New World, part 2 of 3
From:  fieldnotes, "Isla Escudo," January, 25 – February 14, 2005

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A phone booth in Eden

Closing the distance, we begin to make out Long Beach on the west side of Isla Escudo.  A strip of white sand borders a solid wall of green bristling with coconut trees.  Palm-thatched huts grow more distinct, but all appear deserted.  No boats, no people.  Javier skirts West Point to enter calmer waters on the leeside side of the island.  Waves break along a sand spit, and the beach ends abruptly in sheer cliffs rising from the water.  Rounding the next point, he throttles down to navigate a winding channel through the coral shallows.  A regular highway sign, set into the reef, warns of a sharp curve ahead.  It must be a joke, I think, but Javier takes it seriously.  He says people run aground here all the time.

            The channel threads between Booby Cay and the main island, opening into Cotton Bay, a place we come to know as “downtown Escudo.” A dozen cabanas, boat sheds, and stilt houses line the beach, forming a village of sorts where eight Guaymí Indians, the island’s only residents, live year-round.  Javier pulls into his uncle Rogelio’s ranchero, an unusual two-story structure.  As we tie up, a sense of dislocation kicks in when I see a phone booth standing next to a couple of palm-thatched huts.  It could be a scene from the film Mondo Cane, something built by a cargo cult in the New Guinea highlands.  Install a phone booth and maybe someone will call.  “It’s not working,” Javier says matter-of-factly, “but sometimes it does.” 

Rogelio’s fishing crew, we learn, has been anxiously awaiting his arrival from the mainland.  He’s been overdue for two weeks, and they’ve run out of their staple foods, rice and cooking oil.  Javier anticipated this and brought them some food which he will dole out in daily parcels.  “If I give it all at once,” he says, “they eat it.”

            We continue through a maze of blue-water channels on the north side of the island, studded with sea stacks and stumps, each topped with a plug of lush vegetation.  They are remnants of wave-battered headlands.  And waves continually crash against the outliers, sending spray 30-feet high, as great swells roll in from the north.  Brown boobies have set their nests high on the rocks just beyond the reach of the breaking surf.  We will spend much of our time along this coast using an Indian dugout, an inflatable kayak, and the Dorado to explore the island.  Already its stunning beauty has come as a surprise.  I had no idea such a place really exists, a place people only dream about.  This remote island has to be one of the last remnants of the wild Caribbean.

Javier ties up at fisherman’s cabana tucked into a protected cove on Cayo Erik.  White sand, crystal blue water, coconut palms.  Prepared to rough it, we can’t believe our luck.  It has the island’s sole metal roof, which funnels runoff into a water tank.  Jaque sets up the kitchen in the back, and we use the covered porch for sorting equipment.  One flaw comes with the accommodations – termites have weakened the floorboards to a point of collapse, requiring us to cover the weaker spots with gear boxes.  Despite taking precautions, people still break through. 

            Within the first half hour, George has either seen or heard nine out of the ten birds known to live on the island.  He sets his tent off to one side as the rest of us pitch tents or sling hammocks among the coconut trees.  It may not have been the safest choice.  Twice coconuts come zinging out of the trees at night and crash to the ground.  Jeri recalls an article she read, stating more people die each year from falling coconuts than by lightning.  A traveler’s tale, perhaps, but the headline writers would love it:  “National Geographic Explorer Killed by Coconut.”



Before settling into camp, we take the boat into the nearby mangroves to see what we’re up against.  When Jeri scouted the island last fall, she saw only two sloths very high in the trees.  We brought technical climbing gear to reach the highest trees of the canopy expecting a difficult search.  But Javier spots the first sloth within a few minutes – “Perezoso!” 

A moment later we see another clinging to an adjacent tree and another next to it.  An entire welcoming committee is awaiting our arrival in this small clump of mangroves.  I count nine of them; the Panamanians see eleven.  And the search has just begun. 

Bill climbs out of the boat with camera in hand.  The rest of us keep still, afraid of startling the wild animal.  He works in close for a shot, climbing the branches, while everyone on the boat keeps silent.  And then the sloth does the unexpected.  It slowly shuts its eyes and falls asleep, much like a scared child trying to make it all go away.  “Wake up,” Bill tells it, “wake up!”  At what must be the most traumatic moment of its life, the sloth has dozed off. 

“Finding nine sloths within 50 feet is incredible,” George says.  “As a back of the envelope calculation, their density may be 100 times greater than the mainland in a habitat that should be marginal.  It doesn’t make sense.  It’s mind-boggling.”  Previous researchers thought the pygmy sloths were confined to the red mangroves, a poor habitat.  “The last place I’d expect them to be,” he adds, “would be in the mangroves.”
Waiting in the boat, Javier mentions the presence of orcas off the coast.  But he has no inclination to go beyond the reefs to look for them.  This is the season of big swells and sudden storms, a time when fishermen from the mainland avoid the island.  “No, it’s too rough,” he tells me.  “You go out there, you cry until you die.  Now, we look at sloths.” 

