On a mission to discover endangered manatees off the coast of Panama, two Brit surfers prone paddled more than 350-miles, unaided, skirting the coastline and setting a new world record in the process. Well, that's the romantic crux of this remarkable story because the devil's sure in the details here; the pair were robbed by egg poachers on day one, ended up running from drug smugglers, more than a few hair-raising shark encounters – and the cherry on the cake? Neither had ever prone paddled before.
You would have thought Rob Cunliffe and Arron Ford would have set a slightly less daunting challenge for their first prone coastal cruise. But if surfing's taught them anything, it's that there's a rhythm to paddling. A muscle memory that tunes in your whole body. Or so they assumed when setting off for this mission in 2014.
Turns out, prone paddling is tough. Incredibly so. Especially under a melting sun across one of the wildest coastlines on the planet. The pair set off on border of Costa Rica and Panama, ending up in a region called Commarca Ngobe-Bugle, on their quest for document endangered manatees. Both are from Bristol in the UK but Rob now lives in Cornwall to be closer to the sea.
Thinking of a trip to Costa Rica? Plan ahead, HERE
Both had spent some time in tropical central America, surfing at a few spots along the coastline of Costa Rica. They had heard whispers of an undocumented population of Antillean manatee in Panama. At the time, Arron had just finished a conservation degree and and was keen to seek them out. Should they complete the paddle, it would be the longest prone paddle expedition ever recorded.
“The aim was to make some ground-breaking research”, says Arron. “It was an offer I couldn't refuse.” Had the boys known what they were getting themselves in for, would they have went? “Had we known that, we probably wouldn't have gone. So it's probably better we didn't,” laughs Rob.
We caught up with Mr Cuncliffe to talk about the whole experience, including (but not limited to) getting robbed on day 1 (a blessing, they say, to lighten the load), witnessing and running from a drug deal, learning locals love to eat the endangered manatee, setting a world record, turning this story into a no-budget documentary called Prone and Alone (which is excellent, by the way) and the humbling experience of submitting to the ocean.
Tell us a bit about the paddle, where was it from and to?
We began just inside Costa Rica, on the border with Panama at a place called Cahuita National Park. It’s just up the road from the best known wave on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Salsa Brava. We were aiming to then traverse Bocas del Toro, cutting our teeth in relative civilisation, and then continuing south through the indigenous region known as the Commarca Ngobe-Bugle, looking for undiscovered populations of Manatee here as we went.
And, what was your inspiration?
We just wanted to go on a big old adventure really and having visited and surfed on a few of the populated stretches of that coastline, we knew how wild it is further south and wanted to see what else was out there.
Between Bocas del Torro and Panama City there is a huge stretch of 500 plus miles of relatively unexplored coastline, accessed via the ocean or at a single point by a single road. And from visiting Bocas del Toro previously to surf, we already knew about the difficult balance Panama currently faces between conservation and development.
And when we contacted the only Panamanian conservation agency, run solely by the very inspirational Lenin Riquelme, he told us about his dream to survey that coastline for Manatee and we thought we might be able to help. The Antillean Manatee is critically endangered and he had an inkling there may be more populations out there waiting to be discovered but had never had the resources to search.
You both had never paddleboarded before, right? Did you know what you were getting yourselves into?
Absolutely not [laughs] and had we known we may never have taken the challenge on so it was probably for the best.
To be honest we didn’t even have the funds to purchase boards in the UK so we got one second hand from the States and one donated by a very generous Larry Foley of Grey Whale Paddle, a beautiful hand crafted wooden 16ft board. We both surfed and thought the basic principle of paddling a board with your arms was the simplest way we could travel and the least amount that could go wrong; we were wrong - on both accounts.
A slight oversight! What were some of the difficulties then?
On day one, we had some teething issues, the boards were a bit overloaded. Thankfully, we got robbed by egg poachers on our first night and it lightened the load.
Day one was not particularly great actually, as we also got terrible blistering sunburn on the backs of our legs despite zinc and sunscreen, so from then on in we paddled in trousers.
On day one, we had some teething issues, the boards were a bit overloaded. Thankfully, we got robbed on our first night and it lightened the load
It didn’t really get any easier, paddling for around six-to-eight hours a day in the tropics and then having to make camp and source water was not an easy task and there were a few illnesses and injuries and even a week-long hospital admission to deal with along the way. We were very wild and weary men by the end of it.
Spot guide: Panama
Despite all that, you mentioned that you did actually discover new populations of endangered manatees – when did you realise exactly what you’d stumbled upon?
We heard them before we spotted them. It's like a 'Phhhwwww' sound, as they came to the surface to breathe.
They can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes so you’d never know quite where they would pop out next and they were impossible to photograph as they’d only poke out their noses.
That first sighting was very special. We had paddled from the coast up a very remote river and were sitting there alone, surrounded by towering jungle, legs dangling in croc and alligator infested water, with our senses already alight, when we first heard them. That moment was exhilarating.
I take it they might not have seen humans before, how did they react?
They are very gentle animals, herbivores that graze on sea grass and seaweed. Unfortunately, the local indigenous community count them as a delicacy and serve them as Christmas dinner....So they have an in built fear of people that meant we couldn’t get near enough to them for a proper interaction.
They are also at serious risk of propeller injuries from boats so they dive when they hear them. So our river surveys were carried out by dugout canoe or with our paddleboards.
Since our journey, there has been an ongoing conservation effort that includes lobbying the Panamanian government to create protected status for these areas; and collaboration with the University of Panama who are sending students on fieldwork to this area, working particularly on education and conservation.
There's more to this story though right, we've talked about the at-a-glance view of this journey. I've heard you had a run in with cocaine smugglers...
It was the most terrifying night of our lives. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time and had chosen to camp where someone else had chosen to make their exchange as they transfer the drugs up the coast towards America. It was a serious situation that could have ended in disaster. All we could do was run and hide and pray we wouldn’t be found.
Travelling all that way, must have seen a few sharks… any encounters to tell of?
Ooh yes, with no major fisheries on that coastline, there are sharks aplenty. I think the large profile of our boards at 16 and 14 foot-long made sharks more inquisitive than aggressive but that didn’t help quell the nerves when a bull shark came within a few feet of my feet during a mid ocean biscuit break.
We had frequent fin sightings, sometimes alongside our boards, but that vision of seeing the bull shark glide beneath me will stay with me forever. As spectacular as it was terrifying.
How did you keep track of tide and time?
We were waking and sleeping with the sun and luckily the tides are relatively small on that coastline, particularly compared to the UK, so it wasn’t something we had to worry about too much.
It’s pretty refreshing being physically exhausted and setting your clock to the natural rhythm of things, it’s what we were born to do I suppose.
And this set a record at the time for prone paddleboarding – were you expecting that?
We knew the current record was 350-miles when we set off. But this had been set in a very different way, supported distance paddling without any luggage.
We were hauling around 15kg each with enough food for a few weeks at a time, water for the day ahead and some contingency, and all our camping and cooking kit. By the time we finished the manatee surveys we set out to do and had another rather unfortunate incident in a tropical storm, we were tantalisingly close to the record and had to paddle on,
Now, you’re releasing a video about this epic journey, how can people watch it or support the production?
The documentary, Prone and Alone, is out now on Vimeo, it is an independent production made with zero budget, directed and narrated by ourselves and painstakingly edited by a friend in his spare time after work. It’s taken a long time to make and we’re hoping to reward our friend for his hours of work with any proceeds from the film. Please check it out.
You can by going HERE.