The Kalu Yala Blog

Turtle Island

November 10, 2012

by Haley Paige Winslow
Posted In: Adventures in the Tropics

While vacationing at Playa Venao, I had the opportunity to take a tour out to an island off the Pacific coast that is notorious for sea turtles nesting.  This blog will depict my observations, as a tourist, of the positive and negative aspects of the tour I went on.  For now the name of the island will remain anonymous.

Reading in the Lonely Planet Panama book, I discovered that there was a turtle nesting beach just offshore where I was going to be staying for a couple days.  I also read that turtle nesting was during October and November, and was hoping I might get the opportunity to explore this island and see some sea turtles.  Although I am familiar with and have seen sea turtles before in my coastal community in North Carolina, I still very much appreciate these beautiful sea creatures and wanted the chance to see how turtle watching tours worked in Panama.

To find out a little bit more about this island I asked the attendant at the front desk of the resort where we were staying and found that there really wasn’t an easy way of getting on and off the island, as well as information about where the turtles nested and so forth.  I had read that to get to the island you could easily take a $1.00 water taxi and then potentially find a guide that would help with locating the turtles.  Although this seemed like a pretty inexpensive trip we had also heard that it was best to camp beach and not knowing the area we would be camping in was a little intimidating for me.  Luckily for us the front desk attendant was also very interested in the turtle nesting process and wanted to get a firsthand look herself.  She told us she would make a few calls and let us know later what she had found out.

After an afternoon full of sun, sand, and waves we came back to the resort and stopped by the reception desk to see if she had found anything out about the turtle island.  She said she had spoken with a local tour guide she knew and he agreed to take us and a few others to see the turtles.  He also had told her that it was prime turtle laying season and that there had been a decent amount of turtle sightings within the last few days.  We were excited to hear this good news and prepared ourselves for what we knew would be an adventure to tell about. Loli, the receptionist, told us she would try and get a ride for the following night so we could catch the boat that would take us over to Turtle Island.  This girl seemed to be a little bit like of a schemer so we really didn’t know what was going to be in store for us.

The following night around ten o’clock Nathan, Lynette, Whitney, Bertie, and I met Loli at the entrance of the resort and all climbed in a car Loli had been able to acquire for the night.  Off we went down the ragged road leading to the location we had agreed to meet the guide.  It took us about thirty minutes all jammed in the back of a Nissan hoping and praying that Loli would get us there safely… we had our doubts. Regardless we made it to the place we were suppose to be meeting our guide and waited for about five minutes.  Our Panamanian guide showed up in what seemed like a pretty decent ten person motorboat and we all shook hands and climbed in the boat.

As we started to pull out of the dock I noticed how beautiful the sky was that night and was thankful that we had almost a full moon to guide us along our way.  Full moons are perfect for turtle watching and gave us that much more of an advantage for finding them.  So on we went cruising through the inlet waters.  It was amazing to see these huge mountains to our left side and an island on our right side.  I thought the island on the right side was our destination but we continued on our boat journey for about twenty minutes.  I really enjoyed this part of the trip and was thankful to have been able just to do this.  It really was a beautiful night boat ride.

Finally we made it to the boat dock on turtle island, took our life-jackets off, and made our way out of the boat and onto the island.  Well most all of us that is.  Once we made it off the dock we realized that one of our friends, Whitney, had forgotten to take off her life-jacket so she ended up having to wear hers for the remainder of the tour.  It was quite a hilarious move and really lightened up the mood of the group.  She is a funny one!

After we all began to look around we noticed that the island we thought was going to be very small and remote had a lot of development and a decent amount of houses and buildings.  We waited a minute for our tour guide to run to his house to get something, which was right beside the boat dock, and continued on with our tour.  He led us through the little town that inhabited the island and we were able to see that this small island town had everything.  They had fondas (restaurants), soccer fields, housing, and even a school.  This was a fully functioning island but currently the electricity was out on the whole island so the town was very dark and almost looked uninhabited.  I was thankful I had brought my headlamp.  It was difficult dodging all the puddles in the road without it.

