Exit’s Pacific Ocean Baptism – Archipielago De Las Perlas, Panama (Part Three)

January 20 – February 15, 2022

First Day Bay (Ensenada Playa Grande on Isla San Jose) had indeed given us an epic first day.

Ohhhhhhh ya… I do sense another movie coming on…

Over the course of the week, we went out on the water again and again, both in the dinghy and on the SUP.  The show never stopped.  At times during the changing tides, traffic would seem to slow down, and then another group of rays would surface somewhere else in the bay.  Fortunately, one of the busier times seemed to be just before sunset, which provided a daily ritual of happy hours in the dinghy floating amongst schools of crazed devil rays and feeding whale sharks. 

More whale shark footage at Isla San Jose

Unbelievable.

First Day Bay.

During one trip to the beach looking for Macaws, which we saw only a few brief glimpses of, we found evidence that we were on the front doorstep of a crocodile’s abode.  The tracks left in the sand by its feet and tail were a dead giveaway.  Given the fact that this was just entering the beginning of their nesting season, we opted to not go wandering around the shoreline, barefoot and all.  Probably smart.

When we did eventually leave Isla San Jose and First Day Bay, it was not due to boredom.  We were running desperately low on fruits, veggies, and beverages; and it would take a trip to Isla Del Rey or even possibly farther to Isla Contadora to sort ourselves out.

Departing Isla San Jose for Isla Del Rey
Isla Del Rey

On the southern side of Isla Del Rey we anchored just off of Rio Cacique.  It was our first stop and introduced us to the brutal and relentless roll the swell from the south that would hound us on that island.  

Rio Cacique turned out to be a beautiful dinghy excursion up another one of the mangrove rivers which had become so familiar throughout Panama.  For us, the real uniqueness of this river was its entrance.  During low tide, the mouth of Rio Cacique was completely choked off by a sand bar.  Once the incoming tide rose high enough, the river was re-connected with the ocean, causing a messy and wave sticker point of contact.  Slack high tide was the only feasible time to enter the river.  Too long before or after resulted in a maelstrom of surf and three knot currents that surely would capsize the dinghy.  

This left a small one or two hour window during which the tide was high enough for the dinghy to not run aground and the surf was controlled enough to not be outright dangerous, where we could explore the river as it wound back and forth, continually growing narrower until we could barely even turn the dingy around.  Long before we had the opportunity to really check out many of the areas as the river branches or proceed too far inland, we had to remind ourselves to turn around and head back in time to get back outside the sand bar before all hell broke loose again.

Dinghy excursion up Rio Cicaque

We had read that coming around the southeast side of Isla el Rey, on tiny Isla San Telmo, one could find the wreck of a small submarine, which would reveal itself along the shoreline as the tide dropped.  The sub, apparently one of the earliest technologies of its kind which had been used for pearling, had mysteriously shown up over a hundred years ago.   We were able to locate it, and it actually was larger and more intact than I expected.  Cool, and worth a stop; but we moved on shortly afterward.


AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION OR JUST A BUNCH OF DICKS

SÉCURITÉSÉCURITÉ… Attention all boats on the east side of Las Perlas.  Our sailboat was boarded and robbed yesterday.  Be sure you take appropriate precautions.

The announcement over the VHF radio stunned us as it was repeated.  The caller hadn’t identified themselves.

We were on the east side of Las Perlas.  More specifically, the east side of Isla Del Rey… almost as east as you could get in the archipelago.

Exactly where the voice on the radio had been talking about

Immediately after the announcement, a boat identifying itself as S/V Papillon replied asking for more information as they were also currently in the area.  Papillon’s herald went unanswered.  That was all we heard from either person.

Not just strange.  Bizarre.

A Sécurité announcement generally implies a warning or maritime safety situation.  Urgent but not an immediate life threatening emergency.  We had heard them issued over the radio before for things like large logs, or unattended vessels that had broken free of moorings, floating about freely which posed a risk of collision; or a disabled boat entering a high traffic channel asking for space to maneuver.  

Not a Mayday call.  

Which would be appropriate in the context of being boarded and robbed.

But yesterday?

Our radio had been on the day before.  We had heard nothing.

Not just strange.  Bizarre.

We had already planned to move to a different anchorage, still on Isla Del Rey.  Without more information, we saw no reason to alter that.   The night before had been miserable thanks to a wicked swell that had us rolling all night long.

We picked up anchor and worked our way north along Isla Del Rey’s eastern coast.  Our first option looked just as exposed to the swell as the anchorage we had just left, so we continued on.

