Outlined against the white crash of the surf the behemoth lurched herself out of the freshly dug crater, turned her nose to the waves and headed for the safety and security of her usual habitat.
After a starlit, walk along Playa Bluff, Bocas Del Toro, Panama this was the sight that rewarded us. The Loggerhead turtle is a creature of the oceans. Her whole life–apart from the first few perilous minutes of emerging tiny and defenceless on this very beach–is spent in the gentle embrace of the seas, until the drive to reproduce calls and she crawls, heavy and cumbersome up an ever-changing beach, in search of sand dry enough to lay her 100-130 eggs.
She repeats this feat many times, especially if her first attempts to find a suitable spot fail. She will try further along the beach or another night, if stressed and exhausted, she may release her eggs into the ocean, never to hatch. One aborted attempt is not the end as a female may mate and lay up to 9 times in a season (a season may be every 2 to 3 years)
Out of the potential 1000 to 1300 eggs laid, only one hatchling typically makes it to breeding age. When you consider that breeding age is 14 years or more, this threatened species needs all the help it can get.
The invitation to go on our first turtle watch was a delight and honour. Dressed in dark clothing we were picked up ay 10pm and bundled into a van for the drive along the partially washed out beach road.
With no light other than the stars and the fleeting glitter of phosphorescence underfoot, we made our way down the beach. Our guide pointed out one aborted nesting site, the partial hole and ridged flipper tracks evidence of the turtles struggle against the weight of gravity.
Our labours were rewarded with the siting of one large female Leatherback, who had chosen a narrow section of beach to dig a nest. Each species of turtle has specific requirements for the location and moisture content of the nest site, this site was obviously too wet causing her to abandon her efforts, and head back to sea.
Witnessing a turtle laying has long been on my wish list and evidenced by the number of visitors coming to this site every year, I am not the only one. A tour taken here just a few years ago would have been very different, large noisy groups and powerful flashlights were common and very disruptive to the light and sound sensitive females.
A recent initiative aimed at providing carefully guided tours, while collecting scientific data and protecting the areas turtles is having great success.
These nighttime tours of the beach offer visitors the chance of observing a nesting turtle. Tours cost $15 to non-Panamanians, $10 to nationals and $8 for members of the local community.
The proceeds meet the initiative’s goal “to create an economic alternative for the local community while ensuring the protection of sea turtles and their nesting beach”. The money generated pays the monitors, guides, and supports the turtle conservation effort.
The monitors, gleaned from the local community, are one of the major reasons for the program’s success. Patrolling the beach nightly and collecting scientific data on the nesting turtles, their presence also help protect against the poaching of the eggs and turtles. Their duties also involve being vigilant for any harmful activities, such as dogs and other animals digging up nests or ATV’s on the beach, as the weight of these vehicles impacts the sand making it impossible for the turtle hatchlings to dig themselves free.
The monitor’s nightly vigils and the watchful daily presence of this beachside community appear to be working. In the last four years, there has been a steady increase in the number of undisturbed nest sites. The stretch of beach receives approximately 300 leatherback nests, a 100 hawksbill and a growing number of green turtle nests.
For tickets or information, visit the office at the municipal market, open Monday to Saturday 12.30 – 6.30pm. To check availability visitors may call 6996 0608. Tours must be pre-paid to secure a place due to the limited number of visitors allowed each night.
Group numbers are limited to eight people and there only two tours each evening. Cameras and flashlights are prohibited, other than the guide’s red light. Turtles do not see red very well, effectively making it almost invisible and therefore less disturbing to them. Unfortunately, they cannot guarantee that you will witness a turtle nesting.
The guides and monitors enthusiasm for the project is contagious, as you will see for yourself if you are fortunate enough to visit during the March –August Turtle season.