Bocas del Toro Panama

Turtle Watching at Bluff Beach, Bocas del Toro

Turtle watching was a major goal of our trip to Panama. Luckily, we came across a giant Leatherback nesting on Bluff Beach. Here’s how it all went down.

Zeza and I enter the Sea Turtle Conservancy facilities in Bocas Town. The guy behind the counter, who ticks all boxes in the surfer boy stereotype feature list, welcomes and greets us in English. I didn’t catch his name, but he’s from Barcelona, and he’s been working with the STC in Panama for a couple of years. Upon learning we’re Portuguese and that we feel comfortable with Spanish, he shifts to his mother tongue. And I’m grateful – I always struggle with Spanish people speaking English. We ask him how does the turtle watching process works.

“During spawning season, we patrol a few designated beaches around the archipelago to study and catalog nesting turtles. For a symbolic fee, people are allowed to tag along with one of our scientist teams on a 2 hour walk, thus getting a chance to see the turtles in the wild. With this, we hope to create awareness for our cause among visitors, while collecting much needed funds for research. We provide you with a guide, but you have to pay for transport separately, depending on how many people will be joining the group.”

“Now, I need you to understand a few ground rules. First of all, sights are not guaranteed, and there will be no refund if you don’t get to see a turtle. Second, a 2 hour walk on the beach in pitch black darkness can be physically and mentally challenging. Third, the focus of the patrol is on the study and the well-being of the turtles. Your experience is secondary. Photography is strictly forbidden, and you’re required to oblige to the guide and the scientists’ instructions at all times.”

“And finally, I must warn you that right now, we’re in a transition period between different species’ nesting seasons. The Leatherback nesting season is coming to an end, while the Hawksbill’s is about to begin. This means there are less turtles around. Unfortunately, we had no sights on yesterday’s patrols.”

We go outside to discuss it. Zeza’s not too excited about this. She’s concerned that, given the real possibility that we don’t get to see a turtle, we would have spent money, energy and, more importantly, time in a completely unrewarding experience. And she’s got a point. But she also knows I have a thing for turtles. More than quad riding in the jungle, snorkeling, or anything else in this trip, I wanted to see a turtle.

However, right now I don’t think she’s at a place where she can find the will to indulge me on anything. I have just lost my wedding ring at the snorkel tour, about three hours ago. Yep, on our honeymoon. Didn’t hold on to it for two weeks. So I can feel the turtle slip through my fingers. Just like my wedding ring.

But, as the loving, comprehensive and caring wife she is, she gives in. And as the reckless, inconsiderate and selfish husband I am, I book the 20h00 trip to Bluff Beach before she changes her mind.

Walking in the dark

At 20h00 sharp, we meet our guide, Luis, in Bocas Town. As we get in the van, he tells us we will be picking up 3 other people up on the way to Bluff. As we pull over by their hotel, we recognize them: an American couple in their 60s and their teenage daughter we had met at Bocas airport while waiting for luggage. The woman loved us, finding it adorable we got married so young, and there was no convincing her we’re almost in our thirties.

Once at Bluff, we go inside a hut for a short briefing on the walk. Luis’ English is terrible. From what we could understand, we’ll walk one hour northwest along the beach and then back, in the dark and in silence, not to scare off the turtles. Two biologists will proceed us by a few hundred meters. If and when they find a turtle, they’ll warn us by flashing a red lantern. And we must say bye to the turtle with the vines? Oh, stay behind the turtle at all times. OK, got it.

The biologists take off, and a few minutes later, so do we. There’s no Moon in sight, and the clouds block any starlight through. Once we’re past the reach of the lights of the few lodges scattered throughout Bluff Beach Road, we’re in complete darkness. We can barely see the sea, but the rumble of the waves quells every other sound.

Half an hour into the walk, there’s no sign of a red light ahead. It’s a warm night, and with no breeze to help us cool off, I’m sweating bullets. Our feet sink deeply in the coarse, wet sand, making it difficult to keep a steady pace. We can’t help but leaving the rest of the group behind at times, as we can’t see them nor hear their footsteps. It’s frightening to look back and seeing no one until they’re within an arm’s length. A turtle could be laying her eggs 3m from us right now, and I’m sure we’d miss it.

We’re only a few minutes from turning back, and I’m losing hope. Luis says they have found turtles on the return trip, but it’s unusual. He decides we should take a break, as the American man seems to be hyperventilating. The worst case scenario just escalated from not seeing a turtle to someone having a heart attack almost an hour’s walk away from the nearest road.

And just as the man regains his breath, a red light flashes circles in the distance.

The monster turtle

We fly to the spot. The biologists are measuring and tagging a monster Leatherback turtle. 1,5m carapace length, estimated weight somewhere between 350 and 400kg. The red light, purposely faint, is only pointed at the turtle’s shell, never to her face, but we can see the sheer size of her whole body and head. Zeza has to cope with both my 6-year-old-at-the-zoo-excitement and with the astonishment of having seen a dinosaur.

As we were told, we stand behind the turtle as not to block her passage. She had lain all her eggs, about 80 according to the biologists. She’s now burying them, her giant flippers throwing sand everywhere, whipping our legs fiercely.

Our American friends, after an initial moment of bewilderment, lose interest and sit down a few meters away to rest. We take the opportunity to speak with Luis in Spanish. He says the turtle will now stir the sands in a large area around the nest to confuse possible predators, as some of them, like dogs, can actually dig into the nest. He is actually pretty knowledgeable once you can understand him. Improving his English would be positive for him.

The turtle keeps revolving the sands, but now not strongly enough to hit us. She’s tired, and takes long breathers. What an endeavor, dragging her 400kg body through the wet sand. I weigh 80kg and God knows how hard it was for me to get here.

Eventually, after roughly an hour, she turns to the sea. Zeza and I follow her down in a slow procession. We stop as she gets closer to the water’s edge, watching her figure slowly fading with each stroke into the roaring penumbra. A large wave crashes down over her shadow, and she disappears in the wake.

The walk back

We keep staring at the darkness for a few minutes, listening to the rumble. Like we expected some sign to tell us it was over. A bell ring, for instance, or a few lights turning on. Only when we hear Luis calling we turn back to see everyone waiting for us.

And as our party begins the walk back to Bluff, we’re the ones staying behind now, with a surprising and confusing feeling of sorrow. Did we not get to see a turtle? Did she not manage to do her job and to get back to the sea where she belongs? Everything went well for her, and for ourselves. So why don’t we feel happy?

I guess we weren’t expecting the abruptness of that departing moment. What we saw was a mother, after strenuously trying to protect her offspring the best way she can, and risking her own life in the meanwhile, disappearing into the unknown, perilous sea, without a clue if her efforts will pay off. Never getting to know how many of her children made it to the ocean, how many reached adulthood, how many got back to that beach to nest.

And even if we understand this as the way the turtles’ Nature works, witnessing this live is not the same as watching the National Geographic Channel. At that beach, watching the turtle’s unedited struggle with the rough sands, hearing her exhausted breaths less than a meter from us, feeling her resilience as she boldly faced the tides crashing over her, we couldn’t help but humanize her effort. And maybe because of this, we felt like there was a closure element missing. Like a glance back.

Now that I’ve wrote it, it seems rather stupid to expect a turtle to glance back to a mound of sand. And to become sad because she didn’t is plain ridiculous. But in the end, we got more touched by this experience than we expected, especially Zeza. Perhaps this will make her more willing to consider naming our future 4 sons after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The walk back did not seem so difficult now. Our American friends keep a good rhythm in front of us, as we count the dots of bio-luminescence blinking in the sand upon their steps.

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