The second option didn’t have any swell, but also didn’t jump out at us.  One sailboat was already there; the first one we had seen on this side of the island.  There was a guy on deck hanging laundry…obviously, not someone recovering from a robbery.

Again, we continued on.  We ended up anchoring in a bit of a channel between Isla Del Rey and an island called Isla Espiritu Santo. 

Shortly after we had set anchor, as Kris paddled away on her SUP, a catamaran sailed into the channel and anchored near us.  

About a half hour later, a small panga motored up to Exit with three local teens inside. 

After a few niceties, one of them lifted a jug sitting on the floor of their boat and said something I couldn’t make out.  I asked if it was water they wanted.  They said gasoline.  I said I had no extra.  They asked if I had chocolate.  I laughed and said all I had to offer was water.  

They decided that was better than nothing, so I handed over a few bottles of water we had left over from our Panama Canal transit, during which we were required to provide bottled water for the advisor and line handlers, and threw in a small pack of cookies for good measure.  They seemed to appreciate the cookies more than the water, offered what I thought was a sincere thank you, and motored away.

I watched as they headed toward the cat.  

Three people from the cat had headed to the nearby beach right after setting anchor, one on a SUP and two swimmers.  Now the guy on the SUP was paddling straight past the three teens in the panga, making fast for his cat.  The teens appeared to be speaking with the other two, who eventually swam back to the cat as well.  Then in an odd display, the teenagers buzzed a couple of circles around the cat and sped off.

Not long after that, Kris arrived back at Exit.  She had watched the last exchange play out with the people on the cat as well, and I relayed to her what had happened when the kids stopped at our boat.

Less than ten minutes later, we heard the rattling of chain and watched as the cat picked up anchor.  They slowed as they passed right up next to us.  According to the guy at the helm, the guy I had seen on the SUP, they had spoken with the person we had heard earlier on the radio with the Securite announcement.  He said it was the boat in the previous anchorage we had seen putting out laundry.  

Weird.

Also weird was the fact they seemed to have little more information than we did already.  

The boat had been boarded and robbed.  That was it.  It was incredibly lacking in specifics.

And now they just had what they described as a questionable encounter with very aggressive locals in the boat.  Very aggressive?  Really?

The guy said they were “quite nervous given the earlier robbery, and after asking what the kids wanted, had tried to establish that they were not people to be messed with.”   After that, the guys in the boat had “aggressively raced around them.”   So, “out of an abundance of caution”, they were now leaving for an undisclosed location.

And off they went.  Last we saw, the cat was still motoring off into what appeared to be who knows where.

We were unsettled.  But it also seemed largely like a crock of shit.

To me “boarded and robbed” were trigger words.  High octane vocabulary.  In my eyes, it implied an occupied boat being assaulted by armed assailants.  

The boat we saw earlier didn’t try to hail us directly on the radio as we passed; they hadn’t even left the anchorage; they were doing laundry!  It did not appear by any stretch of the imagination that they feared for their imminent safety or security.  All speculation without good information.

A situation in which someone had taken an unlocked jug of petrol off an unoccupied boat – technically still “boarded and robbed” – seemed much more likely, and a scenario I could live with.  Not cool, but digestible.

As for the cat’s “abundance of caution”, I was even more inclined to call bullshit.  I had just had an exchange of my own with the guys.  They were asking for petrol, but certainly not demanding it.  They left Exit with smiles on their faces after being offered water and cookies.  It sounded to me like the aggressive party was the group on the cat – paranoid about thieves, they postured as badasses not to be trifled with and were looked at by these kids who live here as a group of foreign assholes.

We ended up moving out of the channel we were anchored in, which served as the main thoroughfare for any passing boat traffic, and re-anchored less than a mile away, in the corner of a small bay, choosing to spend the night dark.  Nothing happened at all.  We’ll call it just to be on the safe side, because from here on I will associate the phrase abundance of caution as a term potentially to be used by a bunch of dicks.


Initially, Isla Contadora held little appeal for us. The most populated town and a lot of moored boats in the bay. We skipped past it the first time, but were actually happy when we later returned and went ashore for some provisioning and a bit of a wander around. The town ended up being quite pleasant to visit, and provided our first restaurant in nearly a month, since we had left Shelter Bay Marina.

