Citizen Science at Tranquilo Bay

Whether under the water or along a forest trail here at Tranquilo Bay, my motto is always, “The more you look, the more you see!”

TranquiloCollage2020

I’ve always loved to document my observations in nature. It’s making a memory, whether through writing about it, taking a photo, making a drawing or keeping a list of what you’ve tallied along your outdoor jaunt into the wilderness. 

What’s fantastic about the multitudes of media available to us is that we’re not taking anything away from or leaving anything behind in the place we’ve visited, we’re simply capturing our own perception of a specific thing in a specific place at a specific point in time.

And while a photo can make for a lovely memory, it can also hold a wealth of information.

Screen Shot 2020-06-28 at 12.47.29 PM

A marine biologist looking at this photo of a sea life-encrusted pillar holding up our dock can quantify, qualify, make speculations, determinations, hypotheses and theories about what appears in this quick camera shot. The amount of species of life on just a single stretch of concrete is mind boggling! Here we can see shellfish, fire coral, a multitude of different sponges, tunicates and a variety of invertebrates that only increases upon closer inspection.

Through something as quick and easy as a camera shot, a scientific story begins to unfold. Any time we can help contribute in the form of scientific documentation, Tranquilo Bay loves to participate, and lately we’ve had some great opportunities to join in on.

IMG_1378.jpeg

Bladi sharing his shot of a hotlips flower.

Tranquilo Bay is a long-time participant of bird counts, particularly Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s where birders all around the world list what species they’ve seen and upload it onto the eBird app for the specified 24-hour period. We also took part in our first iNaturalist Bioblitz this month, we three guides and the six kids old enough to use a camera documenting hundreds of species of land and marine life in all forms, shapes, colors and kingdoms.

By contributing our sightings and photos to the iNaturalist app, spearheaded by National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences, we’re adding to a constantly growing database of flora and fauna that can actually contribute to scientific and biological studies and monitoring. Not to mention we’re taking part in the mapping out of current range and distribution of species as you and more and more iNaturalist users from every corner of earth contribute their observations.

And by the by, this isn’t just a one day a year type thing, anyone can always upload photos of cool life they’ve encountered and often times other iNaturalist contributors can help you figure out what it is if you can’t identify it yourself!

On June 5th, 2020, while the waters of Tranquilo Bay were still morning-calm, I slid into the warm, sparkling Caribbean waters to enter into a coral reef world to document underwater life with my BioBlitz partner of the morning, Patrick Viola.

Patrick, 11 years old, manned the underwater camera and took photos of all the various species that greeted us upon first entering the water. We got the most common species quickly and effortlessly, three-spotted damselfish, schoolmaster, turtle grass, finger coral, long-spined sea urchin. We don’t want to miss anything even something you see so often might hardly notice it anymore, like the ever-plentiful sponge brittle sea stars. We scoured the sea floor, getting close and looking between the feathery fronds of the Atlantic sea plumes which look like underwater vegetation but are actually soft corals and amongst the fronds, were able to search out the beautiful yet elusive flamingo tongue worm!

Screen Shot 2020-06-28 at 1.16.20 PM

Flamingo Tongue and Spotted Moray Eel, photos by Patrick Viola

We moved along slowly, picking out all the many different forms of life from sponges to sea slugs, spaghetti and feather duster worms, sailor’s eyeball alga and donkey dung sea cucumbers! We were excited to see the spotted moray eel was home, poking out from a large and decorated coral head, a toothy grin looking adequately threatening for the photo!    

IMG_1380.jpeg
Israel, shooting ever upward!

The other kids here at Tranquilo Bay participated on more solid ground and hit the trails, taking photos of plants and insects, birds and sloths. Overall, for our first Bioblitz, we’re pretty proud of ourselves here at Tranquilo Bay for ranking in at 286 species photographed and uploaded into the iNaturalist database. But now we’re hooked and we know we can do better, so we’re going to make this something of a regular thing, further illustrating our place on the global map of biodiversity for both fun and rewarding engagement and important citizen science.

