Selingan Island, Turtle Islands Park – a sanctuary for nature

My home state Sabah, Borneo is famous for its biodiversity rich with wildlife. As a Sabahan, I am embarrassed to admit that I only started my domestic travelling in very recent years. With the short distance I have travelled so far, it is plain to see that I have only scratched the surface when it comes to exploring the beauty of our land on the island of Borneo and seeing for the first time many of the wildlife we have been blessed with.

After I have ticked off my list of encountering with the orangutans, proboscis monkeys, sun bears and Bornean pygmy elephants among others, my latest adventure was heading to Selingan Island, Sandakan off the east coast of Sabah to get up close and personal at the conservation centre with the turtles that come ashore to lay eggs.

My travelling companion Vivian and I took a morning flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and stayed overnight at the Sepilok Jungle Resort. It is the perfect place to visit the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre as well as the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. However, as both Vivian and I have been to the centres and with me being under the weather with fever that started the day before, we decided to forego the visit and try to catch up with rest before our journey to Selingan Island the following morning.

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a view of Sepilok Jungle Resort early in the morning

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on our way to the restaurant for breakfast at the resort… lovely to get away from the city and be close to nature

the journey
After a good night rest and simple breakfast at the resort (the homemade pineapple jam was delicious!), I was almost my usual self with the fever gone and we were ready to meet up with our cute and chatty tour guide Vendon and driver Jerry at 8:15am to head to the jetty for our boat ride.

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our destination, the Turtle Islands Park, Sandakan

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the Turtle Islands Park is made up of 3 islands – Selingan (8.1 hectare), Gulisan (1.6 hectare) and Bakungan Kecil (8.5 hectare)

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the boat that would take us to the island

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the eager faces… (photo credit: Vendon)

The sea was calm that day and it took us exactly 50 minutes to get to Selingan Island. Out of the 3 islands (with a total area of 1,740 hectare), only Selingan Island has accommodation for tourists to stay overnight to see the turtle nesting.

the destination
There are 4 chalets on the island in addition to the main building that housed the office, an exhibition hall with a video room and a restaurant. Each chalet has 5 – 6 rooms with very basic facilities. There is a fan in the room and also air-conditioner for those who cannot stand the tropical heat and humidity. The room was relatively clean, bed comfortable and my only complaint was the very cold shower!

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exterior of the chalet

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room with basic amenities

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bathroom with cold shower using collected rain water

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TV display at the main building – Vendon calls it the “Turtle Island stock market”!

The TV screen provided information on the turtle landings and nesting. There are only 2 types of turtles that come and lay eggs on the islands, namely GT/Green Turtle and HB/ Hawksbill Turtle.

The turtles will only come ashore to nest when the temperature is low and that is at nightfall. After lunch we were left with the whole afternoon to laze around to catch up with some undisturbed rest and vitamin D intake on the uninhabited beach and without any phone signal.

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there is a “curfew” after dusk so that the turtles that come ashore are not disturbed, and all visitors are expected to respect the others — no nudity on the beach!

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Vivian and I had the whole stretch of beach to ourselves (except for the marine police stationed in the shade on both ends of the beach monitoring the parameters as there are few islands belong to the Philippines within view in a distance)

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it was blissful with only the sound of the waves and soft breeze accompanying us until the serenity was broken a couple of hours later with the arrival of a group of Chinese tourists

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the tell-tale signs of the giant turtles’ previous visits

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the track left by the turtle when she came ashore

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we took a stroll on the beach for the sunset in the evening

the orientation
After basking in the setting evening sun and soothing breeze, and witnessing the sun disappearing on the horizon, we headed back to the main building for a tour in the exhibition hall and a video presentation before dinner.

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Vendon on duty

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the Turtle Islands Park was gazetted in 1977 as a turtle conservation centre

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info on the Green Turtle

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info on the rarer Hawksbill Turtle

A brief history lesson on turtle conservation and the islands:

1927 – The early history of turtle conservation in Sabah began when the administration of the British North Borneo Company recongnised the heavy exploitation of the turtles in the Kudat area (a town near the northern tip of Borneo).

1952 – The Turtle Preservation Ordinance No. 5 was introduced and successfully enforced.

1962 – The Turtle Preservation Ordinance was amended and replaced by the Fauna Conservation Ordinance.

1966 – The first turtle hatchery in Malaysia was undertaken on Selingan Island.