Next day we return to the same patch of trees and find a large boa stretched across a limb but no sloths.  Scientists believe the island sloths have no natural predators, but the boa seems a likely candidate.  When it arrived in the mangroves, they seem to have cleared out to avoid the danger.  “Maybe the crocodiles eat them too,” Javier says.

            Most days we go slothing by boat, and one morning we spot a half dozen of them among the mangroves.  It’s the boys club with at least four identifiable males.  Bill and Jeri go into action, slipping over the bow with their cameras.  We hear a high-pitched cry farther off, possibly a female signaling her readiness to mate.

Jeri returns to the boat and grabs her climbing gear.  She has located a sloth up a tall tree and wants to get a closer look.  The stilt roots spread out from the base like tentacles, rising in loops above the water and tangling with those of other trees.  After negotiating the mangrove maze, she reaches the trunk and tosses a weighted cord over the lowest limb.  She pulls up a climbing rope, hooks on her Jumars, and ascends.  After filming, Jeri rubs the sloth’s back and watches as it smacks its lips and blinks contentedly.

Nearby, Hatcher photographs the typical orange patch on the back of a male who hides his face against a tree trunk.  Males tend to be more active than females, and this one decides to make a break – a decision it has probably been contemplating since we arrived.  The sloth climbs along the underside of a thin limb, hand over hand.  “This guy,” Bill says, “moves fast.”  For a sloth, that is. 

It crosses to another tree, forcing Bill to drop into the swamp to keep up.  When the mud sucks off his sandals, he leaves them behind.  The sloth reaches a third tree on the edge of the mangroves and finds itself cornered.  Barefoot, Bill climbs after it, ignoring the cuts on his feet.  From a branch almost too thin to support its weight, the sloth grabs a liana and makes a half-hearted effort to climb the vine.  With nowhere to go, it stalls and soon arrives at a sloth’s usual solution to a crisis – sleep.  With a camera lens inches from its face the sloth dozes off, apparently resigned to its fate. 

Sloths sleep most of their lives, 18 to 20 hours a day.  Even in a crisis they have difficulty staying awake.  They occasionally emerge into wakefulness before slipping back to the dream world, their natural state.  The island itself has a dreamlike quality, and the quiet presence of the sloth reflects the spirit of the place.  In the distance, another sloth sits high in a tree, swaying in the wind.

Balancing on the roots, I work back to the boat and notice a sloth tucked into a furry ball nearby.  Hairs bristle from the inert form giving its coat a coarse appearance.  Curious, I pull down the branch with one hand and reach out the other.  To my surprise, the fur is soft to the touch and holds the warmth of the sun.
Dr. Charles Handley, the scientist who identified the Escudo sloth as a separate species, referred to them in the field as “the monk sloths.”  They have a light tan face with a distinct black mask across the eyes and an unusual fringe of hair above the forehead resembling a monk’s cowl.  The sloths also have a meditative air about them, sitting in repose, curled into a ball in the branches of the mangroves, or hugging the trunk as if it were its mother. 

In a paper, Robert Anderson and Handley make a connection between the size of a sloth and the age of an island.  The older the island, the smaller the sloth.  Handley observed this on four different islands in the Bocas area, calling it a case of parallel evolution.  When rain keeps us in camp one afternoon, I think about the islands we passed on our way to Escudo.  The role they play in evolution must be extremely important.  Over time islands come and go with fluctuations in sea level and tectonic movements.  Isolated from the mainland, they grow new lifeforms, only to release them back into the mix the next time a land bridge forms.

            Bill and Jeri return from a tree climb late the next day.  “We found an inland sloth,” Bill says, “on a ridge 150 feet above the water.  We rigged the ropes and climbed the tree next to it.  We were looking for sloths at the time.”

            “We’re always looking for sloths,” Jeri adds.

To climb larger trees requires using The Big Shot, an oversize slingshot mounted on an extension pole about eight-feet long.  It takes strength to pull the bands back and fire it with accuracy, but a good shooter can place a throw bag over a limb high off the ground.  On one tree, Bill used it to rig a rope on a limb below a sloth, and Jeri ascended 50 feet, close enough to film the animal.  They left the rope and returned the next day to find the sloth long gone.  Ropes are eventually set in seven trees with half of them containing sloths. 