Stay tuned for more to come!

Underwater Adventures at Tranquilo Bay

The diversity of Tranquilo Bay is endless.

Lush tropical rainforests abundant with sloths, monkeys, parrots and poison dart frogs.

Along our quiet shoreline, rich mangrove ecosystems support life both above and below the water.

And for the icing on the cake: Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro is home to colorful tropical coral reefs as close as a hop off our dock into sparkling, warm waters, teeming with life.

Come explore with us!

Tranquilo Bay at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival

What a delight to help Jim Kimball represent Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge this past month for the 23rd annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida!

Tranquilo Bay Owner Jim Kimball and Stacey M. Hollis, Tranquilo Bay Guide (sporting a signature Tranquilo Bay Tree Hugger shirt), in Tranquilo’s booth at this year’s Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

This annual festival, held along Florida’s Atlantic coast is one of connecting folks within the bird and nature-loving community while inviting them to explore and learn about birds and wildlife in a multitude of ways and across a diverse variety of destinations worldwide. One such destination represented, by Jim Kimball and yours truly, was Panama’s own Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge located on the enchanting island of Bastimentos set in the sparkling Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro!

Surrounded by vivid and colorful photos of Tranquilo Bay birds and nature, I helped Jim man our booth at the festival. The bustling event was rife with birders, photographers, travelers, outdoor enthusiasts, nature guides, wildlife artists and all manner of nature travel-related vendors.

And the atmosphere was lively and ebullient as festival-goers and vendors alike shared stories about what they’d seen birding that morning (the festival puts on a plethora of guided nature excursions each day) in addition to many jovial renditions among outdoor enthusiasts attendees as they shared nature and wildlife experiences had both nationally and abroad, and there was, of course, plenty of discussion about future travel ideas and possibilities.

Some of the many colorful viewing possibilities at Tranquilo Bay Lodge!

An aisle down from us at the festival were our friends the Bethancourt family, members of the beloved Canopy Family, which encompasses a set of three lodges from central to eastern Panama that offer spectacular diversity in birding in a variety of key locations and ecosystems around the country. For folks who want a more complete idea of Panama’s abundant nature and diverse culture, we partner with Canopy Family to offer a joint package that seamlessly interlaces to provide a paired Tranquilo/Canopy experience that provides a robust display of true, wild Panama, a country with so much to offer from each of its many colorful corners.

The Bethancourt kids, Cristy and Roberto were looking stunning in their traditional Panamanian garb, ready for a folkloric dance performance at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

For Jim, it’s fun to reconnect friends and colleagues that he knows through previous bird fairs and the business itself. I also really enjoyed seeing folks I’ve met while guiding at Tranquilo Bay and I was pleased to make many new connections with a lot of very passionate people dedicated to sharing nature with others. 

The festival also featured some wildly talented nature artists who displayed and sold all manner of bird-centric paintings which captured the eye of each and every festival-goer that passed by…including mine! I was especially drawn to and enamored with Christina Baal’s lively and colorful work in her Drawing Ten Thousand Birds endeavor and I simply fell in love with a piece I bought from Kate Dolamore, an American Kestrel, which was my spark bird back in 1990.

Art by Kate Dolamore and Christina Baal

It was great to meet up with Eliana Ardila Kramer of Birding by Bus, also one of the founding members of Phoebes Birding, a group dedicated to getting women and girls out into nature for birdwatching and shared outdoor experiences with like-minded ladies. Now that I can get behind!

Eliana, Jim and Luisa Conto (Nature Colombia)
For every donor that contributed $20 , Eliana would lay a red-lipstick smooch of thanks!

