One of the most wonderful and life-affirming experiences in my entire life happened on a small island in an archipelago off the north-eastern coast of Malaysia called The Perhentian Islands.
I spent a week on one of the islands, living in a rustic palm-thatched hut on an isolated white sand paradise beach, learning about Sea Turtle Conservation and helping endangered turtles at a Sea Turtle Sanctuary.
During that amazing week, I went out on beach night-patrol to monitor and record the nesting turtles coming ashore under the light of a full moon. I sat at a safe distance away and watch them digging their nests and laying their eggs.
I helped at the nursery in the daytime and saw lots of nests erupting with hundreds of tiny baby sea turtles emerging from the sand.
Then I helped to release the new born hatchlings from the position of their mother’s original nesting site on the beach and watch them run safely to the sea.
It was an incredibly emotional and magical experience!
MY TURTLE CONSERVATION EXPERIENCE
I organised my sea turtle conservation experience myself while I was in Malaysia from another traveller’s recommendation. I booked a week at Bubbles Turtle and Reef Experience which is an Eco-Resort and a PADI 5 Star Scuba Diving Centre and – as Bubbles Resort is located on an established turtle nesting beach – it is also a turtle sanctuary run by in-house turtle experts, interns/volunteers, and guests staying at the resort.
At Bubbles Resort all guests can choose – under the guidance of their trained staff and in-house biologists/zoologists – to help out at the turtle conservation project during their stay and to attend the talks and briefings about sea turtle conservation.
I learned so much about Green Turtles and about sea turtle conservation at Bubbles and I developed a new understanding about why sea turtles are so endangered and what can be done to help them. Some of the reasons for their endangerment are entirely natural and others are caused by humans.
Whatever the reasons – the situation for the survival of sea turtles – is now worryingly critical.
But before I go onto tell you more details about my own amazing week and my personal experiences of helping out at a sea turtle sanctuary, I want to share with you what I’ve learned about the plight of sea turtles.
THE PLIGHT OF SEA TURTLES
Of the SEVEN different species of endangered sea turtles in the seas and oceans today THREE are CRITICALLY endangered.
And, unless something is done to slow the decline, sea turtles could soon become extinct. Horrible for sea turtles but devastating for the world.
Why? Because sea turtles play an important and key part in the ocean’s ecosystems.
They graze on sea grasses which keeps it healthy and growing. Seagrass beds, in turn, are the breeding grounds for other species of marine animals like fish and lobster and shrimp.
WHY ARE SEA TURTLES ENDANGERED?
A Sea Turtle can live up to 50 years or more but they only reach their reproductive age at around 30 years old. At this age, they are fertile for around 10 years, during which time the female sea turtle can lay up to 10 thousand eggs.
But of those 10 thousand only very few baby turtles that hatch will survive.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy estimates that fewer than ONE in 10 THOUSAND eggs will reach adulthood. This is often due to natural predators like crabs and flocks of gulls on the coast – making that run from the birth nest across the beach and into the sea – the most dangerous time of its young life.
Once in the sea, there are of course more dangers, as many sea creatures would relish making a meal of a tiny sea turtle. But humans play a big role in turtle endangerment too.
FIVE HUMAN FACTORS THREATENING SEA TURTLES
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has identified FIVE significant human-made factors that threaten the existence of all species of Sea Turtles around the world.
FISHING: Too often sea turtles are caught and killed in nets and overfishing threatens their food.
POLLUTION: Chemical waste – oil spillages – toxic effluent – and plastic waste all pollute the oceans and the seas and threaten the natural habitat of all sea creatures including the Sea Turtle. Light pollution is also a huge factor as it confuses the turtle, affecting natural nesting instincts and causing mass hatchling deaths.
COASTAL DEVELOPMENT. Construction and development along shorelines and beaches means hundreds of nesting sites are being lost and the natural breeding habitats destroyed.
POACHING. Sadly, sea turtle eggs are valuable to poachers, because they are still considered to be a delicacy in certain parts of the world. Turtles are also sometimes killed for food and for making illegal products using their shells for leather and oils.
CLIMATE CHANGE. Global warming and the changes to beach sand temperatures has a massive impact on the remaining turtle population. Learning this shocked me during my time at the turtle sanctuary – because the hatchlings in an entire nest are all either male or female – according to the temperature of the sand in which the eggs are incubated. Cooler conditions means male hatchlings are born while warmer sand produces only females.
EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS also have a disastrous effect on seas turtle’s precious habitat. Climate change predictions for the future indicate the likelihood of increasingly volatile and violent weather patterns. This could result in a huge loss of nesting beaches.
HOW CAN WE HELP?
AS A VOLUNTEER: As sea turtles are generally found throughout the oceans of the world, a little online research will show you that volunteering opportunities are possible all around the globe. This means that anyone with a good level of fitness and a positive attitude and a strong desire to help can volunteer at a sea turtle sanctuary.
Unfortunately, as most sea turtle conservation efforts are underfunded, the sanctuaries and organisations that support the reserves rely heavily on volunteers to provide the resources needed to continue their conservation work.
