched and waited for the moment when one of the McCaws decided to show itself. I was finally rewarded with a full on view of one of the scarlet McCaws and damn was it beautiful. Reds, blues, yellow and green feathers. And bonus of bonuses, I managed some really gorgeous pictures.
Unfortunately, we were told it was time to go back to the boat for lunch. We would be returning in the afternoon to do some swimming and kayaking, but I figured the chances that the birds would still be hanging around were slim and none.
And as it turned out, I was right. Once the zodiacs took us back to Isla Coiba, I immediately went looking for the McCaws, but they were long gone. Not surprising!
Anyway, I walked back to the beach and grabbed one of the single person kayaks and went out in the bay (not the bay where we spotted the croccodile) to see if there were any sea turtles or fish that we could spot from the kayaks. Unfortunately, there was nothing to see. Not a single turtle or fish, although I did manage to scoop up a very large pice of plastic and take that to shore.
Despite the fact that there was a dearth of marine life, the paddle was wonderful and the birds overhead, hawks, black vultures and pelicans, were an added bonus.
By 3:30, it was time to head back to the boat. Once I was cleaned up, I headed to the lounge and had been sitting there for only about a half hour before someone spotted a school of dolphins leaping through the air on one side of the vessel. I went outside and was able to see them leaping out of the water and then back in. I am not sure what kind of dolphins these were, but they were very small. Nothing like what I had seen in the Galapagos last year. Nevertheless, these little guys put on a great show for a few minutes before our boat left them behind.
It was a great way to end a fabulous, last day in Panama. By the time we get up tomorrow, we will be in Costa Rica (country #74 for me).