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April 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Thumbs Down: Scuba Coiba and Coiba National Park, Panama

from the April, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Thumbs Down: Scuba Coiba and Coiba National Park, PanamaIn our May 2007 issue, we reviewed Panama’s Isla Coiba and the Santa Catalina-based dive shop Scuba Coiba’s three-day trips there. But Undercurrent readers who went there recently said park officials demand thousands of dollars for underwater photographers to use their video gear, either below or above the water.

Chad and Loretta Engler (Broken Arrow, OK) brought two videocameras with them while diving with Scuba Coiba last November. When police became aware of their videocameras, they decided to enforce a law requiring them to buy a permit for US$3,000 per half hour of filming. The law is supposed to only apply to commercial video, but the officials said they don’t know how the video will be used so they enforce this law for all video. The Englers were allowed to keep the videos they had already made without paying any fees, but police said the charge would be applied for dives going forward and apparently, they don’t take check or credit card. “They demanded $10,000 per day, in cash – and it was not a joke,” says Chad. When the couple refused, they ushered the Scuba Coiba to the edge of the park. “We were escorted out of the area by patrol boat like a group of criminals,” says Loretta. “They also carried guns, which was nerve-racking.”

The Englers say that the law isn’t mentioned anywhere in print, or on Scuba Coiba’s Web site, and Scuba Coiba never mentioned this to them while arranging the trip from the U.S. “We were not told of this extortion until we were getting on the boat to go over to the island,” says Richard Pittman (Tulsa, OK), who accompanied the Englers on the trip.

We contacted Scuba Coiba owner Herbie Sink who admitted that the legislation is unclear. “The ‘manual’ says that for ‘commercial film productions,’ you need a permit form from Panama’s environmental agency, and the fee can be as high as US$1,000 per minute. What the manual doesn’t say is that personal video filming also requires a permit and a fee, but the rate isn’t specified. The decision is left to the Coiba’s park guides and as long nobody tells them otherwise, they charge the highest possible fee.”

Sink says he now warns potential customers about the fees, but there is no mention of the fees on its Web site, and Sink sounds nonchalant. “For non-professional filmers, it usually is no problem. In the worst case, if their filming equipment is categorized as ‘professional,’ they just refrain from filming the remaining dives.” That doesn’t sound like an ideal scenario any diver with a videocamera would happily accept.

Sink e-mailed us back a few days later, stating that Panama would “soon be implementing” a no-fee policy for personal video use. But based on the Englers’ tale about park rangers determining what is professional filming and what is not, it’s unclear how well the policy will be put into place.

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