There are 4 species of sea turtles that nest on the coast of Panama. These are the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta).
The hawksbill has always been common here and the Bocas del Toro coast has been one of the most important nesting grounds for this species in the western hemisphere. 40 years ago hawksbill turtles were aplenty in the waters off Panama, but today there are many fewer. Green turtles, which feed on offshore sea grass fields, were also much more common in the past.
Turtle eggs have been harvested in excess and turtles have been killed for meat and their shell. No figure exists of the maximum size of turtle population in the past, so researching the current nesting turtles has been the first step in developing conservation plans.
Adult marine turtles, both male and female, often travel far from their feeding areas to mate and nest. Female turtles lay their eggs at night on sandy beaches accessible from deep water.The females haul themselves up the sand and lay their eggs well above high tide mark. The female digs a nest by scooping out a hole with her fins. The hole is deep, around 45-80 cm deep and she then lays her eggs in the hole. She then covers the eggs with sand in an attempt to hide the nest. The eggs are hatched by the heat from the sun incubating them. Strangely the temperature of the nest dictates the sex of the baby turtles ( above 29C and they are female, less than 29C and they are male).
The baby turtles all hatch from any one nest nest at about the same time, they dig themselves up to the surface of the sand, then head down the beach to the sea. They are vulnerable to the sun, birds and crabs as they race down the beach. When they get to the water they make for deep water, where they have a greater chance of survival.
Marine turtles can survive until they are 75 years old. They do not reach sexual maturity until they are 30 years old. It therefore takes many years to re-build a low turtle population.
Within Panama there many suitable turtle habitats - lagoons, mangroves, estuaries, coral reefs, ocean coastal waters, and sandy beaches.
The Hawksbill Turtle(Eretmochelys imbricata)
During the mating season between the months of May and September mating can be observes on isolated beaches. The beaches of Bastimentos and Zapatilla Cay are the beaches the Hawksbill turtles use for nesting. Between September and March you can often spot the baby turtles swimming among the underwater plants
The Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
This turtle is a herbivore and can be found among the sea grass pastures. The Green Turtle has a round, flat snout and serrated jaw which allow it to feed on these grasses. Its chestnut colored shell is between between 90-110 cm in length. Adults weigh less than 230 kg
Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta)
Named because of its large wide head, the Loggerhead has a chestnut colored shell, which is often encrusted with shellfish. A strong jawbone enables it to break open and eat conch, clams, and crabs, and it will eat jellyfish and seaweed if needs must. Adults reach up to 120 cm and weigh up to 200 kg. It is not known which beaches in the Bocas del Toro it uses for nesting sites.
.Leatherback Turtle(Dermochelys coriacea)
This turtle can be seem between March and June along the beaches of Bluff and Bastimentos. This is the largest of the marine turtles. A mature female averages 150 cm in length and weighs around one half a ton. Females lay eggs about 9 times during their 4 month gestation period, with 10 days roughly been nest making. Each nest averages 82 fertile eggs and 30 non-fertile ones. The eggs hatch after 50-70 days The Leatherback eats plankton and jellyfish.