Wildlife photography on Panama’s Isla Bastimentos

Excursion to Monkey Island

The next morning we were greeted by our tour guide at our hotel as we boarded a van to take us north along the Panama Canal to the Gamboa region, where we boarded a small boat to Monkey Island. Monkey Island is actually a group of islands in the Panama Canal near Gatún Lake, formed by the damming of several rivers during the construction of the canal. We embarked on our boat tour and cruised the canal for about twenty minutes before our first encounter, a small crocodile basking on the canal bank. From there, we spent the next two hours observing the wildlife of the Panama Canal. We saw southern lapwings, black vultures, and other birds, but the main feature was the monkeys. The guides know exactly where to find them, and sure enough we were greeted at our first stop by the smallest monkey in Panama, the “Titi monkey.” 

The Titi monkey is actually a species of tamarin. To our astonishment, it leaped onto the deck of our small boat to collect a small piece of banana that our guide put out for it. Aesthetically speaking, I’m not one to photograph animals in artificial settings, but fortunately for us it quickly returned to the tree branches above us and we all got a couple of nice shots. 

We continued on and saw several groups of white-faced capuchins, which gladly took the grapes we had to offer them. We also encountered several howler monkeys, but they kept to the treetops and were more difficult to photograph.

At the conclusion of the boat tour, we returned to our van and took a short drive to the Gamboa Sloth Sanctuary. Here we saw several two-toed and three-toed sloths which were being rehabilitated, and of course, they were sleeping. The sloth sanctuary also had a butterfly enclosure and a poison dart frog habitat, which were fun to see. Nevertheless, this day was merely a warm-up session for the main trip to Isla Bastimentos.

Bocas del Toro and Tranquilo Bay

Monday, we transferred to the Albrook airport in Panama City (formerly a US air force base) and made the short flight to Bocas del Toro on the western edge of Panama’s Caribbean coast. We were picked up by staff from the Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, where we stayed for the next four nights. Access to Isla Bastimentos is only by boat. We made our way to a small dock and boarded a boat along with all our luggage. Thirty minutes (and one brief rainstorm) later, we arrived at Tranquilo Bay and were promptly served a hot lunch and checked into our cabanas. The accommodations at the lodge all have modern amenities: air-conditioning, purified water, and American septic systems.

Once we were settled in, we had another orientation session as I briefed my clients on the ideal camera settings for birds and wildlife. My clients brought a mixture of gear including both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, and I wanted to make sure each person had the optimal settings for their specific camera. One thing I pointed out this year was how high ISO images weren’t something to shy away from. With the newest AI-based noise reduction software available, we could easily shoot at or above ISO 12,500 and still get clean images!

The grounds at Tranquilo Bay offer easy access to photograph lots of birds and other wildlife. Hummingbird feeders dot the grounds, and an 85-foot high observation tower offers a tremendous vantage point for bird-watching. From the tower, we photographed parrots as they flew out to their foraging sites each morning and returned each evening. From the lower levels of the tower, we had great tree-top vantage points for photographing tropical birds as they foraged on berries.

Photographing sloths at Tranquilo Bay

At Tranquilo Bay, the sloths steal the show. If you travel to Costa Rica or the Panamanian mainland, you might encounter sloths, but you’ll probably never see their faces. Instead, you’ll see a blob of fur high in a tree. Not so on Isla Bastimentos. Here, the local sloth population is free from predation by harpy eagles. As a result, the sloths are out in the open and active during the day. Getting photos of their faces just required a little patience, but since they were right on the lodge grounds, it was easy to visit their tree multiple times a day to photograph them in the best possible light. On this trip, we encountered five sloths, including one two-toed sloth and a mother three-toed sloth with her baby. It was truly special!

Baby sloth on the grounds at Tranquilo Bay

Wildlife Photography on the Snyder Canal

On our second full day at Tranquilo Bay, we took an excursion by boat to the Snyder Canal on the Panamanian mainland. This hand-cut canal was dug in the early 1900s to transport bananas from the mainland to the Caribbean Sea. Today, it’s a place where you can see dozens of bird species, sloths, bats, and lizards. Again, I used my Nikon 100-400mm lens with the 1.4x teleconverter attached. Having the extra focal length is really important when you’re photographing from a boat! Along the canal, we encountered toucans, oropendolas, anis, herons, and snail kites. We also photographed two species of basilisk lizards, including the bright green emerald basilisk, and a species of poison dart frog. After a lunch stop on the banks of an estuary, we continued to the mouth of the river and exited into the Caribbean Sea.

Once we were on the open water, we turned back eastward to a large offshore rock outcrop, called Bird Island. Here we photographed brown boobies, red-billed tropicbirds, and frigatebirds as they soared around the island. We also spotted a pair of red-footed boobies, which was a rare sighting here.

Brown booby at Bird Island

After four days at Tranquilo Bay, we returned to Bocas del Toro and took the return flight to Panama City. Our driver picked us up and took us to an airport hotel, and we departed for home the next day.

Looking through my photos, I was impressed by how well my files held up at very high ISO settings. I used the AI noise reduction tools in Adobe Lightroom and DXO Pure Raw 3, and I had no problem at all cleaning up images as high as ISO 30,000! I’m definitely not going to let ISO settings hold me back, especially when using slower lenses or teleconverters. The Z9’s animal detection autofocus worked extremely well, but you need to know when to override it when you’re faced with a tricky subject, such as a back-lit bird surrounded by leaves and tree branches. Needless to say, I doubt I’d have gotten a photo of the toucan in flight with my previous Nikon cameras.

Panama, especially Isla Bastimentos, is a wonderful place to visit. There are frequent flights direct to Panama City, and it’s situated in the Eastern standard time zone, meaning you won’t have much jet lag when you arrive. Because of Panama’s extensive financial ties to the United States, the US dollar is used as currency here; you won’t need to worry about exchange rates. My favorite part of the visit though is visiting Tranquilo Bay. It’s secure, they provide all our meals, and there are ample wildlife subjects to photograph throughout the day. I’m looking forward to returning in 2024! Be sure to sign up for my email newsletter for details on how to join me on photo adventures.

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