Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Panama, Linton (Spider monkeys) - 05/10/2015

We just had one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.

We're at Linton Island (Puerto Lindo) in Panama, and the reason we've stopped here is because the island has a family of wild spider monkeys on it. Garth loves monkeys more than anything in the world. I'm sure he was a monkey in a previous life. So after our brief stop at Portobelo, we hightailed it to monkey island.

As soon as we arrived we could see them playing in the trees not far from where we were anchored. They were adorable! We were tired so decided not to go to shore until the next morning, and instead just sat in the cockpit to watch how other people interacted with them. Mostly cruisers, they came in groups (albeit small groups) which I'm sure was overwhelming for the monkeys. The tour boats have a reputation for hyping the poor things up by yelling and jumping around and shaking their trees. We didn't see any of this, maybe because it was a weekend. There was a big stick on the beach that people used to poke their trees with though, I'm guessing so they'd come down to play. I also noticed that the smart tour boats had their people stay in the water. Ankle deep in the water they could observe the monkeys from less than 1m away, and the stars of the show didn't seem very enthusiastic about getting their feet wet. 

You can just see the tiny black monkey dots on the beach (behind the buoy in the water)

If the tour groups had a reputation, then these monkeys were full blown celebrities. So many people have told us to be careful of them. When people rile them up they get overexcited and bite. If you get too close, they bite. If they feel like biting, they bite. Our good friends on Fata Morgana warned us that one of their friends had been bitten down to the bone just from trying to feed them. They are extremely agile, and Gibbons are the only primates that can move faster. I guess that's how they manage to attack so many people - they can move so very quickly. So we had been sufficiently warned. I wanted to take gloves with us to shore, but Garth was confident we would be safe. 

So the next morning we took off to shore first thing, before anybody could get them over excited and before they ate their breakfast. I started tying the dinghy up but Garth was already on the beach before we came to a complete stop. Two monkeys came down to him right away and held their hands out for the apple slices he had taken with him. After they had introduced themselves and had a quick snack, they all just stood around like a group of friends chatting on the street. They looked very human-like standing upright next to Garth, like miniature people.

Because he loves monkeys and primates so much, Garth knows a lot about them. He didn't make eye contact right away, which probably didn't really make any difference to their behaviour because that precaution is pretty specific to gorillas. Besides, although these spider monkeys are living in the wild and aren't domesticated at all, they're used to humans. Garth was very quiet and let them get used to him the same way that you would for a dog - they touched him, became accustomed to his scent and established that he wasn't a threat. Then Garth quietly sat down on the remains of a dock by the water's edge. His two little friends followed and sat down beside him. The younger one was male, with a red tinge to his fur. Though friendly, he was slightly more skittish and sat away from Garth. The other one was female, with jet black hair. She eyed Garth up for a moment and then crawled onto the plank beside him, snuggling up next to him like a happy kitten or an affectionate child.


Just chilling

I stayed in the water so as not to overwhelm them, taking photos from the dinghy. Everybody seemed quite content. Then another boat arrived. I suspect the "tour boats" are mostly water taxis, taking people from one of the islands to the mainland. That's what this one looked like. There were two people onboard along with their driver and an excitable puppy. I don't understand why you would take a puppy with you to meet wild monkeys, but there it was.

The monkeys momentarily ran off, so Garth and I sat quietly on the dinghy and waited for these new guests to leave. The dog kept barking and the poor things didn't know what to make of it. The lady jumped out of the boat and to my surprise she opened a huge bag of tortilla chips to feed to them. The female monkey was happy to eat them, though I'm sure she preferred our apple slices. She stood next to these people while the lady tried to pose for the camera, holding the chip frozen near the monkey's face. She was no novice in posing for pictures. Our little friend kept reaching for it, but the lady wanted to get her picture before the chip disappeared.

Meanwhile, the sneaky male sidled towards the boat which was now just occupied by the driver and an open packet of chips. It was like something out of a cartoon. He crept towards it, overexaggerating each movement and looking around like a cartoon criminal. It was like watching somebody in a very bad acting class. Eventually he got close enough to snatch the bag and he made a run for the trees, his prize held high. So that was why Garth had warned me not to leave anything in the dinghy and not to take the camera off from around my neck under any circumstances. The little guy was so proud of himself! He gripped the bag with his tail and zipped up the tree, which was actually pretty comical in itself. When he was happy with the branch he had chosen, he switched the bag to his hands and hung from his tail which left four limbs free to stuff his face with. 

Sneaky, sneaky...

Quick like a bunny!

The man from the boat went over and started yelling at him, trying to get the bag back by poking it with a stick. Eventually chips rained down from the trees onto the ground and the annoyed monkey was left holding an almost-empty bag. He held it with both hands and stuck his entire face inside, looking for more salty snacks.

