From Prison to Eco Habitat—The Fascinating Transformation of Panama’s Coiba Island

What was once a place of confinement has been reclaimed by nature, and now runs wild and free—this is the beauty of Coiba National Park.

A crab scuttles along the beach.
Unlike the original inhabitants of Coiba Island, this little crab roams free.

“Coiba was the place parents would tell their kids the boogie man lived, and if you were bad they’d send you there,” said Ricardo Brado in a 2011 “The New York Times” piece about the island. Mr. Brado’s quote is understandable—after all, why would anyone want to visit a former prison? To be fair, one doesn’t really associate swimming with whale sharks and observing vibrant scarlet macaw parrots with penal colonies, but these are exactly the types of experiences that will leave you breathless at what is now Coiba National Park—38 protected islands and their surrounding waters.

The Dark History of the Penal Colony

A red flowering plant grows amidst the dilapidated ruins of what was once the Coiba Island Penitentiary.
Photograph courtesy of National Geographic and Ken Pelletier.

The beauty of Nacional Parque Coiba (Coiba National Park) all comes courtesy of the namesake island’s dark roots. Coibanationalpark.com offers an intriguing look into the origins of the penal colony once known as Panama’s answer to “Devil’s Island.” From its inception in 1919 to its final year of operation in 2004, the severity of its conditions are precisely what led to 80 percent of Isla Coiba’s rainforests remaining virtually untouched.

Prior to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, this was not a pleasant place to be. The concept of a prison is unsettling enough, but at its peak, the Coiba Island Prison was home to 3,000 of Panama’s most dangerous criminals. If that wasn’t enough to discourage interlopers, it was also widely speculated that “Los Desaparacidos” (The Disappeared) met their untimely demise at or around the penal colony during the rule of dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega. This is one of two reasons even fierce criminals feared attempts to flee the island. The other reason? If the politics didn’t get you, the sharks would.

Ecological Wonderland

Two scarlet macaw parrots soar in a bright blue sky kissed by puffy white clouds.
Scarlet macaw parrots view this former prison island as a refuge.

The park is accessible by permit only, with 430,825 acres (190 square miles/493 square kilometers) of virtually untouched jungles, islands, and waters. Many tourists find it easiest to visit the island by partnering with an approved tour company. Much like Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, visitors of Isla Coiba are richly rewarded for all of the trouble they may have to go through to access the island, as myriad animals are seen prospering in their natural environment.

Though many envision scarlet macaws when they think of parrots, this bird is actually becoming somewhat rare in the wild—a victim of habitat loss and poaching as a source of pet supply; thankfully, Coiba National Park is one of the places they still have an opportunity to thrive. The park is also home to both howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys. In total, 40 species of mammals and 147 species of birds have been identified. Entomology aficionados will also have a field day, as will amphibian and reptile enthusiasts. However, large and dangerous reptiles such as crocodiles, fer-de-lance snakes, and coral snakes also lurk around the island, so be mindful of their presence as well.

The other side of Coiba National Park’s beauty is its equally diverse surrounding waters. If Isla Coiba’s land is a nature lover’s paradise, then its pristine ocean waters are a diver’s paradise. Manta rays, sea turtles, dolphins, humpback whales, sperm whales, orcas, hammerhead sharks, whitetip reef sharks, tiger sharks, and whale sharks are just some of the impressive larger species which call the island home. Meanwhile, a whopping 760 species of fish have been identified; sport fishing is allowed by permit, but it is catch and release only!

A Whale of A Good Time

A diver swims with a whale sharkThe whale shark—the largest fish in the sea. Rhincodon typus
Swimming with a whale shark is an incredible experience, and definitely something you should add to your vacation to-do list.

Obviously a place of awe inspiring and incomparable beauty, any excursion amidst Coiba National Park is sure to be a thrilling experience, but for something especially memorable, Anywhere recommends swimming with whale sharks. The Encyclopedia Brittanica states that the world’s largest living fish can reportedly reach a maximum of 59 feet (18 meters) in length, though even their average length of 39 feet (12 meters) is certainly impressive. Whether you choose to snorkel or scuba dive, swimming beside these gentle giants is an experience you can’t possibly forget.

As filter-feeding sharks, their diet is composed of zooplankton, phytoplankton, mollusks, and fish, which is one of the reasons they are not known for being dangerous to humans (though, like any animal, they will defend themselves if attacked or feeling threatened). Coiba Island’s whale sharks will allow you to swim right beside them; some even take it upon themselves to approach swimmers—as curious of you as you are of them. Despite this seemingly friendly demeanor, it is still necessary to approach these creatures with caution and respect.

Have an incredible adventure when you explore Coiba Island and the rest of Coiba National Park. Photography and videography for personal use are welcome—free and without a permit, because the park system knows that the more you fall in love with Coiba and the memories you’ll make, the more you will join them in their mission to protect its environment.

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