Turtle TLC – Sorapta, Panama

Our living quarters at the Sorapta turtle project, getting a new turtle mural addedLocal boatman on the river at Sorapta

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Hola from Panama

Apologies for the blatant advertising above by they really do need more help immediately.

So I got on the water taxi to Sorapta. This involves winding your way down the river and hopefully slowing down for the local boatmen pictured above. According to the Lonely Planet this is a must journey in Panama and I have to admit it was pretty spectacular, really grass roots. 40 minutes later, I was dropped off and met by Scott and Chris at the ferry pier in Sorapta. Unfortunately the ferry pier had collapsed the day before so it was a case of wobbling my way over the remaining wood (it has now been fixed). Basically I’d come here for 3 nights to do some volunteer work with Leatherback turtles. I’d seen a sign at the Bocas boat pier and at Heike hostel with a man pictured next to what looked like a giant turtle. We’d joked that the turtle looked so huge next to him that he must have been a dwarf – how wrong we were !!

Immediately I was introduced to the sloth family that live in a tree near the pier. I sneaked down to take a look at him later and after 15 minutes of trying to see the thing saw him moving along the branches to his little cubby hole position. They have a really peculiar face, almost monkey like. Little did I know that he wasn’t actually going to move again for the next 3 days and none of the other volunteers had yet to see his face.

Scott introduced me to the project. There is a dorm block which sleeps 12, several hammocks and then a kitchen and dining block. We were to be supplied with 3 meals a day. There is no running water or electricity in Sorapta so a torch is a must. The rain water is gathered as a drinking supply and there is a well where water is collected and filled in to buckets so that you can take a shower and flush the toilet – pretty basic but definitely an experience !! The cost of volunteering just $20 per day, so very worthwhile if you ask me. The project here is run by a couple called Scott and Sarah who have dedicated the last 5 years of their lives looking after the smaller Kemp’s Ridley turtle found in Guatemala. There’s also another project in Panama at Playa Largo on Bastimentos (Bocas Del Toro) but for that one you need to stay for a week and unfortunately I didn’t have the time.

On to the Leatherbacks. These are the largest of all the sea turtles. The males are larger than the females and the biggest to date was found on a Welsh beach measuring 3.7m long. Now I’ve worked with the largest it would be hard to downsize. The turtles that come here also lay their eggs on beaches in Costa Rica. Their migration distance is amazing. They swim from here up to Scotland as they live on a diet solely of jellyfish (I’m liking them more and more) and the largest jellyfish are found off our shores. I wouldn’t dare go near the insides of their mouths which look like something out of Alien but I guess they need to be in order to shred all that jelly. They’ve even been found swimming in ice in Alaska and have specially developed lungs so they can dive up to 1000m (very impressive !!). There are now laws to prevent people taking the eggs, but unfortunately this was not always the case and so the Pacific population is down to only 1% of what it used to be. Which is why help is needed. This wasn’t realised for years as turtles lay from the age of 20 and can live to more than 100. So by the time people realised turtle numbers had dropped considerably there were hardly any left. In some places the eggs are the only source of income the locals can get, they sell them to make money and the eggs are believed to have an aphrodisiac like quality (although of course not proven). Eggs from this beaches are still sold in bars in Bocas, our job is to save as many eggs from the poachers as possible. Before the project was started dead turtles were even found cut open where poachers were too impatient to wait for eggs to be laid, but thankfully this doesn’t seem to happen here anymore. Guatemala is the only country in the world not to have made the stealing of eggs illegal so there Sarah and Scott came up with a situation to get a 10% egg donation from each nest the locals find. After much education this seems to be getting through. I think the problem is that the people in Latin America are struggling to survive so in many cases they just think about where the next meal is coming from rather than about the future. They are slowly beginning to understand that if they don’t donate in a few years there will be no eggs left. The other issue for turtles is fishing regulations worldwide. Most countries simply do not follow them and many turtles are captured and accidentally killed in nets or longlines. Each Leatherback nest usually contains in the region of 70-100+ eggs which take around 70 days to incubate. The sad fact though is that out of 1000 eggs only 1 will reach maturity hence why more needs to be done to save them.

