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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Memorable Pulau Selingan (Turtle island) in Sabah

By Cynthia Hazebroek

My family, including 2 kids Iris 11 and Oscar 13, came last year in July to pay me a visit and one of their wishes was to see turtles since they had missed them on an earlier holiday in Surinam (South America).

We were very lucky to get rooms on Pulau Selingan (Turtle Island) since it was high season and they only accommodate 38 persons per night in order to protect the turtles.

It is the second largest of this small group of three islands and most developed. The island is 8 hectares and the Sea Turtle Conservation Program protects not only these islands but also the shallow waters surrounding them as they are part of Turtle Islands Park. On August 1st 1966 the first hatchery in Malaysia was set up on this island and funded entirely by the State Government. This program is administrated by Sabah Parks.

July to October is the peak season for Green Turtles ( Chelonia mydas) but also Hawksbills ( Eretmochelys imbricata) lay their eggs here.

The island lays in the Sulu Sea 40 km north of Sandakan and when we arrived at the park rangers gave us a short briefing about Park regulations and divided us into smaller groups. This prevents turtles which are laying eggs from being stressed by too many people crowding around.

One of Park regulations is that visitors are not allowed to go to the beach from sunset to sunrise since the turtles are already near the shore and waiting until the right time to get to the shore. The park also allows visitors to see only one landing and they call the group as soon as a turtle is ready and in a trance to lay their eggs.

During daytime the place is ideal for snorkeling and swimming and after 6pm got an explanation tour at their excellent visitors centre while waiting for their call. They put us in the first group since we had two kids with us and luckily at 7.30 a turtle came laying her eggs. Since we were not allowed to use a torchlight we had to walk really carefully so as not to fall into the old nests and the place was really wobbly. The kids were very excited when they saw the turtle laying her eggs and the park guards counted 90 eggs from this nest. Only people that had paid a small fee to take photographs were allowed to go a bit closer to take a picture without flash.
After the huge turtle laid her eggs the guards dug them out and took them to the hatchery. This is to ensure that wild predators, such as the monitor lizards, do not eat the eggs. Each pit is 30 inches deep, fenced around with wire mesh and identified by a bamboo marker bearing the serial number of the nest, collection date and number of eggs.

After an incubation period of between 50 and 60 days, the hatchlings dig their way up to the surface of the pit, usually at night, when the sand is cooler. The kids were also happy that baby turtles from previous nights came out and were released that night. Sadly the guards didn’t allow the kids to release even one since that would have made this night even more memorable. The kids were really disappointed. In Surinam the guard was much friendlier and had given the baby turtle to my other niece Tessa and she was thrilled.
Early the next morning when my brother, my husband and the kids went out for a morning walk they found a full-grown turtle stuck between the rocks and she was absolutely exhausted. There was no way to get her back to the sea without more manpower and after 10 strong man helped her she made her way back into the sea and we hope she comes back maybe many years later to lay her eggs.

After breakfast before we went to our boats we saw on the notice board that 46 turtles came to shore that very night, 3911 eggs were laid and 911 baby turtles were released. Let’s hope that all the babies will survive their first trip which may span thousands of kilometers of open ocean waters with many predators, and will come back when they are mature to lay their eggs for the next generation.

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