One of the most rewarding things to do in Sabah, Malaysia, is spend a night on Sea Turtle Island. Officially called Selingan Island, here visitors spend the day on an immaculate beach and help professional rangers harvest and care for freshly-laid eggs from the endangered species at night.
Staying on Sea Turtle Island is a great experience for people of all ages. Anyone interested in sea turtle, unique things to do, or environmental conservation would love Selingan Island! Spending a night is not only a once-in-a-lifetime, hands on learning experience, it’s an opportunity to have a lot of fun and have some great stories to share!
What more could you want in a vacation?
Sea Turtle Island, Malaysia
Malaysia is one of the last places four sea turtles species come to.
Historically 32 species of sea turtle existed. Today only 7 remain, and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Four of the remaining 7 sea turtle species are native to Malaysia. Here you’ll find Leatherbacks, Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles.
The sea turtles have grown extinct due in part to human activity (run-ins with boat motors, accidental ingestion of trash, destruction of natural habitats and feeding grounds), but also from natural causes. The natural survival rate of sea turtle babies is only 1-2%. Many freshly buried eggs are destroyed by high tides or predators, and babies run the risk of drowning, not finding food, or being eaten before they are strong enough to survive.
Surviving sea turtles take at least 7 years to mature to breeding stage, at which point a female is highly sought-after and sometimes accidentally killed by overzealous and competitive potential mates. Impregnated females gestate their eggs for 2-3 weeks before giving birth, but only reproduce 6-9 times each year.
Sea turtles cover extensive ground in the course of a year, but tend to migrate back to familiar beaches as females prepare to give birth. Three islands off the coast of Sandakan, Malaysia, are known for their popularity as egg-laying havens. These three Malaysian islands and 6 neighboring Philippine islands have form the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area, the only trans-frontier protected area for sea turtles in the world.
Rangers are assigned to each of the Malaysian TIHPA islands to protect and research the female sea turtles who broach their beaches.
Sea turtle saviors
We were incredibly impressed at conservation efforts around Sabah, Malaysia, and the rangers in charge of the sea turtle sanctuary are no exception. They take their job as Keeper of the Turtles very seriously, lovingly caring for each egg and checking after each mother.
The primary role of a sea turtle ranger is to protect the eggs from danger. This includes transporting new eggs to a safe hatchery to deter their upheaval by predators or, helping newly hatched baby turtles reach a safe distance into the water, and examining the mother turtle in hopes she’ll be well enough for future deliveries.
With so many potential dangers surrounding the young turtles, their work is absolutely essential to the continuation of this majestic animal.
Step 1: Preparing the beach for sea turtle mothers
Sea Turtle rangers clean the Selingan Island beaches of obstacles (washed-up rubbish or tree limbs) during the day to make the sea turtles’ path ashore easier at night. They then dutifully wait for nightfall, when sea turtles’ body temperature best allows them to approach the land. Carefully patrolling the beaches for activity from the water, when one is spotted the crew is alerted. These beaches are as popular for turtles as they are for humans- there can be anywhere from 8-60 delivering mothers each night!
Step 2: Collecting fresh sea turtle eggs
Once spotted, rangers safely follow the sea turtle as she finds a suitable spot to make her nest. She uses her front flippers to dig a large chamber (75-85 cm deep), crawls inside, and enters a trance-like state to begin laying her eggs. The rangers quickly approach the mother, pail and measuring equipment in hand, and prepare to collect the fresh eggs as soon as they drop. Sea turtles will lay 30-50 ping pong-sized eggs on average, which the ranger carefully collects into a clean pail during breaks in the mother’s delivery.
Step 3: Giving mothers a check-up
After delivery the mother turtle rests for around 30 minutes, giving the rangers time to collects data to ensure her health and safety. He uses a flexible tape measure to check the length and width of her shell, checks for and removes barnacles, observers her for any physical impairments, and notes the identification tag on her shoulder. As Green Sea Turtles are an endangered species each known turtle is tagged at various research and conservation centers around the world. The Selingan rangers are likewise prepared with tagging guns to give new mothers a serial number if necessary. All of this information is later entered into a database with the date and number of eggs she laid, to help scientists around the world monitor the species’ survival.
