In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

I found a sloth! I found a sloth!

We knew they were here. Our marina in Panama, called Shelter Bay, sits on the edge of a 14,000-acre swathe of jungle called the San Lorenzo National Park. The dense green tangle is home to exotic birds, capuchin and howler monkeys, sloths, jaguars, ocelots, boas, crocodiles, coatimundis and more. Still visible, but rapidly being overgrown, are the ruins of Fort Sherman, a U.S. military base built in 1912 to defend the Canal. Now vines run rampant through the broken windows of abandoned structures and over the battlement walls.

The marina and adjoining boatyard represent an oasis of civilization in this wild terrain. The marina began operations in 2005 and provides a free daily shuttle bus to Colon, the main city on the other side of the Canal. It’s a 40-minute drive, longer if the bus must wait for ship traffic to enter the locks and the gates to close so it can pass over. Without that access to groceries and other supplies, Shelter Bay would be completely cut off and untenable.

Why even build a marina in such a remote locale? Forty years ago, when we transited the Canal on Duprass, we and all the other cruising boats pulled in to the Panama Canal Yacht Club on outskirts of Colon. It was a fun gathering place, and I remember reveling in the hot showers. You wouldn’t think anyone would crave a hot shower in steamy Panama, but after months of shivery cold showers throughout the rest of the Caribbean, running hot water at the turn of a tap was a miracle. To this day I regard it as one of humankind’s greatest inventions. Hallelujah!

The yacht club was also highly convenient to the city, so when studying our options for Panama this time around, it was a surprise to learn the facility had disappeared. It seems the Panama Ports Company, which rented the land to the club, wanted the land back for a container port. Claiming the club’s lease had expired, they got a court order condemning the property and immediately locked the gates and barred access to employees and cruisers. Then they rolled in bulldozers and backhoes. The site was demolished before the yacht club could lift a finger, leaving the people there in a state of shock.

So for sailors, Shelter Bay is a welcome refuge, and it may not be isolated much longer. When the new bridge now under construction at this end of the Canal is completed in a year or two, the entire area will be open to development. I’m not optimistic when I picture what could happen here.

Meanwhile, the world at our doorstep is still gloriously wild and verdant and looped with old roads and trails. I’ve already seen the nimble black-and-white capuchins, the “organ grinder” monkey of movies and TV. They appear friendly and playful, but don’t get too close. Startle or upset them and like any wild animal they can become aggressive, bite, and cause serious injuries.

I’ve also seen and heard the howlers. Mostly black with russet sides, they are about two feet long, plus another two feet of prehensile tail. Their menacing territorial cry carries for up to three miles and is variously described as “a gregorian chant,” “a whooping bark,” and a “roar.” I personally would vote for “a throaty growl” or “an ominous bellow.” The closer they get, the louder the sound, and when the whole troop joins in, it resembles a chorus of agitated gorillas. Even in broad daylight on a guided nature walk, it’s intimidating. If you were alone in the jungle at night, it would spook you right out of your hiking boots. Check out this video:

As for birds, Panama counts over 900 species of feathered creatures, and San Lorenzo in particular is a birdwatcher’s dream. The names alone are enticing, and so far I’ve identified a dozen lifers, including both crested and chestnut-headed oropendolas, a chestnut-mandibled toucan, a cocoa woodcreeper, and a masked tityra. Trogons have been heard but have yet to reveal themselves. Many of the birds are tiny, no more than four or five inches long. They dart quickly from one thick patch of leaves to another, teasing you along with little squeaks and chirps, but keeping themselves hidden from predators.

A rufous-tailed hummingbird on her nest

So there I was out birding when a roundish gray lump in a bare tree caught my eye. Thinking it might be some kind of termite nest or beehive, I raised my binoculars and brought them into focus…A sloth! I found a sloth! It was wrapped around an upright branch near the top of the tree, about thirty feet above the ground. Medium gray in color, head buried in its arms, its long yellow claws were just visible beneath its shaggy hair. Eschewing the cool shade elsewhere, it seemed to have chosen that spot to bask in the full sun under a bright blue sky. It didn’t look up or move a an inch during the ten minutes I craned my neck to observe it.

Was it asleep or daydreaming? Was it lonely or blissfully content on its lofty perch? Did it know I was there? Hugging the tree branch, it looked as if it might welcome being hugged in turn. I know, I know—you shouldn’t  anthropomorphize. Too bad. Besides being fun, I think anthropomorphizing makes us more compassionate toward our fellow creatures and less likely to abuse and exploit them. I also think it’s inevitable. How else can any animal evaluate and react to another but from its own emotional catalog, its own species-centric comprehension of the world?

My first act on returning to the boat—well, my second act after exclaiming to Eric, “I found a sloth! I found a sloth!”—was to hit the Internet for information about these fascinating creatures. Worldwide, there are six sloth species and Panama hosts three of them. With its face covered, I wasn’t sure at first which type I saw. But on a second visit to the same tree three days later, there was my pal. This time, its face was up, displaying a raccoon-like mask, which makes it a three-toed sloth.

As I watched, the sloth peered around and leisurely scratched various body parts. A sloth’s diet consists primarily of leaves, and they can live for 25-30 years. Though slow on the ground, they are perfectly at home in the trees and come down only once a week to defecate. Several days later, another sloth was spotted in a different location, and this time it was a mom with a baby. She moved around the upper branches of the tree, gracefully and in no particular hurry, the little one clinging to her chest. A group of us watched from below, transfixed, and Eric scored these photos.

Corroboree will be berthed at Shelter Bay until the end of March when we transit the Canal. Already it is one of my favorite stops. Though I’m not sure I want to encounter an ocelot or boa close up, I do hope to meet more sloths, learn about the flora and fauna, and ID dozens of life birds.

Thank you, Nature, for your richness. My cup brimmeth over.