Punta Culebra’s history dates back to the Spanish Conquest, when the islands of Naos, Flamenco and Perico were used as a harbor for the old city of Panama . Through time, this place served as a home to fishermen, a loading port for ships with deep drafts, a quarantine station, a defense base for the Canal, a camping area for young explorers and a site for STRI’s first marine investigations.
During the construction of the Panama Canal , these three islands were joined to the Isthmus by a 1,250,000-cubic yard strip of soil and rocks that were extracted from the Gaillard Cut . The purpose of this filling was to stop the currents from the Bay of Panama and avoid sedimentation at the entrance of the Canal. The road is 6 kilometers long and is known as the Calzada de Amador or “Causeway”. From 1915 until the Second World War the islands that formed the Calzada de Amador served to defend the Canal.
Naos and Perico Islands
At Punta Culebra you could find 15-inch machine guns and even a railroad that was used to transport military equipment, which was stored at the site’s air-raid shelter.
The hexagonal structure, which currently houses one of the indoor exhibits, was constructed by ex-General Manuel Antonio Noriega. Since the beginning of the 20 th Century until 1989, the area served as defense site under Panamanian or US jurisdiction. Because access to the area was restricted, the sandy beach and the rocky coast were protected from fishing and harvesting. Scientists affiliated to STRI and to the University of Panama have used Punta Culebra’s habitats as a main research area for ecological studies of the rocky intertidal zone and the organisms that populate the sandy beach. Many of theses studies are unique and have become classic examples of ecological investigations of organisms in the intertidal zone of the Tropical Oriental Pacific.
An educational program began at the Naos Marine Laboratory to provide students with information about marine science based on research being developed at STRI. The program received schools from around the country and from the US Department of Defense educational system. Scientists used the aquaria in the scientific area for their explanations, but using the lab for this purpose presented a problem: it interrupted the scientists’ daily work.
The government of the Republic of Panama established Law No. 10: “whereby environmental education is adopted as a national strategy for the conservation and development of natural resources and the preservation of the environment; including the content and environmental focus of study plans at higher educational levels”. The Marine Science Environmental Education Program took advantage of this Law and since then supports the strengthening and practice of Law No. 10.
That same year the Calzada de Amador was declared a Special Tourism Zone according to a Law of 1992.
Thanks to a donation from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Institute, the first two marine life aquaria were constructed to strengthen the educational program.
Scientific marine personnel helped train the first 11 educational guides of the Marine Science Environmental Education Program. STRI obtained permission from the Consulting Committee of the Interoceanic Region Authority to use the area and created what is now one of the most popular destinations among school groups, tourists and families seeking fun learning experiences.
Between 1993 and 1995 a team was designated to work on the first exhibits and on the remodeling of the bunkers, with the help of the Legacy Fund of the US Department of Defense. The exhibits aimed at helping visitors interpret the coastal marine environment, dry forest and military history of the site. Concepts such as the emergence of the Isthmus, tides, outcropping and the relationship between humans and the sea were also explored.
Sea life exhibition
The individuals behind the Smithsonian Foundation of Panama made their organization official and donated $150,000 in their first year. The Marine Exhibition Center became the Foundation’s emblematic project.
With the support of the STRI administration, international donations and the Smithsonian Foundation of Panama, STRI officially opened the Marine Exhibition Center of Punta Culebra to the public in 1996.
It was open only on weekends and catered exclusively to school groups during the week. New attractions included a temporary exhibit room, a show room, a classroom, an interior and exterior bilingual exhibit titled “The Emergence of the Isthmus of Panama: Where Land meets Sea”, the aquaria for the exhibition of marine life, a lookout point and a trail through the dry forest.
The project “A Bridge Between the Panamanian Curriculum and STRI’s Marine Science Environmental Education Program” began to take shape and later became a fundamental educational tool and a link with the Ministry of Education.
The marine turtle pond and outdoor exhibit (titled “Mysterious Swimmers”) and a pictorial exhibit titled “From the Coral Reef”, by Arquitect Julio Chu, were inaugurated.
November 15 became “Guide Day” at STRI, and the date was celebrated for the first time at the Marine Exhibition Center . That same day, a new trail through the dry tropical forest was opened to the public.
The new Office of Communication and Public Programs of STRI was now in charge of administrating Punta Culebra.
Aquariums were moved to the Old Casita , better known as Noriega's bar.
Construction of a paved road through the Forest Trail.
Replacement of New Interactive Panels displayed in the external areas of the center.
Inauguration of the new Discovery Room.
Improvements to the Turtle Pool Exhibit and launching of the larger Touch Pool project.