Watching a mother turtle lay her eggs in a sandy nest and seeing the release of tiny hatchlings waddling across the beach is one of Sabah’s many highlights.
At Turtle Islands Marine Park, a tiny archipelago 40 kilometres north of Sandakan, almost every night green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and the smaller hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) emerge from the Sulu Sea to lay their eggs in the sands. To help boost the numbers of these endangered turtles, the eggs are collected by park rangers and moved to the safety of a turtle hatchery.
The islands span the international border separating Malaysia and the Philippines, with six in Filipino waters and three in Malaysian, the first trans-boundary protected area of sea turtles in the world. From Sabah it’s only possible for tourists to visit tiny Pulau Selingan and as turtles prefer to lay their eggs under the cover of darkness, you must overnight it on the island. Like many of Malaysia’s national parks, associated tourist services are privately managed—and extortionately priced. Many agents in Sandakan offer tours, but it’s more economical to book a package which includes transport, accommodation, and all meals directly though the managing company, Crystal Quest. This means however you won’t have the benefit of a guide when you get to the island, but it’s not really necessary as the rangers are very informative.
Boats leave Sandakan around 09:30 and it takes a bit more than an hour to reach the island. Seas can be rough. Ringed by powdery white sand, the island is your usual tropical cliche, and there’s plenty of time to enjoy swimming, snorkelling or just lazing about; other than this there is little to do. Snorkelling gear and beach mats can be hired. You are required to wear a lifejacket for swimming, and if not, you must sign a waiver. Beware of seasonal marine stingers and other poisonous sea life. The rangers will alert you to the dangers; there were some poisonous sea snakes nesting when we visited.
It’s interesting to wander around the island and see the many turtle tracks, but be careful as there are many large turtle holes to easily trip into. Several of the turtle eggs’ predators prowl the island and you’re likely to spot one of the large monitor lizards. The beach closes at 18:00 and machine-gun-wielding security are keen for you to observe this rule.
The accommodation is in the middle of the island, away from the beach. Very basic air-con rooms are housed in a group of longhouse-style wooden chalets, each with a communal lounge area. Beds are comfortable and tiled rooms are clean, and the ensuite bathrooms are also clean and basic. They are supposed to have hot-water showers, but none in our row of rooms was working, and there was no staff around to help.
Meals are taken in a communal hall and served buffet style. Ice creams and drinks including beer can be purchased until 22:00. When you come to dinner bring everything you may require for an evening playing the waiting game for the first mother turtle to arrive, such as insect repellent, cards, books, torch and raincoat. When the action happens, it’s pretty fast, and you may miss the entire programme if you go back to get something.
An electronic board displays how many turtles nested the previous evening, how many eggs were laid, and at what time the first turtle appeared. This may or may not indicate how long you will have to wait. We have experienced the first turtle arriving at 20:00, and also at 03:00 the next morning. Between July and October you’ll have a good chance of it being a reasonable time. At 19:00, a short documentary is screened upstairs. If you are travelling independently (booked through Crystal Quest rather than an agent), after dinner, drop into the rangers’ office and pay the conservation fee (adults 60 ringgit, children 30 ringgit) and camera fee (10 ringgit).
At some point in the evening a ranger will yell TURTLE! and then it’s a mad rush to the beach to see a nesting female. If there is large group of guests they may divide into two groups, in which case group B will have to wait for another female to arrive. You will only see one turtle laying eggs as you could imagine it’s not a great experience for the turtle having a huge group of ogling tourists. Light is disturbing to the turtles— turn off your torches when instructed, and DO NOT USE FLASH photography (there’s always one—let it not be you). Be careful in the dark—you don’t want to fall on a turtle! The rangers are good at crowd control and everyone will get a chance to see, so be patient.
The turtles are measured, tagged if they haven’t been previously, and the eggs collected and taken to the hatchery. Next the (oh so cute) wriggling hatchlings will be carried to the beach to make that important walk across the sand, apparently imprinting on their brain the exact coordinates for them to return to years later, perhaps to give birth to hatchlings of their own. You won’t be able to handle the babies, but you can wish them luck as they swim off to begin “the lost years”.
The next morning you can ask the rangers the numbers from the previous evening, as the board will not yet be updated. During July 2016, on one night we visited, there were 30 turtles nesting who laid 2,329 eggs. Boats return to Sandakan early morning and the timing works so that you can catch a taxi directly to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in time for the first feeding. Visiting Turtle Islands Marine Park is very popular and you will need to book, however Crystal Quest can be difficult to contact and are reluctant to take your booking without payment. We had the best luck going directly to their office with cash. The overnight package costs 604.20 ringgit for a double, and 434.60 for a single traveller, plus the conservation fee payable to Sabah Parks on the island.
If Turtle Islands Marine Park is fully booked, and you’re still keen to see turtles, Libaran Island nearby Selingan, although not part of the marine park, could provide the opportunity as both hawksbill and green sea turtles come ashore to nest. The fishing village on the island has a basic “glamping” resort with accommodation in furnished tents.
Crystal Quest: Sabah Park Jetty, Jalan Buli Sim-Sim, Sandakan; T: (089) 212 711; F: (089) 212 712; firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sally Arnold.
Last updated on 13th November, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.