Time to go and meet the volunteers. There are 4 people here all from England (what givers we are !!). Chris (who seems to spend his holidays doing this kind of stuff. He’s done jaguar conservation and to my deepest darkest envy has worked at the Sepilok Orang Utan sanctuary in Borneo), Ellie, Alex and Johnny. They’d all signed up via a company in the UK and had previously been in Costa Rica. These companies are an easy way to get on a project but I think after seeing what’s available in various countries I’ve been to I’d just rather turn up and join. They are also quite young and seem to all be on their gap year. So after finding a bed I chat to them for the rest of the afternoon.

Our pasta dinner is served around 7.30pm and then it’s time to find out what patrol you are on. Yes, this is pure night shift duty. The patrols go out at 8.30pm, 10pm, 12 midnight, 2am and 4am. You go out with at least 1 other person. Although Sorapta beach is protected so in theory noone is allowed on it we have to be careful of poachers, who may or may not come from the 3 houses located by the beach. The patrol takes in around 8km of beach, which when walked each way is 16km and should take around 4 hours, well that is if you don’t see any turtles. The last few nights have been pretty hectic. Tonight I am booked to walk with Scott the project leader at 8.30pm (bonus…the worst shift is definitely midnight).

NIGHT 1

We head out with our torches. We use a red light filter on our torch as this is harder for the turtles to see and so doesn’t disturb them as much. The beach is next to the accommodation so we stand for 30 seconds or so to wait for our night vision to improve. Time to start walking. The beach is literally littered with loads of trees suspected to have floated down from a local banana plantation. This makes it quite hazardous and we often have to turn the torches on to see where we are going. The moon so far is keeping a very low profile so it’s incredibly dark. At one point I do manage to stub my shin (oh well, no point doing something if you can’t get a few war wounds). We also come across a whole herd of cows which belong to an adjacent farm. Great, just what you need, nests potentially trampled. We reach the end and not a turtle in sight, so wait and chat and drink some water as tonight it’s really humid. The downside of Sorapta is that it is teeming with sand flies, so when you sit down to chat they manage to devour the gap in between my jeans and top on my back. I am getting loads of little bites everywhere despite using tons of repellant. Okay, time to head back. We find Johnny with a turtle (sounds like a bad joke !!), they don’t know if she laid eggs or not. It was too difficult to tell by the time they found her. A turtle doesn’t always lay eggs. She often comes up and then goes back to sea and will return or go to another beach within the following few days. All they can do now is hide what may or may not be a nest as efficiently as possible to stop the poachers finding it. The poachers have to get to the eggs within a day or so for them to be any use otherwise they will already have started to solidify. I have to say, it’s my first encounter with a turtle and I am completely blown away. This lady is huge. She’s 160cm in length and 120cm wide – that’s bigger than me (I know, not that difficult !!). She really comes across as almost prehistoric, she’s covering her nest and grunting around. She then turns around and uses her flippers to navigate her way back down the beach and in to the sea, funnily she generally waits for a bit before she goes back in, maybe it’s to catch her breath after all that exertion. The tracks are huge and really wide, it looks like a tractor has been on the beach. I am stunned. It’s a shame but understandable that you can’t take photos. I want to show you how large it is but obviously can’t distress her in anyway. Twice this year a turtle has still been on the beach at daylight (that’s really unusual), so then you could take a picture. So get an idea of the size it’s good to look at the following link….

http://images.google.co.cr/images?q=leatherback+photo&hl=es&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=X&oi=images&ct=title

Each turtle can lay up to 10 nests per season. In fact they can mate with the male for hours (that’s if he doesn’t accidentally drown her) and then store the sperm to fertilize future batches of eggs. We carry on walking. Sorapta beach seems to be eroding at a really fast rate, this is going to make it increasingly difficult for the turtles to nest here. We arrive back to the accommodation and as Scott has a very early start in the morning he decides we don’t need to walk the remaining 2km on the other side. 12.30am quite a short night. Although there’s always time for a packet of biscuits when we finish the shift !!