            It’s raining hard when we take the boat out, and soon find a very wet sloth with matted fur, hugging a tree.  “I want to get a shot of a wet sloth,” Bill says us.  With water reaching to his armpits, he maneuvers through the mangrove roots stalking it.  After observing them for days, he knows sloths have a good sense of hearing but poor eyesight, and uses this to his advantage.  “When its head is turned,” he says, “I take two or three steps, then freeze.  It’s a child’s game of red light – green light.”

            Back at camp Jeri makes no effort to hide her enthusiasm for sloths.  “My life changed,” she says, “when I met my first sloth.”  She tells George about having dreamed of giving birth to a sloth, and he shakes his head.  “This is clinical,” he says, “definitely clinical!”

Next morning we spot a female sloth in a clump of mangroves a boat-length from camp, almost as if it has come to pay us a visit.  It must have crossed a narrow channel to get here.  From the start we knew our chances of seeing a swimming sloth were slim, but now one has fallen into our laps.  Without having to leave camp, Bill and Jeri stake out the spot hoping to catch the sloth as it swims back. 

George and I return to camp at noon from a trip inland.  A few minutes later, and without encouragement, the sloth begins to move.  She works her way to the end of a root above the water and stops, looking things over.  Bill and Jeri have their cameras positioned at the most likely crossing.  The rest of us line up on the edge of camp to watch, careful not to frighten it.  The sloth backs down the root slowly, hesitantly.  She eases her rear end into the water and changes her mind, reversing course for a moment before returning for another try.  This time she reaches out an arm and draws it back a couple of times, appearing to splash a little water on herself to get use to the temperature.  We stand sloth-still, silently encouraging her to go for it. 

The sloth slips into the water and makes tentative swimming motions, first with one arm and then with both.  Continuing to hold on with her feet, she goes through the motions of swimming but without getting anywhere.  It’s like a child learning to swim, drawn between wanting to hold on and wanting to let go.  The life of a sloth is designed to avoid excitement, but for those of us watching it’s a moment of high drama.  Suddenly she releases her grip and begins to swim. 

With her head held high out of the water, she angles against the slight current and sloth-paddles across – heading directly toward Bill.  He’s shooting half in the water and half out with a camera mounted in an underwater housing.  He quickly side-steps to let her pass.  She reaches land, digs her long claws into the mud, and climbs the bank. 

“That sloth is smart!” says Javier, who has been watching with binoculars.  “No es pendejo.”

We are witnessing something new, something never reported before.  The Indians, of course, have seen sloths swim, but the experts had not observed this behavior.  They attributed this to an aversion to salt water or wave action.  Contrary to these reports, we have now seen a pygmy sloth swimming in salt water.  

I suspect the sloth was reluctant to swim because they are so vulnerable when in the water.  Moving into the open would draw the attention of a predator, and sloths avoid predation by staying hidden.  They blend into the forest, making it difficult to distinguish them from a wasp or termite nest.  Algae growing in their fur also helps to camouflage them.  And when they move, they move with agonizing slowness.  “Every movement is deliberate,” says Jeri.  “They even blink slowly.”

  We find dozens of pygmy sloths during our stay on the island.  Most hang out in the mangroves, but we spot a number of them inland using different trees.  While harder to see in the heavier foliage, the sloths probably inhabit the entire island.  We often climb into the mangroves to observe them close-up and twice discover babies clinging to their mothers.  These tiny sloths blend perfectly with the mother’s fur.  Unless they move, I am unable to see them.


The island

            The island, I discover, has a rugged edge to it.  Dangerous reefs ring it, and mangrove swamps form a second line of defense.  The island bedrock consists of a bluish-gray siltstone, slick when wet.  Steep ravines slice into it, covered by a thin coat of extremely slippery mud and topped by an even slicker layer of wet leaves.  Then there are the ankle-grabbing vines and the eyelash vipers hanging on limbs at carotid-artery level.  We learn to move slowly, poquito a poquito, and take it on its own terms. 

Going inland, we usually recruit one of the Indians to cut a passage with a machete along known trails.  It’s not a place where you take shortcuts.  I try my hand at swinging one, but never graduate from a hacking chop to a clean cut.  “The most dangerous thing in the jungle,” George says, “is a gringo with a machete.”

            I join him on an exploratory trip inland.  He has arranged with Paulino Baker, a fisherman who has lived on the island for eleven years, to guide him.  Using the dugout we paddle through a mangrove swamp, dragging the boat over a submerged log.  It appears to have been placed here as a barrier to keep heavier boats from entering.  We tie up the cayuco and slog through the swamp to higher land.  Paulino clears an old trail with swinging cuts and takes us past the site of a finca, or farm, he built ten years ago.  All that remains is a mound of decomposing palms sinking back into the forest matrix.  No one currently farms the island.

