Some 40 km offshore of Sandakan, and straddling the Sulu Sea territories of Malaysia and The Philippines lay a series of ten islands. Today, we are heading for one of the three Malaysian landfalls known collectively as Turtle Islands National Park.
Forming a picture postcard backdrop of low elevation, sparse palm trees and glistening sands, one might expect to chance upon a
cartoon Robinson Crusoe on these archetype “desert” islands.
We travel by chartered speedboat, passing the colourful waterside Kampong of Buli Sim-Sim before heading out of Sandakan harbour into the open sea.
The waters around the harbour are deceptively shallow and we pass solitary wading fishermen who posess a seemingly miraculous ability to walk on water as they go about their daily chores a kilometer or so off the nearest island shore. I expect his mother was often heard to shout “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.
We are booked to spend a night on the 8-hectares of Pulau Selingan, the only island open to the public and offering a virtually guaranteed sighting of nesting green and hawksbill turtles.
After a day of lazing upon the unremarkable beach and snorkelling around the even less remarkable reef, we are all set for the main events of the evening.
The schedule is to include a nesting, a tour of the hatcheries and the release of baby turtles as they begin their voyage from beach into open sea.
The evening passes slowly as we await a sighting of a mother turtle coming ashore. At some point around 10pm we are hurried onto the beach by a ranger where a group of about 25 guests gather around a depression that the female has hollowed in the sand and in which she is now resting, trance-like whilst intermittently popping out an egg.
I am impressed and surprised by the size of the turtle who when measured proved to be the owner of a shell of over a metre in diameter.
We watch her lay several eggs that are then collected for transplantation into one of the hatcheries. In no time at all, we are on the move so as not to disturb other turtles and head for the transplantation site which has been chosen to replicate the conditions of where the eggs were laid, but affords them protection from both natural predators and the greedy clutches of humans.
The freshly collected eggs are buried in a chamber about 70 cm deep. Some chambers are part shaded, others are exposed.
The level of exposure affects the temperature at which the eggs incubateand therefore determines the sex of the turtles. The higher the temperature, the greater the number of female hatchlings. A variation of only 6 degrees centigrade can result in 100% of hatchlings being of only one sex or the other.
The talk we receive in the hatchery is insightful, but again, the process seems rather truncated and soon enough we set off to another area of the beach to release hatchlings.
As a ranger wades into the water and shines a torch as a guiding light to replicate the moon, several dozen tiny turtles are released from a plastic red basket and waddle their way into the light surf.
Some of the creatures are bold and direct whilst others appear disorientated or tentative, taking a circuitous few minutes to finally make it to the waters edge
Within a further handful of minutes, the event is over and a ranger tells us that’s it for the evening. Thanks for watching folks!
I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the unnecessary hurriedness of the experience.
Whilst fully appreciating the conservation aspect must have primacy, I felt almost unwelcome and something of an inconvenience in the process. If this is the case, then why let visitors on the island at all?
Discussing things with the 0.5 as we lay in bed soon after, I discovered she also held the same reservations and general sense of disappointment in the experience.
Although we both felt privileged to witness such a rare event as the laying of a turtle, the whole urgency and demeanour of the rangers really detracted from what should have been a serene and reflective moment. The clamour and demeanour of a few Australian families who were part of a tour group also added nothing positive to the episode.
The hatchling release was, I felt, rather contrived. It was nothing like the image I had in my minds eye of tiny reptiles scurrying naturally across the entire width of the sands, instead it was more a dash of a few metres from a bright red basket to the sea, and then whilst surrounded by us visitors at close range. Some even used flash photography (which is strictly forbidden and explains the poor quality of my snaps) despite the protestations of the rangers.
On a bright note, the 0.5 and the German guy, Sven, we had met at Labuk Bay, made an effort to get on to the beach at 6am as soon as the understandable restrictions of wandering on the beaches after dark were lifted.
After 20 minutes without even a hint of turtle action, they were coming to the far end of the beach when the better 0.5 spotted some sand being kicked up.
Thinking it to be no more than a monitor lizard, the pair crept ever closer. They were wrong.
They had found a tardy turtle straggler. The mother was just finished laying and was now in the final stages of burying her eggs. Already birds of prey were circling above so the outlook wasn’t too good.
The 0.5 and Sven got to watch her cover her brood and then shuffle off back to the ocean.
Even better still, because it was light there was no restrictions on filming it. The link will appear here once we get a fast enough connection to upload…..