Coiba National Marine Park, Panama

Coiba Island (Isla Coiba) in the Gulf of Chiriqui is the largest island in Central with an area of 503 sq km (193 sq miles). Coiba was home to the Cacique Indians until Spanish Conquistadors forced them into slavery about the year 1560. A penal colony was built on the island in 1919. During the dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega there were many stories of cruelty, torture and executions and the island was avoided by the locals and so totally undeveloped. The penal colony was closed in 1991.

scarlet macaw coibaThe Coiba National Park (Parque Nacional Coiba) was formed in 1992, which is comprised of Coiba and 38 small islands and the water surrounding them covering an area of 270,125 hectares. It is managed by the National Authority for the Environment (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, ANAM) to whom visiting boats need to apply for licenses to enter and to fish. The park was identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2005. This authority does what it can to govern activity in this huge reserve, but inevitably there is still some cutting down of the rare hardwood trees found here for their quality timber, capturing of tropical birds such as the rare Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) to sell as domestic pets and illegal long line and net fishing by commercial boats.

Wildlife at Coiba and Diversity of Species

Monkey CoibaCoiba separated from the continent between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago when sea levels rose. Despite this relatively short time period in evoltionary terms numerous animals have evolved and differ in appearance from their mainland cousins. This makes it an outstanding place for scientific research into evolutionary processes. Rare species of mammals, birds, marine life and plants abound in its ancient forest and its rich marine habitat.

There are many endemic species that occur only on Coiba, such as the Coiba Island Agouti (Dasyproctae coibae) and the Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata coibensis) which is considered to be at a high risk of extinction. There are new species being identified here all the time and most of the interior of Coiba has not been explored botanically. Studies suggest that only about half of the estimated 1,450 botanical varieties have been identified. It is particularly exciting to dive or snorkel knowing that there are no names for half of the things you are seeing.
There are :

  • 36 species of mammal registered and 30 species of bat
  • 760 species of fish, 33 species of shark and 23 species of marine mammals (cetacaens)
  • 147 recorded bird species including 21 endemic species and sub-species

The forest on Coiba covers 85% of the island of which a very high percentage is standing as ancient forest. The island harbors tree species that disappeared from the mainland long ago such as Anacardium excelsum, Calophyllum longifolium and Manilkara sp..

Coiba Marine Environment

The ocean topography of Coiba is linked by the underwater mountain chain the “Coco Ridge“. The Gulf of Chiriqui acts as a buffer from the temperature extremes of the oscillations of “el Niño” and this protection from the cold waters and winds and is one of the reasons for the particularly colorful marine life to be found on the reefs. It is largely due to the Indo-Pacific current that these are the only group of inshore islands that have significant populations of Indo-Pacific species that have established themselves in the Eastern Pacific, but also due to the favorable habitat once they arrive.
Several thousand Humpback Whales migrate from the cold waters of the Antarctica to the warm waters of the Pacific and Panama during July through to November to mate or give birth, and from the North Pacific from February to April. Of the marine mammals that visit Coiba (23 species) four are frequent visitors found in number: Killer Whale, the Humpback Whale, the Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphin, and the Bottlenose Dolphin.
On the east side of Coiba Island is the second largest reef in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, the Bahia Damas reef, which covers an expanse of over 160 hectares.

Fishing at Coiba and Hannibal Bank

At the edge of the Gulf of Chiriqui is the famous Hannibal Bank, one of the most widely recognized fishing hot spots around the world. It was named this after its discovery in 1914 by the USS Hannibal while carrying out survey work for the Panama Canal. Hannibal Bank is a flat topped sea-mount covering an area of 76 sq km located only 10 miles from Isla Montuoso at the West of the protected zone. It is in the shape of an elongated triangle ( 14.4 km long and 7.1 km wide) and it varies in depth from 120 ft to 1,200 ft. It is steeply banked on the south side (Pacific Ocean side) rising up from 10,000 ft. which causes an up-welling of currents and a structure for baitfish that keeps giant Marlin, Sailfish and Yellowfin Tuna coming back.

If you tire your arms out on the big game fish found offshore, we can fish the inshore waters. The whole of the Gulf of Chiriqui (Golfo de Chiriqui) abounds with Roosterfish, Cubera Snapper, African Pompano, Amberjack, Jack Crevalle, Blue Trevally and many other game fish that put up an exciting fight.

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