Thursday, August 25, 2011

Turtle Power!

Hawksbill Turtle
A misstep in our journey to Panama? I'd like to think not, but it was not the highlight like everyone thought it was going to be. Originally, we had planned an entire week here, but it was cut short due to several factors.  But before I begin this post, I need to say that it was an incredible experience for the brief amount of time we were there.  I don't regret coming here as we did accomplish our mission.  After our trip from Bastimentos, we stayed in the Bocas del Toro area and headed for the overgrown and neglected Soropta Canal towards Chiriqui Beach which is home to a turtle conservation program by ANAM.  The place, like the people working for the program, seemed worn down and indifferent.  The buildings were falling apart and not well maintained.  I had an experience with a pier that collapsed from under me while yet another part of it had completely fallen down. In fact, the pier had more personality than the workers did. Although I did like one of the researchers.  She was from Costa Rica and had warned me to walk on the edge of the pier. Her first time on this rickety thing resulted in falling into the swampy area.  I snapped a pic below of this rotted nightmare. Secretly I kind of loved it. It would also be a sign of what was to come. There were two things about this planned stay that made it difficult.  One was natural and the second was unfortunate.  The first was the difficulty of the infamous "chitras" or tiny little flies that will bite you up and down when you least expect it.  It was here that our team suffered the most.  One night, we incurred over a 100 bites on each of our bodies.  If you do go turtle watching, make sure you bring long sleeves to protect against these nasty critters.  And the second?  The staff.  There seemed to be an unwelcoming vibe going on as if we weren't wanted there.  So why have volunteers come and help?  The lead director was alright.  We had to ask her questions though about the turtles to get any answers.  The other underpaid people, were reserved and suspicious.  Two young men were inappropriate as one of them opened a shower door on my female counterpart to "sneak a peak".  So yes...there was a creepy element to the place as well:) And they wonder why no one was coming to volunteer anymore? Last year they had too many people helping out, but this year we were only the second tiny group to arrive....and the last.    My other friend completely shut down and within two days, we left. My only issue was the attitude of the place.  Most of these people didn't care for the extra help nor was it wanted. I wish someone would have told us this before we got there.  We got the hint and left.  There are a lot of better volunteer turtle programs out there, this place was not one of them.  It's too bad because there are a lot of turtles to see! So let's talk about that:)
The pier that went on forever and almost cost me a leg!!:)
 Traveler tips.  Bring a long sleeved shirt and pants.  No white lights at night....only red.  Bring plenty of water.  Also consider wearing water shoes.  The beaches are full of driftwood and other dead things like a caiman's carcass:)  Our trek was quite lengthy at around 5 hours from 10 PM to 3 AM.  Three shifts were assigned throughout the night.  The hiking was a bit treacherous at times as we hiked through jungles and steep cliffs where the ocean met.  Again, this isn't for the faint of heart.  
 Always wet and humid, it was extremely important to hang up clothes when there was an opportunity or suffer the wrath of nastiness.
 This building was the main headquarters for the turtle team.  Rain water was collected for cleaning dishes and drinking. The upstairs was for the director and other members of their team.  Meals were served at 8 AM, 12 PM, and 5 PM.  Plates would sit on the counter already prepared....sometimes for quite awhile.  Yum!
 This building was where we "slept" even though our treks happened at night searching for turtles. Pretty pic....not so much inside:)
 The pic above is a good example of what you'll find on a beach here.  There is a lot of debris and that can make walking at night tricky.
 The morning light arrives and makes for finding baby turtles a bit easier as they escape their nests.
Run!  Crabs start coming out of their holes as they sense the vibrations on the sand.  Pic by Desiree Hanson
"Run!  There are crabs awaiting you wanting to eat you alive.  I heard they love the eyes.  Watch out for birds flying above you.  If you make it before sunrise, you should be able to avoid them."  I'm not going to paint a beautiful pic here of what these little turtles have to go through as they leave their nests.  As the team finds the hatchlings, they will go to the nest and wear their rubber gloves to help these little babies out to sea.  Why gloves?  Bacteria and um...maggots from the hatched eggs.  Sorry for that image, but it's pretty gross.  However, a lot of turtles make it out to sea because of these dedicated people. No matter what I may think about them; they did do their jobs.
Pic of leatherback.  If this baby grows to full size, the only predator s/he will have to look out for is of the human variety. Pic by Desiree Hanson
And the pics?  The amazing discoveries?  I wasn't able to snap photos because we walked in the darkness.  Plus you don't want to disturb a mother laying eggs in her nest.  Most of the action happens at night plus it's hot and muggy.  My camera would have been toast from the extreme moisture.  Thankfully, Desiree had her smaller phone/camera with her. Therefore, I locked it up in my suitcase.  I had to remember, "anything that's worth the effort will reward you with wonderful results".....and there was a lot of effort for this leg of the trip.  Here's the good stuff.  While walking on the beach, I noticed things glowing green behind me.  In the darkness, all I could see were green lights sparkling in the ocean or the sand when an area was disturbed. It reminded me of Avatar.  How would we know if a turtle was on the beach?  Well, we found out quickly enough.  Trailer sized tracks swerved from the ocean onto the beach for several meters. We traced the tracks and flashed our red lights twice to indicate to the team that a turtle had been spotted. The lead researcher led us to.........the largest turtle I have ever seen in my life!  I couldn't believe my eyes.  It all looked so fake. The turtle was nearly as tall(6 feet) as I was and just as wide at 4 feet:)  LOL!!  It was a leatherback and she was groaning as she dug her nest out from the sand.  The whole process took around 45 minutes to happen.  She dug her nest and laid her eggs.  We watched and waited and were attacked by lots and lots of sand flies.  Then the eggs came......113 total.  Everyone watched and added up the endless stream of eggs coming from the female.  There were 82 turtle eggs total while 31 smaller eggs were added for climate control once the Mother Leatherback covered the nest.  Did you know that the temps will determine the sex for all the eggs? I didn't know any of this.  During the incubation process, warmer temps will create a nest of females and cooler temps will create males. If the temp is around 85 degrees, a mixed nest of male and female will develop. Any female turtles that survive will return back to that nesting spot.  Males will never come back to land once they make it into the ocean.  Here is some video taken from the early dawn hours by Desiree Hanson as a baby leatherback leaves the nest.  This little guy made it to the Caribbean as did many others.

