New World

From:  fieldnotes, "Isla Escudo," January, 25 – February 14, 2005

Arriving in Panama we head for Isla Escudo de Veraguas to search for pygmy sloths.  No footage or photographs of this species, described by scientists only a few years ago, have been published.  Jeri Ledbetter has organized the trip as a documentary film project with photographer Bill Hatcher serving as her mentor.  Jeri’s sister Jaque, a geologist, will run the base camp.  Our expedition scientist, Dr. George Angehr, has lived in Panama for many years but has never been to the island.  “On Escudo,” he says, “you can see the newest species on the planet.”


A plane carries us from the Pacific side of Panama to Bocas del Toro, a scattering of islands on the Caribbean.  Here the roads, if any, come as an afterthought.  People live on the water, make their living from the sea, and travel by boat. 

We base out of Las Brisas, an old ramshackle hotel, hanging over the water with boat slips on each side.  A high-ceiling breezeway extends from dock to street, allowing any stray fisherman to tie up and walk through the hotel to reach town.  It also lets us load gear directly from the rooms onto a boat.  The hotel has the grainy atmosphere of a Humphrey Bogart movie, the kind of place where you find yourself in the middle of a plot about to unfold. 


click thumbnails to see larger images


Bocas is an old banana company town now reinventing itself as a surf and snorkel resort.  Lots of backpacks and surfboards on the street, Bermuda shorts and white socks at the upscale hotels.  Only two of these have appeared on the waterfront so far, both small and unobtrusive, but everyone talks about the coming boom.  Throughout town, rusty tin roofs cover old board houses brightly painted in tropical yellows, greens, and blues. 

The main street runs straight from the ferry for seven or eight blocks to a blind curve and the town’s only stop sign.  No one pays attention to it.  On the outskirts of town the road becomes a craterfield where cars and taxis, bikes and walkers weave in and out, dodging mudholes and each other.  Beyond the last houses everything comes alive, life living on life, green on green.  Even the fences sprout leaves.

I find myself in a rain-saturated land where jungle green spills into Caribbean blue, where a single leaf can be bigger than a man, and where even a botanist becomes lost in the profusion.  Shoes get soggy and collect mud, so I soon learn not to wear them.  Long pants need to be rolled up.  Rain is the natural state of affairs, and only in a torrential downpour do people bother with an umbrella or a head stuck through a garbage bag.  Where I live rain is measured in sporadic inches; in Panama it’s measured in meters.  We are fortunate, the locals tell us, to have hit the dry season.  Unfortunately, it only lasts twelve hours.

My last morning in Bocas finds me out at dawn when the black vultures lay claim to the first hour of day.  A lone fisherman walks among them as they drop down from the wires and rooftops to sweep the streets.  It’s not yet full light when I hear music coming from the plaza.  A pack of young men, too tired to be rowdy but giving it one last try, crowd around a cantina on wheels.  They have been up all night drinking and sense it’s about to end.  The bartender, waiting patiently, leans against the counter reading a bible by the light of a single candle.  When I pass by on my return, sunlight has broken the spell.  The men have dispersed, the vultures have cleared out, while in a church nearby the congregation sings a calypso version of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
It’s Sunday morning in Bocas.

The crossing

            A mound of gear grows on the dock as we lug dry bags and camera boxes out to the boat.  Our guide Javier Smith has pulled in with a 27-foot, fiberglass Dorado powered by a 40 hp outboard.  Dressed for the occasion, he wears sunglasses and a luau shirt decorated with palm trees swaying in the breeze.  He has brought along a friend, Arcadio Pablo, to help run the boat and leaves him to supervise the loading.  A California surfer stretches out in the hotel hammock nearby, while another drinks coffee with a blank stare and two Panamanians wax their boards, waiting for a boat to pick them up.  The waves have been building over the past few days – good news for them, not so good for us.  A lot of water separates Bocas from the remote Isla Escudo where we will spend the next eleven days.

Crossing sixty miles of sea in an open boat, we follow a chain of islands and retrace the path of evolution.  Our route progresses from the most recently-formed islands to Escudo, the oldest.  Scientists have documented increasing degrees of change in various species the longer they have been isolated from the mainland.  Slight variations occur on the younger islands and grow increasingly more pronounced until the line is crossed at Escudo and new species come into play.  On the island, four endemic species and numerous subspecies have been identified by experts in three separate fields.  The pygmy sloth is one of these, and all four species have emerged within the remarkably short period of 9,000 years.  That’s when the island became cut off from the mainland as melting glaciers caused the sea level to rise, and evolution took its course. 

Our route coincides with the one taken by Columbus in 1502 on his last voyage to the New World.  Coasting south in search of gold, he discovered an island and named it El Escudo for its resemblance to a shield.  Our crossing to the island becomes a journey to another new world.

Several hours out, the boat rides the heavy swells off the Valiente Peninsula where Javier grew up in one of the fishing villages dotting the coast.  A drenching salt spray blows across the gunnels each time the Dorado hits a wave.  We had our first hint of having picked a stormy season on the flight to Panama.  The guys sitting next to me were professional surfers heading to Bocas for a big-wave photo shoot. 

“Have you ever been caught in a storm on the way to Escudo,” I ask Javier.

“Sure, mon.  It beat me bad!  I take a lucky chance and make it through."  Remembering another episode, he adds, "Never go to Escudo at night.  The wind take you out to sea.”

As the boat tops the crest of a swell, the island appears for the first time as a dark bulge on the horizon.  It has the shape of a plate turned upside down and is a small island, only two miles long by one wide.  Destinations tend to be arbitrary on land, but at sea landfall becomes a solid reality, an unchanging point on the horizon in a world of heaving waves.  [to be continued...]



The Panamanian expedition was backed by an exploration grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council with logistical aid and encouragement from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.   

See Bill Hatcher's photograph of a swimming pygmy sloth in National Geographic, March, 2006.  For information on Jeri Ledbetter's film and clips go to: