Bocas del Toro

Chapter 5: Unexpected Private Island Inhabitants

Theme Song: “Octopus’s Garden,” The Beatles

Robert Louis Stevenson introduced us to treasure maps marked with an X, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen in his classic novel Treasure Island in 1883. What is it about islands that fascinates us and awakens our imaginations?

When I first purchased a 97-acre island in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, I was relieved to hear there were no snakes. We had already spotted stingrays, dolphins, starfish, and tarpon from our over-the-water house on stilts, but I was intrigued by what might be living on the land.

One day a native man with a weathered face and a big smile paddled up to our dock in a hand-carved canoe. The bottom of his canoe was loaded with lobsters and crabs the size of a nerf football. He harvested these seafood delicacies a short distance from our island. After a bit of conversation, he offered to deliver lobsters to us every day once our restaurant opens, and we agreed to take him up on it.

We asked about local animals living on our island. He didn’t think there were any. My hopes were dashed, but not for long.

I was back in Michigan braving the winter when I received a text from a friend in Panama. It simply said, “We have an inhabitant on our island.” “What kind of inhabitant?” I asked. The response was simple and to the point, “A sloth.” I was a bit dazed, confused, and elated! Impossible—how did a sloth get to the island? Regardless, we have our very own sloth!

A Three Toed Sloth in the Wild

As it turns out sloths are very good swimmers. They are faster in water than on land. This one and two others on the island are three-toed sloths. We rarely see them because they hang out deep in the jungle, move very little, and blend in with the trees.

I learned some interesting things about sloths. They spend half of their lives hanging upside down in trees. The grooved hairs of their shaggy coat are coated with green algae, which helps to camouflage them in trees. There is an ancient, extinct species the size of an elephant called the marine sloth that lived in South America. That might explain why they are such good swimmers.

A Sloth Swimming Near a Mangrove

The goal for our next Panama trip was to develop a plan for beautifying the grounds on our wet mangrove island. No one wants to spend their luxury vacation in a swamp. In preparation, Scott the general manager, Virgilio the builder, and I decided to visit a Bocas Del Toro botanical garden to get inspired. The garden was laden with varieties of towering trees, tropical flowers, and impressive stands of bamboo. The fact that a massive tree that might take 100 years to grow in Michigan where I am from takes only ten years to grow in Panama is mind boggling. We concluded that it would not take long to turn our mangrove swamp into an island paradise.

There were also several types of fruit-bearing trees in the botanical garden. Since I had never tried a jack fruit, Virgilio decided to climb a tree and get me one.

Virgilio Retrieving a Jack Fruit

The same day we took a boat over to our island. Seen through the lens of a botanical garden, our damp, spongy island came alive with color and character. The dark pools of murky, stagnant water became ponds teaming with life. The seemingly unattractive landscape became a garden paradise.

We found a two-acre area on the island that seems just right for a botanical garden. We have a blank slate, so we can theoretically create anything we want. Our wish list includes a large koi pond with a romantic sitting area, flowers that attract birds and butterflies, Balinese statues, a small waterfall, Balinese lights hanging in the trees, and many types of trees.

We were walking along a path dreaming about “what-could-be” when I spotted something that looked like a cat, but much larger. Virgilio shouted, “It’s a tigre.” After a quick search on the internet, Virgilio found what we had seen: an ocelot, a smaller member of the leopard family.

A Mature Ocelot – Males Can Reach Up to 34 Pounds

I was perplexed again because it didn’t make sense to me that an ocelot could survive on a mangrove island. Sure enough, after doing some research online, I found that mangrove forests are one of the ocelot’s four favorite habitats, in addition to dense tropical forests, savannah grasslands, and marshes. Its worldwide population is estimated to be more than 40,000 and is considered stable. Its fur was once regarded as particularly valuable, but legal trade ceased decades ago. They use their sharp vision and hearing to hunt rabbits, baby peccaries, young deer, rodents, iguanas, frogs, fish, monkeys, sloths, and birds. The part about sloths makes me a little nervous.

We didn’t find any gold doubloons or buried treasure on our island, but it felt like we did. I am convinced that sloths and ocelots are the only inhabitants on the island—until we find more.

Can you recall a time in your life when you had a pleasant surprise? What else do you think we might find on the island? 

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20 responses to “Chapter 5: Unexpected Private Island Inhabitants”

  1. Nigel says:

    You didn’t find buried treasure – you found living treasure, so much more valuable! So cool. Seems to me to support a ocelot there must be more food than you’ve seen so far – otherwise the sloths might be in danger. While the claws might help, being asleep most of the time won’t!

    Ocelots are one of my favorite wild cats – a small cat, but still an impressive animal.

    Here’s to finding many more treasures; fauna, flora and who knows pirate!

    • Nigel says:

      Teen son just responded to this (huge animal lover) – he’s offering voluntary labor on the island just to get to see the cat(s) in the wild!

      • Dan Behm says:

        Love it! I will make sure to include information on interesting birds, etc. that we see on the island in future posts.