Eliana is raising money this year for the Champions of the Flyway birding competition. The competition was created in an effort to raise awareness around the decline of migratory raptors illegally hunted along their migratory pathways in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This annual event is hosted by Birdlife International and partners, and the funds raised will be directed toward putting identified measures into place to combat this global issue. We at Tranquilo Bay along with many other folks at the fair thought it was a very worthy cause..and it showed on our cheeks!

While it was a busy festival and we got a lot done, Jim and I did manage to get out to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge a couple of times to enjoy the richness of Florida’s coastal environments before heading back down to our Caribbean island home..

So all in all, we had a blast, met some really great folks and enjoyed reconnecting with old friends. I’m really looking forward to encountering many of the nature lovers I met at the festival again in the future, perhaps greeting them as they arrive to Tranquilo Bay, set here in this lush, tropical corner of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Dock Fishing, Tranquilo Style

Dock Fishing

While the majority of guests who stay with us here at Tranquilo Bay want to explore the surrounding forests, delve deep into dark bat caves or enjoy some serious snorkeling above our impressive coral reefs, we also happily invite those outdoorsy fishermen and women who come through now and again hoping to cast a line!

While the more serious tarpon fishing season includes a couple short seasons over the course of the year when the waters are calmest–a highly recommended time to come for ya’ll who dream of hooking these monumentally impressive, dinosaur-like fish–snapper, barracuda and jacks swim our calm, protected bay all year long.

Sometimes the there’s nothing better than the opportunity to jump in a kayak, either early in the morning or late afternoon when the sunlight is turning that beautiful late day sheen off the water, and drop a line, content to spend a couple hours in the peace that Tranquilo Bay offers.

Capitan Sanchez fillets a mutton snapper caught by a summer guest.

While the majority of fishing is catch and release, should you hook a good sized snapper or care to wrangle a barracuda off your line, the kitchen is happy to prepare a meal of it! One ambitious (and lucky!) guest got a mutton snapper right off the dock and was proud to share a bite with everyone in the dining room that evening!

Another perk is what fun this activity can be for our younger Tranquilo guests: we can easily get them set up and fishing off our service dock where the boats are kept. You’re almost always guaranteed to catch one of the smaller snappers hanging out under the dark safe nook the hanging boats provide. With mangrove crabs for bait, thanks to Captain Sanchez here, this mutton snapper was on the hook within seconds!

Fate to the winds: Fall Migration at Tranquilo

Fall is upon us again, as the birds from our temperate northern latitudes of United States and Canada fly south for the winter to spend the long months (and thus, the majority of the year) in the tropics. A combination of photoperiod, the tilt of the earth, genetic predisposition, temperature and food availability determines this period of mass departure.

Migration Birdwatching
Hooded Warbler, Florida, Fall 2019

After a short spring and summer packed with staking out new territories (or returning to ones claimed in previous years as is the case with various warblers that return to the same nesting territory year after year), the birds find a mate, build nests and raise the next generation of migratory birds. These hatch-year birds, upon fledging, join the southward-flowing river of migrant songbirds, waterfowl and raptors to wintering grounds they’ve never seen before, yet once occupied by their ancestors.

Eastern Kingbirds Birding Panama
Eastern Kingbirds pausing in the treetops off Tranquilo Bay’s deck. October 2019

The birds funnel down the vast continent of North America where they finished out the breeding season to the narrow stretch of Central America, some residing here for the winter while others continue to fly as far as South America.

Birding Migration
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Maryland Fall 2019

So why would a bird care to make such a journey? Throwing its fate to the wind and relying on abundant yet sometimes uncertain resources that provide a bird’s fat stores to fuel the tiny little muscles that can project a tiny sprite across wide open seas, country borders and continental divides?

Well, a combination of factors: the lush tropics burgeon with fruits, seeds, and invertebrates that become unavailable up north after the fall harvest is over and the cold sets in. The plentiful supply of food in the tropical south allows for our temperate nesting birds to feed shoulder to shoulder with toucans, trogons, honeycreepers and others that make up the vast array of Central and South American species of the avian persuasion.