Volunteering in sea turtle conservation could be one of the best things you ever do.
But if you want to look into volunteering for longer than just one week, then you should know that every year Bubbles Turtle Project offer a 3-month Turtle Conservation Internship Program during the season between March and October.
Transportation to the island is not included in the intern project but the successful applicant will be provided with all their meals and accommodation and also get the opportunity to attain or advance their scuba diving qualifications on site.
Intern duties involve working closely with turtles and hatchlings and other Team Turtle volunteers. The lucky participant will learn about turtle conservation, coral restoration, beach clean-ups and recycling. Find out more: Bubbles Turtle Project FB Page.
Of course, there are many other animal and marine conservation projects throughout the world offering internships and opportunities to volunteer your time. Many can be accessed through established and reputable organisations like Working Abroad and The Mighty Roar or Volunteer World or GVI and others.
I recommend that you do your own thorough research and proper checks before choosing to be an intern or a volunteer on any project. Find out about the location and the organisation and pay attention to the support you will be offered while you are there as many conservation sites are in remote locations.
Bear in mind that many conservation programmes make turtle welfare their top priority, but unfortunately there are some geared more towards making money through tourism, than serving the needs of the sea turtle population.
MY OWN TURTLE CONSERVATION STORY
Getting To The Perhentian Islands: My backpacking husband and I flew from Kuala Lumpur (KL) on a one-hour flight with Air Asia across the Malaysian Peninsular to a small town called Kota Bharu from where we took a boat over to The Perhentian Islands.
There are two main islands – the larger Perhentian Besar and the slightly smaller Perhentian Kecil – as well as a scattering of smaller uninhabited islets.
The Perhentian Islands are known for their warm crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, snorkelling, diving, and beautiful white sand beaches in a remote location.
It’s worth knowing that the season for these islands is from April to October.
November to March is the monsoon season. Due to high winds and rough seas, the islands and many of the resorts and hotels and restaurants will be closed and there are no scheduled sea crossings during monsoon season.
On Perhentian Besar, at Bubbles Turtle and Reef Experience, I was excited to be on a tropical island and to help out at the sanctuary and attend the ‘turtle talks’ by conservation staff while my backpacking husband went scuba diving.
For me, this trip was a fantastic experience in two distinctly different ways.
I wanted to help out at the turtle sanctuary but also do some research for my romantic adventure series of Backpacking Housewife books published by HarperCollins.
Readers have since messaged me to say that in The Backpacking Housewife (Book 1) my character’s adventures in the turtle sanctuary part of the storyline was one of their favourite parts of the book!
THE BEACH AND TURTLE SANCTUARY
Our boat from the mainland stopped off at various beaches and bays on the island. We dropped off guests who were staying at other resorts on Perhentian Besar. Our accommodation at Bubbles Resort and Turtle Sanctuary is the last stop because of its location in a secluded bay around the headland. The resort is only accessible from the sea because of the island’s dense jungle interior.
I knew at once that this was my kind of place. The water in the bay was so clear and the curved white sand beach looked so clean and natural and unspoiled and inviting. Palm thatched resort buildings were laid out in blocks behind the natural line of the trees and in the fringes of the surrounding jungle. Hammocks where hung in the shade of the trees. It looked both charmingly rustic and idyllic.
As we approached by boat, I saw the beach and the resort and I was enchanted.
As we climbed out of the boat carrying out backpacks and walked up the beach, we were welcomed by reception staff. I also saw we were being watched from the trees by a black-haired monkey with a long tail and big white eyes. It was the size of a small child. Apparently, these types of monkeys, unlike others I have encountered in Malaysia or Indonesia, are very shy. For the rest of our stay it remained elusive and, although I often looked out for it, I never actually saw it again.
I also saw a lima for the first time ever that week. I was relaxing in a hammock with a book to read and I saw it clinging to a tree above me, thoughtfully chewing on a leaf while its tiny bright-eyed baby clung to its belly and also peered down at me
I thought the lima looked like a cross between a fox and a bat as it took flight and ‘flew’ from one branch to another in the tree canopy using its loose body skin as wings. It was amazing!
On being allocated our beach hut accommodation, I saw each door had a handmade wooden sign on it in shape of a turtle. The sign had ‘yes’ painted on one side of it and ‘no’ on the other.
It was explained that these signs were for guests to be able to indicate to the beach patrol staff at the sanctuary whether or not they want to be alerted to any turtles coming ashore at night
We found the huts comfortable and clean and the resort staff were friendly. The resort looked well cared for and organised. The room rate includes breakfast but guests can take a meal plan to include lunch and dinner if you wish to eat three times a day.
All guests are briefed on how to be ‘turtle-friendly’ and this means no white lights visible from the beach from sunset (around 7pm). This is because man-made white light confuses the turtles coming ashore as they instinctively use the white light of the moon to navigate to the beach to lay their eggs.
There was a real focus on conservation and the environment and priority is given to the turtles who use this beach to lay their eggs. There is no walking allowed on the beach after 8.30pm, unless you are on night patrol and you are helping to look out for turtles coming up the beach to lay their eggs.
