Snorkeling the wreck of the San Telmo sub


By Ilene Little

Two couples on a three-day fishing charter were trolling for wahoo off Galera Island, the southernmost island of Las Perlas, when they encountered a storm. Galera is a tiny island offering little in the way of shelter, so the group was forced to make a run for nearby Isla San Telmo.

“We headed about eight miles downwind through some pretty rough water,” said Captain Miguel Botero of GEM Charters. “It was the first time I’ve felt it was necessary to wear a lifejacket.”

Guests of GEM Charters snorkel around the wreck of the ‘Sub Marine Explorer.’

Guests of GEM Charters snorkel around the wreck of the ‘Sub Marine Explorer.’

As it turned out, they found much more than they bargained for in their port of refuge. “After the storm we went out of the cabin to look around. We found ourselves in a completely uninhabited area, one of the most gorgeous places I’ve seen in Las Perlas,” he said.

All were on deck grilling a wahoo for dinner when they looked out and saw what appeared to be an enormous black rock the size and shape of a car. They were anchored in about 15 feet of water and the object was just 10 feet from the boat.

“As the tide fell, we realized we were looking at the main hatch of the wrecked ‘Sub Marine Explorer.’ We couldn’t believe it,” said Botero. “We immediately took our snorkeling gear and jumped in the water!”

The ‘Explorer’ was built in 1865. About 130 years ago the vessel was used to collect oysters and pearls from the ocean floor off the coast of Panama. “As we were snorkeling we could imagine it operating in its day,” said Botero.

The submarine is famous for its technology that first allowed a submersible to dive and surface independently from a host ship. It is equally infamous for the multiple deaths of sailors due to decompression sickness now commonly known as “the bends.”

Wrecks tend to evoke negative or sad emotions since many people may have died. Yet there is something positive about sharing a space with a piece of marine history, in this case one of the first functioning underwater boats.

“It was an amazing experience to snorkel around the submarine of San Telmo,” said Captain Botero.


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