Fall Migration Panama
The tanagers are headed this way! Florida, Fall 2019

This is an exciting time, not just for birders but anyone interested in nature– it’s hard not to get drawn in by the wildly impressive spectacle of such a mass migration!

Have you noticed changes in the birds around your home? What’s it like where you life? Who stays and who goes?

Black Terns refueling at the mouth of the Changuinola along their journey south. Snyder/Changuinola Bay Excursion, Tranquilo Bay

Trials of Being a Baby Bird

It’s a new Rufito!

At the time of the photo, this bitty baby Rufous-tailed hummingbird had hatched ten days before and endures a tighter and tighter squeeze each and every day in that tiny nest as mother tirelessly feeds this immobile yet very hungry little chick.

Baby birds (not just hummingbirds) have a hard go of it, even before they’ve hatched out of that delicate, vulnerable eggshell. When it comes to nature, if your defenses are down (or non-existent, as is the case with most of our nestbound babies), there is no mercy should a predator happen by.

Stripe-throated Hermit nest

And there are many predators in the rainforest that consider an inhabited nest a free-for-all dinner plate! So what can baby birds do about it? Well, nothing. So instead, they must depend upon their parents to have evolved and obtained the necessary considerations and instincts required for where and how they build their nest.

And camoflage is KEY.

This nest, containing our impossibly adorable rufous-tailed hummingbird chick is made out of silky fibers from plants and spider webs and then plastered with bits of dead leaves and lichen to help the tiny cup nest from being detected among the branches by wandering eyes. Nevertheless, no matter how much effort is put in to the building of the nest and making it appear camouflaged, the immense importance of the nest *location* is also very key.

At this point, I’m almost convinced that if we humans can find a nest, then predators are seeing it too and that was practically confirmed as I watched a total of 5 hummingbird nests fail this year, some of which were hatchlings between a couple days old to more than a week. Prime predator for our defenseless little birds? Snakes. Another surprising predator we found were ants, which could reach some of the far spots on the branches that were too precarious for a serpent to reach.

Weather comes into play as well in the survival of an exposed chick, and with the occasional nighttime rains we’ve had of late. So we can only hope the momma hummer stays put and keeps that chick dry while it very slowly grows in those essential, water resisting, protective feathers!

Stripe-throated Hermit nestling

Baby hummingbirds hatch completely devoid of feathers and only a few wisps of down and thus are actually considered cold-blooded during this time, meaning they have no control of their body temperature which is thus subject to the surrounding conditions. If a hummingbird chick gets wet, it is unable to stabilize its body temperature and thus is in grave danger of dying without any protective insulation layer of feathers over their skin.

So baby hummers, and baby birds in general, have a lot at stake during the most vulnerable point in their lives. Should you come across a bird nest in your nature wanderings, it’s best to leave it be and let the parents do their job. Make sure you are far enough away that a worried parent bird can return without fear to carry out raising that precious little bit of life and carry on the next generation.

Rockin’ the “Green Season” at Tranquilo Bay

While people may call our green season, the low season, we’ve been busy here at Tranquilo Bay on the lush green island of Bastimentos surrounded by mangroves, rainforest, beach and the rich Caribbean Sea. 

Nothing really stops here at the lodge, even if there happens to be a lull in guests. In fact, this time of the year (we call it winter, here in the tropics) is the time of some of Tranquilo’s hardest, most intense work. Jay runs his team of wildly strong and tireless workers: our own Sanchez, Alvaro and Gustavo, our indigenous N’gobe muchachos who double as captain and triple as landscapers, builders and all around renaissance men. These are the same sweet guys who you’ll see on their knees in the sand, shoulder to shoulder with our youngster guests, helping dig holes and build sandcastles on any Zapatilla beach day.

Some of what they have been working on includes many projects around the grounds and one of which includes preparing a space, sifting, hauling and tamping tons of sand, and installing the 20-some thousand gallon bladder, which was a backbreaking achievement that will give us more rain catchment and put us in a good position for the next drought. Who do we have to thank? 

