The Pelican Ballet: San Blas Islands

One of my favorite magical moments cruising the San Blas Islands of Panama was the evening the kamikaze pelican’s treated us to The Pelican Ballet.  This post is a repost of my Winterlude update from that evening   *****

January 1, 2009.… Kamikaze pelicans provide endless entertainment for cruisers, flying low and fast, just off the waters surface until spotting their prey in the clear water. Catching an updraft, they position them selves for the plunge directly into the water. Why they never break their necks is beyond me! But their ungainly uncoordinated bodies bob to the surface, the beak points up and time after time, they devour their fish. It’s amazing they can fly at all as gawky as they appear! Obviously appearances can be deceptive!

Imagine my surprise to receive a guest of honor invitation, complete with front row seats, to the Pelican Ballet, performed nightly at Salardup, one of the 350+ palm islands in the San Blas Islands of Kuna Yala Panama. Salardup is uninhabited with a palm fringed white sand beach, complete with starfish and every hue of blue and green water imaginable on the leeward side (away from the wind). On the windward side, a formidable reef with waves crashing provides relaxing background music .

Kamikaze Pelican Cruising

Kamikaze Pelican Cruising

In the glowing light just before sunset, the performance begins. Sixteen ballerina pelicans glide gracefully up on the wind updraft, splitting off to soar a circular pattern high above the coconut palms, slowly descending simultaneously. Suddenly, one by one , they dive, perfectly synchronized and with only a split second between, splashing into the aqualline waters. Surfacing, gulping their treat, they rise above the surface, repeating the ballet sequence until gliding to an unlikely intermission, landing awkwardly on a palm branch, swaying precariously until their body weight settles. After a suitable intermission, the second act begins, beautifully orchestrated, accompanied by the musical rendition of the waves on the reef and concluding with the sun dipping behind the purple shrouded mainland mountains.

We have never been treated to such a synchronized performance in the 5,500 miles we’ve been cruising and we’ve seen a lot of kamikaze pelicans! We stayed at Salardup three days and every day at sunrise and sunset, the performance would repeat. But despite anchoring at several close by islands, we’ve not seen it since.

Before Salardup, we had a great sail to Porvenir, a small island, the official entry into Kuna Yala… in Panama, a zarpe, official document clearing you out of one port to be presented to the port captain in the next port is required for every port. Most countries just require you check in when you enter the country & then you’re free to visit all the ports in that country before checking out and moving on to a different country. So we had our zarpe from Colon and needed to check into Kuna Yala with Ricardo, the port captain. No problem, except we need our cruising permit renewed. It doesn’t expire until January 17 and Ricardo refuses to renew it until a day or so before … which requires us to return to Porvenir on January 17… Not in our plan. Since Porvenir is at the far western end of the arpegilo and the trade winds blow incessantly from the east or north east, it’s not easy to get back to the islands from Porvenir! Bummer! A cruising permit is issued for 3 months, and at this point we haven’t figured a way around returning. It certainly decreases our options for cruising to the farther away eastern San Blas, where the more traditional villages stand watch over the more pristine reefs. Immigration is different (some of you may remember our immigration woes from last year culminating with David having to buy apair of long pants to enter the immigration office), but we have to check out of the country after 90 days, for us Feb 14. We’re currently evaluating our options … maybe fly from Nargana to Panama City, to Changinola and then take a bus across the border to Puerto Viajo, Costa Rica and stay in the funky little beach village for 3 nights so we can check back into Panama. No definite resolution yet, but immigration and cruising permits are a daily topic of conversation amongst cruisers. Maybe even more so that the weather!

Sunset Laps the Beach

Sunset Laps the Beach

Tradewinds continue to blow strongly creating 15 foot waves on a lee shore, great for surfing, not so great for sailing. The weather from Chris Parker tells us there’s a cold front in North Carolina, stretching to the panhandle of Florida that will cause the high pressure to weaken off the US East Coast in turn causing the pressure gradient to weaken all throughout the Caribbean. So later this week we can expect the winds to settle into the 10-15 range, MUCH better, and the waves to settle as well. Lots of boats will be making plans to leave the San Blas to either sail to Cartagena, Columbia or Colon, Panama where they will make arrangements to go through the Panama Canal on their way to the South Pacific.   So you can see, sometimes weather in the US, and the Midwest, actually creates better weather for the Southwest Caribbean and we thank you!

A few nights just before Christmas, we were treated to a special Christmas parade as we relaxed just after dinner in Winterlude’s cockpit. My view was the evening shadows of the mainland mountains, towering over the islands … when the corner of my eye caught a glow. Since there’s almost no electricity, glows in the dusk are very abnormal and I sat up for a better view. The entire surface of the water was aglow with phosphorescent unknown creatures, each of them transmitting a white Christmas light glow and meshing with hundreds of others to create a virtual parade of phosphorescence with Winterlude being the split in the middle. Later we heard that they are swarms of squid and the lights are part of their mating ritual.

After getting supplies & gasoline in Nargana, we sailed to the Green Islands, 3 miles out and a lifetime away. We’re anchored behind a gorgeous new reef with eight little islands scattered in this arpeggio. This is one of the island groups that we didn’t visit last winter … and there are more on our upcoming to do list, so stay tuned!  Swim ashore to the medium sized corona island, lounge in the foot deep water on white sand spit with a cool beverage, tons of coconut palms, nice beach – you can walk all the way around, although partly you’re wading in clear ankle deep water. Lots of exploring to do & lots of time to do it. It doesn’t get better!   (Jan’s Note:   After we left, we heard from other cruisers that there’s a five foot salt water crocodile that inhabits the Green Islands — glad we didn’t literally stumble on it while hiking around the island!)

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