Zapatillo Island: An impromtu sea turtle hatchery

Posted by on Feb 3, 2012 in Central America, Panama | 2 comments

We arrived at  Zapatillo Island, the most famous of the Boca’s nationally protected islands because it served as the back drop for a scene in a Double O Seven film. It was everything we hoped it would be, white sandy beach, crystal blue water, thick jungle interior, and a surrounding corral reef.

Crystal clear waters, and an empty beach

As our boat was being pulled to shore, we noticed the surrounding waters were infested with jelly fish. The guides seemed unconcerned, loading nervous passengers right into them.  Confused, I  asked if the sting from them hurt. “Oh no”, the guides said, “These jelly fish don’t have tentacles, so they can not sting”. These were my kind of jelly fish. After hearing that, I made it a point to throw back any jellies that I found washed up on shore.

Tentacle less jellyfish.

After some snorking, Ben and I set out to walk the beautiful beach. Taking pictures along the way and enjoying the perfect weather and warm water.

Walking out into Ocean.

All smiles.

Walking just ahead of us was a French couple. They were excitingly taking pictures of the sand and frantically motioning to us. I figured they just found a crab. Ben and I had already found dozens.

A cleverly disguised crab.

He's so ugly, he's cute.

As we moved in closer Ben and I discovered that they had found baby sea turtles that must of just hatched and were making their way to the ocean. One by one they came. Down from the thicket of palm trees. Surprisingly driven. Charging over numerous obstacles in their way, flinging themselves off fallen palm branches and running right over our feet and hands.

Here’s a video of them crawling toward the ocean.

Fast Tube by Casper

Here they come. Can you spot them?

He's ready for his close up.

They only stopped briefly at the ocean’s edge to let a small gentle wave carry them into the ocean. And then they were off again. Instinctively they swam. Stroke, glide, stoke. Never deviating from the pattern even if they weren’t gliding because of the direction they were facing relative to the current. Stoke, glide, stoke. I couldn’t help but laugh and be impressed by their determination. We swam with them and even scooped a few up for pictures. Even in our hands, it was stroke, glide, stoke, never breaking their rhythm.

Ben and a baby sea turtle, even though it just looks like he is holding a piece of poop. lol.

Going for a swim.

Swimming with my turtle babies. I wanted to take them all home with me.

After we watched about a dozen sea turtles complete the process we figured that was it, but they kept coming down. I decided to find the nest and did easy enough. The sight of the nest was incredible. The baby sea turtle were caked in sand. The shells of the eggs they hatched out of no longer there. They were as single minded as zombies in their quest to survive. All struggling to climb up on top of one another in an effort to escape the nest.  The perfect depiction of natural selection. I was horrified.

Here’s a video of the zombie babies trying to escape their nest.

Fast Tube by Casper

The nest teeming with zombie babies.

I knew that because of the hot sun and the depth of the nest only a few more were going to get out. The turtle zombies were collectively slowing down their efforts that most likely had been taken place since last night.  I carefully stepped toward the nest, keeping a watchful eye on the nest for any signs that it was going to collapse.  As soon as I was exactly an arm’s length away, I stopped, slowly crouched down and one by one picked up each baby and place it just outside the nest until they were all out. I worked fast and soon there were about 50 of them crawling at my feet. “I’m not your mommy go to the ocean” I said laughing. I waited in my crouched position until they were all out from under my feet and making their way toward the ocean.  There, I thought if there’s an explosion in the Leather back turtle populations, we’ll all know why.

Go baby go.

Later we stayed in Casa Verde hostel.  An America couple operates the hostel. The girl has volunteered at many sea turtle hatcheries. I ask her if I did the right thing, wanting to know if the oil on my hands may have poisoned them. She told me that the babies need to walk to the ocean themselves to establish a natural rhythm.  But we did the right thing in helping them out of the nest. “They don’t last very long in day light” because of the scorching sun and natural predictors.  Unaided, only about half get out of the nest, she explained. That why the female will lays up to 200 eggs at one time.  Turtle hatcheries’ ensure they all make it out of the nest, just like what I did. But making their way to the ocean and surviving in the sea is solely up to the  turtle. I was relieved that I hadn’t inadvertently kill any of them.

Saving the best for last. Here’s our cutest video of the little guys crawling and swimming. So darn cute.

Fast Tube by Casper


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  1. Wow beautiful pictures you have there :)
    Lucky you guys to see all thoses animals there… i didin’t see any!!

    Give me some news when you have time :)

    did i reconize my sunglasses 😉 hihi

    Elise (québec)

    • =) Yeah! we got really luck there. =)

      How’s Canada?

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