Islas de las Perlas
by Lou Jirovec
We get too soon old and too late... smart! I
thought to myself as I started to write about the Pearl Islands. Fifty years is a
long time ago so therefore vivid impressions become my only reliance at this stage of the
game and the permit of using a poetic license in sharing about those wonderful days spent
Ah! The magnificience of those islands, the Islas de las Perlas nestled in the Bay of Panama, once visited, a new perspecitive of the tropics is enhanced, for within the tropical paradise of Panama another paradise is found. Some have thought that the treasure was that of the pearls found in the days of the conquistadors, Spanish galleons, and buccaneers; however, the treasures that we found would far surpass something held in a hand or worn as a decorative ornament for a season of time.
We must have visited Perlas ten times in the course of three years. Weeks ahead of time our families made preparations for the upcoming trip to Perlas. Menus were planned to the minutest details such as the number of sugar cookies per person each day so that an adequate supply was maintained for the week of island hopping and deep sea fishing.
The Parkers boat, the Manta Ray, was approximately fifty feet long and twelve feet wide with the galley and steering wheel combined a cabin built on the top of the deck. The wide, canvas overhang of twelve feet above us on the bow of the boat extended back to the cabin offering us protection from tropical sun on our long, sixty-five mile trek out to the islands. There was a shower and toilet, however, a saltwater bath is not the most enticing as one never feels clean, instead...salty. Down the steps from the galley was cabin with a small sleeping area. In the rear of the boat were the chairs set up for holding our fishing poles...needless to say, this was the most frequently used part of the boat. Everyone had a hand at fishing from time to time. To look at it you would instantly know it was not one of those elegant streamlined yachts but just an old, durable plugging along banana boat , the label we all gave it especially when a big bunch of bananas were hung on the deck for our week long trip. When we left the dock at Balboa it took us six to eight hours to reach the first island in the chain.
The many creatures that live in these tropical waters were easily visible once we set out to sea further away from the isthmus and out in the deep. Porpoise would come alongside our boat darting back and forth by the bow blowing air out of their blowhole. Clark Gable, the gray and black speckled show off, allowed much filming for posterity to view even to this day.
Occasionally a sharks fin would make a slice through the glassy-like water reminding the viewer to not lean too far over on three foot bars surrounding the deck of the Manta Ray. Usually the sharks were alone, never in close proximity of the porpoise and their blunt noses that could be used to deal a shark a mighty, injurous, blow. Whales could be seen in a distance shooting a stream from their blowhole into the air while alongside the flying fish would put on their usual display as they glided almost in perfect unison with the speed of our boat.
Ttruthfully I cant ever say at anytime that I enjoyed the movement of the boat upon the waves of the water, for I never could harmonize with this continuous, monotonous movement. Even getting on board the Ancon in New York Harbor made me queasy...and the ocean liner hadnt even left the harbor. It must have been the combination of the smell of diesel fuel and the motion that has always altered my sense of feeling good on the saltwater...on the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean it made no difference in the name for when one is seasick...one is seasick!
In 1950 while taking a Navy transport from Panama to Seattle, Washington I had a stateroom that was on the inside of the ship, without any windows and without air conditioning. I would play a game with myself and pretend that I was in a gigantic rocking chair as I would lie in my bunk and the fan in the room was the motor making the rocking chair move.
It was always a relief when we reached Pacheco the first island of the Pearl Islands, because on the way out I was usually lying on the bed in the little cabin with that once again queasy feeling playing my psychological game. The deep sea fishing began as Mr. Parker slowed down the engine of the boat and the fishing lines were dropped into the water. Pacheco was a rocky, island covered with white, bird guano made from the droppings of the many birds that nested on this tiny, rock island. Bass and grouper were prominent down in the depths between the rocks that we could faintly see lying under the water. Many a line has been snagged between these rocks with the loss of an expensive lure costing one dollar. Pachecos water rewarded us instantly so dinner time wasnt too far away now that a catch had been made and what a catch it was as an enormous grouper was reeled in and hauled on board in the fish net.
Once we arrived at Contadora, and the anchor was secured on the ocean floor, Mom became the filet artist and Dad was the cook as he reached for the skillet to fry the fresh fish. The sunset against the back drop of Contadora was overwhelming. Eating fresh fish under a tropical moonlight with an occasional fish jumping in the sea...well who could ask for more? The aquamarine waters lost their color as darkness set in but in direct contrast the water began to cast a beautiful silvery glow from the minute living organisms...it was as if some great painter had dumped a gallon of silver paint and decorated the water with a beautiful, irridescent, silvery glow right before our eyes for such a night as this.
With full stomaches and a full day of traveling, retiring early for all of us was much welcomed as we rolled out the mats that had been stored in the hold of the boat. One small cabin? Now where were the sleeping quarters for the crew of 10 to 12 people? On top of the deck were scattered mats and cots and even on top of the small cabin we all fit and were very comfortably rocked to sleep with the sound of the waves gently splashing against the Manta Ray throughout the night.
The smell of bacon cooking and coffee perking would cause even a deep sleeper to arise for mornings breakfast. If not that, the bright rays of the warm sun would start to penetrate through the eyelids allowing no more escape into dreamland.
