Bocas del Toro Archipelago Feature

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Panama's Sea Turtles

Sea turtles have long been common in the archipelago, where they graze on sea-grass beds by day, and lay their eggs on its beaches by night. Bocas del Toro has a relatively healthy turtle population, which makes it a good place to see those endangered reptiles and an important place for their conservation. Divers may come upon a turtle near one of the reefs, or you can look for them at night on Playa Bluff. Four turtle species feed in the archipelago's waters, but only leatherback and hawksbill turtles nest here in significant numbers.

Hawksbills are the most beautiful marine turtles, thanks to their shiny marbled shells, which have also been their undoing—hawksbills have been hunted for their shells for centuries. Leatherbacks, on the other hand, have smooth, black carapaces that only a mother turtle could love. They are the largest of the sea turtles, and among the largest reptiles in the world, weighing more than half a ton.

From April to September, female turtles crawl slowly onto beaches in the darkness of night to bury their eggs in the sand. Hawksbills lay about 150 eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls, whereas leatherbacks lay fewer, but larger, elongated eggs. Two months later, eggs hatch and babies dig their way out of the sand, and scurry toward the surf; that is, if nests survive. The area's inhabitants have long eaten turtle eggs, and hunted green turtles for their meat, considered a delicacy. In fact, the town of Bocas was founded by Afro-Caribbean turtle hunters from the island of San Andrés, who were drawn to the area by the abundance of hawksbill turtles. The scenario is common throughout the tropics, which is why sea-turtle species are endangered. Thankfully, the locals stopped hunting hawksbills years ago, and fewer people are now collecting eggs. Other threats to adult turtles include drowning in fishing nets or long lines. Also, leatherbacks sometimes choke on plastic bags, which resemble their favorite food, jellyfish.

The nesting beaches of Playa Larga, on Isla Bastimentos, and the Cayos Zapatillas, are protected within a national park. Members of Grupo Ecológico Bluff (6714–9162) transplant eggs from nests on Playa Bluff to a hatchery that they guard, to ensure their survival. They also lead tours from May through October to look for nesting turtles at night, and the $12 fee tourists pay them supports their efforts.

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