Turtle Travels Part 2: Bocas del Toro, Panama

Heading across the Costa Rica and Panama border at Sixaola, I was stunned at the change since I was last here 20 years ago. This  border area has changed more drastically than any other I’ve visited in the country. The rickety old bridge has been replaced with a bigger (and safer one) and both border towns have grown dramatically. The pandemic has made the border crossing more complicated but once across, we quickly found a ride to meet our Sea Turtle Conservancy colleagues for the short boat ride to Soropta, a leatherback nesting beach along the northern Caribbean coast. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is known for excellent facilities and Soropta was no exception. The rooms, while rustic, had great touches including personal fans and chargers powered by solar panels, along with snacks.

IMG_0822 2.JPG

Raul and Xavier showed us around the facilities and updated us on the current leatherback nesting season, which was one of the highest recorded at this beach; more than 1,200 nests! SEE Turtles has supported this work since 2013 through our Billion Baby Turtles program, providing $39,000 in grants, which has helped STC save an estimated 75,000 hatchlings at this beach over the past 9 years. We then walked out to the nesting beach and walked to the rivermouth, where we spotted a beautiful 3 toed sloth enjoying the view. On the way back, we discovered a recently hatched nest with a number of hatchlings making their way to the water (see our recent post about this journey to the ocean).

That evening, we headed out with Raul and Xavier to look for nesting leatherbacks. We quickly found one of the big mommas and got to work collecting data. Sea Turtle Conservancy does not use hatcheries, so we left this one where it laid and hoped that it would be given the chance to hatch like the one we saw that afternoon. We had just one night at Soropta but it was enough to decide to start offering trips there next year to explore this gorgeous area.

The next morning, we took a boat ride to Bocas Town, the main town in this area. On the way, we passed by Isla Pajaro (Bird Island), a small but important island home to many birds including the famous blue-footed boobies and the red-billed tropic bird (the only place in the country this bird can be found). From there we met with Cristina Ordoñez, Investigation Coordinator of the STC, who has helped the organization grow its Panama program for several years. As a true hero of ocean conservation, we gave Cristina a blue marble to thank her for great work (pictured below).

Cristina took us on a tour of the hawksbill nesting beaches that we have supported for the past three years. These beaches are managed by Anne and Peter Meylan with the STC, who are two of the most respected and accomplished turtle conservationists alive. With the support of the Berman Memorial Fund, SEE Turtles has provided just under $20,000 for their work with hawksbills in this region. The recovery of hawksbills in the Bocas del Toro area is a conservation success story; this local work, coupled with the ending of the legal tortoiseshell trade in the mid-90’s, has resulted in a nearly sixfold increase in hawksbill nesting to roughly 1,200 nests per year since 2004 in the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park.


The two main hawksbill nesting areas are on the Zapatilla Cayes, two small islands not far from Bastimentos, within the park boundaries. These spectacular islands are home to a wide variety of coral and fish species and are a popular snorkeling spot for local and international visitors.  We dropped off the STC research assistants who were catching a ride with us to spend several weeks on these isolated islands (we were not at all jealous). We then headed back to Bocas Town where we spent a lovely evening in the quiet town (most of the weekend tourists had left by that point) including a local bar with this sign that resonated with yours truly (a Deadhead sea turtle conservationist). 

Zapatilla Cayes

Zapatilla Cayes

View from Bocas Town

View from Bocas Town

Stay tuned for our new Panama Leatherbacks and Hawksbills trip, which will have its first departure in 2022!

Photos by Brad Nahill & Lulu Muse