In Search of the Pygmy Three-toed Sloth – Part II – The First Sloth

In the last blog David and Craig had arrived in Panama City, met their chef Gustavo and boat captain Sebastian, and had gathered all the equipment they needed ready for the trip to Escudo de Veraguas. However, despite their raring enthusiasm and thorough preparation, the start of the expedition didn’t exactly go according to plan…

Having woken up at an unsociable hour and packed the truck, we set off for the marina. It was a miserable morning of constant rain and dark clouds looming all around. We were due to meet Sebastian and Gustavo at 6am on the dock to load the boat and set sail. It was crucial that we left promptly as the offshore swells would soon build and make the already bumpy journey perilous.

We arrived to find Sebastian frantically filling the gas cans and readying the boat for our journey, and by 6:15am we were ready to go, but Gustavo was nowhere to be seen. He was running on Panamanian time and, much to the dismay and anger of Sebastian, he didn’t arrive until 7:40am, by which time Sebastian was livid and madly marching up and down the docks. Gustavo, unflustered by Sebastian’s display, readied his captain and loaded his boat with fuel. We were travelling in two separate boats with Gustavo and his captain accompanying the food and provisions in one vessel and Craig, Alanna and I on board Sebastian’s ship alongside our tarpaulin-covered equipment.

The stormy weather closed in as the group set sail

No sooner had we set off than the heavens opened and it became apparent that Sebastian’s concerns about the weather and the swell were going to play out.

We weaved our way through the mangroves and islands of Bocas del Toro and headed for the Peninsula Valiente. As we got further offshore, the waves grew steadily and then suddenly the wind changed direction.

Sebastian cursed Gustavo, who was obviously out of earshot, and exclaimed, “This is exactly the wind I wanted to avoid! This journey is going to get real bumpy now!”

The swell continued to grow until it soon dwarfed our 23 foot vessel and the wind picked up. We continued for a further 45 minutes, with the swell ever growing, until each wave was like a three-story building thundering towards the coastline. Sebastian was clearly an incredibly skilled captain but we were all starting to get a little nervous and our backs were sore from the incessant pounding from the hull slapping the waves. Eventually conditions deteriorated to the point that even Sebastian felt uncomfortable. He informed us that we must seek shelter in a local village as it had become too dangerous to make an attempt on the island that day.

Waiting for the storm to blow over in a nearby village

He guided the boat around the next headland and pulled into the nearest village. Luckily for us, they were very accommodating and half of us were taken in by the generous headman of the village and the others sought shelter in the local church. We decided on a plan to try and leave at 6am sharp the following morning, and Sebastian took every opportunity to tell Gustavo not to be late this time.

 

Much to our relief, conditions the following morning were far more favourable (as was Gustavo’s punctuality), and we managed to reach the island by 7:30am. Upon arrival, Sebastian expertly negotiated the boats through the coral reefs and seabird-capped rocky outcrops before turning a corner and revealing a picture perfect view of a white sand beach framed by palm trees with a small wooden shack jutting out over the water. We had arrived at our home for the next nine days.

The camp on Escudo Island

 

After unpacking our supplies and wolfing down a much needed breakfast, we hopped back in the boat and set out on our first hunt for the sloths. We were so excited to finally be on the cusp of seeing one of the most endangered mammals in the world. It turned out that our first survey site was no farther than 200 metres away from camp, inside the next cove.

We didn’t know how many sloths we might expect to see given the perceived rarity of the species, but to our surprise after only ten minutes into our first boat-based survey, Sebastian yelled ‘PERESOZO!’ (sloth in Spanish).

One of the pygmy sloths hiding in a tree

We were thrilled to be in the presence of our first sloth, even though, despite Sebastian’s repeated pointing and repositioning of the boat, none of us could see her. It wasn’t until Sebastian had taken the boat within five metres from the nose of the sloth that we finally saw her huddled under a bromeliad, hiding from the persistent rain that continued to fall.

We spent the rest of day weaving through the small patches of mangrove scattered around the tiny island and saw a total of 15 sloths, each experience as captivating as the first, and quickly forgot about the arduous journey.

Upon arrival back at the hut, we sat down for dinner and set about engineering a plan of action for the next eight days on the island.

To be continued…

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