Isla Contadora, Las Perlas

It had been a week since we departed Isla San Jose. Having both exhausted all the stops in Las Perlas that we had hoped for and adequately restocked our fruit, veggie, and beverage supplies, we returned to Isla San Jose one last time as a staging point for our departure to start heading in the direction of Sea of Cortez, our ultimate destination before summer arrived to Central America.  We hoped for one last finale at First Day Bay.

Between Isla Contadora and Isla San Jose, it appeared our mojo was still working.  We were approached by a family of what we initially thought were pilot whales.  There were more than a half dozen, both adults and calves.  Over the course of nearly half an hour, we watched with fascination.  Initially, they seemed very curious.  A couple of the adults came right up to Exit and gave us a rather intimate inspection.  Eventually, they continued about their business, allowing us the gift of a slightly more distant though still extraordinary encounter.  Later, a bit of research lead us to the conclusion that we had not been visited by pilot whales, but rather either false killer whales or melon headed whales – a detail which surprised us but made the whole experience no less stunning.

False Killer Whales while Exit is underway

As we approached Isla San Jose for the second time, at nearly the same location we had previously seen our first whale shark two weeks prior, a large dorado (or mahi mahi) leapt out of the water.  A brilliant green and blue color, it was the first we had ever seen.  Again, our mojo seemed to be operating at full tilt boogie for our return to First Day Bay.

Alas, it was not to be.  Not entirely surprisingly, but sadly, no one was there.  First Day Bay seemed all but empty.  Our marine friends had left.  The devil rays and whale sharks had moved on with the food supply.   Ultimately, it made the entire experience even more special.   We had lucked out completely; our previous visit had perfectly coincided with the arrival of krill and small organisms – a smorgasbord for the filter feeding devil rays and whale sharks who had so amazed and entertained us.  Though fleeting, for us Isla San Jose will always be thought of as the island of whale sharks and leaping devil rays.

All that remained were the cows that had come to the beach nearly every day.  

Beach cows. 

First Day Bay.


After nearly a month at Las Perlas, we sensed the time to move on was upon us.

Our stay had been brilliant.

Though we had not done any diving during our visit, the snorkeling had revealed just a smidge of the potential the Pacific Ocean held for us.  Stunning colors and clear water, healthy reefs, and far more fish than most everywhere we had been in the Caribbean.

Over time, it became apparent to us that Las Perlas is not considered nearly as much of a destination as other places in Panama such as Bocas Del Toro or San Blas.  The number of other boats we encountered there was surprisingly small.   Obviously, boats in the area are either headed for the Panama Canal or have just transited it, and Las Perlas is viewed as a brief stopover, if it even makes the cut.

During our visit, one of the few things even more scarce than other boats was rain –  none since our arrival to the Pacific Ocean.  We had not seen a drop since we entered the Canal in mid-January; even then, it was only a brief sprinkle just outside Shelter Bay.   Strangley, the last day we had actually collected any rain catch was the day after Christmas in San Blas.  In fact, it would be March before any rain would land on the deck of Exit.  Here on the Pacific side of Panama, when they say dry season, they mean it.  On the Atlantic side, the term seemed much less definitive, apparently applying sometimes to certain months on certain islands.  Go figure.

Regardless, it was time to put Las Perlas in our rear view mirror and press on. There was still twelve hundred miles between Exit and the Sea of Cortez; we needed to get moving.

Archipielago De Las Perlas…the perfect name. Archipelago Of The Pearls.

Exit’s Pacific Ocean Baptism – Archipielago De Las Perlas, Panama (Part Two)

January 20 – February 15, 2022
Isla San Jose

Twenty years of scuba diving at some of the most exotic locations on the planet and thousands of dives each.  Never had we seen a whale shark.

It had become a running joke – unicorns and whale sharks… both creatures of fable.

Now we were coming around Punta Cruz, the point jutting a mile out from Isla San Jose, southwestern most island of Las Perlas.  That made it less than two miles from Ensenada Playa Grande (Big Beach Cove) where we planned to anchor.  Less than half a mile from the shore in one hundred feet of water, just as we started to make a gentle turn towards the bay, we saw something dark cutting through the surface, not more than a couple hundred feet forward and starboard.

A fin.

A big fin.

A big fin with spots.

Holy shit!

We took Exit out of gear and let her drift.  Lo and behold, what should swim straight out of the pages of a fable and alongside us?

That’s right.  A fucking whale shark!

And a big one at that.  Though over thirty feet long is possible, ten to twenty feet is more typical when you hear of whale shark encounters with people.  This one was over twenty.  Right about half as long as our boat.  Wow!

