Monday, May 14, 2012

Turtle watching in Sabah

David Bowden gets the rare opportunity of observing a wild turtle lay its eggs on the shores of Selingan Island

THE call came two hours after sunset and eagerly we filed into the darkness behind the ranger’s solitary torchlight to experience one of nature’s great spectacles.

The wait had been long. But in the end, it was well worth the opportunity to see firsthand a female Green sea turtle lay a clutch of over 100 eggs and then, to experience the privilege of releasing some baby turtles into the Sulu Sea.

Turtle Island Park, 40km off Sabah’s northern coastline, is one of the region’s best places for seeing wild turtles. The 1,760ha park comprises three islands — Selingan, Bakungan Kecil and Gulisan — and its protection as a conservation area is making a valuable contribution to the survival of turtles.

Selingan Island is the only one accessible to the public but all three participate in the Sabah Parks turtle hatchery programme. The conservation area extends into neighbouring Philippines under a transboundary management arrangement between the two nations. This means that both countries appreciate that turtles do not recognise international borders and that both island groups need to be protected.

On most evenings, turtles venture from the sea onto the shores of the Turtle Island Park to lay their eggs.

Maritime eco-adventure

We arrived into Sandakan on the first flight from Kota Kinabalu. Once we were in the open waters of the Sulu Sea, the fast boat was soon skimming the surface.

The simple accommodation on Selingan is restricted to 30 visitors but is very comfortable considering the isolation. All rooms are equipped with either air-conditioning or fan and there are communal showers and toilets.

Our meals were provided in the package and they included a good selection of simple but filling dishes.

There is an informative display and video presentation in the visitors’ centre.

I spent the afternoon snorkelling in the shallow waters and taking a leisurely stroll around the island. While the island’s birdlife is limited, I spotted white-collared kingfishers, grey herons, doves and white-bellied sea eagles.

After an early dinner, it became a waiting game where we eagerly anticipated the rangers’ announcement of the arrival of the first turtle.

Cameras and torches are not allowed while watching the turtle lay its eggs so that it is not disturbed. We also had to keep well back from the reptile.

Green and Hawksbill turtles visit the island after dusk to lay their eggs in shallow holes which they laboriously dig in the sand. Adult turtles can grow up to a length of about half a metre and weigh up to 40kg.

Each turtle lays about 100 eggs and then slowly crawls back towards the Sulu Sea. In the morning the beach was lined with turtle tracks trailing into the water.

The rangers selected just one turtle for us to observe. We huddled in a semi-circle behind it and managed to see its eggs slowly popping out.

The park rangers took measurements of each turtle to monitor the success of the programme. The eggs were then transferred to the safety of a turtle hatchery for the 50 to 60day incubation period.

While the new eggs were safe in the hatchery, other eggs were being hatched elsewhere. The activity in these holes was feverish as the newborn struggled to the surface of the soft sand and their chance to face the world.

The highlight of our evening was when we assisted the rangers to release the young hatchlings into the sea. Watching the excitement on the faces of the kids gave one a sense of optimism that we were making a valuable contribution to the survival of the turtles.

Not only are the turtles protected and egg-laying numbers maintained, but the programme is also an economically viable eco-tourism activity. 


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Moktar said...

Its a miraculous experience watching a sea turtle laying its eggs, however its a shame to know that some irresponsible individuals steal the eggs to be sold. Sea turtles are slowly going extinct and its even more difficult for them to survive if their eggs are stolen. These egg thieves must be jailed.

Moktar said...

The park rangers who help incubate the eggs safe from predators or theives are doing a good job to ensure the chances of survival for these baby turtles.

Anonymous said...

Supposed to take serious action on those who sells the turtles' eggs to public. In Sandakan, the PATI mostly are the ones who are selling the eggs. Do not know why the authorities let this thing happen.

Smookiekins said...

Most turtles that spend most of their lives on land have their eyes looking down at objects in front of them.

Smookiekins said...

The upper shell of the turtle is called the carapace. The lower shell that encases the belly is called the plastron.

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