Where the Turtles Come to Nest & Manatees Play

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Where the Turtles Come to Nest & Manatees Play

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Language Travel Consultant, François-Xavier Boulanger-Nadeau, takes the weekend off from his normal duties to guide a group of Spanish students to the wetlands of San San Pond Sak in search of sea turtles and manatees. This is the first part of his story.

Saturday, 9:00 AM. Everybody is settled and sitting in the lancha.

There is a distinct feeling of expectancy in the air, the same which floats in an airliner ready for departure. From the outside, the speedboat was shaped as the wind weathered it out of a single block of sandstone; inside, rows of people are sitting silently, elbow to elbow. Definitely like an airplane.

The captain presses a button, and two massive, 200-hp motors lower themselves into the water. A slight rumble shakes the boat. Very slowly, the boat glides out of port, like it had to cover some distance before the engines could safely be engaged. Suddenly, the captain pushes the speed lever at the limit, and the entire boat roars. The engines start screaming, wind rushes in, the bow of the ship rises high over the sea and water shoots off in liquid walls on either side as if Moses himself was splitting the waters under us.

As the speedboat shoots off Isla Colon, part of my group look around wide-eyed. Many of those visiting Bocas del Toro land on the main island by airplane, so they never get the chance to experience what is regarded by locals as a common day means of travel between the archipelago and the mainland.

For 30 minutes, the speedboat navigates both wide bays and narrow canals surrounded by mangroves. I sit silently, observing the spraying water, the islands around us, birds in the sky and the mainland’s mountains in the distance. Already relaxing, a smile lights up my face. "Now my weekend has started," I think, "and also theirs".

The best way to discover the Archipielago is by boat
The best way to discover the Bocas del Toro Arcipielago is by boat

Saturday, 11:00 AM. Again we sit in a boat.

Earlier, after reaching the mainland, we made our way close to the Costa Rican border, in a short drive following the Caribbean coast from Bocas del Toro. We then arrived at the entrance to the San San Pond Sak Wetland Reserve, a wildlife refuge and preservation project.

At the park's entrance, we met AAMVECONA's project manager, Ramon, who explained the aims of the refuge. A freshwater wetlands ecosystem, covered in jungle and mangroves, San San Pond Sak is one of the rare known habitats of manatees in Central America. The goal is to preserve this habitat in simple but effective ways. For instance, a reforestation project of areas over-exploited by banana plantations has been successful in claiming back a dozen hectares of wetlands, while an environmental sensitization program in local schools is financed with the proceeds of school children who choose to participate by cleaning and recycling plastic debris from the manatees' river.

Project Manager's assistant at AAMVECONA explaining to the visitors about the various projects
Ramon's assistant points out the projects in various sectors of the Reserve

Ramon also explained that their main activity was a major turtle conservation project, featuring prominently leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and green turtles. Each year, around a hundred scientists and volunteers from around the world come here to work on protecting the turtles and their nesting environments, as well as conducting scientific research and oversight of the program’s effectiveness.

The manager's talk gave us a good overview of what we would discover during the weekend. But now we are really here, sitting on the boat and again excitement is in the air. We will be leaving civilization behind for the next 30 hours, heading to an isolated cabin 10 kilometers deep into the wetlands where the actual project is carried out from.

The boat glides away from the dock, then engages a narrow river bordered by trees, which are covered by more moss and lianas than by their own leaves. Everybody start chatting excitedly, pointing out striking plants, animals and birds all around us, nearly as fast as we can turn our heads. The kids are wide-eyed with amazement. I'm so glad for them I just can't stop smiling.

The group of Spanish students I accompanied on the weekend tour
The group of Spanish students I accompanied on the weekend tour

Saturday, 3:00 PM. This time, we are sitting in small canoes in teams of threes.

A lot went on in the last hours; for instance, during the initial boat ride to the cabin we got hit by a heavy rainstorm, so we stopped at the manatee observation station to protect ourselves from the elements. Unfortunately, our local guide told us the manatees would not be coming to feed with such a weather, so as soon as the storm abated we started back towards the refuge. On the following day we were fortunate enough to see manatees so stay tuned for my next post!

We were glad to take shelter during the rain at the San San Pond Sak Reserve
We were glad to take shelter

Once there, we were offered hot drinks and the sweetest pineapple I've ever had the chance to taste. We settled in our rooms and quickly ran back out as soon as our backpacks hit the ground, because everybody was excited about heading to the beach. They were surprised to see how easy it was to access it, as the main cabin is situated on a very thin peninsula, about 50 meters wide, with the freshwater river on one side and the beach right on the other.

