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Update From Panama: Late Night Crisis and Plastic Turtles

By Amanda Gibson

One in the morning is just the time I wanted to get up (well maybe not quite that early…). “Amanda … Amanda! Amanda! Amanda!" One of Armila's night watchmen called. “Get up! The turtles have come up into town."

A leatherback turtle heads back to sea from the town of Armila. © Amanda Gibson

Groggily I began to realize what a crisis we had on our hands: seven enormous leatherback turtles were crawling around Armila. One had made it as far in as Mogi's yard, and another was knocking over pots and pans inside Richard's kitchen. With these turtles weighing upwards of 300 lbs, I had the sinking feeling that at least one would be too exhausted to move before we got it back in the water. The incredible strength and dedication of the watchmen, however, got the last turtle to the waves by sunrise.

Rest for the weary? Not in Armila. As soon as the turtle disappeared under the waves, I ran off to organize the morning's plastic workshop featuring Pam Longobardi.

Richard guides a leatherback turtle out of the town and back to sea. ©

Pam is an artist, environmentalist, and lead of the Drifters Project, who often lends her talents as a partner of the Oceanic Society. When Pam heard about the opportunity to work with local women in Armila as part of our environmental education effort, she completely dedicated herself to the idea. Her approach, using the universal language of art to communicate messages about ocean debris, was a perfect fit for the town where each woman is also a talented mola artist.

Pam said “WOW" so often in response to the plastic art that local ladies soon picked up the word, inspiring even more laughter as we worked. And rather than breaking for lunch, we all stayed working until early afternoon because it was just plain fun.At that morning's workshop with Pam we planned to make covers for the newly installed solar lights so that they wouldn't disorient hatchling turtles as they made their trip from nest to ocean. We had already worked on identifying plastic, talked about its marine impact, and cleaned it from the beach. Now, as beautifully dressed local artists, my friends, gathered around the table of beach trash I wasn't sure how the morning would play out. As true artists, however, they picked up wire, drills and plastic and made art. They even pulled inspiration from mola designs as they created fun and funky light covers.

And after the creation of the beautiful light covers, the local women artists enthusiastically agreed to a plastic art collaboration with Pam for the long term.

Thank you, Pam Longobardi and collaborator Claudia Sanabria for making this work possible!

Kids spontaneously joined the fun to sort plastic. © Amanda GibsonA flower patterned mola. © Amanda Gibson

Art workshop with Pam Longobardi and Kuna artists. © Morrison Mast


Amanda Gibson is Oceanic Society's first fellow, who spent her fellowship (2013-2014) living and working with the Guna indigenous community of Armila in southeastern Panama on a variety of conservation and community development projects. Amanda is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.


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