Wild About Monkeys on a Panama Canal Cruise

by Joanne Tanner

One of the many Capuchin monkeys in the Panama Canal
One of the many Capuchin monkeys in the Panama Canal

Our Panama Canal cruise afforded me the opportunity to at long last see monkeys in the wild, something that has always been a dream of mine.

As a person with a graduate degree in the study of animal behavior, my studies have been of captive (zoo) primates, and this was my first chance to experience the animals in their native environment.  So naturally, my husband and I signed up for a Monkey Watch tour for the day that our cruise ship, Island Princess, anchored at Puerto Amador, Panama.  We got an experience that was even more than we anticipated.

A short bus trip with an enthusiastic young university student as a guide allowed us to see a bit of Panama and a preview of the canal on the way to a resort area on Gatun Lake, which is actually a part of the canal transit.

We then transferred to small boats holding 20 or so passengers and another excellent young guide, and set off toward the islands of Barro Colorado.  These islands are well known to primatologists as sites of some of the earliest published field studies of monkeys, and the capuchin and howler monkeys found here are subjects of academic study to this day.  We sped along the water to the islands, on the way passing the many large ships that were making canal transits.

The boats slowed as we reached the monkey habitats.  Our first viewing was a very active troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys in the treetops above us.  These intelligent creatures were named after an order of monks because their brown and white coloring resembled a Franciscan’s robes.  It was wonderful to see them jumping from limb to limb.

But suddenly our tour turned to extra adventure when a sideways tropical downpour left us completely soaked!  Despite our covered boat the rain was able to drench us and we remained wet for the rest of the tour.

Now that we were thoroughly immersed in the environment… we next heard the marvelous noise of howler monkeys.  A large troop was way up in treetops, but as they are considered among the loudest land animals, they were still hard to miss.  I loved hearing their deep guttural howls echo around us.

Time to go back to the bus?  Already?  It was, but after some tense cell phone conversations between guides and meeting with other small boats of our group, we soon learned that the route back was closed because of blasting for a new lock being built on the Canal.  Police boats and sirens warned us away.  Like many construction projects, things weren’t running on time.

So we had an extra hour and a half to kill.  We returned to the islands, and were treated to more monkey sightings plus glimpses of toucans, a sloth, fish hawks and other native birds.  It was a great opportunity, except that the boats were running seriously low on fuel!

Thankfully – it seemed like a miracle – the navigators were able to discover a tiny island that had bathrooms (albeit primitive), picnic tables with shelters, and (most importantly) fuel tanks for the boats.

Now we were all able to fully relax and continue to enjoy our soggy adventure on the monkey and wildlife nature cruise.

Our group wound up being quite late in returning to Island Princess, but I didn’t mind at all.  I counted our extra time with the wildlife of Panama a great bonus and there was no way a mere tropical rainstorm and a little construction on the canal could hold back my enthusiasm for finally visiting with these fabulous primates in the wild.