The Caribbean Seaweed Expedition (Part 4 of 6)

Harvesting Gifts from the Sea

Wherever I go in the world, I love to research local resources that could benefit our customers, especially for skin care. I am always on the lookout for new ingredients, and whenever possible, try to test them on people in different countries, in different circumstances and in differing climates. I have been looking for years for something that brings “instant results” for a variety of skin types and skin conditions from very dry skin to even semi-oily skin.

Like Robinson Crusoe’s island, most of the San Blas archipelago off northern Panama remains uninhabited. Making up most of the independent state of Comarca San Blas, you could visit an island a day – there are more than 365 islands in the group. Tiny communities of Kuna Yala Indians live on about 50 of the islands, although we never saw a single soul during our stay.

We heard that there are coconut trading and supply ships, which travel back and forth to Colombia or the northern coast of Panama on 6 to 8 day voyages. Once a pirate hangout, helicopter tours now take brave backpackers out to the islands and some tour companies offer cruises when the weather is good. My friend Paul and I sailed there in four days through rough waters in search of a very special seaweed.

While the islands do not usually have the hurricanes that devastate the eastern Caribbean islands, the seas are rough and the wind can be very strong. At times, huge waves reared up behind our boat, higher than the mast. At 90-feet, the sailing yacht “Aria” owned by my friend Paul Roncker is very sea-worthy. Still there were some heart-pounding moments as the ship pitched and rolled.

Close in to the islands, birds were our only companions. A haven for birds and marine life, a major source of food for both flora and fauna is the seaweed that we had come to find.

A crew member went down to collect some of the beautiful seaweed

In a calm channel surrounded by islands, we found patches of the long brown seaweed floating on the deep blue water. Down below, we could see acres of the plants waving like grassy fields. One of the crew dove into the water to harvest the seaweed we had come so far to find. It was a great moment that filled us with joy when the first seaweed came on board.

It smelled salty and good and I even tasted some — it tasted quite nice. Yes, it was slimy – but it was a rich, clean slime. Our hands were rough and hard from days in the hot sun and seawater. When you put the seaweed straight on your hands, it immediately moisturized and cooled your skin.

When we get it back to the lab, we will do extensive tests. However, I’m pretty sure the results of using this seaweed will be significantly better than the ones we have tried so far from Sabah and elsewhere. If we do choose to use the San Blas variety, then we will need to figure out how to get a regular supply from the locals.

We also need to consider the impact of seaweed harvesting. We would only use parts that do not affect the environment in any way. You can find these laying on the beach and thriving in the water, especially long strands that came loose in storms. Plenty of seaweed available!

Floating ‘islands’ of seaweed which have already come loose from the bottom and head with the current and waves towards the beach, can be collected without harm to the environment.
Harvesting free-floating seaweed does not interfere with the unbelievable unspoiled beauty of these islands. The only thing I wanted to take home was seaweed.

There is something exceptional about the quality of the San Blas seaweed. I heard that local people have used it for centuries for various health purposes and also for protecting and caring for their skin. I knew how happy Dr. Gatot would be to get samples of this seaweed as we had had long discussions in our lab in Langkawi. Currently we use seaweed from the coast of Sabah near Borneo, Indonesia. But this seaweed from the San Blas islands of Panama seems to be of the best quality around and therefore well worth our time and investment.

With my skin so rough after days manning the sails under the hot sun with salt spray splattering us constantly, the San Blas seaweed felt so soothing. My skin blisters seemed to heal more quickly than I expected. It certainly works for me!

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