 It was frustrating for me to see several nests dug up by either human poachers or dogs.  A farmer's dog roamed the beach one night and destroyed 2 nests!!!  All eggs gone!  The ANAM team spoke with the farmer and now the dog is on the leash.  Human poachers are the worst.  It is accepted freely that eggs are okay to eat by Panamanians.  It is getting better as word is spreading to people but the poachers are still out there.  We luckily didn't see anyone.  All marine turtles are endangered...some critically. While this trip was a physical and mental challenge for all of us, it was also worthwhile.  If you are prone to mosquito attacks in your own hometown, be forewarned.  This little trip to the beach can have its setbacks. Our guide and research also suggested this place was pretty rough. Turtle nesting begins in May and ends July 15th...or at least that's when the funding stops:)  Until tomorrow.....


  1. This is simply amazing to me, especially that turtle! Not that all the beach obstacles of debris or emerging crabs sensing motion are not amazing. If either coast of the US is a different world to me, Panama looks like a different solar system!!

  2. Whew, everything so exciting! And the size of the turtle is unbelievable, haven't heard of a turtle that big. The first photo is so beautiful it looks like a ceramics. So researchers can induce femaleness by putting some heat source above the nest, have they done it? We also have a Turtle Island here in the country, but very far from the populated area, and i have a friend who made her thesis there. Yes eggs are also eaten by some people, i also saw one brought here by that friend.

  3. I will say I became extremely excited spotting the wildlife and the trip flew by quickly. From what I understand, I believe several scientists have used a heating lamp to create certain nest environs to control gender outcomes but out in the wild, the researchers just monitor the egg nests and count the turtles. They'll map out the area and keep a tab on it making sure dogs don't dig up the nests or poachers dig them up. You Turtle Island sounds really interesting. Have you ever gone to visit it?

  4. I got an email not too long ago of a series of pictures. Native people in some country (?)digging up these nests and bagging the eggs by the hundreds. All over this beach. It really made me sick. The email was to bring this to the attention of people but no info on how to fix. Awful!

    What a great adventure for you. I am sorry that the people were so creepy to you. That is a shame. But it sounds like they do great work.

    And the size of that turtle. Wow! Amazing and sure wish I could have seen it too.


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