The next day I wake up at 9am and so miss breakfast (must be the last 2 nights of partying in Bocas that have done me in). I go to check on Mr Sloth, no movement. Then look at the turtle board. They have already recorded more turtles than last year even though they are less than 2 months in. Their aim is to try and get to 500 turtles this year (or nests). All turtles are tagged, so if you come across a new one you get the honour of tagging and naming it. Funnily the one called La Difficil does not live up to her name and has been to the beach 8 times already this year. Alex and Johnny are both art students and start to work on the mural for the dorm building as you can see above. All adds to the home comforts !! I decide to read and then hike the nature trail. This brings me to the cows at the lagoon who are definitely more scared of me. After lunch, I read some more and even manage a little sleep before dinner. At this point Thomas an Aussie guy arrives to stay for 2 nights. He’s also worked with turtles elsewhere, but here it’s definitely a case of more hands make light work. We seem to have a lot of time to relax whilst Scott and Sarah are busy with the day to day running of the project. I don’t know how they do it !!

NIGHT 2

After our dinner of curried mince, I was given the 10pm shift to walk with Sarah. She had been ill the night before with either worms or an amoeba (the joys of faraway lands) but had taken some medication and felt a lot better. We bumped into the 8.30pm shift and then came across what could be a small party on the beach. We couldn’t really see who was there so didn’t want to risk two women walking past some drunk Panamanian men on a very dark beach. We turned back and when out of sight sat for a while and chatted. Then we walked back. Not a turtle in sight. We realised when we got back to base that we hadn’t seen the midnight shift so Sarah went to wake them up (it’s now 1am). Then, I got to walk the other side which I’d missed the night before. If I was a turtle I’d lay my eggs here. You’re further away from poachers and there’s less debris to avoid. It’s actually quite nice to walk on and we didn’t need to use our torches at all. We came across some tracks. A turtle had definitely laid a nest. We knew because as she’s been walking back to sea she’d dropped some of the little infertile eggs which come out last. Sarah disguised the nest whilst I covered up the tracks. The 4am shift also cover and count all tracks as it’s easier to do once the sun has come up. We were back by 1.50am, I have been lucky with short shifts so far. It seems so light tonight though so I just take a few minutes to appreciate my surroundings and of course the stars (corny but true !!) before heading for bed.

This morning I wake up in time for breakfast, there were 4 turtles the night before in the end. It seems to come in 4 day cycles, as to quite a few and then a drop. Sloth still hasn’t moved and I fall back to sleep in the hammock. I’m dreaming about being trapped in a sofa when I wake up so have obviously been trying to get out of the hammock in my sleep. Today we have 5 new arrivals. They have all come from a project in Costa Rica for a few days where they’ve been teaching football, Ellie knows them so gets reacquainted. I seem to spend the whole day reading, bliss !!