These guys! 

As far as the the rest of us, Everyone has gone on some pretty wonderful adventures, in some cases wanderings abroad because we use the low season to travel. Guides Ramon and Natalia spends a couple months traveling to see their families in Valencia, Spain and Medellin, Colombia. The Kimballs, (Jim, Renee, Tres and Boty) visited the states and their ol’ homeland Texas, road-tripping all over to see friends and family.

Luis of Quebrada Enrique

Together with the Violas (Jay, Scott and Patrick), back here at the lodge, we have gone on various adventures, including a reconnaissance excursion to a little-trodden section of trail owned and maintained by Luis, a local restaurant and landowner. Luis invited us and guided us onto his stunningly beautiful property. We had toucans and trogons peer at us from the greenery overhead and countless tiny, brilliant strawberry poison dart frogs hopped on the trail around us, yet another array of beautiful color morphs and patterns. Beautiful flowing marañon trees dropped their wispy, vibrant pink petals as ground decoration, a small bodied, large eyed ruddy tailed flycatcher wagged on a branch above us and even a rufous and green kingfisher fished in the same secret forest pond that we cooled off in. 

Hugo Santa Cruz, Lic. in Tourism and Protected Areas Management

Since going with the Kimballs before they left, we’ve been back to this new trail twice, the Violas and I along with intern hailing from Bolivia, Hugo Santa Cruz. We had a blast, as each visit we saw new and different wildlife. This is definitely going to be a new favorite to add to our array of off-site adventure excursions!

 

In addition to all that’s gone on, our “low season” has also resulted in about six weeks straight of visiting guests! We’ve had families (including my own parents and longtime family friends of the Kimballs, the Moseley’s who visit annually), birders, wildlife photographers and even a huge multi-family reunion that chose Tranquilo Bay for their special event. Some might think that since it’s so hot up north where it’s summertime now, it must be boiling down in the tropics, but we truly only endure a range of about five degrees difference in temperature year round! While we’ve had some rainy adventures (as is possible during anytime throughout the year), our gung-ho guests know that this beautiful rainforest would be nothing if not for the precious moisture that makes the lush greenery of beautiful Isla Bastimentos the true wildly productive and biodiverse rainforest that it is.

 

 

Be a Citizen Scientist!

Black-crowned Antshrike

Here at Tranquilo, you can hardly walk from your garden cabina to the lodge for breakfast without encountering something special, be it a beautifully detailed, work-of-art of a caterpillar or a black-crowned antshike beating a succulent grub into submission for easy ingestion. The multitude of life that exists on this island consisting of a mere 24 square miles is extraordinary and, as it carries on all around us, we love not just to observe it but document it as well!

Many of the birdwatchers that come to Tranquilo (and we here at Tranquilo as well) are what has come to be termed as “eBirders”..meaning we have the app, we make the lists and we submit the information.  

The app is called eBird and was developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. By contributing to eBird, we are adding information to a massive online database of bird checklists submitted by more than 420,000 eBirders from all over the world. By contributing a simple checklist of birds identified–say on a short hike or even sitting at your back window–all that’s needed is date, time and location and this information can be added to a database which birders contribute to daily, making eBird the largest biodiversity-related citizen science project in the world.

Bay-breasted Warbler
(winter plumage)

Tranquilo Bay boasts 224 species of birds that, over the course of the year, can be found on our property. Spanning over 200 acres, the majority of Tranquilo Bay is heavily forested and hugged by about a kilometer of mangrove coastline. The birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife we encounter in addition to the lush greenery that supports all this life runs on a fairly cyclical pattern over the course of the year. The neotropical migratory birds pass through Tranquilo Bay in the spring and fall and they rely on the fruiting of various trees and bushes that help fuel their journey. The local resident birds base their nesting around the seasonal rains and the fruiting and flowering of the forest for the abundance of food required to raise little nestlings. By keeping track of these birds, their abundance and their activities, we are learning more about the importance of Tranquilo Bay as a refuge for the life that exists here, and even that which is just passing through.

