Islas Las Perlas, Panamá

Dear Jessica and Woodward students;

After much preparation, the crew of Carina, including Gnomad, left Panama City 16 February bound for Isla Contadora (Accountant Island) in the Islas Las Perlas (Pearl Islands) archipelago, 37 miles to the southeast. Here we intended to apply paint to our dinghy (the small boat used to ferry crew to and from shore) and to complete our departure checklist in anticipation of our passage to the Galapagos. As part of our checklist, we inspected our rigging and found a nearly broken forestay which is now forcing us to return to the Panama City to make repairs. We hope to be once again underway to the Galapagos soon. But, since we were here, we thought we'd tell you just a little about the islands where Gnomad is roaming...

The Islas Las Perlas were named by Spaniards Gaspar de Morales and Francisco Pizarro who, in 1515, conquered the native king Toe. A king is known here as a cacique, pronounced"KAH cee kay" and many names of places reflect this. The kingdom's skilled native pearl divers were then enslaved by the Spanish and used to extract the natural pearls which were sent back to Europe as plunder. The native pearls are now nearly extinct, though in the few small villages that remain you can sometimes purchase small pearls.

In Gabriel García Márquez´ novel "Love in the Time of Cholera" he describes a Spanish ship called the "San Jose" that in 1708 was bound for Spain having departed Portobelo (part of Colombia which later became part of Panama) "where it had taken on part of its fortune; three hundred trunks of silver from Peru and Veracruz, and one hundred ten trunks of pearls gathered and counted on the island of Isla Contadora...and the rest of the treasure intended to save the Kingdom of Spain from hundred sixteen trunks of emeralds from Muzo and Somondoco and thirty million gold coins."

One interesting artifact of this epoch in the Islas Las Perlas is a relic of one of the oldest known submarines which sits abandoned on Isla San Telmo and is described here to us by friends on the vessel Soggy Paws who know a marine archeologist who studied the sub....

Called the "Sub Marine Explorer... a German engineer, Julius Kroehl, built the sub in 1865 to do pearl diving in the Las Perlas islands. But they didn't know about 'the bends'... a problem that occurs when breathing compressed air at deep depths and then surfacing without properly decompressing. The boat arrived in Panama in December 1866 and did make several successful pearl dives to deep depths, but by September 1867 the engineer and all the sub operators had died of 'the bends'. The next/last documented attempt to use the sub occurred in August 1869 when over a period of 11 days it recovered $2K worth of pearls (a LOT of money in those days). But again, soon after, all its crew died of 'the bends'. The sub was then was abandoned, apparently beached on Isla San Telmo and left for good. Pictures of the submarine can be found at:

Today the islands are quiet and there are few inhabitants in a handful of tiny, very poor, but friendly villages. Fishing is the predominant way of making a living for the villagers who use long, narrow wooden boats with tiny crude cabins on the stern end, or sometimes dugout canoes. That is with the exception of tiny Isla Contadora where the wealthy and politically-connected reside in estates overlooking the crystal clear water. A small airport supports air and helicopter traffic for residents and visitors to slip in for private meetings or get-aways. Descendants of the natives live on the nearby islands and commute in small open boats to work each day in Contadora's mansions and its resorts.

Despite its history, the islands are magnificent, the water clean and filled with sea life. Humpback whales are especially abundant during the "winter" months, which is what Panamanians call rainy season from May - December.

We cannot send a photo of Gnomad with this note as we are using our Single Sideband HF Radio to send this email. We promise more photos in the future. You can see some photos of Islas Las Perlas on the website. Select Our Pictures, scroll down to Panama and select from the Photo Galleries there.

Warm wishes,

Philip & Leslie with Jake the cat and Gnomad of course

SV Carina


At 2/26/2009 and 21:18 UTC (GMT) our position was: 08°37.51'N / 079°01.77'W