NIGHT 3

Pasta again but that’s fine by me. Again I have the 10pm shift and I’m with Chris, Thomas and Eduardo one of the Panamanians who works on the project. We set off and just where the cows like to hang out we see tracks. This turtle is new so Chris tags her. She’s also picked what must be the worst part of the whole beach to lay a nest. There’s a huge tree blocking her path back to sea so not sure how the babies would get over that, the cows are nearby so could trample the nest and even worse it would be in danger of being washed away. She flails around for ages, flippers coming in contact with fallen trees. We move what we can out of her way as we’re worried she’ll damage a flipper. She seems to be going round and round in circles but we just wait patiently. She then decides that maybe she’ll go back to see and heads straight back to the huge tree blocking her path. We use torches to act as a moon and small light to get her away from it. Personally, I wouldn’t want a bite from her !! Next she gets stuck in a V shaped tree. It’s awful, I’m hoping she can get out. The effort of moving seems to be sapping her energy. Eventually she moves sideways a bit but is still stuck. So I talk to her and use my torch to give her what I think is the easiest escape route to sea. It seems to work and she is in the water once more. It was possibly her first time, the whole episode took an hour and twenty minutes and we’ve barely covered any of the beach yet. We carry on and almost immediately find more tracks. This turtle only has one tag, so Chris adds another, she’s the biggest I’ve seen to date at 1.63m. She’s only just found her spot and after some movement starts digging the wide beginnings of her nest. When she’s happy she picks a spot within the large hole to start digging deeper. Her back flipper suddenly turns in to a scoop and is like a spade. Behind her we help dig. The midnight shift appear and two of the boys who turned up today decide they can’t do the walk so Ellie carries on with her helper while they join us. When the hole is deep enough (and it’s so deep !!) she starts to lay. The policy here is that if the nest is too far away from base you leave and cover it, if it’s close enough which this one was you bring the eggs back to the hatchery and build a new nest for them. Although this has to be done within an hour or they could die. Chris adorns a rubber glove and picks up the eggs as they are dropped on to the sand. It’s amazing, 1 or 2 even sometimes 3 (when smaller) drop out at a time. They are a bit slimy but not too bad. Whilst she is laying the eggs we touch her back. Leatherbacks don’t have the traditional type of turtle shell and it does feel leathery, the whole back almost looks like it could have been a shield in medieval times. In all she lays 95 large eggs and 40 smaller or tiny infertile eggs. Then she starts to cover up her nest. We help her so she can get back to sea as soon as possible. It’s weird to think that even with these people standing around her she is covering up a hole with nothing in it and doesn’t realise. The whole experience has been amazing for the nest newbies like myself. Now though there’s no time to lose, we have to get back to the hatchery. The tracks will be covered by the 4am shift. We dig the hole in the next designated nesting area and then bury the eggs. We try to create the nest in exactly the same way. New nest accomplished we are done for the night. It’s 2am. Poor Ellie didn’t get back until 6am, she had 4 turtles in all, 3 of which were in a 10m area. It’s all very unpredictable. In total there were 9 turtles tonight.

The next morning I grab a coffee and say goodbye. I’m catching the 8.30am water taxi to Changuinola. There is a debate as to whether it will stop even though it’s been confirmed, oh well let’s just see what happens. I must say my powers of controlling my movements have impressed me and I need to find a new hostel so I can go. I think it was the thought of running out of water in the bucket mid flush that put me off. Other than that it was great !!

I have to say I am pleased to have finally have done something useful with my time. I have learnt so much and will definitely be questioning my seafood consumption greater in the future. These creatures have been here a lot longer than me and definitely need to be saved (although they’d be a bit big to bump in to when diving). It is back to basics but great fun. I think the sleep deprivation would get to you long term but for a few days or a couple of weeks you will definitely get a lot out of doing it. So I can’t really encourage people enough to help. Anyway, I’ll sign off now as I think I’ve gone in to more detail than usual but it was really to get people with time and in Costa Rica or Panama to sign up…….

Time for me to head in to Costa Rica. Panama has been great, I am definitely coming back, hopefully when Ambose´s new pad is finished so I can crash it. I didn´t have time to get to the Darien province or the San Blas islands which are supposed to be like paradise and you have the added bonus of spending some time with the Kuna Yala people. I´ve taken a bit longer here so will shave a bit off Costa Rica, too many places and too little time left !!

Transport count:

Plane = 24, Bus = 107, Train = 2, Boat =18, Sunglasses = 8, Mosquito Repellant = 10, Books Read = 28 1/2, Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all and remember Turtle TLC

Sally

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