See Turtles on Mata Oscura Beach

Seeing sea turtles in their natural environment is a truly unique experience. Unfortunately, our time to see them is running out. Sea turtles are struggling to survive, largely due to human neglect of their natural environment. One critical action we must take to increase sea turtle populations is to protect the beaches they nest on. There are seven species of sea turtles in the world and four of them nest in Panama. All four species, (Hawksbill, Leatherback, Olive Ridley and the Green sea turtle) can be seen on Mata Oscura Beach on the Western Azuero Peninsula. Mata Oscura is a wide secluded bay, free of light pollution, noise, and development. These are among the reasons sea turtles still nest here. Female sea turtles will not surface on beaches where there is a lot of human activity. This means preserving the remaining nesting sites is vital for their survival. Jacinto Rodriguez, founder and director of a local NGO, Agua y Tierra, has been documenting the arrival of sea turtles on Playa Mata Oscura for almost 5 years. Highly knowledgeable on marine life, Jacinto has dedicated his life to learning about, and educating others on marine turtle conservation.

I met with Jacinto earlier this year in Santiago to learn about the sea turtles nesting on Mata Oscura.

Starting in June, two species of sea turtle will begin nesting, making it a great time to see turtles in Panama. Olive Ridley sea turtles, the smallest and most common species of sea turtle seen on Mata Oscura, will be nesting from June until November. Hawksbill turtles also head to the shores of Mata Oscura in June, but their nesting period is shorter, lasting only until August.

With the awaited arrivals on the horizon, a new hatchery, or as Jacinto called it, ‘vivero’, will be built on the beach of Mata Oscura.

A vivero (in English greenhouse) is a simple but sterile environment where turtles eggs can be safely kept until hatched (45-65 days later depending on the species). The vivero must be rebuilt in a new location with fresh sand for each nesting period. This is because the bacteria leftover from previously hatched eggs could endanger the new hatchlings.

I asked Jacinto why the eggs needed to be collected at all? If Mata Oscura remained undeveloped, why couldn’t the eggs hatch naturally?  Jacinto explained, while people in Mata Oscura do not poach eggs anymore, other problems persist.

“The turtle eggs deposited on Mata Oscura are not often taken by humans, rather the nests are mostly disturbed by the stray dogs.”

Patrolling the beach nightly, Jacinto, and the volunteers working with Auga y Tierra collect important information about the nesting females, and relocate the nests encountered to the vivero.

“Through identifying and understanding the behaviors and patterns of sea turtles we will be better able to protect them,” explains Jacinto.

Scientific data, including the size and species, the time and date encountered, and the number of eggs laid, is shared among organizations working to conserve turtles and their habitats throughout Panama.   

Agua y Tierra also tags the female turtles that come to nest, helping identify those who return, which is always an exciting occasion.   

Jacinto’s aim is to make the experience of seeing sea turtles accessible to all, for years to come. By reaching the local community, Jacinto has ignited a sense of pride in the natural landscape. This pride drives the community to preserve the natural environment and care for the animals they share it with.

Jacinto explained that Auga y Tierra relies heavily on the local community. They volunteer patrolling the beach, collecting data, and help with fundraising.  

One of the ways the community raises money is through a movie night. The local school is transformed into a cinema for one night, where for only 50 cents, families can come together and watch movies. While the last movie night brought in $55, enough to pay for portable water for the huevero, Agua y Tierra needs more funding and support.

Jacinto shared a few simple and fun ways people can help:

1 - Visit Mata Oscura and learn about sea turtles.
For a small donation of $5, take an educational tour of the Mata Oscura conservation center.  Learn about sea turtle and the mangroves that are being protected in the area. Share this knowledge with your friends and family and encourage them to learn more about the topic themselves.

TIP: If you are going to see turtles it is best to stay for a least one night (between June & December) as most turtle activity occurs at night.

2 – Volunteer with Auga y Tierra
Auga y Tierra is seeking volunteers for nesting season. Volunteers will be expected to patrol the beach nightly, collect data and help with the vivero. The community environmental educational center has accommodation for 12 people in dormitory style bunk beds.  Volunteers are welcome to these accommodations for $10 a night.

3 – Pick up 3
You can help our planet, ocean and turtles by picking up your trash plus 3 more pieces (especially plastics, which sea turtles mistake for food). This one small act will make a big difference!

About to part ways with Jacinto, excited for our next meeting which would be on Mata Oscura, I asked him one final question.

“Why turtles?”

Jacinto’s response stuck with me.  

“When I was a kid I watched people from my town take a giant green turtle from the ocean. The turtle was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. They had hoisted it up on to the bed of a pick up truck, where it was killed and paraded though the town. It’s shell ripped from its back, the meat distributed to the people.”

I understood then that the people needed to eat to survive, but I could never get the image out of my head.”

Jacinto’s work on Mata Oscura is an example of how one person’s actions can bring together a community, and make a difference that echoes globally.

Getting there
Coming from Panama city, take a left before reaching Santiago, Veraguas at the entrance where a sign says “Atalaya” and “Playa Morrillo.” Take a right 3 miles later; there is a sign that says “Playa Morrillo.” Drive for 70km through the towns of Mariato and Torio, when you reach the country of Quebro, you will see a bus stop with a sea turtle and Playa Mata Oscura painted on it make a right to the beach. Signs will lead you to Auga y Tierra and playa Mata Oscura.

For more information on Auga y Tierra, volunteer opportunities, or to donate to the cause email Jacinto at: or visit