Turtle Time: My overnight on Turtle Island

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Following turtle tracks at sunset

I rolled my pen across the wooden linoleum, sliding it back and forth over the table top as I glanced over towards the clock.  Everyone busied themselves with small talk, knitting, or writing as we patiently waited in the cafeteria after dinner for a ranger to run into the room alerting us of a turtle laying her eggs.  Female Green or Hawksbill turtles can come up to lay at any time so the wait in the dining hall could be anywhere from right after dinner to twiddling our thumbs well into the night.  Turtles will only lay eggs in the evening and can be choosey about the conditions of where and when so you have to wait until a turtle finds the exact spot to leave her young.

Luckily, after only a few hours a ranger ran into the hall and announced, “TURTLE TIME!!!”

Everyone quickly grabbed their cameras and left towards the beach on the far side of the island, the moonlight shining a path along the sand.  We quietly followed the ranger and formed a small group behind the large Green Turtle.  Earlier in the evening she slowly made her way up from the sea, finding a quiet, dark spot and she began to dig.  She uses her flippers and powerfully smacks against the sand as she slowly creates a small pit.  When observing them quietly in the dark you just hear the sounds of the turtles digging in the distance.  Once the body pit is finished she uses her back flippers and digs a chamber to rest her eggs in, the whole tiring process that can take hours.

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Turtles travel over 1,000 miles to the beach where they hatched and navigate there by the earth’s magnetic field.  After she finishes laying her clutch of eggs then the ranger collects data and if it’s the turtle’s first time at the beach they will tag her so they can monitor her reproductive cycles.

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We moved the eggs from the beach and carefully bury them similar to how the turtle would.  They aren’t hard like chicken eggs, but soft, and they look like a bucket of damp ping pong balls.  The depth and temperature of the hole can determine the sex of the baby turtles.

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Our eggs – Turtles can lay up to 180 eggs in about a half hour

After we buried our eggs we headed back to the the beach with a basket of baby turtles who had hatched that evening.  Their flippers swing around rapidly as they get closer to the beach sensing the water and are excited to head to their journey.  Once placed on the sand they immediately speed towards the surf, their little legs moving about.  We all stood in the dark close to the water watching as the adorable babies swam into the dark sea.  It is an incredible sensation seeing dozens of babies, only a few hours old This will be the last time they are seen for several years, as biologists are unsure where they go or how they survive during “the lost years”.

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Turtle Island

Located 40 kilometers north of Malaysian Borneo in the Sulu Sea, Turtle Island is a series of small islands protected by the Sabah Government of Malaysia.  In this particular area there are two types of endangered turtles, Green and Hornbill that will lay their eggs on the beaches.  The program was created in 1966 and has several small chalets where visitors can stay overnight and see first hand how the conservation program works.  You get to spend a full day on the island exploring, snorkeling in the coral reef right off the beach, bird watching or searching for monitor lizards.  It was the most peaceful day on the beach I had on my trip.

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Protect our Turtles

Turtles are endangered due to poaching for meat, eggs and shells and places like this conservancy project help to keep the population from extinction.  It’s estimated that 1 in 1,000 turtles live to adulthood.  Borneo Sandakan Tours did an amazing job educating our group while providing us with a fantastic once in a lifetime opportunity!

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  1. Reply
    Mary Walto

    interesting! fascinating!!! lucky girl!!!

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