Contadora was in full view once again with its long, white sandy beach and the tidepools dotting areas of the island, incidentally it was a wonderful place to hunt for hours for the little marine creatures. Swimming in the turquoise water and lying on the stark white, sandy beach always made Contadora a delight to the senses.
To me, it was always too soon when we had to leave Contadora to get on with the fishing and travel the the island of Rey, the largest island of all approximately thirty-five miles in length. Now we were out in the deep once again and the lines were dropped. Strike! was yelled as the boat came to an idle only to haul in half of a corbina...the other eaten by a shark. With the purr of the engine starting in gear once again the fishing would be resumed all the way to Rey. I dont know how long one fish was on the line this one time and neither did the fisherman because when it was reeled in and picked up with the fish net, the poor fish was drowned.
Reeling in the fish when a strike was called caused everyone on board to rush to the back of the boat to see what kind of a fish it would be this time as there was always such a array of fish. Tuna, mackerel, pompano, dolphin, red snapper, grouper, yellow jack, corbina and rainbow runner were among the varieties. The blunt nosed dolphins were always the most exciting catch as they would strike and flip a little in the air showing off their long dorsal fin. Once caught, they seemed to change color as they lay upon the deck in the final stages of their life in the sea. When I caught an eight pound yellow jack I felt like I had a tiger by the tail because it sounded straight down and my pole was bent so much I thought it would break. I dont recall anyone catching a barracuda but if we had it would have been tossed overboard. Barracudas were feared in Panama in the same way pirranha were in the Amazon. Many an arm or leg has been severely bitten by an unsuspecting individual swimming in the ocean in the Bay of Panama by this fish.
Mom would always start fileting the fish and put them in the freezer as some of our catch could not possibly be eaten in a weeks time then usually when we returned to Balboa we would have our catch to take home for dinner for a few days. On one occasion Mom had really worked hard to filet fifty pounds of fish for this purpose and she received pats on the back for her hard labor...but to no avail when the freezer malfunctioned. The fifty pounds of filets were tossed into the deep...free for the taking!
It always seemed like it was dusk when we arrived at the inlet of Canas on the island of Rey because we had one full day of nothing but fishing for those avid fishermen and fisherwomen. Mom was the greatest of all with her fishing cap on and a wad of gum in her mouth, it was quite a picture to see, especially when a strike hit the line. Why that gum got chewed to pieces as she chewed it as rapidly as she reeled in the line...faster...faster...were both the reeling and the chewing in perfect syncopation. When we arrived at the inlet of Canas on the island of Rey it became a shelter from the big waves of the open ocean and made an ideal spot to harbor in for the night. Once in a while other families would accompany us in their yachts and we would island hop together. This always added more enjoyment as they would join in our evenings of entertainment on the deck of the boat as we scheduled talent shows for all of us to observe the local talent. The first night the kids would put one on for the adults and then the next night it would be the adults turn to entertain us. Needless to say, we all laughed until we cried at some of the episodes that were used...naturally the ones imitating someone in the group were the funniest ones. Nowadays they call it a roast.
Sentimental? Yes we were sentimental. The Second World War was over just a few years ago. At dusk when Mr. Parker played his accordian we all harmonized those songs that were so well known by all of us during the war. I wondered if the natives living on the island of Rey could hear the echo of our voices and the musica coming from the accordian resounding across the water into their meager, thatch-roofed huts? Had we invaded their private domain with a chorus of harmony that they had never heard or experienced before?
One one trip Mr. Parker decided to beach the Manta Ray so that the barnacles could be scraped from its hull. It seemed so peculiar to see it slant to its side as the tide became lower and lower and the hull was exposed. On the Pacific Ocean in the Bay of Panama the tide can be as high as twenty plus feet. If one didnt know this, one could start to worry about getting the boat back into an upright position. Im glad this task was left to the adults to figure out. It was funtime for the kids with the building of sandcastles and rowing in the dingy to the opposite side of the inlet and yes getting our rowboat beached also. Fortunately some natives sailed by and helped us get back into the water. Their reward was a package of cigarettes.
Beautiful, spiney, reddish-orange starfish were everywhere! To pick them up and see those hundreds of tenacles moving was an exciting experience but not as exciting as having a sand shark swim right by your feet while wading in the knee deep water. Being stung by a jellyfish was not my favorite thing...but I was the one that brushed up against it.
The natives on this island who fished for a living, dropped a huge net in the water a few feet out from the sandy beach and left it there for a while. When they came back and pulled it in, our eyes got as big as silver dollars! We couldnt believe that so many different kinds of fish in an inlet such as Canas. I was intrigued by one fish, a porcupine fish...thats what I called it for when it was blown up for its defense, it had all kinds of spikes all over it. Why I could have stepped on one of these and really injured my foot. Respect for the ocean became a byword for all of us this day!
