On our beloved island, howler monkeys rule the treetops. There are four tribes of howlers on Isla Palenque that I’m now acquainted with: a family of howlers that call the West Side of Playa Palenque home, a family way high up in the old growth trees near the Canopy Homes, the base-camp alarm clock tribe in the center of the island, who sometimes greet our returning boat on Playa Giron, and the Playa Palenque East Side howlers.
If this is starting to sound more like a list of urban street gangs, the comparison is not all that far-off — you should see the turf wars between tribes. That famous howl means only one thing to other monkeys: stay away. The four tribes named know us well and are nothing close to nervous around anyone who comes to live and work on the island. They’ll drop half-eaten fruit on our heads as if we don’t even exist and howl at the dogs from time to time, but for the most part, they could care less about what we’re doing 100 feet below their perch.
As I was walking westward on Playa Palenque the other day, scouring the shady jungle trees for our elusive, nocturnal jungle cat (an ocelot or margay has been spotted on several occasions) in hopes of glimpsing a bundle of golden fur sleeping the day away, I became conscious of the telltale signs of a howler tribe nearby — the sound of fruit falling to the jungle floor and the sight of branches bowing and waving with their weight. Nearing the end of the beach, I walked up to the treeline to take a look. As I did so, a male howler took sight of me, but instead of immediately turning back to his fruit pursuit in ambivalence like they normally do, he dropped the fruit and scrambled down to the end of the branch closest to the beach.
I stopped in my tracks — that had never happened before. At a distance of about 40 vertical feet, this was the closest I’d ever been to a monkey. I stared at him and he stared at me, both of us trying to get a read on the other. After a minute or two, he jumped over to the next tree, even closer to where I stood at a distance of about 25 feet, close enough for me to see the expression on his face: absolute curiosity. “No way,” I thought to myself, “he’s coming to get a better look at me?!” The tree he had moved to was fruitless and practically leafless due to its being near end of dry season — so as far as I could guess, he hadn’t switched trees for any reason other than to get a front row seat to the entertainment — me.
Stepping back to get a broader perspective, a I witnessed a phenomenon beginning to take place in the boughs of that leafless tree — the rest of the tribe was following the monkey’s lead. One by one, female and baby monkeys started to jump from the leafy fruit tree where I had spotted them snacking, onto the barren branches of the tree directly in front of me. They settled in over the next minute, and I counted them over and over, unable to believe my eyes. By the time everybody had found a good branch, 17 monkeys in all were sitting right in front of me as if in a treetop auditorium, splayed out behind the dominant male who first decided to check me out, so close I could see the blink of their eyes. Several fawn-colored babies peeked over the fuzzy brown curve of their mothers’ backs, a young male hung upside down from his tail, another scratched his head, one peed; we all stared. I held my breath for what seemed like a full five minutes, trying to memorize the image of this unexpected monkey moment forever. (Because of course, this was one of very few times I didn’t have a camera in my hand, as I had just gone swimming.)
Standing before the monkey assembly, imprinting the sight of them into my mind, I wondered what would happen next. At the zoo, animals just wander away — but outnumbered as I was, I realized that I was more the “zoo animal” than the monkeys in this situation, and I didn’t want to disappoint. So, I did what anyone would do (maybe not), and tried talking to them:
“Hi monkeys, what are you doing? How’s the fruit? Nice day to go to the beach, right?” Nothing. So then I starting singing; “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King seemed appropriate…”it means no worries, for the rest of your dayssss….” Nothing, absolutely no reaction, beyond the unrelated butt scratch or head tilt. So then I started dancing and singing like an fool in a swimsuit on a desert island — if any local fishermen had passed by at that moment, they’d think I had too much Abuelo rum. Still no reaction; all 17 of them just sat there. A baby monkey wandered downbranch from its mother and she scratched the spot on her back where the little one had been cuddled.
So, I just walked away. Before heading back up the beach, I turned and looked over my shoulder to wave and yell goodbye, promising I would come see them again soon. As the incoming tide washed over my feet, I saw them swinging and jumping back to their lush fruit tree; the show was over. I paused once again to watch them, now certain that they really and truly had come over just to see me.
I think this happened because this tribe of howlers lives between the lagoon and the big bluff — an area we hardly ever go, one of many vast expanses of Isla Palenque yet to be fully known, its character just waiting to be understood, stories to be told. Unlike the howlers we cohabitate with peacefully in other parts of the island, it’s unlikely that this howler tribe spots a human being (much less a crazy dancing and singing girl) more than once a year. It’s an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life, a moment of real and true discovery that I feel lucky to have witnessed.
Since I didn’t have my camera when nature put on this show for me, here’re a few good monkey shots I’ve managed to capture in the past couple weeks — I’ve been trying for almost a year to get a “National Geographic” monkey shot, and my goodness is it a challenge. 60-100 feet above my head, through thick branches of leaves, backlit, and with a subject that refuses to hold still, it could be years or never before I get a chance to capture an image like the one imprinted on my mind, so until then, the story will have to do.