Finally after about a ten minute walk we began to hear the waves and could smell the salty air.  We knew we were getting close to the beach and before we could say anything there it was, the magnificent white sand beach of Turtle Island.  This is honestly is one of the prettiest beaches I have been on in Panama and I wish I could have visited during the day.  The beach was probably a quarter of a mile from the dunes to the ocean and the waves gently rolled in over the sandy shore.  Our guide received a phone call from an informant of his and he told us that there was a turtle about a mile from where we were.  So we quickened our pace and headed down the beach in  search of the turtle.

Ten minutes later we spotted what seemed like a dark spot on the sand.  As we approached closer we noticed that the spot was a giant sea turtle.  From previous experience with turtle watching and from the books I had read I knew that to properly handle turtle viewing you were supposed to stay a safe distance away from the turtles, be out of view, not wear any bright or white colored clothing, not use flashlights, and definitely not disturb them by talking or touching them.   All of these invasive actions could affect the mother turtle’s birthing habits and even cause them to return to the ocean without laying eggs in fear of danger.  Unfortunately for us we were about to witness an assortment of these invasive actions.

As we approached the sea turtle we didn’t try and keep our distance, the tour guide ushered us right over to where the turtle was and encouraged us to get close so that we could really see the turtle.  Already I felt like I was doing something wrong and knew I should be observing from further back.  From here a series of events took place that really disturbed me.  As we gathered around the turtle the guide, with his brightly colored white shirt, continually shined his flashlight directly on the turtle so that we could get a better look at her.  Although he would only turn the flashlight on for a minute or so you could tell that well were causing the turtle anxiety because she quickened her pace back toward the ocean.  I know this had to be a very hard feat for her because you could tell she was exhausted from her birthing process.  She had to drag her couple hundred pound body over a quarter of a mile up into the dunes, had to dig a large whole in the sand, had to lay her eggs, had to cover her eggs, then had to slowly drag herself back to the ocean.  You could tell that she was tired because she would drag herself just a little ways then have to stop and take a break.

Next Loli gets in the way of the turtle and begins to flash pictures in her face and after she had got what she thought were some really great pictures of the turtles she began to touch her and rub her shell.  She was also yelling at the turtle every time she stopped with what she thought were encouraging words like,  “go big mommy”, and “you can do it”.  This is when I had to step back and seriously hold my tongue.  I didn’t like what was going on and I felt like I was a part of something that was disturbing this wild creature’s ancient ritual.

Once the turtle had finally made its way back into the safety of the ocean, the guide received a phone call informing him that there was another turtle down the beach that was in the process of laying her eggs.  So off we took down the beach in search of this other turtle.  It took us about another ten minutes to find the location and we headed up into the dunes where the other flashlight had been beaconing us up to.

When we walked closer to the dunes we could once again see something that none of us liked, not even Loli.  Standing about five feet from the turtle was a teenager, who was probably about fifteen, who had a very large bag full of turtle eggs.  Our first thought was that this was a poacher and that he was steeling them to either eat or sell.  This took us all aback and I really didn’t know what to do.  I was ready to turn around and leave the island and be done with this tour, but unfortunately I was stuck.  I didn’t have any choice but to continue the trip and try and keep my distance.

As we approached the teen the guide went up and began to speak with him.  The guide wasn’t acting like anything was weird or out of place so after speaking with the teen for just a little while he ushered us up the dune to where the turtle was currently laying her eggs. Once we were close enough to see the turtle I realized that this turtle was of a different species than the one we had previously seen.  I also noticed that the hole were the turtle had been laying was completely empty and had indication marks that someone had moved the sand on the back side of the whole to access the nest.  Obviously the teenager couldn’t even wait until the turtle had finished laying her eggs before he invaded her nest.  Everything about this was wrong to me.

Regardless we remained around the turtle and watched as she laid what seemed like a hundred more eggs. Here he explained to us a little bit more about the turtle laying process and told us that each turtle depending on species would lay anywhere from 200-300 eggs in one nesting period, and would lay about twice a year.  As we stood and watched what really was an amazing process, Loli once again began to take pictures of the turtle.  She even asked if we all wanted to get in a picture with the turtle and all of us simultaneously told her no.  She looked a little confused and asked why so we explained to her that it wasn’t good to be flashing pictures in the turtles eyes while trying to lay her eggs.  She thought this was a valid point and discontinued her picture taking.  Maybe she hadn’t even thought that this could be harmful or disruptive to the turtle.