Where the trail follows a ridge George stops to gather plants, making some of the first botanical collection from the island.  Paulino disappears, and a few minutes later rejoins us with a two-foot section of sugarcane.  For the next ten minutes I watch him devour it – gobbling, chewing, and slurping.  He works at it feverishly, pukes once without missing a beat, and gobbles some more in an astonishingly feral display of eating.  “Yo tengo hambre,” he tells me.  And I hand him a granola bar to top it off.

For me, everything in the forest is new and unsorted.  I begin the process of putting names to things, the way a child learns the world, and before leaving the island find myself speaking a biological pidgin – a combination of common names and scientific, a few Spanish words and some Guari-Guari, itself a Creole dialect from Bocas.

The three of us stop at an old clearing and notice a cluster of heliconia flowers, bright red and fleshy.  As we stand there, two Escudo hummingbirds buzz in, feeding off the nectar.  When George recognized these flowers on our first excursion into the jungle he was surprised.  On the mainland they are thought to have coevolved with a hummingbird whose curved beak allows it to reach into the curving throat of the flower.  But the local hummingbird has found a way to do it with a straight beak. 

And the hummer is 50 percent larger than its nearest relative on the mainland, the one I’ve seen at restaurant feeders in Bocas.  On the other hand, the pygmy sloth has decreased 40 percent in mass.  “It’s the Rule of Islands,” George says.  “Generally, if an animal is bigger than a rabbit it gets smaller; if it’s smaller than a rabbit it gets bigger.  No one knows exactly why, but a number of papers have been written on it.”

            Other stark differences exist between two of the world’s newest species – the speed, flash, and aggressiveness of the hummingbird verses the stillness, the ability to submerge itself in the background, and the acute passiveness of the sloth. 

On our return George spots a lizard known as the jungle runner.  It’s fast.  Paulino tries to catch it but only comes up with the tail.  Later he spots one of the armored rats reported to be on the island, but it gets away before we see it.  We have also heard rumors of a boa as big around as the trunk of a palm tree, but George is skeptical.  The ones we’ve seen have been much smaller.  By the time we reach the dugout, the tide has dropped, leaving the heavy cayuco stranded.  The three of us struggle to free it from the mud, shoving and pushing until we break the suction.  Back in the boat we slip through the swamp, working the heavy paddles. 
In this region the Indians carve the handles in the shape of a cat’s head with the space between the ears providing a good grip.  The dugouts come from the mainland.  A tree is cut and left to season for a month to “let the water run out,” Javier says.  “Then it takes three months to cut out with an ax.  A chainsaw, one month.”

The next afternoon I take the inflatable and head around a corner of the cayo toward a reef.  Suddenly a fish breaks the surface and runs – actually runs – across the water.  In a nearly upright position and working its tailfins like mad, it covers a distance of 12 feet before dropping back into the water.  Jesus lizards – the ones that run across water – hang around camp, but I’ve never heard of a Jesus fish.  Leaving the inlet, I move cautiously as the wind begins combing the water.

Waves crash dramatically on each side of a sea stack ahead, the last outlier before the open sea.  A salt mist hangs over the rock, rising 50 feet above the water.  Tropical foliage covers all but the lower surf-churned base.  I move slowly toward it, testing the currents.  An eddy has formed behind the rock, allowing me to work between the waves and reach a shallow sea cave.  Dragging the boat from the water, I sit in a protected pocket as the breakers sweep in on each side.

Returning to camp I spook a great blue heron from the shallows.  It swoops to an outlying rock, but a moment before setting down it makes a sudden half-loop and reverses direction, having almost landed on a nesting brown booby.  Back at camp, eyebrows are raised when I relate the Jesus fish incident.  But Javier confirms the fish does exist and knows it by a local name. 

Next day we all pile into the Dorado to explore the island.  It takes more than an hour to circumnavigate it, puttering through the reefs.  What we see is stunning.  Waves crashing along the fringing reefs and spray flying high in the air, wave-cut arches, the inlets a pale cerulean blue, hidden coves with coconut palms growing from white sand beaches, palm-thatched cabanas standing deserted until the next fishing season, the jungle spilling into the waters.  We find Macario Baker and his son fishing for bait offshore, a small dugout in a big sea.  In calm weather he sails it across to the mainland.  Before returning to camp, we land to let Arcadio climb a coconut tree and kick some down for dinner. 

“The essential characteristic of this island,” George says that evening, “is extinction.  On the mainland you have hundreds of species of birds and dozens of species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Here you are down to ten species of birds, nine species of mammals, and just a handful of species of reptiles and amphibians.  So the diversity is low, but the uniqueness is enormous.  That’s the value of small islands.” [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:

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