Looking for crumbs

That was when another boat turned up with two guys on it. One of them was a local cruiser, the other an obvious tourist. Thinking the bag of tortilla chips was still full, the local guy tried to swap a bag of garbage for the bag of chips. I'm not sure whether he wanted to return the chips to the couple, or if he was just trying to stop them from eating nasty processed food (often monkeys will give up something they're playing with if you trade them for something else). Either way it ended in a game of tug of war. The monkeys weren't very happy. Garth quietly moved closer to them and sat against a tree trunk, watching but not interfering or saying a word. 

The first boat took their dog and left their bag of chips scattered all over the ground. Then there were just four of us on the island. The two guys stayed for a while longer and the local cruiser actually had some interesting information for us. He told us that the female was usually very docile but that the male could snap and get angry for no reason. I expected him to be nicer to our little friends, but he didn't seem to have that much compassion for them. He encouraged his buddy to grab some tortilla chips from off the ground to feed to the female, who was (literally) just hanging around nearby.

Happy to have the opportunity for a selfie with a monkey, he got closer to the female and she took the chip from his hand. Then he touched her arm and posed for a photo. She was not pleased with this. When he turned around to smile for the camera, she lurched forward and bit him hard on the wrist. Even though her smile was mostly all gum, she still managed to break the skin and draw a decent amount of blood. It looked painful. Garth said that just before she bit him, the female squinched up her face, bared her teeth and screeched at him. He didn't notice because he had his back to her, giving the camera a thumbs up.

I guess it's hard to remember that monkeys are wild animals, because they're so friendly and they look like people. But they're wild animals. They're used to people but they're not house pets, and we're the ones intruding on their home. So I'm not surprised that they get angry with people touching them while they're trying to have breakfast. You'd never approach any other wild animal while it was eating, but for some reason it seems okay here because spider monkeys are like cuddly little people. I'm not surprised so many people have been bitten by them! (Having said that, I'm sure they sometimes just snap for no reason if they've had a bad day and too many people have been bugging them).

Dripping blood, the two guys left and we were alone with the monkeys again. Garth stayed where he was, calmly sharing their world. Then he moved closer to their tree and just sat. Eventually the female climbed back down and hung from the lowest branch, right next to his head. Garth didn't turn to look at her. He just sat still and she hung down next to him. After a while she leaned over and pressed her head against his. For a minute or two they both just stayed like that, their heads pressed together. 

She must have thought he was safe, because she took an arm off the branch and leaned on him. Slowly, she extracted herself from the tree until she was sitting on his shoulders with just her tail and one arm still clinging onto the branch for safety.

Eventually her worries were gone and she slid down onto his lap. She kept one hand on the tree for a while, but once they were all cuddled together she looked at him. Then she looked back up at the branch. Then she looked back at him again and in one swift movement her arm went from clinging to the tree to clinging onto Garth. She looked up at him with her big doey eyes and then nuzzled her head into his chest, wrapping all her arms and legs around him.

They stayed like that for at least half an hour. She couldn't decide on the best way to hug him and constantly squirmed around, arms, legs and tail moving all over the place. She would continually look up at him and then nuzzle her head into his chest. I tried to feed her some more apple, but she wasn't interested. She just wanted a hug.

It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I don't know why animals and children love Garth so much, but I suspect it is his calm and gentle nature. A few minutes after this wild monkey had attacked somebody, Garth had her in a cuddly ball of happiness. He said she was like a sweet little grandma. She was obviously quite old, and her movements were much slower and more gentle than those of her younger male friend.

I'll scratch your head if you scratch mine

Having a laugh together. She somehow enjoyed Garth's endless supply of bad jokes

After they hugged for a long time, the sun started getting hotter and cuddling seemed like less of a good idea. They both started dripping In sweat, and Garth's new lady friend decided it was time to move on. She nuzzled into his chest one more time before wandering off back into the trees.

I'm not entirely sure what kind of spider monkeys our new friends are but I suspect they're Black Headed Spider Monkeys or Geoffreys Spider Monkeys, which are both critically endangered (although all spider monkeys are either under threat or endangered). They're about the same size as the howler monkeys we've been seeing around Panama, except their brains are twice as big. They mostly eat fruit, but they like nuts and leaves as well (not tortilla chips). I can't help but wonder if our lady friend was missing so many teeth from inappropriate food brought by well-meaning tourists. They're more social than most other monkeys and usually travel in large troops. I'm not sure how many other monkeys share this island with them, so maybe they were so affectionate because they're lonely. Because they mostly eat fruit and there's fruit trees scattered all through the jungle, they have to remember where all the trees are and when the fruit will be ripe (they keep track of up to 150 different trees at once). So the whole jungle is like a complicated game of memory and they're very good at it. It's assumed that this is probably why their brains are so big. It's also probably why the cheeky little things are so clever and wily. It was kind of bizarre interacting with animal that are almost as smart as us, but definitely very special at the same time.

Xxx Monique

Believe it or not, I took took a ridiculous number of photos. Click here to see the rest.

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