Interesting and informative trends from the eBird database can be extrapolated through bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. This information, in turn, can give biologists and scientific researchers information on range and abundance, migratory patterns, range expansions, all of which can help us in ways including determination of ecological requirements and habitat management for species of concern.

Baltimore Oriole
(winter plumage)

Migratory birds are especially at risk in the face of the developing world. These birds make the bi-annual journey from north to south and back again as they spend their winters here in the tropics where food is in abundance. They head back north for the spring nesting season in the US and Canada’s temperate forests where the summer days grow long, giving ample time for the birds to set up territories, build a nest and feed their young as they constantly clamor for food. At the end of the nesting season, those recently fledged youngsters have a huge journey ahead of them and many trials along the way, including finding food and safe places to rest.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
(winter plumage)

So while we monitor what birds are coming through, how many, we’re connecting ourselves here at Tranquilo Bay to the wider network. Birds don’t see state lines or country borders. They go where the food is. They rely on a safe patch of forest they rested at in years past to be there again this year. Life is unstable for these long-distance migrants. By helping keep track of them when they’re in our corner of the world, we’re helping detail more about them which might help in their future preservation.  

Another app, as if you don’t have enough already, that I really enjoy is iNaturalist. This is another data-collection app and with it you are not just documenting birds, but ALL things living, that includes plantlife, insects, mammals, trees, mushrooms, everything. This is another global database and it is developed by California Academy of Science. This is especially fun for identifying whatever lizard or strange caterpillar you may have gotten a photo of, the app has a sort of “facial recognition” which can help automatically identify the creature and if that doesn’t get you down to species level, there are naturalists and experts who can weigh in. I’ve enjoyed learning the identification of many species of moths and butterflies and various flowering plants that I couldn’t determine until I posted it on iNaturalist. And, once again, this is citizen science in action, as if I’m contributing to the biological inventory of this part of Bocas del Toro and you can too!

It’s a Bat Cave Day!

For those looking for an exciting, multi-faceted adventure, full of mud, fascinating and beautiful creepy crawlies, stalactites, and lots and lots of bats, this excursion is definitely up your alley! But if instead this is your idea of your worst nightmare, give it a chance! Face your fears, nothing will hurt you in there and it’s the experience of a lifetime!

Leaving directly after breakfast, we pile into the boat and our captain drives us about 20 minutes to Bahia Honda (Deep Bay) which is situated about halfway along our beautiful island back towards Bocastown on the main island, Isla Colon.

Our able captain has “tossed” a sufficient number of kayaks and paddles into the boat with us before leaving Tranquilo. Upon arrival at a mangrove-shaded river entrance the captain unloads the kayaks and we take turns climbing in. Waving goodbye to the boat, we set off up the slow-moving river, taking in the peaceful forest of tall mangroves and the occasional kingfisher flyby.   

The kayak part of our trek lasts about a half hour or so, depending on how much the guests would like to take their time to drink in their surroundings. We keep an eye out for wildlife and sometimes a sloth might be curled up in some thick branches hanging out over the water or a troop of white-faced capuchins may pass through the taller branches in search of a fruiting tree. Yellow Mangrove Warblers can be heard singing from the treetops and a mangrove cuckoo may come out of the shadows and treat our guests to a sight of this beautiful yet skulky bird. And we’re always on the lookout for basilisks and caimans!

As the river gets smaller and turns to freshwater, we leave the mangrove ecosystem behind until eventually we find ourselves in one of the indigenous Ngäbe communities sprinkled throughout the Bocas del Toro archipelago. We debark the kayaks and set them out of the way before heading up to a small restaurant owned by the family who are the cave gatekeepers. After a quick bathroom stop, we get ready for the above-ground portion of our adventure and head into the forest.

