© 2013 Wouter Janssen
COIBA Island National Park Overnight Tour
The Coiba National Park consists of a group of Islands in the Pacific Ocean south of Veraguas Province. The park covers 270,125 hectares, of which about 20% is land, the remainder is marine and contains many coral reefs, the largest of which covers 135 ha.
Coiba Island was a penal colony from 1919 to 1991, when it was declared a National Park. As a result, human impact on the area has been very limited and was restricted to the prison and its immediate surroundings. The remainder of Coiba Island, the other islands and the surrounding sea remained virtually untouched. Most prisoners were released (The Noriega regime used Coiba mostly to detain political prisoners and homosexual men) or moved to other prisons, but a few opted for a job with ANAM as caretaker of the prison and its surroundings.
The area around the prison was used to grow food by and for the prisoners. The Panamanian government introduced cattle to Coiba to supply food to guards and prisoners. The descendants of these cattle still roam the area and removing them appears to be near impossible because of numerous bureaucratic hurdles. As a result, the area around the ancient prison looks like a rural area rather than a forest.
The island Coiba (50,314 hectares) is the largest island, not just of the archipelago, but of all Panama. It is the only island in the park with permanent buildings (including the ruins of the prison, the police station and the ANAM buildings and biological stations) and permanent human presence. The islands Jicaron (2002 ha), Jicarita (125 ha), Canal de Afuera (240 ha), Afuerita (27 ha), Pajaros (45 ha), Uva (257 ha), Brincanco (330 ha), Coibita (242 ha) and all the other small nameless islands, islets and keys are free of permanent habitation.
Coiba National Park has been declared a UNESCO World Natural heritage site because of its biodiversity and its important role in the Eastern Pacific Tropical Ecosystem. The Coiba archipelago is part of a huge marine corridor that includes Malpelo Island, Gorgona Island, Cocos Island and the Galapagos Archipelago. Many pelagic animals such as leatherback turtles, whale sharks, manta rays, dolphins, marlin, sail fish and tuna depend on islands like Coiba for their survival.
The marine biodiversity is therefore the true gem of Coiba, with 69 identified species of fish, 13 types of crustaceans (crabs & lobsters), 45 species of snails and 12 species of echinoderms (sea urchins and sea cucumbers). Snorkelling is a good way to get an idea of the incredible richness of Coiba waters. There is a small but beautiful reef around Granito de Oro, where you can see many of these animals, and with a bit of luck you will also see turtles.
The seas of Coiba are also the habitat of the humpbacked whale , the orca , the pan-tropical dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin. In fact there are records of 19 more cetacean species that occasionally visit Coiba waters. During the boat trip to, around and from Coiba, you are likely to see dolphins and devil rays and possibly sailfish. From July to early October, there is a chance to see a humpbacked whale, these whales visit Coiba waters to give birth and mate, so if you are lucky, you might se a mother and calf, or a small pod of females accompanied by a male.
The islands are home to 36 species of mammals, 39 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 147 species of birds. Some of the land animals have been isolated from the mainland for so long that they have evolved in different species. The Coiba spinetail (Cranioleuca dissita) for example, is a bird that only occurs in Coiba and nowhere else in the world. Some biologists consider the agoutis on Coiba as varieties of their mainland relatives, but others argue that they are separate species. The spider monkeys and howler monkeys of Coiba are also full species. Interestingly the howler and spider monkeys inCerro Hoya NP belong to Coiba species rather than the mainland species you see in the rest of Panama.
Coiba is the only place in Panama where one can see flocks of the threatened Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao). The best place to see them is Playa Quebrada, at the other side of the island. The Coiba spinetail is usually found along the ‘Los pozos’ trail near the prison. The agouti is present near the ANAM camp, the howler monkeys are often found along the ‘los monos’ trail.