We all fooled around and had lots of fun, and then lunch was served. We were impressed. Freshly pressed pineapple juice, a delicious local salad with a side of perfectly cooked coconut rice, and of course, local catch-of-the-day fish. It is not easy to find an authentic and delicious meal in regular conditions, let alone in a cabin without electricity or running water and a 1 hour boat ride from anywhere.

This is the cabin where we stayed at San San Pond Sak
This is the cabin where we stayed at San San Pond Sak

After everybody gulped down their meal, there was still a lot more to discover. Ramon, the project manager, went to show us the safe zone in which is the real heart of the project.

He explained that every night, groups of volunteer patrol the beach at intervals, walking up to 4 hours at a stretch throughout the night. We would learn more about the patrol later tonight, but what matters is that when the volunteers find a nest, they transfer it to the fenced-in safe zone, carefully keeping statistics of the number of eggs in every nest.

Then Ramon went around checking the nests in the hopes that he might show us some baby leatherbacks in the process of hatching. There were none, but he added that no nests had hatched in the last 18 hours, so with any luck there bound to have one hatching within the next 12 hours.

Sea Turtles before hatching
Ramon checks if turtles have hatched - they would dig up through the sand

Glad to hear this auspicious news, the group split to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Peggy and Gordon, avid birdwatchers, asked where they might have the best luck at their hobby. I pointed them to a trail on the beach going along the side of the jungle, then left to explore the wetlands in canoes with the others.

This brings me back to where I am now. Exploring hidden passages between the mangroves and paddling along the river quicky became tiring in the heavy and humid Caribbean heat. We started throwing water at each other to freshen up, which quickly devolved in a spraying war, where one is only loyal to the teammates of his own canoe. Energetically trying to spray us, Skyler, 14, stood up in his team’s canoe and accidentally tipped it over. As we laughed at their misfortune, he quickly swam over to ours and grabbed the edge, tipping it over as well.

Even as our team fell in the water, everybody was laughing.

Playing in canoes at San San Pond Sak
When you're having fun, both teams always win

Saturday, 6:00 PM. "The eggs are hatching! Come quickly!"

It was as if the cabin caught on fire. Everybody ran out and headed to the fenced zone, then slowed to a crawl and started stepping on the sand very carefully – a few baby leatherbacks had escaped the primary fence and were unsuccessfully trying to climb over a log constituting the secondary fence. Still, everybody was horrified simply at the thought of potentially walking on one.

Ramon handed out latex gloves and opened the primary fence. We went around, catching every turtle and putting them in a wheelbarrow, where a volunteer was counting aloud every single addition to its members. I could hardly let go of the first turtle I picked up, amazed as I was of feeling the soft shell under my hands and the strength of its tiny flippers struggling to break free.

This was obviously the most exciting part of the day. In order to protect the baby turtles photos aren't allowed so we're very sorry that we don't have any to share, but you really have to see it in person to experience how truly magical it all is!

Saturday, 6:30 PM. The timing was so perfect it could have been a scene straight out of a movie.

After double-checking that we had not left a single hatchling behind and recounting those in the wheelbarrow, we headed off a bit further on the beach. Far to the west, over the quiet sea and the endless beach fading in the distance, was a sunset of fiery colors. The waves resolutely lapping the sand were the only sound. The leatherbacks flapped around restlessly in the wheelbarrow, ready to meet the embrace of the sea.

We released the turtles one by one, all of us counting aloud as we laid the whole 34 hatchlings on the sand. Most were striving instinctively to reach the surf. Only 2 or 3 were confused for a moment, flapping to and fro. We fell silent, watching them and listening to the sea – the confused ones heard it as well, and they found their way.

We all knew that about 1 in 1000 turtles make it to adulthood. If one does, then it becomes mostly invulnerable, as the leatherback turtle has no natural predators – except for plastic bags floating in the sea, treacherously looking like delicious jellyfish. With any luck, a single one of tonight’s group would survive to maturity, then come back to this very beach to nest every remaining year of its life, laying down thousands upon thousands of eggs.

Hopefully for this critically endangered species, we thought, one of these tiny leatherbacks will keep their cycle of life turning. We watched silently, well-wishes in our hearts. One by one the turtles met their first wave. Some of them were sucked in right away, some of them got swept back up the shore to try again and again, until the sea would deign accept them.

By the time the last turtle disappeared, night had already fallen.

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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