The one way to reach the island was – you’ve guessed it- by boat. My first trip there was in pitch darkness. The van driver that had brought me from Panama City simply pointed into the darkness, spoke rapidly some Spanish and left me there, accompanied by an enormous backpack. To my relief, the pointed direction led to pier with a small motor boat anchored to the side. For a little boat, it made a deafening amount of noise. Despite that, the ride was enchanting; the dark water reflected the light of the occasional light beacons that showed the driver where to go, avoiding rocks and islands, while on both sides of the canal dark shapes of the tropical rainforest were visible against the night sky with glittering stars and a sickle moon. Eventually we slowed down as we were approaching one of the islands. Gradually the research facility became visible.
This is how I first arrived at Barro Colorado Island, which is by residents only referred to as BCI. These residents, people who live and work on the island, are all scientists, scientific assistants and students. I belonged to the last group, as I was lucky enough to have a well-connected professor whom endorsed me to conduct research there; in the middle of the Panama canal (at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). My first night sleeping on the island was a rowdy one: multiple times I was woken up by blaring dinosaur-like sounds. Fortunately, these were the beautiful voices of the male howler monkeys, protecting their territory, singing in the rain or simply saying hi. The night harboured many more amazing sounds. Chirping, whistling, popping, rustling, swishing: a forest full of life.
After sun rise, diurnal creates would swap with their nocturnal counterparts and compose the tune of the day. Being diurnal myself, this was also the time I would venture into the forest armoured with my tools for camera-trapping. My target group were terrestrial mammals, including but not limited to: red-brocket deer, ocelot, collared-peccary, northern tamandua or agouti. These last ones are funny looking rodents, and spirit animal of many because you can find them everywhere on the island (including scurrying around the facility). Others I have had the pleasure to meet are: Keel-billed Tucan (who ribbits like a frog), Crested guan (the turkey of the neotropics) or Capuchin monkeys. Them I often found hanging upside down eating the fruits of the Astrocaryum palm tree. These little fellows are cheeky little bastards; I have only experienced them shaking leaves on top me, but another girl told me how they deliberately peed on her.. we all have our occupational hazards!
The forest of Barro Colorado Island (Panama).
A big part of being a resident was becoming part of the BCI family. Since we all lived on the island we spent most of our evenings together; discussing our research, other’s research or topics of scientific or societal significance. But it definitely wasn’t all work. For play, we had the lounge. The lounge was a large room and a big balcony with view over the water and forest. This is where we had hammocks, cookies, Latin dancing ,games, parties, home-made-cocktails, movie-watching and table football tournaments. This collection of incredibly open, friendly, intelligent and interesting people made my stay on BCI. For even when being in a tropical wonderland, I could not feel happy without some feeling of kinship, which I absolutely found in the BCI family.
One of my last days, I was invited to join climbing the canopy tower at sunrise for spectacular bird watching. This moment currently ranks in my top 5 of most scary shit I’ve done, as I don’t do well with a dozen meters of tall vertical ladder and potential, unintentional free fall. On top of the platform however, we could look down upon a sea of leaves, flowers and branches, which were gleaming from the light of the rising sun. Numerous birds would fly over, sit satisfied in the trees surrounding us and we almost got a visit from a group of Spider monkeys -luckily these strong primates left us be. A once in a lifetime experience, also because I may be too chicken to attempt to again 🙂
All things mentioned above combined, and many more if I had more space to write, make BCI one of my favourite places on earth.
Traveling increases homesickness. Everywhere you go you may leave a small piece of yourself, and the more places you do, the more places you will feel a little homesickness for after you’ve decided to move on. When I reminiscence of BCI, I will always feel that little part of home.
The dock during sunset, with view of the island (BCI). On the left further in the distance is the Panama Canal and the mainland.
Panama canal, viewed from the mainland, where dozens of cargo (or sometimes passenger) ships sail every day.
- Andrea Mulder
- : A nearly graduated MSc student in Forest and Nature Conservation with a passion for preserving wildlife and their habitat, climate mitigation and experiencing new places. Enjoys reading, dancing, boardgames and hiking
- : https://www.instagram.com/doodledeedrea/
- : adult_(19_and_over_as_of_31st_december_2019)
- : This is the first time this story has been published.