Sunday, February 10, 2013

Las Perlas of Panama

A lowish tide on Contadora, and more people than you usually see in the
other islands of the Las Perlas group.
Las Perlas, an archipelago thirty-some miles southeast of the city, is a great change of pace from Panama City. So far it's been curiously, blissfully, quiet out here.  With some fancy groceries from Riba Smith, enough wind and sun for decent power generation, a few friends passing through, and even, in the northern part of the group, a tolerable internet connection, I could sit out here for weeks!

That's us, near one of those islands near the middle
of the Golfo de Panama, Archipelago de las Perlas.
But first a comment about the weather. Since the middle of January we have been cool - actually sleeping under sheets, stuffing dish towels in the dorades (air-scooping ventilators), and starting the day in sleeves. One day last week-bam- the water temperature dropped ten degrees, to about 70 - one anchorage reported 63!  It's been like the Chesapeake on a fine autumn day, even down to the partially-leafed trees, with squadrons of pelicans and boobies replacing flocks of geese.

This time of year, the InterTropicalConvergenceZone, that band of weather around the equator where the northerly and southerly trade winds meet, well,  the monsoon, as some call it,  retreats  from 8-10 degrees North latitude down to an area closer to the equator. Northerly-quarter trade winds fill in as they do in the Caribbean. The effect is to blow the warm  clear tropical water out of the bay. In its place comes an upwelling of cool, plankton-laden water, and later on, in places, red-tide algae growths. We get cooler water, cooler air and not much chance of rain. These conditions, I gather, may persist through March.

The currents also increase, and given that the tidal range in the last spring tide was 16 feet*, there's a lot of water being stirred around. Visibility through the plankton is down to about ten feet. So it's definitely not diving weather, and swims are abbreviated. Considering that our tank water on the boat is the same temperature as the water we float it, even showers are feeling brisk, unless we help them along with some extra heated water. On the plus side, such bioluminescence means that the light show in the toilet bowl at night is very nice. 

Surprising how pretty the skin of a fish,
this one a mackerel, can be.
Sailing over, we even saw a pair of whales, or maybe they were whale sharks, and literally dozens of rays flying out of the water and landing with a splat. And we broke our fish-less spell with a nice pair of mackerel (sierra they're called here) in the six-pound range. Not everyone is lucky enough to get a fish-weighing scale for Christmas!

Now, the pearls of Las Perlas. Something about this place favors, no,  make that, used to favor, oysters growing pearls. When Vasco Nunez de Balboa came here in 1513 he took pearls away by the basketful. The natives only valued the meat, and within two years they (they natives) were wiped out, not in a nice way. Then, according to the brief histories in Wikipedia, slaves were brought in to continue the harvest. One of these slaves, in the 1600s, found one of the largest (55 carats), perfectly symmetrical, pear-shaped pearls in the world, known as La Peregrina. He gave it to the Spanish governor and was freed, or so the story goes. 
The first owner thereafter was the Tudor Queen Mary. Then it passed through the Spanish royal family for a couple centuries. Richard Burton bought at auction for  $37,000 and gave it to Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine's gift (good bidding, Richard!). Last year Sotheby's sold the  necklace from which it dangles for $11 million in a sale of her  'effects' ( rarely has that word seemed so appropriate!)
photo courtesy

There are no pearls to speak of here now. There aren't enough oyster shells for buttons, a companion industry, and there's no oyster meat industry. It seems that what might have recovered after heavy harvesting was wiped out in some kind of 'blight' earlier in the 20th century. Maybe that's why there's no commercial pearl-culture industry either. The more questions I come up with, the less I know!

photo courtesy Wikipedia Sub Marine Explorer
Then, there is the mysterious submarine mentioned in the local bible, the Cruising Guide to Panama by Eric Bauhaus, which can be seen on the beach at Isla San Telmo. It was once thought to have originated in World War II, but the real story is more interesting. It was a Civil War-era submarine, built by Julius Kroehl, specifically for pearl diving. It went down to around 100 feet, and was pumped full enough of air so that two hatches on the bottom could be opened for harvesting the oysters. 
Unfortunately, there was insufficient understanding of how high atmospheric pressure might affect people. Or, as Wikipedia tells the story (Sub Marine Explorer):
After construction, the Sub Marine Explorer was partially disassembled and transported to Panama in December 1866, where she was reassembled to harvest oysters and pearls in the Pearl Islands. Experimental dives with the Sub Marine Explorer in the Bay of Panama ended in September 1867 when Kroehl died of "fever." The craft languished on the beach until 1869, when a new engineer and crew took it the Pearl Islands to harvest oyster shells and pearls. The 1869 dives, with known depths and dive profiles that would have inevitably led to decompression sickness, laid the entire crew down with "fever", and the craft was laid up in a cove on the shores of the island of San Telmo.
Read all about it here at
By the way, Galivant is just about the same length and width as this submarine, just a little less dense!

The Panamanians who can afford the very nice, pricey facilities at the yacht clubs and marinas in Panama City generally own fancy sport-fishing boats, not sailboats. Why so many? Why here? Turns out that we are in a special area, with lots of bait fish and lots of 'sport' fish in the convergence areas between the currents and the seamounts. Some black marlin approach 2000 pounds and a long-standing world record was a black marlin of 1560 pounds. To set a record, the person in the fighting chair must be the only person who works the fish, no handing it off for a trip to the toilet, or for any other reason. I'm told the 2000-pounders have been verified because they show up as by-catch in fishing nets. Personally, I don't get it about sport fishing, and I'd like the fish to stay unthreatened. But it's big business around here.
photo courtesy Tropic Star Lodge

 Some of the Survivor shows were filmed in the Las Perlas islands. I don't know much about the show, except it seems that they don't wear many clothes, so I guess it wasn't filmed on one of the islands noted for no-see-ums (biting midges). Another of life's little mysteries is why these bugs thrive on some islands and not on others.

The most developed island, Contadora, has, by right of its convenient location, airstrip, and a bit of upscale development, been used for South and Central American summit conferences. The south side has a number of private moorings and seems to get busy on weekends. There are a few hotels, and restaurants, good roads for the golf carts, a small grocery, some nice houses behind gates and walls, and the beach is lovely.

The rest of the islands are pretty empty and low key, a few small villages and a few fancy houses here and there, but very little development. How long can that last? Work started on a pair of marinas at Pedro Gonzalez. Continuing rumors about a 'new Contadora' with houses, condos and 'community amenities' on Viveros. A big island, San Jose, ('bigger than five nations' said the ad) was for sale for $311 million dollars in 2011, a world record at the time. But for now the Perlas islands are the epitome of tranquility - just the spot for fishing, boat projects, reading. I like it here!
*that's 16 feet of difference between high and low in the space of six hours. Watch where you're going and how you anchor!
For my oyster- (and pearl-)loving friends, here's interesting three pages (with pictures!)  about the evolution of the trade: