It looks exhausting! These poor female turtles hauling their 160kg bodies up the beach to a high spot, digging a 75cm hole, laying up to 150 eggs and then hauling themselves back to the sea before the sun rises. And they do this several times in a season.
We are on Selingan Island in the Sulu Sea – one of three islands in the turtle conservation area run jointly by the Bornean and Philippine governments.
On our 45-minute boat ride from Sandakan I keep a look out for pirates and hope our skipper can step on it if he needs to. In contrast to the loveable fictional rogue, Captain Jack Sparrow, pirates have become a real problem in this area. With a recent spate of kidnapping and/or robbing tourists, UK government advice is to avoid the area. Some tour companies now refuse to include the islands on their itineraries.
We land on the beach and look out across the flat water to the Philippine Islands. Snorkelling in the clear, warm water, we watch bright blue, red and orange coloured polyps disappear in the coral and fluorescent, luminous fish dart around. Some watch us curiously as we swim over, others nervously dart under the coral. We wile away the day on the beach waiting for ‘turtle time’.
Turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs but pollution, predators and poaching have caused their numbers to dwindle over the last century.
The green and hawksbill turtles on Selingan were born here at least 15-years ago and need certain conditions to lay their eggs. The sand must be deep, moist and fine. They need a path clear of rubbish or obstructions to a high point. And the eggs need to remain covered, protected from predators (human and other), for the 55-60 days gestation period.
Development means there are fewer beaches meeting these requirements resulting in less space for our turtles. Without intervention they accidentally dig up eggs laid in the last couple of months and lay their eggs on top. This reduces the chance of the hatchlings surviving.
The eggs and flesh of these protected species are considered a delicacy in China and sold on the black market. And if that wasn’t enough, they also need to contend with their other ‘natural’ predators – snakes, sharks, crabs, water monitor lizards and birds of prey. The odds aren’t great for a baby turtle!
The conservation centre was set up in 1966 to give these species a better chance of survival.
Our guide, Darwis, shows us the board which lists the number of hawksbill and green turtles that landed on the beach over the last two days, and so far this year; how many eggs were collected and the number of hatchlings released. Yesterday 17 landed. Walking on the beach, you can still see their tracks.
The first turtle lands on the beach at 7:43pm. We wait for the rangers to call “turtle time”. Only then are we allowed back on to the beach to minimise disturbing the turtles laying their eggs. We watch a huge 1.5m green turtle lay a clutch of 78 brilliant-white billiard ball-sized eggs. The ranger gently scoops these up and places them in a bucket. The turtle covers the nest and returns to the sea without knowing these were relocated. I feel a bit guilty! Before she leaves the ranger checks her overall health, logs the tag number on her flipper, cleans off any barnacles that can kill her and measures her.
We follow the ranger to the hatchery. He carefully places the eggs in a pre-dug pit, places mesh around the pit to protect the eggs from predators and covers them with fine sand. He places a tag in the pit which records the date and number of eggs.
We then head to the shoreline to watch the tiny baby turtles, that emerged from the pits in the last 24 hours, be released into sea. Some scurry in the wrong direction and need to be guided towards the sea but most instinctively know which way they need to head. They scuttle as fast as their little flippers can take them.
With just four chalets each with six or seven twin rooms, visitor numbers are purposely restricted to reduce any negative impact on the turtles. If they are disturbed, they may leave the beach without laying eggs. No-one is allowed onto the beach without the rangers from 6pm to 6am. We wake up early and go to the beach at 6am. Four females are still laying eggs. They have not yet started their gruelling slog back to the shore and the sun is rising.
A member of the reptile family, turtles cannot regulate their body temperature. In the sun they overheat and die. Eventually three reach the sea. One remaining straggler wants to rest from her ordeal but the ranger gently and persistently taps her shell to keep her moving back to the safety of the sea.
A total of 29 green turtles landed that night and 27 laid eggs. The process of collecting and re-burying the eggs, checking and measuring the turtles goes on through the night – and every night – throughout the year.
The whole process – seeing the turtles land on the beach and lay their eggs, the care of the rangers to transplant these to the hatchery and the release of the hatchlings into the sea – is a truly moving experience. It is exhausting, not just for the poor turtles, but also for the dedicated rangers who work through the night to improve the odds for these endangered pre-historic creatures.
How to get here
There are two main companies that offer tours to Selingan Island from Sandakan. We went with Tropical Gateway Tours which also includes Sepilok Orangutan Conservation Centre as part of the package. Definitely a must-see if you are in Borneo.
Cost for the package: 883MYR (£176). This includes transfer to the port, boat, overnight stay with lunch, dinner and breakfast on the island, transfer to Sepilok and entry into the Orangutan centre.
When to go: Jul-Aug is peak season.
Crystal Quest is the other company. http://www.turtleislandborneo.com