On the first day of our Intrepid tour, we had been warned that any sort of bad weather would inhibit our ability to get to Turtle Island. So we were relieved when we finally got the go-ahead the day before we were due. The Island lies in the Sulu Sea roughly 3 km north of Sandakan in Sabah.
A Wet Ride
Five minutes into our water taxi ride, we understood why it had been touch and go.
The weather was just passable…and I would have hated to seen it on a ‘bad’ day. Our twelve-seater motor boat was tossed around by huge swells. We would ride up the crest of each wave powered by the stuttering outboard motor, only to be slapped back down on the water with such a force it would shake us in our seats. Uncovered and open to the elements, almost everyone was blasted full frontal with sea water at regular two-minute intervals. We all got rather soggy. Holding on to the chair in front, I closed my eyes and tried to think of it like a fun roller coaster…
The trouble was, most roller coasters don’t last an hour. We lurched through huge floating villages of fishing boats which resembled a fleet of Noah’s arch more than they did modern trawlers, and on and on out to sea and towards the maritime state line of the Philippines and Malaysia.
When we finally pulled up to the sandy beach I was very ready to get off our vessel.
After we checked into our budget lodging accommodation, we hit the beach for a well-earned lie down and thanked our stars we were still alive.
It wasn’t until 7pm that night that things began to get more turtle-y. Upstairs of the canteen was a small but well put together museum on the oceanic wildlife of the area – including a huge section on turtles and the challenges they face. From fishing nets to poaching, to eating plastic bags which mimic the movement of jellyfish underwater, turtles face more threats to survival than ever in their history.
We were on an island that had been a nesting site since time immemorial and mothers come all year round to the island where they themselves hatched, to lay their own eggs. They could come at any time during the night, and we could be called anytime to go and see them. But, the warning came; once you left the centre and went to your rooms, you wouldn’t be called back. So: no popping off for a kip!
After dinner, I sat playing UNO with some Italians and chatting to the other visitors – wondering which of us would call it a night at 1am, 2am and so on.
But the stars were shining on us, yet again. At 9pm we got the go ahead to make our way down to the beach to see the nesting turtle mothers! Delight and excitement filled the air as we grabbed cameras and picked our way in the darkness across the shrub covered beach.
The turtles are guided by the light of the moon onto the shoreline – so unnatural light, from cameras, phones or torches, can negatively impact their sense of direction and can cause them to abandon their laying attempt altogether. Even more disastrous, is if the laying of the eggs has already begun, the mother will take herself back into the sea and lay her eggs there, meaning none survive.
Despite about a multitude of warnings from the sanctuary staff and guides, some of the other tourists and travellers on the island didn’t listen and wanted their pictures at the expense of these majestic prehistoric reptiles. Walking at the back of the group, I saw one turtle already lost in the undergrowth, abandoning her laying, with people still trying to photograph her with their flash on.
Walking past and gestured by one of the rangers to come closer, I finally saw what I had come to see; a huge green mother turtle that had been laying her clutch for the last 50 minutes. The park rangers give the turtles as long as possible to lay their eggs in private and in doing so, they reach their trance like state and don’t seem to be aware of anyone around them.
When she was nearly finished, we moved to the turtle hatchery. The hatchery looks a bit like a plant nursery – it’s a field of little green tubes made from chicken wire that you might think were there to protect a sapling. But they are protecting clutches of baby turtles. Each egg is replanted in the sand here with its siblings, with the wire tube on top to keep them in together, should hatch at different times. Surrounding the field is a thick wire parameter fence, used to keep out monitor lizards and other predictors on the island.
The field has mixed levels of shade as a turtles’ gender depends completely on the temperature of the sand as it develops. Those born in shade are a clutch of only boys, while those in a consistently sunny spot will all be girls. This evolutionary trait of reptiles will have big implications as our planet continues to warm, as the female population will start to outnumber the males, who hatch in colder climates.
As we were presented with a blue basket of 18 perfectly formed slightly rubbery-looking, day-old hatchlings – I must admit, I gave a little squeal. Probably the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a basket; they were all flippers and had nothing of the graceful movement I had seen from the adults in the water.
Again, we walked down to the beach and less than 50 yards from the surf and tipped the bucket onto the sand.
“Go to the sea hatchlings! Please make it!” I repeated in my head.
They took about two minutes to flip flop their way over little mounds of sand to the salty incoming waves. All but one. He went in the wrong direction.
“This one isn’t looking too promising.” said a German tourist, picking him up and turning him to face the sea once more.
After three people stepped in to change his direction back to the shoreline, he finally made it and was gone in a miniature splash.
As horrible a statistic as it is, only one in 100 hatchling makes it to adulthood, with most eaten by fish and other sea creatures in the first few days of their lives. The priority is always to increase numbers of wild turtles, and while there isn’t much anyone can do once they hit the water – at least we can be sure 100 eggs will hatch under the protection of the hatchery.
I had everything crossed for our batch – I really hope at least one made it.
Watching the turtle lay her eggs and then go on to see the hatchlings being released into the open ocean was very special. But for me, the experience was tainted by other tourists and their need to capture the moment rather than living in it – one example; a Swedish girl insisted on taking selfies with the mother turtle as she was laying. Personally, I found it disrespectful and sad.
Although this behaviour was policed a little by the rangers, some visitors seem to believe it was their right to do as they pleased, as they had paid for the experience, and continued to use flash photography despite the instructions not to. This, mixed with the numbers of tourists there – at least 50, meant it wasn’t quite the harmonious and nature-loving experience I was expecting, but I am glad I at least have witnessed wild mother nature at her best.
Update: Coming back, I received a few messages on my phone..(no signal on the island). It transpired, the day we left for the islands, the UK government had advised against all but necessary travel to that group of islands due to the increasing terror threat from Islamic militants in Southern Philippines who had been targeting tourists on beaches in the area.
Knowing the proximity to this part of the Philippines, and the security and size of the Turtle Island – that was alarming, and I was glad to be back in mainland Borneo that evening.
If you want to check current travel advice in the region.