Ahoy from the crew of the BlueJacket!
It's been a while since I last wrote, but we've pretty much been without Internet. We've spent the last week+ in the Coiba National Park in western Panama. It's a 1042 square mile (270,125 hectare) marine park which encompasses lots of tiny islands, several small/medium islands and Coiba, which is the largest of them all at 20 miles long by 12 miles wide at its widest. The vast majority of these islands are uninhabited, other than by rangers, and are covered by dense jungle, so you're really on your own when you're out here. It's really amazing to sit in the cockpit at night at look around and not see any artificial lights or even glows from cities in any direction! Western Panama has to be one of the most remote regions that we've ever cruised along.
It's also hot with daily highs in the upper 80s (F) and low 90s with dew points typically between 75 and 85F. Yes, 85F! Believe me, you melt with dew points like that and spend a lot of time in the water. Lows are typically in the upper 70s. Yesterday we had a cold front come through, dropping the dew point to 68 and it was amazing how dry the air felt!
Since we've been cruising in the Pacific we really haven't had clear water in which to dive or snorkel due to run-off from rivers and estuaries along the coast. We finally started seeing clear water in Costa Rica and the Coiba National Park area is heralded as having some of the best in Panama. I was psyched as I love to dive and do underwater photography and Sue has really missed being able to jump into nice clear water off of the back of the boat. And believe me, with these temperatures, you want to spend a lot of time in the water!
When I last wrote we were at the Secas enjoying the clear water and scavenging Internet connections from the lodge. From there we headed to Isla Uva, which is part of Coiba National Park. Technically you have to get a permit to anchor anywhere in the park, but the rangers typically don't check the outlying islands (but the dive boat operators seem to report what they see to the rangers via VHF). Figuring out where to anchor can be quite the challenge too, as quite often the guides are thin on specifics, which leads to me hopping into the dinghy to check depths with a hand-held depth sounder and look for coral while Sue circles BlueJacket. With 10' tides and lots of coral, this can be very difficult. We're also found lots of examples where a guide indicates that you can anchor at a specific area, but can't due to either depth, coral that you don't want to damage, or the holding. And forget your commercial charts for the area! I was amazed at how many minor things like reefs or islands were missing or completely misplaced. You have to use your eyes and brain to interpret what you're seeing.
Isla Uva was a location where the guide indicated that we could anchor in a bay, but we couldn't figure it out where that was while aboard BlueJacket, so I jumped in the dinghy and used the handheld depth sounder and an optical (golf) range finder so that I could figure out exactly where to drop the anchor. In this case the middle of the bay was much too deep to anchor in (35+') and it shallowed rapidly towards shore, so there was only a narrow strip where we could drop the anchor and have enough swing radius to keep from going aground or hitting rocks. On top of that we had to make sure that the chain wouldn't rake across any coral. When you're typically laying out 100-150' of chain, that's easier said than done. Believe me, this is advanced anchoring and not for those feint at heart! But at Isla Uva we got securely anchored at the one spot where we could anchor and enjoyed a beautiful night.
From there we headed to Isla Coiba where we anchored in a bay near the ANAM Ranger station and headed to shore to check in and pay. The official rate for a 35-49' boat is $60/day + $20/pp which is paid once per visit to the park. The daily rate for the boat is probably fine for a commercial vessel, but it ridiculous for cruising boats. As a result most cruisers either avoid the park or attempt to sneak in and out without paying fees. Since we wanted to be there for a while, the later wasn't an option, so we decided to try negotiate a price as we heard of other boats who had successfully done that. We got the daily rate down from $60 to $30, which was great. Coming here for 1 day is probably a waste as the per visit fees can overwhelm the nightly fees.
The primary purpose for going to Coiba is to dive. There are lots of dive sites as shown by the map from the Coiba Dive Expeditions web site. If you click on the map you'll be taken to their page which includes a clickable version of this map. Many of these dive sites have mooring balls indicating where they are, but quite a few of the balls were missing or submerged. One of the things that I quickly learned from their site is that many of the sites are very deep and have a lot of current. Do not dismiss the current issue as the current can rip through dive sites and simply trying to plan dives for slack tide, as defined by times for high/low tide may not work. Slack at low tide seemed to have been much more reliable than high tide, but I even had dives where the current went from 0 to pull-myself-along-the-reef-with-my-hands within a few minutes.
Diving here is not easy & you're wasting money if you're here to snorkel. If I were to do this again, I would contact a dive company who operates at Coiba to see if they could take me on some of the more advanced dives. I know that I would have seen far more than I did trying to do it on my own. I got Sue out on several dives, but in general she would wait for me in the dinghy as I dove and photographed.
In general I wasn't overly impressed by the diving as the visibility was only between 30 and 50', which is poor to OK when compared to the Caribbean. I saw lots of the same set of fish and very few large fish. I don't understand the purpose of a park that allows fishing within its borders. As I said before, current was a major constraint, limiting some sites to slack current (if you could figure out when that was).
We moved between anchorages based upon what the weather was supposed to be doing. We spent a a couple of nights in the northern most anchorage, which provided some protection from NE winds, and a couple of nights anchored off of Isla Rancheria. The later is the most bumpy as all kinds of weird waves get generated by the current flowing through the channel. Surprisingly both have quite a bit of current in them which causes the boat to lay at strange angles to the current when the wind is blowing.
Despite being so remote, we actually managed to get Internet one afternoon when we were anchored just N of the ANAM station. For some reason I turned on the WiFi booster to see if there was Internet from the ranger station and low and behold I saw a signal from the Paradise Fishing Lodge. It had a signal of -93db, which is typically so far down in weeds that you could never use it, but I tried and got connected and was able to pull down almost a megabit per second! I did some research and figured out that the access point was about 36 miles away, yet both Sue & I had perfect Skype calls to our parents and downloaded a bunch of podcasts and other stuff. It was a one time event but it was just amazing!