While we continued standing and watching the turtle the guide also addressed what the teenager was doing and with all of the eggs.  He told us that designated volunteers watch the beaches at night and wait for turtles to lay their eggs. Once this is done they take all the eggs from the nest and relocate them to a safe house located down the beach.  We were all a little skeptical of this process and what he was telling us but we went along with it.  We weren’t in the position to be questioning his story.  Apparently though he could tell that we weren’t happy with the situation so he offered to take us to the sea turtle hatchery.

Back down the beach we go this time in the direction we had come from.  I was glad to know that this hatchery actually existed and we were about to see how this process worked.  After about twenty-five to thirty minutes of walking down the beach the guide directed us up the dunes to the hatchery.  It was just a little building with no lighting, that had a chain-link fence surrounding it on all four sides.  There was also barbwire on the top of the fence for added protection from poachers.  On both the right and left side of the little building were what looked like little mounds of sand each with a stick sticking out of the ground indicating where each nest of turtles was buried.  Here the guide gave us a little rundown of the process of the hatchery, which did make me feel a little bit better about what we had just witnessed.  He told us they dig a hole in the ground, place the eggs in the hole, cover the eggs, mark their location with a stick, and let them incubate until it is time for them to hatch.  Once they hatch they ensure the protection of the sea turtles by protecting them from birds, dogs, and other animals that could potentially eat the baby turtles.  As we were leaving the teenager we had seen collecting the eggs showed up making their story even more legitimate.

This was the end of our turtle watching experience, so we made our way back to the boat dock on the other side of the island and one by one grabbed life jackets and began to climb in.  Before we could all get in though Whitney climbed in with one foot and thought everyone else was getting in but we weren’t quite ready yet and the boat began to drift away from the dock, so here is Whitney strataling the two trying not to fall in the water.  It was the funniest thing and we all began to laugh.  After we helped pull her in we all climbed in the boat and began our journey back to the mainland.

By now we were all very tired since it was after midnight, and all very perplexed by the tour we had just taken.  There was a lot of  invasive behaviors we all thought were very inappropriate and harmful to the sea turtles.  Regardless we were supporting tourism and protection of the turtles which hopefully will keep the turtles from being someone’s dinner.

As we rode in the boat back to the mainland we noticed that there was a small island in the middle of the channel.  We also noticed that the closer we got to the island the slower the boat went and finally the engine came to a complete stop.  It wasn’t like the guide had cut off the engine but more like the engine had given out.  This wasn’t a good sign for us and we were afraid we were about to be stuck.  Luckily the guide pulled an ore out and began pushing the boat around the island that he called Bird Island.  As we got closer we could tell that it wasn’t an island but just a clump of trees that were growing right out of the water.  This was interesting to me because the water we were in was salty so these trees must be a certain type that can live and grow in salty water.

After we got a little ways past the island the guide sat back down from pushing us around the island and cranked up the engine.  We were glad the engine was in fully functioning.  Apparently he had slowly let the motor die because the area around Bird Island was very shallow.

Once we got going again he told us to all look over into the woods on the inland side of the channel and look for the white tree.  He told us he was very excited because this was a sight to see.  At first none of us could see it but after getting a little closer inland we all could see the huge white mass.  Even closer we got and finally we could make out what the great white tree was.  It was a tree completely covered with snow white herons.  We only get a little bit nearer and all of the birds took flight.  It was beautiful to see and probably one of my favorite parts of the tour.

After another ten minutes we returned to the dock on the mainland and each paid $16 for the tour.  Although it was a very reasonable price I feel the tour guide and the people of the island have a lot to learn about properly handling sea turtle nesting and turtle watching tours.

Regardless we made it back to our resort safely and got to witness the miracle of life.  I can’t say I would ever do it again, but I can say it was an adventure.  You never know what your getting into until your already in it.


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