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An Unforgettable Dive: So Many Sea Turtles in Panama

Explorer Callie Veelenturf shares the dive that set her on a mission to save Saboga Island’s sea turtles and natural landscape
By Tiffany Duong | Updated On April 5, 2024
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An Unforgettable Dive: So Many Sea Turtles in Panama

Marine biologist and National Geographic explorer Callie Veelenturf floats in the bay of Saboga Island after the dive that changed the course of her career and life.

Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy1

As scuba divers, we’re privileged to explore, enjoy and play beneath the surface—something the vast majority of people on the planet will never experience. While it’s hard to pick a favorite, each of us certainly has a dive we’ll never forget. Whether it’s crossing something off of our scuba diving bucket list, making eye contact with a humpback whale or simply enjoying a perfect day underwater with our favorite dive buddies, we love to share dive stories with other aquaholics.

To celebrate the beauty, variety and joy that this sport brings, we’re sharing some truly unforgettable dives from around the world, as told by the divers who lived them first-hand. We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we do!

Related Reading: Protecting Texas’ Barrier Island Sea Turtles

Name: Callie Veelenturf

Certification: Certified in Rhode Island in 2010, AAUS in Bermuda in 2012 and PADI Divemaster in Florida in 2014

Current: Marine biologist who studies sea turtles and fights for the rights of nature; National Geographic Explorer; executive director of The Leatherback Project

Follow: @callieveelenturf, @leatherbackproject

An endangered Hawksbill sea turtle forages in the waters around Saboga Island in Panamá.

The Leatherback Project

My Must-Have On Any Dive Trip: I always bring Sea Snips with me! These are scissors designed for scuba diving. They have one flat side that can safely slide against the skin of any tangled marine wildlife to cut them free. You never know when you could save a life!

My Unforgettable Dive: Saboga Island, Pearl Islands, Panama

In October 2021, we were on a mission to document the marine biodiversity of the Pearl Islands archipelago. In particular, we were investigating a place where locals say that they often see sea turtles. At that point, I had snorkeled and dove throughout the area for over two years and only ever saw one turtle. Based on local fisheries bycatch rates, I knew that there must be a more concentrated foraging ground for them in the area, so I invested a lot of time collaborating with local community members to try and find it.

Related Reading: How Do Sea Turtles Breathe? Fun Facts You Should Know about Sea Turtles.

On that day, I was diving with the SeaLegacy 1 team led by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier (Mitty). There were six of us total in the water, spread across a small section of the bay in Saboga.

On average, the water during this time of year registers in the low 80s. That day, the water was cold, but not uncomfortably so, and the visibility was mediocre. Whenever it rains, the runoff from Saboga Island fills the water column with silt, which affects the health of the reef ecosystem. I couldn’t even see the 10-meter bottom from the surface.

Nevertheless, I saw a total of 12 hawksbill and green sea turtles within an hour! Given the mix of age classes, species and sightings, I knew a majority were different individuals!

An endangered Hawksbill sea turtle forages in the waters around Saboga Island in Panamá.

The Leatherback Project

This dive was a turning point for my work in the Pearl Islands. It both proved there were indeed sea turtles in the area and kick-started a long-term monitoring study of them in collaboration with residents and the Ministry of the Environment. Together, we have tagged close to 100 individuals of both species. Additionally, we are anxiously awaiting a decision from the Ministry of the Environment about the status of a new National Wildlife Refuge Proposal that was submitted earlier this year.

After the dive, Paul said he didn’t see a single turtle, and Mitty only saw one. Given how many I’d seen, I couldn’t help but feel like the same energy that brought me to Saboga in the first place also drew the sea turtles into my line of sight so I could continue working toward their protection.