A Civil War Sub, in Panama? Visiting the Pearl Islands

civil war submarine in the Pearl Islands of PanamaIn the Pearl Islands of Panama we pulled up to one beach and went snorkeling around a submerged submarine. The tides vary so much in the Pacific that a couple of hours later, the sub was fully exposed. The weird thing is, it’s a submarine built for the U.S. civil war. What the..?!!

A guy named Julius H. Kroehl designed the Explorer submarine and built it in 1865 for the Union government. As the civil war wound down, the government decided not to buy it after all. So Kroehl disassembled it and brought it down to this area for pearl diving.

Things went fine for a while, but the design used a compartment where the air pressure matched the water pressure. The sub was going down to over 100 feet, before anybody knew anything about decompression sickness (the bends). The divers were surfacing way too fast and started dying from an illness nobody could figure out.

Kroel keeled over in 1867 and other divers took over until most of them had died as well. In 1869 the sub was abandoned where it sits now, on San Telmo Island in Islas Perlas.

See the full story on Wikipedia: Sub Marine Explorer.

I’m bopping around Panama right now, doing an article for a luxury travel website on a small group two-ocean boat trip. First stop is on the Pacific side, hopping around the Pearl Islands—or Isla Perlas.

The best-known destination in this area is Contadora, where there is an airport, a ferry connection and a yacht port. Many of the other islands are deserted or privately owned, however, so it’s not hard to find a private snorkeling spot away from it all if you’re in a boat.

This is a popular spot for birds on a migration path, so without even trying you can spot a dozen varieties of birds in five minutes. Besides the requisite gulls and pelicans, there are hawks swooping by, Tiger Herons hanging by the shore vegetation, and Blue-footed Boobies taking a break from the Galpagos. Then there are the Magnificent Frigate Birds.

Islas Perlas of Panama

Frigate birds walk around harassing the others. In one of those weird freaks of nature, these birds can’t get wet. So one way they eat is by skimming over the water and catching fish near the surface. The other way is by harassing weaker birds and forcing them to give up the dinner they just caught. They’re the bullies and thieves of the bird world, each day doing the equivalent of stealing the other kids’ lunch money. It seems to work though: they can live up to 40 years.

Watching pelicans dive from up high to catch fish is always fun, but there’s a dark side to these guys as well. When they start getting old, the protective membrane over their eyes wears out from all the daily diving. Those that make it to old age can eventually go blind. It’s hard to dive for fish when you’re blind, so they don’t last very long after that. They then end up crashing on the rocks, either because they missed the mark or because they gave up and committed suicide.

isla perlas Panama

If you’re looking to retire to Panama someday, this might be a good place to look around. It’s an extra step to get out here from the capital, but it’s relatively early on the development continuum, with several major projects just getting off the ground. There’s a limit to how many sparsely populated islands there are around the world, so the Islas Perlas area is probably a pretty safe bet as far as real estate appreciation goes.

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