The Turtles of Panama


Marine Turtles
The two turtle species you are least likely to see on your Panama tours are the Eastern Pacific green turtle (Chelonia Agassizii), also called the black sea turtle, and the loggerhead turtle. While the large loggerhead turtle is found in the vicinity of the isthmus, you are more likely to see one in the water than nesting on a beach during your travel to Panama.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 turtles come to Panama to nesteach year, locating a safe place to deposit their eggs and using their back flippers to dig and cover the hole. Observing marine turtles is a nighttime sightseeing experience on Panama tours. Two great places to observe them on your Panama tours is Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro Province and the Isla de Canas Wildlife Refuge off the Azuero Peninsula where all four species come to nest. Southern Explorations offers Panama tours to both regions.

Thanks to efforts to protect marine habitats by countries such as Panama, some species are making a comeback. Establishing a baseline to determine a status for these species makes use of historical sources. To identify former nesting sites, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography studied the writings of pirates and other traders who once traveled these waters. From their work, scientists estimate that 20% of the sites that once existed in the Caribbean are gone, and of the remaining 80%, most serve only small numbers of turtles. Turtles must not only contend with predators on land and sea, but also encroachment by humans on their habitat and getting caught in fishing nets, as well as unpredictable natural disasters such as hurricanes that wipe out nesting sites. Scientists therefore hope to restore lesser sites instead of just concentrating on the sites that attract the most turtles.

Many agencies throughout the world, both government and non-profit organizations, are working to restore the populations of threatened marine turtles and their habitat. To name a few: Working together, NOAA and the shrimp trawler industry have designed a Turtle Excluder Device to enable accidentally-captured turtles to escape deep-sea trawling nets. To watch a loggerhead turtle escape a net through the device, go to
The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is a U.S.-based advocacy organization that works with local communities to protect turtles and collaborates with other conservation entities to promote habitat protection and turtle-protective fishing practices. To find out more about its activities, go to

In 2006, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Marine Turtle Conservation Act at the urging of the World Wildlife Fund and the Ocean Conservancy. It appropriates $5 million a year for conservation efforts to protect marine turtles and their habitat in US waters and to aid international conservation efforts.

Established in 2001, the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles is the world's only international agreement designed to protect these species and their habitat. In January of 2008, Panama became the twelfth country to sign the agreement.

Green Turtles
Though not as large as the leatherback, the green turtle is one of the largest of the sea turtle species, measuring up to four feet and several hundred pounds at adulthood. In Central America, the species is also called black turtle in Central America. It derives its name from its diet. Less carnivorous in its food preferences than other sea turtles, the green turtle displays a distinctive hue on various parts of its body due to the absorption of plant pigmentation from its main source of nutrition, the sea grass that grows in shallow off-shore waters.

Green turtles nest every two to five years between June and August at the beach where they themselves hatched. Most commonly in Panama this location is on the Azuero Peninsula along the central part of the Pacific coast. The species also nests here in Isla de Canas Wildlife Refuge on the east side of the peninsula, a place that attracts visitors on Panama tours mostly to see olive ridley turtles in their primary nesting area on the isthmus. Southern Explorations’ eight-day Luxury Panama tour spends a leisurely three days on the Azuero Peninsula with plenty of time to search for turtles. Green turtles also nest on the Caribbean coast east of Colon at Portobelo National Park.

With the practice of tagging turtles and the advent of satellite technology, scientists are learning more about the life cycles of this species and the long distances it migrates. One NOAA study (Seminoff 2007) shows that the green turtles of Panama may actually be the green turtles of the Galapagos. Devices monitoring their whereabouts traced the turtles north from the western side of the archipelago to the Playa de la barqueta Agricola Wildlife Refuge in Chiriqui Province and the Gulf of Panama on the Pacific coast. Visitors on Galapagos tours might see this endemic species during their travel to Ecuador or the Galapagos green turtles during their travel to Panama.

Leatherback Turtles
That the leatherback's shell is not hard and its meat unsavory gives humans two less reasons to kill the animal, but its eggs make the slaughter worthwhile nonetheless. Due to the leatherback's unwieldy proportions, poachers start by slicing off the very long flippers to prevent escape and turn the female on her back, leaving her to die a slow death after the eggs have been taken. For years, near the mouth of Rio Changuinola on the Bocas del Toro mainland of Panama, the carcasses of between eighteen and fifty leatherbacks have been found that have met this fate. Additional hazards in the life of the leatherback are the discarded plastic bags, gobbled by mistake, because in the sea, they resemble jelly fish, the main leatherback diet. Though this magnificent species has managed to exist for a hundred million years, today it is on the verge of extinction.

