After our afternoon of beach, lizards and rest, we headed to the main lodge for a tour of the small museum that the rangers of the Turtle Islands Park had put together. Our guide, Zali, was with us and showed us around the displays, adding his own information and answering our questions. We learned that the islands are visited by two species of sea turtle, the Greens and Hawksbills. There has been a conversation program and hatchery on Selingan island since the 1960s. The museum explained the life cycle of the the turtles- mother sea turtles crawl ashore (mostly at nighttime) to dig a nest in the sand and lay their eggs. The baby turtles that hatch from those eggs may range very far (some turtles with a GPS unit attached have been tracked as far as Australia), however they will return to their birthplace to mate and to lay eggs. At the Turtle Islands park, the rangers watch carefully each night to spot the mother turtles as they come ashore. After the mother turtle lays her eggs, she is measured and checked for an ID tag. If no tag is found, she is tagged. As the turtle digs her nest and lays her eggs, she is in a nearly trancelike state, so despite being fussed with by the rangers, she is not bothered and remains quite calm. As soon as she has finished laying, the eggs are collected (a few nests are left untouched as the eggs and baby turtles are an important food for other animals on the island), and transported to the hatchery. At the hatchery, the eggs are returned to a nest dug by the rangers, and surrounded by a protective fence to keep predators out and baby turtles in. An interesting fact that we learned at the ranger’s museum was that the turtle embryos are extremely sensitive to temperature variation- a difference in sand temperature of only 4 degrees celsius will result a nest of only males (27 degrees) or only females (31 degrees). After the eggs hatch (all at once, usually at night), the baby turtles are collected by the rangers and released on the beach.
After our visit to the museum we watched a film about the sea turtles and the conservation efforts at the Turtle Islands Parks. Then we enjoyed a dinner buffet of local Malaysian food, and waited for the sun to set. Although the turtles come to the islands year round to lay their eggs, there are some seasons that are busier than others. When we visited, they were getting about 5-8 landings a night, and 2-4 nestings. These can occur anytime between sundown and dawn, so we had no idea how long of a wait it would be before the first turtle landed. We waited, and waited, and worried that we’d come all that way and would never see a turtle, but then, around 10:00 PM, the call came in that it was TURTLE TIME! Because they don’t want the turtles to be disturbed too much, the rangers wait while the mother lands, drags herself to the nesting site, digs the nest and begins to lay before they allow the park visitors to approach. So the mother green turtle that we observed had first been spotted around 8:30 PM, but they didn’t let us know until 10:00. At that point we needed to hustle along the island trail and to the place on the beach where she was, so that we didn’t miss out. As we arrived, she finished laying her eggs and then we watched as she was measured and her tag was checked (she was a turtle that was new to the island this year, but had been on the beach to lay another nest a month or two previously). After spending a few moments with the mother turtle, who was still in her nesting trance and quite oblivious to our presence, it was time to head to the hatchery.
At the hatchery, the eggs that had just been collected from the turtle were reburied in a new nest. A tag was prepared for the nest, noting the number of eggs, the date and the species. The eggs needed to be reburied quickly, as they are sensitive to light and too much exposure can damage the growing embryos (flash photography is strictly prohibited during the entire experience). After watching the rangers carefully pack the eggs into the hole they had dug and then cover them with loose sand, it was time for the most adorable portion of the night…the release of the baby turtles. Down at the beach, the rangers had a basket of recently hatched baby turtles that they released near the water’s edge. Although we weren’t allowed to handle the turtles just for the sake of touching them, we did have permission to gently pick up and reorient any babies that were headed the wrong direction after their release. Eli was lucky enough to get to turn two babies around!
Releasing the babies was the last portion of the program and afterwards we returned to our rooms for some sleep, we needed to rest up for the next exciting part of our trip…a visit with orangutans, sun bears, and a river trip into the rainforest!