    • Dan Behm says:

      Yes, I am a little nervous about the safety of the sloth.

      Since both the sloth and ocelot can swim, I am hoping they do not leave the island once it gets busy with humans. I am guessing that they like the fact that they have the island to themselves right now.

      • Nigel says:

        Indeed – of course it depends how you occupy the island, and the kind of people that come. But at only shy of 100 acres there’s not that much room to move. How far is the nearest unoccupied/unihabitable island for them to swim to?

        • Dan Behm says:

          There are a number of small uninhabited islands close by.

          • Nigel says:

            So you might have to build a wildlife sanctuary on the next island (tours by boat around only – no humans on the island) … depends what clientele you are aiming for … especially if there were reasons that island could not realistically be developed 😉

            See I can turn any simple project into a complex one!

  2. Dan Behm says:

    Great idea! I wouldn’t have thought of that! If they leave our island we will need to track them down:).

  3. Marny says:

    I just read yesterday (! – who would think that “sloth” would come up twice in a 24 hour period) that sloths can hold their breath longer than dolphins. Dolphins need to come up for air after 10 minutes, but a swimming sloth can hold its breath for up to 40 minutes! Apparently they can slow their heart rate at will, reducing the need for fresh oxygen. Who knew!
    And I love the idea of a botanical garden. Just be careful about bamboo. It spreads like crazy and becomes like a weed that you can’t get rid of.

    • Dan Behm says:

      Hi Marny!

      Holding their breath for 40 minutes – that is amazing!! Thanks for sharing.

      We do plan to have some bamboo, but I know exactly what you are talking about. It grows incredibly fast and can become a nuisance.

      I really appreciate you contributing to the blog!

  4. Dave Vander Meiden says:

    I hadn’t heard about the ocelot before this post. Now that make things very interesting!

    In answer to your question, one pleasant surprise I had in my life was at age 4 when my first nephew was born. You may or may not know that when you have a nephew that is only 4 years different in age it’s just like having another brother. And that’s way cool! 🙂

    • Dan Behm says:

      Hello Dave, I agree with you you – things continue to get more and more interesting. More to come in future blogs.

      One of my pleasant surprises was having my uncle (my mom’s brother) spend two weeks with me recently in Bali Indonesia. What a coincidence – he is only four years older than me. We had a blast!

  5. Dorothy Meyers says:

    Hi Dan & Dave, Since I am a cat lover, I too was excited to hear about the sighting of an ocelot.

    One blessing I received was watching my Son Dan and Brother Dave become like brothers as they grew into adulthood. I’m glad that you finally shared your adventure together in Bali.

    The botanical garden sounds like it would be a wonderful addition to the Island! I’m looking forward to knowing what birds make their home on the island.

    • Dan Behm says:

      Hi Mom! hopefully you will be one of the first visitors to the island when the resort is complete and can see the many birds!

  6. Cassie Lambert says:

    Animals on the island is amazing! We recently went on Safari and loved seeing the wildlife in their natural habitat! You could do small guided walks to see the wildlife similar to the walking Safari’s in Africa. It’s quiet and careful so you don’t spook the animals.

    • Dan Behm says:

      I agree with you Cassle. The part that might be realistic is bringing our guests on a short hike to spot the sloth. Thank you for participating in the blog.

  7. Dan Behm says:

    Our builder saw a rabbit on the island this week!

  8. Tyler Pratt says:

    In research of your Fly Fishing potential….

    The area of Bocas Del Toro is fairly young in it’s fly fishing maturity. There are a few outfitters and guides that host seasonal trips. Because of the large influx of fresh water into the sea, you will get a diverse range of aquatic life.
    As for targeted sport fish, the prime time will be September and October when mature, aggressive, migrating tarpon can be found 40 – 200lbs, with most around 50-80lbs. There are also Snook, Bonefish, Permit and Spanish Mackerel that can be found in near-by bays year round. Immature, resident tarpon from 10 – 30lbs can also be found in the bays year-round.
    Most fishing guides will use a boat to find these fish on any given day, and use an elevated platform to spot the fish, and sight cast to the perfect spot. I can attest, this is a riot and a great way to see natures beauty in any area.

    Hopefully, my two-cents can create a memorable day for visitors.

    • Dan Behm says:

      Hey Tyler,

      Thank you for your comments regarding fishing in Bocas del Toro. You are right – there are not many outfitters and guides in the area yet. I do not know how good the fishing is in the area yet, but I plan to do some fishing to find out more when I am in Bocas in late May. In January I was standing on the deck at the end of our over-the-water island house in Bocas. I looked down and there were so many sardines that I could barely see the bottom of the ocean floor. Lurking in the sardines were two or three large tarpon. It was fun to watch!


  9. Tj Simmons says:

    You should bring an environmental Zoologist to come and Study your Ocelot! I wonder if it is a Girl or a boy? I wonder if there is more? I wonder if they are reproducing?

    I agree – I would be worried about the Cats and the Sloths. Very much enjoying this Blog thus far!

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