Oct 24, 2005

Something Spectacular Sometimes Starts Subtly as Something Small

A little while ago I heard tell of a sidetrip from Panama city to this place called Isla Canas. It is a little island on the Pacific coast of Panama that is well off the beaten path. We`d heard it`s a sleepy little island without much in the way of facilities for travellers but the beaches are nice and that if you go there at the right time you might see a turtle come to the beach to lay her eggs. It sounded like a pleasant trip; something to do to fill a day. Little did I know that I was in for one of those moments that may well irrevocably and dramatically alter the course of my life. But I´m getting ahead of myself. Lets start at the beginning, riding a boat through a maze of mangrove trees on our way to the island with some newfound friends.

A Maze of Mangroves on the way to the Island

The island is small and has about 600 occupants in small cinderblock houses scattered throughout. The mother of the driver of our boat had a cabana she rented out to the occasional traveller so we found our way there, got settled, and headed for the beach in time for a dip before sunset.


We came back hungry only to discover that the restaurant was so laidback that we should have called someone to let them know we were coming. Fortunately we were in no rush so while we waited we just chatted with Nelson, a friendly local.

Shortly after dinner we walked to the beach not sure exactly how one goes looking for turtles but excited about the prospect nonetheless. Before long we heard a sound and saw a dark turtle shape coming out of the water. Turtles aren´t built well for land so the fifty meter walk up the beach proved really difficult for her. She stopped often for breaks, generally with a gasping sigh that you could hear the whole oppressive weight of the world in. Although she mostly ignored us when we stood very still she would´ve been dissoriented and scared by any white light. So, I had to carefully put a tripod down and leave the shutter on my shiny new camera open for nearly 15 seconds to get this dark shot below. She is almost invisible unless you check the original picture, but if you are curious click below to find the hi-res "original" version:

Turtle walking across the beach to lay eggs

It took her about twenty minutes to make it to the edge of the beach, and then the real work began. She started kicking sand away, spinning around so she could get leverage with her back flippers. Slowly, and with a tremendous effort, a turtle sized hole appeared under her and got surprisingly deep. She then paused, let out a long weary sigh and started laying eggs. It took a lot of strain and about 15 more minutes, but before long she was done.

Done with laying eggs but far from finished. She started rocking side to side pulling sand in from all sides to cover up the eggs which looked to be more work than it was to dig. Using a soft red light and another open shutter picture I got this picture of a turtle butt in motion.

Turtle Burying her Eggs

Finally, she finished and took a long break on top of her future progeny. She clambered up and started the long walk back to the sea while we sat in a blissful daze next to the nest. It was a magical experience to witness, really unlike any other experience I´ve ever had. We kept sitting there watching our turtle make it back to the sea and talking.

Before long a couple locals showed up to join us. Well, not so much join us as stand ominously over us. After several minutes they realized we weren´t going anywhere so they walked over with a trowel to steal the eggs. The five of leapt up on top of the nest and a long, angry argument ensued. Fortunately, on our side we had Monica, a former Peace Corp Volunteer whose grasp of Spanish is only exceeded by her hootzpah and willingness to fight a good fight.

Although they said they worked for the nearby turtle reserve, they clearly weren´t because their only form of ID or justification was that they were closer to throwing punches. Raw turtle eggs, we had found out before, are a delicacy. People like to down one with a shot at a bar, perhaps to prove their despicablness, and pay a premium for it! Just think, from the comfort and safety of your very own bar stool you can do your part to end a species! And because there is enough money to be made, and turtles lay eggs so infrequently, many species are extremely threatened with extinction.

Although it looked doubtful for a long time, eventually the poachers left. At the end of the day, there were five of us, and only two of them. I still can see it from their perspective. We were whiney foreigners that are coming afar telling people trying to make a living what was right or wrong to do on their beach. That is awkward fact. But another equally inarguable fact is that although we are naive and idealistic day-trippers to their island we were also right. If humanity doesn´t figure out some way to let some turtles lay eggs there soon won´t be any eggs to poach. We stayed, watched over the eggs and got into a great conversation. We started talking about what would need to be done to help the turtles, and how much broader a real answer needed to be. It´s not enough to try to get a cop stationed on the beach, it´s more important to bring other opportunities to the island for everyone, especially the former poachers. We stayed on, talking about daydreamed possibilities while keeping an eye on things in case the poachers came back.

And come back they did. And this time with reinforcements. Four angry men, two on bicycles and two on foot. Outside of us it was an empty beach, and our chances didn´t look too good. None of us were looking for a fight, except perhaps Monica, and they were. I don´t know how much money they expected to make on the eggs we were guarding, but it was doubtful that their profits made up for going to find friends and bringing them out. It was more the principle of the thing, more about letting us know we didn´t have the right to enforce the law there. We did have the right, but alas we didn´t have the might. So, after Monica leapt into the middle of things for a last minute arguement, we all dejectedly walked away.

To see something that magical and then have it stolen to make a drink chaser broke my heart. The experience itself was a tangible and real feeling of where idealism runs headlong into reality. But it was also a bitter gift of reality, in that we couldn´t walk away with the false belief that enough turtles successfully lay eggs because ours did.

And I see something else in the collision between idealism and reality. If the idealism is held tight enough it can redefine reality. Before we remet our poachers we daydreamed about what could be done. It wasn´t until after they came back that we started planning.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it´s the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead
Robbed Turtle Hole :´(
Former Turtle Nest

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:25 AM

    What a heartbreaking well written story! There is a market for this information.