The air smells salty, fresh and is sentenced with an undistinguished taste of adventure. Some silver glitter sprinkles all over the bay behind a narrow line of palm trees. The beach on Isla Colón is just a stone throw apart from the open car window I am sitting at. On the other side shadows of a the deep jungle, black and gray, seem hostile and inviting at the same time this night. It feels almost like a call to venture into the woods. – But such undertaking will better be done at daylight than tonight.
Our taxi makes a slow progress along the dirt road that winds north along the shore from Playa Bluff. As usual the trade winds have become more intense over the day and are now on their nightly decline. On the other side of the island Paulinchen is well protected from them at her anchor.
Even in the car the sound of huge waves breaking over the large reef north of the Islands overtones the rumbling of overstretched dampers and a niggling engine. Nobody speaks much. Less because of the late time, more because we all wander back and fourth through the last couple of hours and the impressions on the beach that we just left behind.
The minivan had picked us up at 8.15 pm at a hostel in Bocas del Toro and followed this road in the other direction. Just a few minutes out of town the street ended on the beach. We crossed a small creek and the tires sank deep into the soft sand.
The waves here were bigger than close to town and started rolling quite far from the beach. Many of the top surf spots in the Bocas del Toro Area are along this north shore and one of the guys I shared the taxi with looked out at the water quite excited:
„Maybe I should try it.“
„How experienced are you?“, asked Jonny, a local who joined us on this night trip.
„Pretty much a rookie.“
„Don‘t come here“, Jonny’s short answer was in a mild but certain tone: “It looks nice but here are many dangerous currents and Rip-Tides. Here some surfers do not come back from.“
When the taxi stopped it was pitch black around us and the house next to the road was barely more than a shadow in front of the moonlit beach and water behind it. We were advised to wear dark clothes and to not bring any lights. To keep temptation down also all cameras had to be left home.
With out the pale tourist arms and faces we would have perfectly blended in to this night like the man around us did. They were here to protect some of the most amazing creatures I have seen in my life. Every year large turtles come to the island do lay their eggs on the beach.
We got an introduction for our nightly turtle watch. A brief lecture on habits, food, reproduction and of course on how the turtles miraculously come back right here to the place where they have hatched. Some like the huge leatherback turtle make a long journey to do so. They live in cooler waters up in the deep Atlantic Ocean, as far north as Nova Scotia. Six month they travel just to come here for reproduction.
Finally we were told that it is a lucky night for us; that a leatherback turtle had just crawled off the water half an hour ago to lay its eggs on the beach.
A few minutes later we go in single file along a narrow path towards the open sand. No lights were there. No signs of civilization no trails in the sand other than the one coming from the water and leading to what looked like a large black rock. The surf line had a silvery glow and the moonlight made the walk on the beach surprisingly comfortable. Our guide turned around, one finger over his lips. – Tension filled the moment.
The rock at the end of the track was moving.
Like a plow the turtle had crossed the beach and buried a deep hole in the sand. Half sunken into that she was shoving sand back and forth with legs that so clearly were never meant to be used on land. She did not seem to take notice of us. – Or was she just pretending to not care about some strangers watching her being all to busy this night? All she did was laying egg after egg on the beach and fill the hole slowly with sand.
Among the workers was a young boy kneeling besides her. The older ones were taking notes on how many eggs and approximately what size each was. They carefully measured the body. „One meter wide and 1.60 meter long“, one whispered to us and as if the scene was not far enough from our everyday life by now he continued: „No one knows how old she is. Best guess is somewhere between 25 and 100 years.“
That boy reminded me of how the guide had talked about how normal it was just a few years ago for all of the locals to hunt these turtles for food. It still happens in many parts of Central America, especially when it comes to small island communities were turtles have always been on the menu.
But for this little boy that is history. He will have a different approach when he maybe guides a tour like ours in a few years to a turtle’s nest. He may remember his nights out here, sitting there, in silence, daring to touch a turtles that was bigger than him. Chances are he will rather be there to protect it than to hunt it?
The shoving of sand stopped for a moment and everyone backed up a few meters. Whispers: „Now she will start to cover her tracks and create some fake holes to protect the eggs from other animals.“, we were explained.
As if she tried to swim she started to throw sand with her forearms and for almost an hour the colossus that was so much not made for crawling on a beach moved around creating a mess. Fake nests, piles of sand, swales, tracks in the wrong direction, all to protect the next generation of turtles.
Than she slowly turned towards the water.
Everyone of us thought the same: „Let us just help her and carry that huge struggling body back in the water“. But we were here to watch and to interfere as little as possible. As helpless and exhausted her efforts looked, this was the way nature had planned it to be. And maybe it was part of this plan that the incoming tide at least had made her way back shorter than the way up.
Fifteen long minutes later the black body disappeared in were it belongs to almost flying effortless in the waves. Behind it a silent group of six humans stood on the beach staring at the ocean.