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February 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Panama’s Coiba National Park

from the February, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Coiba National Park, located in the Gulf of Chiriquí, is a UNESCO Natural Heritage Site, comprising a 1,700 square-mile island plus 38 smaller islands. The islands are uninhabited, remote and wild. Endemic land and marine species, as well as their migratory routes and reproduction sites, are protected, in part, by the island's inaccessibility.

Its Tropical Eastern Pacific location, which includes the Cocos, Malpelo, and Galapagos Islands, is impacted by five converging oceanic current with a 16-foot tidal variation every six hours. Its proximity to the continental shelf creates deep, open ocean conditions and nutrient-rich waters that attract pelagics not usually seen so close to shore. Deepwater sea mounts, pinnacles and drop-offs, volcanic substrata, shallow coral reefs, rocky shores, beaches, mangroves, estuaries, sand and mud areas offer a diversity of marine habitats.

The island's ancient tropical rain forest, surrounded by 150 miles of coastline, has numerous rivers, creating a mangrove habitat for both caiman and American crocodiles. The park is home to one of the largest flocks of scarlet macaw, and nesting sites for the rare and illusive crested eagle. Whales (including humpback, finback, orcas and sperms), dolphins and other marine mammals are common.

Around 2000 B.C., a Central American mountain tribe called the Chibcha built fishing camps on Coiba and several islands nearby. Ancient fish traps can occasionally be sighted in intertidal zones. Coiba was settled by 1550 B.C., when Spanish invaders either exterminated or moved the natives to work in the gold mines of Darien on Panama's mainland. Coiba remained uninhabited until the early 20th century, when a penal colony was established there. Considered similar to the notorious French penal colony Devil's Island, near French Guyana, Coiba closed in 2000. Its reputation alleged the disappearance of hundreds of people, but its offshore distance, strong currents and healthy shark populations deterred escape attempts.

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