The species spends more time submerged than other marine turtle, dives deeper and migrates across oceans. It feeds just off shore and in open water. Females nest at night every ten days between March and June and are most numerous in Bocas del Toro Province, both on the mainland and in the archipelago. These Caribbean nesting sites include Isla Bastimentos in the national park of the same name and the San-San Pond Sak Wetland Reserve. The best place for visitors on Panama tours to catch a glimpse of this critically endangered species is on remote Playa Chiriqui east of Peninsula Valiente in April or May. This is the largest nesting site in Central America and the second largest in the world. Here 3,000 to 5,000 leatherbacks nest each year. They also nest on the Pacific side, off the Azuero Peninsula in the Isla de Canas Wildlife Refuge where visitors who travel to Panama usually come to watch the olive ridley turtles. The species also nests on the Caribbean coast at Portobelo National Park.

Efforts are underway throughout the world to protect the species from extinction.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy has been tracking the migration of leatherbacks that nest along the coast of Panama and Costa Rica since 2003 and is working to protect the important nesting site at Playa Chiriqui and the nearby off-shore Escudo de Veraguas Island. Satellite tracking devices, attached to the turtles, record their whereabouts every time they surface for air. For more information about the Caribbean Leatherback Conservation and Tracking Project, go to, one of the sources for this article.
Perhaps the most effective marine turtle conservation program takes the form of convincing communities in the vicinity of nesting sites that more revenue can be generated by saving the turtles than slaughtering them. The World Wildlife Fund and other entities have had great success in educating communities about the benefits of eco-tourism, poaching prevention and necessary eco-tourism infrastructure improvements to attract more visitors on Panama tours wishing to observe leatherback turtles.

Hawksbill Turtles
The creatures first arrive in their Panama off-shore habitat from the deep sea at one to three years of age. Every two to three years, females nest at night usually between July and October three times during the wet season. Most nesting takes place in August and September.

Visitors on Panama tours may observe hawksbills in several locations. One of the best spots is the province of Bocas del Toro in northwestern Panama on the islands and mainland coasts. The most significant nesting sites in Isla Bastimentos Marine National Park are on the islands of Cayos Zapatillas. Other nesting sites are on Isla Colon at Playa Bluff and Playa Larga on Isla Bastimentos as well as in the San San Pondsack Wetlands wildlife refuge on mainland Bocas. Playa Chiriqui, a beach east of Peninsula Valiente, though remote, is a peaceful unpopulated place to visit where hawksbills may be observed. Though still considered the most important Atlantic nesting site for the species, its populations here have dwindled dramatically from what they once were. . The Isla de Canas Wildlife Refuge off the Pacific coast on the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama is a popular nesting site for other turtle species and a popular destination for visitors during their travel to Panama, but few hawksbills come there to nest. East of Colon, hawksbills nest at Portobelo National Park on the Caribbean coast.

Efforts by such entities as the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s are working with communities to protect the habitat of Playa Chiriqui and nearby Escudo de Veraguas Island to boost populations of both the hawksbill and the leatherback turtle species. Begun in 2003, the Chiriqui Beach Hawksbill and Leatherback Research and Conservation Program consists of monitoring the species, protecting the nesting sites and educating the public about the importance of conservation measures. For more information about the Conservancy’s work, go to, one of the sources for this article.

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund began a study to determine the effects of climate change on hawksbill turtles. Scientists are looking at how temperature changes in air, water and sand may alter nesting and feeding habitat, sex ratios and migration patterns. This data will be used to design a broader study, encompassing the other marine turtle species.

Olive Ridley Turtles
More abundant than any other marine turtle species, the olive ridley, is nonetheless endangered on the Pacific coast of Mexico and considered threatened elsewhere. Populations have diminished dramatically over the past fifty years in many parts of the world. It is vulnerable because its eggs are collected, it gets caught in fishing nets, and its nesting habit makes killing large numbers of turtles efficient.

The olive ridley is a tropical migratory species that inhabits the open sea rather than coastal waters. It nests in one primary Panama location, a half-mile stretch of Pacific beach called La Marinera and at nearby beaches. The Isla de Canas Wildlife Refuge just off the Azuero Peninsula in Los Santos Province is one of the world's five top nesting sites of the olive ridleys. It is not the easiest place to get to since you must reach the mainland town of Canas via back-roads and then take a five minute boat trip to the island. Since observing turtles as they nest is a night-excursion, a guided Panama tour to the destination is the easiest way to eliminate the hassles. Olive Ridley turtles may also be observed nesting east of Colon at Portobelo National Park.

Timing your visit to see olive ridleys during your travel to Panama is not easy since the species does not arrive at exactly the same time each year. Females nest twice a season, and Las Arribadas have occurred as early as April. Statistically, the months of September and November are the safest bet.

Many entities are working to save the olive ridley in Panama and elsewhere. For instance, the Juventino Frias Oda Reserve, a 247-acre site in Pachotal, south of La Marinera beach, has been purchased with private funds from international sources to protect the species' habitat. The project is overseen by the Panama Foundation.

Ecotourism has proven a boon to the olive ridleys of Panama. With funding and direction from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, communities in the vicinity of the nesting sites are upgrading tourist accommodations and being educated about protection of the species. Villagers who would otherwise be making a living by harvesting the eggs and slaughtering the turtles for meat, now earn a higher wage by keeping the species safe. The effort is paying off, as eco-tourists in growing numbers are taking Panama tours to observe the olive ridleys.