Not a snorkeling experience paid for by a tourist – an incredibly rare treat.  Not a scuba diving encounter – even more rare to occur.  Rather, a visit of its own choosing while we are underway on our sailboat.

Incredibly large for a fish, yet absolute in its grace and gentle demeanor.  

What a magical creature.  Now we believe.  As though a whale shark actually came out of a fable.

For fifteen minutes, time seemed to distort in opposite directions, elongating into something with an elasticity resembling the arms of an old childhood Stretch Armstrong toy while it simultaneously blinked past at the speed of a camera lens shutter.  

And then it was gone.  With both the incontrovertible absoluteness and longterm fragility of a snap shot, our first encounter with a whale shark became a memory.

Whale sharks actually do exist!!!!!!

And, as it turned out, it also was a preview of coming attractions.  Our encounter as we arrived would become the embodiment of our our entire experience there. Within days, Ensenada Playa Grande would come to be known to us as First Day Bay. First day to have seen that…

Just minutes after anchoring, we had our second whale shark encounter.  A different whale shark, this one not much over ten feet long, swam right up to Exit and slowly passed by.  Amazing. 

Second whale shark encounter; first one to visit us at anchor.

First Day Bay.

First whale shark at anchor

Moments later, another show commenced that would continue almost uninterrupted throughout our stay.  The Rays Craze.

For a week straight, we watched and heard a non-stop performance from what had to be thousands of mobular rays, devil rays to be specific.  Countless groups, each in the hundreds or more, moved about the bay constantly churning up a froth of water with their movement that looked and sounded like boiling water.  Randomly, individual rays or entire groups started leaping out of the water, typically landing with a slapping bellyflop but sometimes in a fit of acrobatic flips (we referred to them as floppers or flippers).  The scene was ridiculously amusing to watch.  A group would disappear below the surface, only to return in a churning cauldron moments later.  Sometimes the leaps were individual rays repeatedly bouncing across the water like a skipping rock.  Other times dozens would erupt from the surface nearly simultaneously, comically reminding me of carefree and overly energetic children jumping on a trampoline or, even more, popping popcorn.  

Pelagic Popcorn

What those crazy rays were doing is anybody’s guess.  Communicating with each other?  Cleaning themselves of parasites?  Just having a blast?  Who knows…but it sure was an endless source of both smiles and laughter for us.

The morning after we arrived, Kris went for a paddle on her SUP.  On the beach, she found fresh tracks from a turtle who had come ashore the previous night attempting to lay eggs.

But the real entertainment was in the water.  Even though Kris had already enjoyed incredible encounters with schools of cow nose rays while we were in Bocas Del Toro, these were devil rays and the leaping was unique to them. 

And never had a creature twice as long as the SUP swam within ten feet of her…yep, another whale shark. 

First Day Bay.

One would think that would be a mic drop and walk offstage moment.  Day finished.  Might as well go to bed.

Not quite.

What could possibly upstage that surreal instant with another, all before lunch?  

How about Space X-it drone footage of a whale shark swimming with a school of hundreds of leaping devil rays… BOOM!

First Day Bay.

Space X-it drone footage of whale shark and rays

So now what?  It’s still morning.  Fuck ya, let’s take the dinghy out.  And so we did.  Before we knew it, we were amongst the group of rays we had just flown the drone over.  The whale shark was still there as well, and proceeded to swim right alongside the dinghy.  Eventually it disappeared into deeper water, but the rays just kept circling about.  We seized the moment and jumped into the water, snorkeling in a surreal and unforgettable devil ray soup.

Mind-blowing.

First Day Bay.

Later, when we looked closer at the video footage, we actually saw a single cow-nose ray infiltrator hiding amongst the massive population of devil rays.

Cheeky.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE…

Exit’s Pacific Ocean Baptism – Archipelago De Las Perlas, Panama (Part One)

January 20 – February 15, 2022

The relief we felt was palpable.

After twenty two months, we were still in Panama. Nevertheless, the forty mile journey just completed aboard Exit had delivered us through the doorway to a new world.

The Pacific Ocean.

Yet who stops at the doorway?

The appeal of seeing Panama City represented more of a visual (or visceral) confirmation of what we perceived as our incredibly massive accomplishment of transiting the Canal rather than the actual appeal of visiting the sprawling metropolis of Panama City.

Panama City

We weren’t sure if we’d do some more provisioning once we reached Panama City, but we had stocked up adequately enough before our Canal transit to make it unnecessary.

Freshly baptized in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, Exit needed to keep going. Why lose momentum?