Nesting turtles are instinctively careful about where they choose to lay their eggs. Some turtles will come ashore and dig several pits before choosing the perfect place to lay. Some, dissatisfied with the site, will abandon laying their eggs and then try again another night.
The common areas of the resort are therefore lit with red lights that won’t bother the turtles.
There are SEVEN species of Sea Turtle and all are endangered.
The seven types are: Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley, Olive Ridley, Flatback.
THREE Turtles are considered the most endangered at this time: Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead
The Green Turtle is the largest of the species. They can weigh over 700 pounds and their heart-shaped shell or carapace can measure over 5 feet in length.
The Green Turtle is the only true herbivore of the seven types of sea turtle.
A Green Turtle can live 50 years or longer.
The Green Sea Turtles is named for the greenish colour of cartilage and fats rather than the colour of their shells.
A Green Sea Turtle doesn’t reach reproductive maturity until it is around 30 years old.
Only the female sea turtle will leave the sea and she will somehow find the same beach where she was born to lay her own eggs.
She will come back to her beach three to five times over the same season with several days between lays and she will lay over 100 eggs each time.
As the beaching and egg laying process takes so much of her energy, the turtle will then rest for a couple of years, before going back once to the same beach to lay for another season.
Each turtle egg is the size of a ping pong ball. It is soft and it feels papery and quite weighty in the hand.
After finding a spot high up on the beach above the tide line, the turtle will begin to dig with her front flippers, thrashing about until she is in a deep pit. Once she feels she is below the natural line of sand she will lay her eggs in a chamber within the pit.
Once she starts to lay her eggs, she enters into a trance-like state and cannot stop laying until she has finished. She then spends a considerable time burying the eggs and carefully covering her nest until, quite exhausted, she returns to the sea.
Throughout my week on the island, I was lucky to see the miracle of several huge female green turtles coming up the beach, leaving behind a trail that looked to me like tyre tracks in the sand. I felt it was an exciting and emotional experience to see this for myself. Especially when you consider that Sea Turtles only ever leave the relative safety of the sea to come ashore to lay their eggs on the same beach that they were born.
I found myself feeling so very grateful that this beach, unlike many other beaches in the world where turtles are born, was still here.
But I also couldn’t help but to feel upset for those turtles who at thirty years old and more, having travelled so far and somehow found their own birth beach, often find it now has a hotel built on it and bright white lights to add to her confusion.
Because when this happens and the turtle cannot safely come ashore. In distress, she will evacuate all her eggs into the sea, and they will not able to incubate and survive. This situation – a lack of nesting habitat – is one of the main reasons turtles are endangered. Other reasons include egg poaching and natural predators.
That’s why one of the jobs here at the sanctuary is to watch out for and deter egg poachers as turtle eggs are often sold as a local delicacy.
The staff and the volunteers and participating guests patrol the beach every night. Sometimes staff will simply monitor and guard the nests and count the days of incubation until it is ready to hatch (around 60 days) or, if they think the nest might be at risk from vermin or from the incoming tides, they will painstakingly remove all the eggs and transfer them very carefully into their hatchery.
Interestingly, but a concern when it comes to the issue of global warming, a turtle nest will contain either all male or all females depending on the temperature of the sand around the developing eggs. Cooler temperatures produce males and warmer temperatures produce females. I was told the best way to remember this is to say: ‘cool dudes and hot chicks!’
On my night watch and under the bright white light of a full moon, I saw for myself the considerable effort it takes for the female Green Turtle to drag her huge body and considerable weight up the beach and over the tide line.
It was such a privilege to sit with her (at a respectable distance) and to watch her as she finally reached a good place to thrash about and dig out her nest and then enter her trance to lay her eggs. It took her several hours.
During this time, using our red-light torches, the staff and I quietly and respectfully observed her and noted her markings for identification purposes. Then we took some photos and carefully measured her. In her trance, she didn’t seem to notice us.
From her unique markings, it was determined that this was her second visit to the beach this season. She’d had a name given to her last time. Her name was ‘Choosy’ because she had been so meticulous about choosing the right place to lay her eggs on the beach. Several hours later, in the early hours of the morning, I watched Choosy make her way back down the beach and into the sea.
It was a truly magical and memorable experience. One I know I’ll never forget.
While I was busy at the turtle sanctuary, my backpacking husband was scuba diving, and when I wasn’t monitoring turtles on the beach I was out snorkelling with my new island friends.
One day, we took a boat out to explore some small uninhabited islands with the most gorgeous beaches and clear warm waters and coral reefs teeming with life. It was some of the best snorkelling I’ve ever experienced because I got to swim with turtles too!
I absolutely loved every minute of my time at Bubbles on the island of Perhentian Besar.
Let me know in the comments box if you’ve ever experienced swimming with turtles or ever seen them nesting or if you’ve watched hatchlings being born. Or if you would like to volunteer to help out at a turtle sanctuary. I’d love to hear from you!
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