Kate Kuchnowska of Western & Oriental, talks about her experience in Turtle Island, Malaysia.
When my friends suggested we should visit Selingaan Turtle Island of the coast of Borneo I hesitated. First of all the thought of boarding a flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan only two days after arriving on my Malaysia holidays from London made me wary, as being a nervous flyer I try to avoid planes at any cost!
Secondly the attraction itself has mixed press. Some visitors loved it; others called it a “sad spectacle” and argue that the turtles should be left alone.
Somehow my friends managed to convince me that as we were already there, we could not miss such an opportunity for a close encounter with wildlife. We took an early morning Air Asia flight that thankfully lasted only 35 minutes. A very talkative and difficult to understand Chinese taxi driver took us from the airport to the jetty and from there we boarded a speedboat and our turtle adventure began.
The day was beautiful, we were speeding past colourful villages on stilts, the sea and the sky were equally blue and when after an hour boat ride we arrived to the little tropical island in the middle of Sulu Sea it looked to us like a private paradise. There were over 40 guests on the island that day, but I had no idea where they were hiding, as we only saw other people during mealtimes.
We left our bags in our simple but comfy chalets, hired snorkelling equipment and spent a large part of the day swimming in the warm, clear water.
After lunch, the island looked completely deserted. I went for a walk to take some photos. The world seemed to be so peaceful that I decided that even the jungle is not as scary as I thought it would be and I really enjoyed being in the tropical forest. At this precise moment I saw a dragon! A huge monitor lizard was taking advantage of the quiet afternoon sitting on the pavement and almost scared me to death!
The evening was all about the turtles. We had a guided tour of a small turtle museum, watched an informative film about turtle conservation and were getting more and more excited. Will the turtles come, we were wondering. Will they lay eggs? Are we going to see them? We were waiting in the darkness ready to go. At about 8:30pm the ranger called that a turtle had landed.
We walked quickly in silence to the place where we had been swimming only a few hours ago. The beautiful animal was there, already laying eggs. We were standing in silence watching her, taking turns to come closer and take pictures. After she finished the ranger measured and tagged her and we left her in peace. We took the eggs to the heathery, where they will stay for about 2 months in safe and clean sand, protected from the ‘dragon’ I saw earlier. Later, we went to the beach on the other side of the island to release little hatchlings. Fifty-two of the cute, tiny, one-day old creatures were set free and raced to the ocean. Then the spectacle was over. We were asked to stay inland and not disturb other animals.
Each night about 30 turtles lay eggs on Selingan Island, but only one or maximum two of them are watched by tourists. Since the beginning of the conservation programme, over 11 million turtles were released to the sea, but only 5% of them survive. It’s still much higher survival rate than when the process is left to nature.
It was raining all night, the sea was rough and the boat ride back was bumpy, but we had just had a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience. We were still amazed by the beautiful green turtles and nothing could destroy our happiness. The Chinese taxi driver was waiting for us at the jetty smiling from ear to ear, ready to take us to the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. After all, one ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience is definitely not enough!