One of the most wonderful and life-affirming experiences in my entire life happened on a small island in an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Malaysia at a turtle sanctuary. I spent a week on this island, called Perhentian Besar, living in a rustic hut on an isolated paradise beach while learning about and helping endangered Green Turtles.
My backpacking husband and I flew from London to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After a few days in KL we took a one hour flight with Air Asia to Kota Bharu and then we took a boat over to The Perhentian Islands.
There are two main islands and a scattering of smaller uninhabited islets. The islands are known for their warm crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, snorkeling, 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 during monsoon season.
On Perhentian Besar, we stayed at Bubbles Turtle and Reef Experience which is a PADI 5 Star dive centre and a turtle conservation sanctuary. It was a fantastic experience for me personally and also valuable research while working on my series of The Backpacking Housewife romantic adventure novels, published by HarperCollins. My experience on the island was one I’ll never forget and one that I have used to enrich my fictional character’s storyline in my first novel. Reviewers have since mentioned in reviews and readers have messaged me to say that the turtle sanctuary part of the story was one of their favourite parts of the book.
The moment I set eyes on the tropical island and the turtle sanctuary I was enchanted. The water in the bay was so clear and the white sand beach looked so natural and unspoiled. The resort buildings were behind the natural line of the trees and surrounding jungle. The first thing I saw in the trees surrounding the open air reception area was a black-haired monkey with a long tail and big white eyes – it was the size of a small child. Apparently, these type of monkeys, unlike others I have encountered in Malaysia or Indonesia, are very shy and so for the rest of our stay, it remained elusive.
I also saw a lima for the first time ever. It was clinging to a tree above me eating leaves while its baby clung on and peered down at me. The lima looked to me like a cross between a fox and a bat – and it ‘flew’ from one branch to another in the tree using its loose body skin as wings. Amazing. I knew at once that this was my kind of place – basic in accommodation but clean and friendly and with a real focus on conservation and the environment.
Priority is given to the turtles who use the beach to lay eggs and guests are briefed on how to be ‘turtle friendly’ – no white lights on the beach from 7pm at night – no walking down the beach past the dive centre on the resort perimeter after 8.30pm. And, after 8.30pm, the common areas of the resort are lit with red light which won’t bother the turtles. This is because man-made white light confuses them as they use the white light of the moon to navigate to the beach to lay their eggs. Nesting turtles are instinctively careful about where they lay their eggs. Some 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 try again another night.
Interestingly, a Green Turtle can live to up to around 80 years old and doesn’t reach reproductive maturity until it is around 30 years old and it will come back to the beach it was born to lay its own eggs. It will come to the beach over the season three to five times to lay with a period of several days between lays. Then, as the process takes so much energy, the turtle will rest for a couple of years before going back to the same beach to lay for another season. She will lay over 100 eggs each time. Each one 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 she enters into a trance-like state and cannot stop laying until she has finished. She then spends a considerable time burying them until, quite exhausted, she drags her considerable weight across the beach and back into the sea.
Each beach hut has a sign on its door the shape of a turtle with ‘yes’ on one side and ‘no’ on the other. This is 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 under the light of the moon. Of course, I had mine set to ‘yes’!
Throughout the week, I was lucky to see a huge female green turtle lay her eggs on the beach at night and to sit and wait quietly with her while she dug her nest, lay her eggs, and returned to the sea in the early hours of the morning.
A truly magical and memorable experience that I’ll never ever forget. Also, I got to see not just one but TWO nests hatch at the sanctuary and to watch the baby turtles I saw being born run from the beach and into the sea.
I learned so much about the work involved in running a turtle sanctuary on this tiny island. The staff and the volunteers patrol the beach every night to watch out for and deter egg poachers as turtle eggs are sold as a delicacy here in Malaysia. Sometimes staff will simply monitor and guard the nest 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 to their hatchery. It was in the hatchery that I saw the two nests hatch.
Interestingly, 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!’
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 snorkeling with my new island friends. 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. Some of the best snorkelling ever because I got to swim with turtles too!
I absolutely loved every minute here on the island of Perhentian Besar. We made lovely new friendships with the sanctuary staff and the dive centre staff. Special thanks to Holly, James, and Jorges for answering all my questions – and if you are reading this – I did mention you in my acknowledgements!
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