Sandakan is situated on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. An archipelago of small islands lie offshore, stretching up to the Philippines, and it was these islands that we were interested in.
Three of these tiny islands form the marine conservation area of Turtle Island Park where, each night, you can watch as green and hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
Green turtles are endangered as their eggs are considered a delicacy and so the conservation work carried out at Turtle Island is important. Visitors are only allowed to visit one island, Pulau Selingaan, to observe the turtles.
We boarded a speedboat at a Sandakan jetty which took an hour to travel the 40km to the island. En route we were able to see entire villages off the shoreline on stilts and, further out to sea, huge fishing nets on bamboo structures.
Pulau Selingaan is a tiny piece of paradise. The sand is pristine and there are of course no high rise developments here. Only 50 people are allowed to stay on the island at any one time so it isn’t crowded.
As the turtles do not emerge from the sea until after dark, free time is spent lazing around or snorkelling. We hired some masks and fins on the island but our chosen spot didn’t have much to see. Perhaps we should have asked about the best sites, or perhaps the coral was just in a poor state.
In order to not disrupt the turtles, in the evening there is a curfew of sorts. Dinner is served and afterwards everyone is split into groups. Each group waits with a guide until a turtle is spotted emerging from the sea. You cannot go wandering about the island without a guide. We had to hang around for a bit, but as it is important that the turtles stay relaxed to start digging their nests, we weren’t bothered. The guides get the call once the turtle has dug her hole and is preparing to lay her eggs. We were able to get quite close to our turtle as she laid her clutch.
The turtles are tagged so that their numbers can be monitored and as our wasn’t already tagged, our guide fitted her front fin with one. He had a gun, rather like a big version of the ones used in ear piercing. “It doesn’t hurt her,” he said as he pulled the trigger, but I think that the turtle begged to differ. However she continued to lay her eggs, and before she could bury them, the guide removed them from the hole.
On these islands the turtle eggs are re-buried in a protected enclosure until they have hatched. Each clutch is carefully labelled so that the conservationists know when to expect the eggs to hatch. They can then be collected and released directly into the sea at night.
We were also able to watch the baby turtles being released into the sea; at night there are fewer predators and the baby turtles follow moonlight to guide themselves to the sea. This method ensures that as many babies as possible make it to the sea and stand a greater chance of survival than if they were left on the beach where the turtles buried them.
Sadly only one in a thousand baby turtles survive to adulthood, so the more work parks like these can carry out, the better for the turtles.
Know before you go
A visit to Turtle Island needs to be booked in advance as places to stay on the island are limited. You might be lucky if you just rock up to the jetty and ask but don’t be disappointed if you’re told it’s fully booked.
You can book by using a tour operator like we did or by visiting agents in Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan. Visit the Turtle Island website for more information and up-to-date pricing.