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Saving Sea Turtles in Malaysian Borneo

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Travel with me to Turtle Islands National Park, in Malaysian Borneo—and discover how you can help save the world’s sea turtles.

In This Malaysia Travel Article You Will Discover

  • A Remote Nature Preserve of the Coast of Borneo
  • The Plight of the World’s Sea Turtles
  • How You Can Visit & Help

The world’s sea turtles are in danger. Let’s help.

Forty-two kilometres offshore of Sandakan, on the northeastern shore of Malaysian Borneo—and five kilometres from Filipino waters—our group arrives via speedboat to Selingaan Island, the administrative centre of Turtle Islands National Park. This vital island preserve is dedicated to fostering healthy populations of green and hawksbill turtles by stewarding the eggs and releasing the hatchlings. Climate change, pollution and poaching all threaten these creatures in the South China Sea. And for tourists to Malaysian Borneo, Turtle Islands offers an experience that’s one-part beach bum paradise, one part hands-On conservation effort.

Bisected by the equator and situated between mainland Southeast Asia and the Philippines, Borneo is a region of fascination unrivalled. Home to the highest mountain in Southeast Asia—a popular overnight trek—as well as dense jungles harbouring proboscis monkeys, orang-utans and pygmy elephants, tourism to the world’s third-largest island has, of late, become it’s second-largest industry. And many operators are attempting to do tourism right—hence our overnight trip to Malaysian Borneo’s Turtle Islands National Park, where we’ll be treated to a day at the beach and a night helping to conserve one of the Pacific’s keystone species.

But first things first—Selingaan Island, marked by a sign at 6 degrees 10’ north, 118 degrees 04’ east, is paradise. It is a minuscule, eight-hectare island of soft white sand, swaying coconut trees and creepy monitor lizards that skulk out from beneath the beach huts oblivious and uncaring to your presence. Anticipating a late night awaiting the return of the egg-laying turtles, we laze about on the beach, swimming in the tepid Sulu Sea, until sundown.

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Momma turtle lays her eggs. No flash photography allowed!

At night, entertainment comes in the form of the Waiting Game. Turtles will return to the sands of this island to lay eggs tonight, but no one knows when. After dinner, there’s not much to do—8:00 p.m. comes and goes. By 9:00 p.m., I’m a bit tired; 10:00 p.m. sees me dozing at the dinner table. It’s off limits to venture onto the beach after sunset—here, turtles come first, tourists second. At 10:30, though, it’s officially turtle time—I’m roused from my slumber and we rush out to the shores where earlier we’d swum to find a metre-long green turtle laying a clutch of eggs into a sand pit. With no radio tag, it’s clear she’s a newcomer to Selingaan. She proceeds to lays 66 eggs; we watch in amazement of this circle of life. The parks staff tags her; an act she protests to with a few kicks of her fins. So little is known about turtle life cycle once they leave the islands, and these radio tags provide vital clues.

But the experience is only one-third done. Next up is to bury these new eggs in the rookery, protecting them from the greedy monitor lizards or regional egg poachers. And finally, with a tub of 45 green turtle hatchlings to set free, we wander back to the shoreline to complete the night’s task.

It’s a tough life to be sea turtle. We tip the tub over at the lapping shoreline and help guide these scrambling reptiles to the vast Pacific. The reason turtles lay so many eggs is to overwhelm predators with hatchlings. Most will be immediately picked off, and only the chosen few make it to out sea. And then they vanish for up to 10 years — known as the “lost years.” Eventually, some will return to these shores. Others will fall victim to pollution and hunting.

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Newly hatched sea turtles venture into the unknown…

Yes, these ancient reptiles survived the Cretaceous crash, but they may not survive us. But the hard-working conservationists at Turtle Islands Park — and, from time to time, some enthusiastic travellers — strive to ensure they don’t go the way of the dinosaur just yet.

Visit Turtle Islands National Park in Malaysian Borneo.

About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

5 comments… add one
  • yasna Dec 10, 2017

    Save Turtles in Malaysian Borneo, thank you very much for your nice article.

  • Fshoq Nov 8, 2017

    Malaysian Borneo is a beautiful place and helping baby turtles – a good thing. Thanks for that post, regards!

  • Thanks for this great post! keep up the great work! I really enjoy reading your articles!

  • Stephanie White Oct 31, 2017

    This must of have been amazing to watch. The baby sea turtles are so cute.

  • Jade D'sa Oct 22, 2017

    A couple of friends just visited Malaysia and witnessed this! Must be truly spectacular!

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