Our usual pilgrimage after anchoring at Canas for a day was to leave the calm waters of the inlet and head to Comote, the next island on the chain. Comote was definitely a treacherous looking island of rock and white bird guano, similar to Pacheco, the first island of the chain. Wherever the abundance of birds were, there was an abundance of fish. I always had some anxiety when the lines were dropped and the engine slowed down for trolling because the waves seemed so high that continually pushed us closer to the projecting rocks jetting out from the island. Mr. Parker was an excellent seaman and knew just how close the boat could get to the island. As gigantic waves fiercely hit against the rocks while the boat circled around and around Comote, I anxiously wondered Why did the fishing always have to be so good so near the rocks?
With Comote behind us we sailed further out into the Pacific to the last, remote island of Galera. What a sight to see! Beautiful palm trees dotted the sandy beach, with aquamarine waters so clear that you could see the ocean floor through the coral reefs making Galera an ideal picture for those avid photographers. Galera was not a place to have an engine fail in many respects. The forceful waves could dash a boat upon the huge reef and rip a hole in the bottom of the hull. If the engine failed the next island out in the Pacific was the Galopagas five hundred miles away! Even with our little dingy, trying to make it to shore in case of an emergency would be a very dangerous task because the height of the waves crashing upon the shoreline would surely dash it to pieces. For this reason Mr. Parker never circled Galera, we always fished on the side closest to the island of Rey trolling back and forth in a zigzagging, montonous pattern across the blue, Pacific, waters surrounding this eyecatcher of an island.
Schools of fish were in clear view below us as pelicans would nose dive into the water while a myriad of seagulls flew so close to the Manta Ray that we could almost reach out and touch them. Galeras waters were so fish infested that amid the anxiety of the location I combated mixed emotions I felt when enjoying the beauty of the ocean floors display of corral reefs, schools of fish and the magnificient beauty of this tropical paradise. In spite of this, it was never soon enough for me when the announcement was made that wed better head back to Canas for the night.
I can remember one time, when we were returning to the inlet of Canas on Rey Island after fishing all day at Galera, that a huge storm had developed at sea. The waves were so high that the white foam would splash over the bow of the boat as we headed into the storm. Sherri and I thought it would be fun to sit on the bow of the boat and play a game called Ride the Waves. So with our legs dangling over the bow, we would hold on tightly to the bars with a stiffened grip as our bodies prepared to brace for each oncoming wave. What a sensation! we shared with one another as we sat on the bow as the boat would crash down under the waves then we would come up out of the water dripping wet and laughing until our sides ached. I recall that salty taste I had in my mouth and how my eyes would burn a little from the saltwater. The only thing like this sensation would be a ride on a roller coaster at the fair with buckets and buckets of water pouring down upon you.
We were having so much fun riding the waves, going up and down, that we didnt notice that something unusual in the approaching wave. We were laughing when we started to brace for the next oncoming wave to be transported down under the water when we realized its presence. All at once my eyes full of saltwater could see a blurred shape of a large creature with a hammer shape on its head. A hammerhead shark! we both screamed together just before it could have landed on our laps with the oncoming wave. Frantically we jumped up and ran back to enclosed shelter of the cabin. Needless to say the game of Riding the Waves never resumed ...ever again.
As our weeks vacation was drawing to a close with only a few more days, we decided to try our hand at sailfishing. With bamboo poles strung out on the sides of the boat connecting to the fishing line the lure was enabled to skip across the top of the water to attract the sailfish. Fishing always had to be done in the blue waters for this kind of fishing instead of the aquamarine colored. Hope was always present for the fisherman waiting patiently for a strike but it just didnt work. We never got so much as a nibble on any of our trips. We did get to see the big fish in the waters off the coast San Miguel. Our boat was the largest one in the fishing regatta so we became the weigh station for all of the catches that were made which included a huge marlin, comparable in size of that of a sailfish. The fringe benefit we received for this service was a first time experience for most of our crew... marlin for dinner!
As the regatta came to a finale everyone was heading to their favorite anchorage for the night. Ours was the island of Pedro Gonzales which always seemed like a safe place to drop anchor. The natives thatch-roofed huts along the shoreline and the adjoining jungle that covered the hills made this island distinct in its own way from the many other ones that we visited.
In the morning we did our usual boarding of the dingy, rowing to shore and swam in the warm, tropical waters while Mr. Parker stayed on board preparing for our long trip back to the isthmus. While we basked in the sun a loud projecting voice through a megaphone startled us. Dont come back to the Manta Ray! shouted Mr. Parker. What a disturbing thought that was. He had never given us a signal like that before. As we waited and wondered what was going on a thousand ideas raced through my mind until the all clear signal finally came. We eagerly paddled the dingy back to the boat to find out what had happened. Apparently while Mr. Parker was up in the galley he glanced down into the clear water below and saw a large dark colored wing tip on one side of the twelve foot boat. As he walked over to the other side of the galley another one appeared, the wing tips of a manta ray that had parked itself under its namesake the Manta Ray. It stayed there for a few minutes and then winged its way out into the deep.
All too soon our week came to an end as we sadly looked back at the Islas de las Perlas fading away to into tiny specks on the oceans horizon in the Bay of Panama.
Our tropical paradise...who could ever know of the pearls of memories we have harbored in our hearts...unless I wrote this for you...the reader... fifty years later.
March 20, 2000
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