Depending on the time of year, the trails leading to the bat cave can be a complete muckfest. There’s no need to try and avoid the mud because you’ll eventually have no choice but to wade through. Ankle-deep is the worse it gets but when it comes to unsquelching a submerged foot, you may have to go digging for your shoe! All just a part of the experience!

As we follow the trail, we’ll keep an eye out for hummingbirds called hermits feeding from the heliconias, sloths hiding in the cacao trees and Bocas del Toro’s famous red frogs, tiny and brilliantly colored strawberry poison dart frogs, around the base of trees in the moist leaf litter.

The mouth of the cave sneaks up on you, you’re cruising through the woods, taking in the forest when suddenly you’re looking into the mouth of a dark abyss. An earthy, musty, non-offensive smell along with thin, high pitched squeaks emanate from the hole. Flashlights appear and we take a big swig of water before slowly making our way down the rocks, taking our time not to slip.

This is when you realize that we’re getting into a stream, in fact that same stream we just kayaked up is now around your ankles. Slowly stepping deeper into the dark, we stop and look up. A massive crevice reaches far above our heads and every crack, every nook is occupied by masses of hanging bats, shoulder to shoulder huddled in a writhing, furry mat over our heads. Careful not to shine the lights at the bats eyes, we sweep the lights across this impressive gathering of nightlife.

Now, this is an assurance we often make at this point along the excursion, none of the bats that use this cave feed on blood, aka, YOU. They have no interest in us humans. Rather, they are nectavores, like the Orange-nectar Bat, frugivores, like the Jamaican Fruit-eating Bat and insectivores like the White-lined Bats. Not only that, these bats are not going to get tangled up in your hair or land on your back like out of some horror movie, in fact, that’s the last thing they want to do and they happen to be more than fully capable of ensuring just that. With honed sonar detection, they know full well that you’re there in the pitch black darkness and easily avoid you (and each other!) with their skilled mammalian flight. What is delightful is the light rustle followed by a soft gust of wind against the side of your face caused by a close flyby!

The cave goes in quite a distance and it’s the guests decision as to how far they’d like to go. As we delve deeper, the intrepid explorers discover a variety of interesting invertebrates on the cave walls, various spiders and cave crickets. In the water you can sometimes get a glint of eye-shine reflected from a small fish or shrimp. The stalactites are a highlight of this underground adventure, their rippled, sparkling surface commanding the darkness. Some of these geological formations have grown quite large over eons of mineral deposit as water moves through the ground above and slowly drips through the ground, carrying limestone which is re-deposited to form some impressively massive hanging structures. The limestone in the ground above is what’s left of ancient coral reefs dating back to the Pliocene and Miocene era between 5 to 20 million years ago.

Careful search of the cave walls reveals embedded shells of various sorts and the loose rocks and soil in the water running past our ankles has even been known to harbor the occasional interesting fossils or sharks tooth. As we move deeper inward, the stream gets a bit deeper (waist to chest-deep!) and the footing is a little precarious, so the going is slow. One favorite destination in the cave is a nine-foot deep pool that has formed, surrounded by a couple of small waterfalls. The more daring folks of the group might take that opportunity for a full on jump from a rock ledge into the murky depths for a plunge into the crisp waters.

Coming back out of the cave, we squint in the daylight as we switch off our flashlights. The world above ground is how we left it, and the lush greenery of the forest is still punctuated by birdsong and the brightly colored dart frogs hopping over twigs and leaves. We kayak down the forested creek and pass indigenous N’gobe paddling by in their traditional dugout canoes, called cayucos.

To spend a morning exploring an underground world is an experience unlike any other and a memory that you’ll be sharing with friends and family for years. At the mouth of the creek, our boat and captain are waiting for us, we pile in and enjoy some snacks and cold drinks while relaxing as we watch the beautiful scenery of Bocas del Toro zoom by as our captain takes us back to the lodge.