After 5 days at Isla Cobia we headed to Isla Canal de Afuera, where it only took an hour to get anchored. From here we'll head to Isla Santa Catalina and then to Puerto Mutis, where we'll eventually clear into Panama and for the first time in over 2 weeks we'll have a real walk on solid ground
-- Geoff & Sue
For the cruiser:
First off be aware that the charts for this area are quite poor. Both the Navionics and the Garmin charts seem to be based upon the same survey which has things misplaced by significant distances and just completely misses minor things like islands and reefs in the middle of the channel...Use your eyes and depth sounder!
Isla Uva at Islas Contreras:
Despite the guides not depicting an anchorage at Isla Uva, we decided to try to anchor in the bay on the west side. We were able to, but it's a very trick anchorage as the middle of the day is quite deep (60'+) and the back half is full of coral and shoals quickly. We found room for 1 boat on the western edge of the bay near the mouth in about 22' MLW in a bright sand spot. This location (7-48.910N 81-4.650W) is about 110 yards off of the shore and is relatively free of any large coral (little coral balls are everywhere). Holding was good in bright sand, but the anchor chain ended up under a tree, which I was able to free by hand with scuba tanks. Note that the bay was full of jelly fish, but once you got out of the day that there were very few.
There's a very nice little reef at the NW point of the bay which extends out probably 100 yards or more. It's has extensive coral growth on it and at the far end (in about 50'), you'll see some fairly large skittish fish. Be careful about currents as while I was diving the current suddenly picked up to the point that I had to hand on to the rock and couldn't swim across the reef, despite having done it 2 times before. Luckily the dinghy was in the correct direction.
We also checked out the island to the W of the bay. It is VERY steep-to, but we found a spot on the E side in the middle of the N lobe that had a shallow spot in about 25' where you could anchor, but it was fairly surgey. I didn't have my scuba gear and the steep wall that was there was in shadow, so I didn't try to dive it. I suspect that current could be a major issue, but there was none when we were checking it out (which was near slack low tide). The wall looked very interesting.
For our first stop at Coiba we anchored at 7-38.093N 81-44.073 in 19' MLW over hard sand in the bay just to the N of the ANAM Ranger station. Note that the Bauhaus guide makes it appear that the ranger station is in this bay, but it's really just around the point to the S. There is a very nice ranger station with an interpretive center showing the islands and various life forms inhabiting the area. The bay shallowed fairly quickly and was extensively matted with coral.
The official fees are $30/night for boats <35', $60/night for boats 35-50' and I think that it was $90/night for boats 50-???? and it went up from there. There is also a $20/pp fee which is per visit. We were able to negotiate the fee down to $30/night for 5 nights for a total of $30*5+$20*2 = $190.
We then moved to Isla Rancheria, which is now part of the park and is just across the channel from the ranger station. We anchored W of the abandoned house at 7-38.223N 81-42.552W in 11' MLW in clear, hard sand where we drug for a while (as usual in this bottom) before catching. This anchorage can get bumpy due to currents and quite often the boat will not be lined up with the swell/waves due to wind/current interaction. As a result you may want to use this as a day anchorage. Snorkeling around Isla Iglesia is nice and the beach on Isla Rancheria is very enjoyable. You will see & hear lots of parrots and it's centrally located to many of the popular dive sites.
To get protection from 15 kt NE winds we moved to Playa Rosario, which is the northern most anchorage. Had the winds been stronger, we probably would have moved to Ensenada Santa Cruz as this anchorage barely provides NE protection. We anchored at ????? in about 10' MLW. Note that this position is where we dropped the anchor and from there I put the boat in low gear and dragged the anchor until it caught in a sand hole. Once it catches, it seems to be secure. Anchoring here should place you well away from the rocks and coral. Note that the back 1/3 of the bay is covered with coral and there's a lot of it along the western edge. At the NW edge of the bay there is a very nice reef which you can snorkel and dive on as there's a very interesting looking wall there also. What's interesting is that there are 3-4 beaches (one disappears at high tide) and the color of the sand is different at each one. The N beach is white sand, the middle is tan and the S is chocolate brown.
Isla Canal de Afuera:
We attempted to anchor at all of the locations listed in the Bauhaus guide and we were unable to anchor at any of them. The one at the western end of the island was much too deep (45') and we couldn't get the anchor to catch at the one in the middle of the island. There were nice sandy locations, but were surrounded by coral. We also checked out the anchorage off of the N island, but the bottom was composed of dead broken coral shards and there's no way that the anchor would hold in that. We ended up anchoring due east of the little islet at the end of the island (approximately 7-41.98N 81-37.28W) in a nice sand patch in about 19' MLW. No coral was harmed...Also note that the current always seems to flow E to W. I tried to dive at the ball at the W entrance to the islands but was unable to do so due to currents.
While exiting to the E at lowish tide we noted a clearly visable submerged reef in the channel that is not marked on any charts. It's at about 7-42.058N, 81-37.280W. It's about 1/3 of the way across the channel from the small islet to the S (that we anchored to the E of) and the small islet to the N. Note that neither of these islets appear on my Navionics chart. Stay mid-channel to 3/4 of the way to the N islet.
Note that we had planned on going there based upon the Bauhaus guide, but upon reading the Sarana guide we won't. The Sarana guide claims that the anchorages aren't usable due to the bottom or being too close to the shore. I have no idea, but we're not going to waste a couple of hours checking it out.
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