Step 4: Bringing fresh eggs to the hatchery for burial
As the mother turtle, believing her eggs to be beneath her, covers the hole with new sand and crawls back into the ocean the ranger quickly takes his bucket of fresh eggs to the hatchery. The eggs are buried in a fresh hole as a group so there is no potential cross-contamination between egg batches. The batch is labeled with a marker stating the date, number of eggs, and type of sea turtle, then left under the sun until the babies are ready to emerge weeks later.
Step 5: Releasing freshly hatched babies into the ocean
As rangers wait for incoming mother turtles they turn their attention to the babies freshly hatched that day. As a batch of sea turtle babies crawls out of the ground each day they are collected by the rangers. The babies are then released into the water at night, so as to follow the path of the moon into the ocean. Rangers bring the babies to the water, check for night-time predators, and then ensure each one reaches the water before returning to their work at the hatchery.
Staying at Sea Turtle Island
Only one of the three Malaysian turtle islands allows visitors: Selingan Island. Visitors to the island’s resort are limited to 40-60/ night to maintain the integrity of the beaches and not crowd the delivering sea turtles. Visitors are not allowed to physically touch or interact with the mother sea turtles, but instead observe the rangers as they care for the first sea turtle of the night.
The main purpose of a stay on Selingan Island is to learn about and see native sea turtles, but visitors arrive with lots of free time before the sea turtle mothers descend. The island has beautiful beaches and is a great place to relax and unwind away from the busyness of other tourist destinations. Snorkeling gear can be rented on the island, and visitors can spend their day on the beach, in the water, or exploring!
Here’s a general schedule of what a day staying on Sea Turtle Island looks like:
8:30 am: Picked up from hotel
9:00 am: Arrive to the Sandakan jetty
9:30 am: Boat leaves jetty for Selingan Island
10:15 am: Boat arrives at Selingan Island, after beautiful, windy ride. Have a debrief from tour leader about the island’s history, sea turtles in Malaysia, the resort, and what to expect for the rest of the day.
10:30 am: Shown to our room, free time to stay inside or play on the beach until lunch.
12:30 pm: Lunch served in resort dining room. Meal is basic Malaysian fish, vegetables, and rice, with soft drinks or beer available for purchase.
1:00 pm: Free time
6:00 pm: Visitors need to be off of the beach by sunset so rangers can prepare for oncoming mother sea turtles
7:00 pm: Movie shown in the education hall about the state of sea turtles and the conversation work being done in Malaysia
7:30 pm: Buffet dinner served in dining hall
8:00 pm: Visitors are encouraged to stay in or around the dining hall to prepare for the first mother sea turtle. Visitors are only able to observe the first sea turtle of the night, so you don’t want to miss this call! If you fear getting bored, bring snacks, books, or other activities to dinner to stay entertained. Even going back to your room for your phone could mean missing the turtles!
*More on exactly how guests interact with sea turtles below*
11:00 pm – Midnight: *Approximately* Guests return to their rooms on the compound after their work with the first sea turtle is over. You’ll be exhausted, but the rooms are equipped with full bathrooms, soap, and towels if you need a shower before bed. The rooms are basic, but beds are comfortable and include outlets and ceiling fans.
6:00 am: Rise and shine early the next morning for your boat ride back to the Sandakan jetty. It feels early, and that’s because winds after that time make boat travel difficult.
Visitor interactions with sea turtles:
Once the first sea turtle is spotted, a call is sent among the visitors. A ranger and your tour guide will bring the group to the turtle’s nesting chamber by flashlight. Visitors are then directed where to stand to watch the birthing process, and how often to change positions so each member can have a great view.
Visitors are not allowed to use flash photography during this process, and are not allowed video recording at any time during the birth. After the mother delivers her eggs, however, guests are able to take pictures of and with her as she rests.
After the birth, guests follow the ranger to the hatchery. Here they watch the ranger dig a hole for the fresh eggs, mark the information plaque, and gently bury the eggs. Photography is allowed at any point of this process.
Guests then follow the ranger to release the day’s hatched sea turtles into the water. The ranger brings an animal carrier of the baby turtles to the water’s edge, gives guests a chance to see them up close, and then overturns the box to allow them to scurry into the ocean. Guests are asked to help the baby turtle reach the water should any get turned around.
The entire process lasts around one hour, and can happen at any time of night. We were warned that the first sea turtle could land as early as 7:00 pm, and that some groups had to wait until after midnight! The night we visited the island we waited until 11:00 pm for the first mother turtle to debut, which gave the entire group time to bond and joke.
It was a long, but wonderful day!
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