It’s a Beach Day!

Beach day! Everyone gets pumped when they hear those words. Heading out on this delightful excursion is a decision made at breakfast: Sunny skies? Yes! It’s go time. So everyone throws on their bathing suits, something to cover up from the sun (we’re a mere nine degrees off from the equator which, for gringo skin, that basically means dead on), something to read, a camera and extra sunscreen for sure.

We pack the boat with kayaks, boogie boards and perhaps a stand up paddle board or two, load up the cooler with icy cold drinks (don’t skimp on the cerveza!), snacks and a picnic lunch. Once everyone is in, we point the bow of the boat to the Zapatillas, a pair of low-lying islands that, along with the barrier reef behind them, help keep Tranquilo Bay tranquilo, protecting it from the open sea.  Like two little shoes stepping forward one after the other, the forested Zapatillas islands sport long sand beaches while our calmer, protected waters back at the lodge make for purely mangrove ecosystems.

These sand beaches are a very important feature for more than just sandcastles, they provide nesting habitat for various sea turtles that occupy our Caribbean waters during the nesting season, May through October. Sea turtles that nest on the Bocas del Toro beaches include Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and the Green sea turtle. For this reason, we have a lot of respect for these islands, which are included in the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park which also covers great stretches of coral reef from the Zapatillas across the forests of Isla Bastimentos itself–an entire third of the island–and finally the mangrove coast and islets on the mainland-facing side of the island. While spotting a sea turtle is rare (the females haul up onto the beach after dark and the young emerge mainly at night) there is the odd baby sea turtle that gets caught up in the roots surrounding it’s underground nest and needs a helping hand to get to the water.

As we get settled, settling into our chairs, slopping on sunscreen and taking a swig of cold water, some folks might want to take a walk around the picturesque island. Meanwhile, others may decide to kayak the clear waters, take a stab at a stand-up paddleboard or catch a wave on a boogie board if the “surf’s up”. The sloping beach leads down into the warm Caribbean water and you can use a mask to hunt for fun shells or simply bob over the gentle waves and soak in the sunshine.

Alvaro or Sanchez, our gallant boat captains, might break out the machete to show the lengthy and skilled process of opening a coconut so guests might drink the delicious, lightly sweet water (with some of it inevitably dribbling down your front) before cracking it open and sharing the rich meat. They often pack a fishing rod, too and are always happy to give a casting lesson!

The captains are always good for helping build a sand castle, too. Together with some gung-ho youngsters, we’ve made some pretty impressive creations. On one of our trips out to the Zaps, a nine-year old wanted me to help her build a thatch palm hut. We got to work while her parents took a stroll around the island and they were pretty bowled over when we welcomed them back with a little palm thatch “casita” where we’d set all our chairs and felt like we’d for sure come out on top if we were stranded on a desert island.

With a lovely picnic lunch courtesy of the hardworking kitchen staff, we munch away and stare out across the shimmery blue waters and the lapping waves. A hermit crab just may saunter through “camp” and a spotted sandpiper might bob-tail it’s jaunty self across the sand down by the water. The Zapatillas, while small, still have their share of wildlife. Sloths live in the trees and turtles and caimans wallow in the flooded forest of the interior. Yellow-crowned night herons roost on the far side of the island and, during migration, you can see heaps of warblers and falcons and other birds of prey passing through. And on the boat-ride to and from the island, there’s always the opportunity for a dolphin enounter so be sure to keep eyes on the lookout!

Beach day can be as active or relaxed as you want it to be, in fact, there’s even plenty of time for it to be both! The guests decide how long they want to stay and when it’s time to go. Depending on the snorkeling conditions, we may have a chance to snorkel right there off the beach or, if it’s not excellent visibility, we can stop at another of our favorite snorkel spots on the boat ride back to Tranquilo. That is, if we haven’t already tired ourselves out from another delightful beach day!