We were all too happy to trade the moving steel islands of commerce surrounding Panama City…

…for more natural tropical islands of solitude.

We had spent fourteen months in Bocas Del Toro. We had spent six months in San Blas. We had a friend say he grew tired of looking at tropical islands of sand and coconut trees.

We, apparently, had not.

Less than forty miles south of Panama City are a small group of islands. Still within the Gulf of Panama but far enough that they reside right at the edge of the Abyss…

La Archipielago De Las Perlas – The Pearl Islands of Panama.

Isla Pacheca

The first island we arrived at; privately owned though we saw no one there while we were at anchor. Technically, we could go ashore, but only as far as the high tide level on the beach.

Beautiful and unoccupied except for the population of birds.

An unbelievable number of birds. Frigates; boobies; pelicans; cormorants. Who knows how many. I have tried to count swimming fish during Reef Check surveys… a very scientifically subjective number. Flying birds? I’d guess a gazillion.

Sunset on Isla Pacheca

Our first stop at Isla Pacheca, the northernmost island of Las Perlas, turned out just what the doctor ordered.

Yet, despite the solitude and space, somehow we managed to be on the receiving end of our first hit and sit collision, when a local fishing boat at anchor up current from us dragged down onto us in the middle of the night.

As if our late night collision with the fishing boat didn’t give us enough of an adrenaline shot to tide us over for quite some time, the following day we upped the ante even further with an entire bottle of adrenaline and came very close to losing our drone Space X-it.

We had already launched the drone successfully from the deck of Exit oncewhile we were in San Blas so, in theory, it was not an outrageous endeavor.  However, this time things went far from smoothly. As we proceeded with the liftoff, for some reason the drone immediately begin backing just as it rose off the deck. It barely cleared the edge of the dodger, but the landing gear, equipped with floats, clipped the corner of the bimini sending the drone careening out of control backwards until it hung up on the solar panel structure attached to our arch. The rotors, still spinning wildly, began grinding against the edge of the panels, making a sickening noise as the drone got hung up underneath.

In a moment of pure panic, I put down the GoPro camera I had been taking video footage with, and darted to the other side. There were only seconds before the drone would cascade off the edge of the bimini and into the sea, where it would certainly suffer an instantaneous death.

Not even thinking, I reached up and grabbed the drone, fully aware that the horrible thwacking and whining sound meant the rotors were still trying to turn at full speed. Instantly free of the structure of the boat, they started spinning again; however, now against my fingers.

Somehow, I managed to keep ahold until Kris was able to shut Space X-it down. Miraculously, the drone was safe. Also miraculously, all my fingers were still attached, though bloodied and sore.

Taking one for the team.

It was no NASA accident, but I envisioned a CNN breaking story that seemed the equivalent.

Space X-it — Failure to launch

Later we learned of an airstrip in the area. We may have breached some sort of proximity protocol for flying the drone and ended up with signal interference that caused the malfunction.

Oops.

Isla Bartolome

On the charts Isla Bartolome appeared as an insignificant speck. Barely above water. More of a hazard than a destination. Certainly no indication of an anchorage.

It would have been easy to pass by without a second glance.

Fortunately, we stopped.

Though we were hardly the first people to anchor at Bartolome, it felt like our own private discovery. With the exception of a few pangas arriving during the day for brief visits with day trippers, we had the entire island and bay to ourselves.

Ooolala… a Pacific Mermaid!
A stunning variety of landscape

The lowest tides revealed a staggering range of formations and landscapes that seemed completely random and utterly unique from one another. Such a strange combination of long term geological events must have played out to result in so much variety in shapes and materials. It seemed even more unusual given the tiny size of Isla Bartolome.

What could be globally separated and unrelated examples from a geology text book actually reflect one location’s infinite possible outcomes when the unrelenting forces of an ocean are pitted against stone, given a billion years or so. Mo’ Nat’s artwork.

Despite its small size, Isla Bartolome ended up being our second favorite place to anchor in all of Las Perlas.

However, we may have done a triple take when we saw a small fishing boat anchor just up current from us – a boat looking remarkably like the one that had recently dragged down on top of us at Isla Pacheca.

Hmmm.

Other Islands

Isla Mogo Mogo; Isla Bayoneta; Isla Pedro Gonzalez – all stops along the way as we meandered throughout the archipelago.

Dinghy explorations; paddling on the SUP; relaxing.

And always birds; more birds. It became apparent to us that we were witnessing some sort of migration process unfolding. The numbers of birds were astounding. And they just continued to grow.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO…

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