1968 – A similar hatchery was built on the other 2 islands, Gulisan and Bakungan Kecil.

1972 – The 3 islands were gazetted as Game and Bird Sanctuary.

1977 – The status of the islands was later changed to a national park and renamed the Turtle Islands Park.

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skeleton of a male Green Turtle… look at the bones of the flippers!

highlight 1 – the egg-lying mother
We stayed at the restaurant after dinner and waited to be called when a nesting turtle was spotted. At the time we were just hoping it would not be a long wait as it was unpredictable when the turtles would land.

Fortunately, we only waited until 9:17pm when Vendon came running to the dining hall and urged everyone to dash to the nesting spot at the beach front not far from the building.

All the visitors were reminded to remain silent, turn off all the lights to avoid spooking the turtle and not to do any video recording.

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the rangers put on the light at the nest in order for us the city folks to look on in wide-eyed wonder

After she finished laying her eggs, she covered them with sand using her back flippers and she rested. The rangers then switched on the lights for us to have a better look at the gentle giant and for them to perform a check on her.

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she’s tagged — a returning mother! And a baby hatched on this island herself many years ago as we were told that they do return to the place they were hatched to nest!

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ranger checked on her to ensure she did not have barnacles or other parasitic organisms

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taking and documenting measurements

She rested, and we took endless pictures. And I did feel we were intruding on her private moment and invading her personal space.

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We did not stay for long after that and were rushed to the hatchery for the next highlight of the tour. We left the turtle mum to rest and regain her energy before she headed back to the ocean.

highlight 2 – the freshly laid eggs
We quickly picked up our pace and followed closely behind the ranger with the bucket of eggs heading to the hatchery.

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a view of the hatchery taken during the day

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the 111 eggs laid by the returning mother

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the ranger transferring the eggs to the hole dug on the sandy ground

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the eggs must be transferred to the ground within 2 hours after being laid

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the ranger scraped the sand around the hole to cover the eggs as the sand was still warm and had been disinfected by the heat of the sun

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properly labelled — date of the nest of eggs laid, serial number, E = Green Turtle, 111 eggs and yellow stake instead of the usual white one indicating the nest has been adopted

The soft green netting is to protect the eggs from predators such as monitor lizards that are a common sight on the island.

highlight 3 – the energetic and excited babies
Next on the agenda was to release a few baby turtles. There has been a new regulation that the tourists will only get to release a maximum of 15 baby turtles to avoid them being disturbed or feeling stressed.

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cute little things…

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they just couldn’t wait to get into the water

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on they went

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they moved quickly toward the sea guided by the light

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almost there…

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the new born dove in without a moment of hesitation and swam away… how God made the creatures great and small!

The ranger informed that they were all female baby turtles.

That day I learned a new term — temperature-dependent sex determination. I found out that the gender of the turtles, like crocodiles and alligators, is determined after fertilisation and by the temperature of the developing eggs.

When the temperature of the incubated eggs is high due to the sand around the nests of eggs being warmed up by direct sunlight, the hatchlings will be female. When the temperature is lower in the shade, male hatchlings are expected.

highlight 4 – the adoption
There were 2 mother turtles that came ashore that night. We witnessed one nesting and the second one apparently came late at night and laid 60 eggs. Both nests were adopted.

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ranger checking on hatchlings, and also for the nests we intended to adopt

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Vivian adopted a nest of 71 eggs laid on her birthday on 13 December 2018

The baby turtles are expected to hatch after 50+ to 60 days after the eggs were laid so there was absolutely no chance for me to adopt a nest laid on my birthday like Vivian did as my birthday falls in August.

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I decided on a nest of 102 eggs laid on Christmas Day!

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presentation of certificate of adoption by Sabah Park ranger

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with Sabah Park enforcement officer Nasir on our right and park ranger Elmi on our left

We donated RM100 for the adoption programme and received a t-shirt each and a certification of adoption. The park rangers will email us the pictures when the turtles are hatched. As the nests we adopted are not in the shade, both Vivian and I will be expecting some baby girl turtles very soon.

reflection
Although monitor lizards roam Selingan Island, they are not the only nor the most dangerous predators of sea turtle eggs or hatchlings. We, the human who thrive in turtle and turtle egg exploitation are!

“Only when the last of the animals horns, tusks, skin and bones have been sold, will mankind realise that money can never buy back our wildlife.” 

“Humanity can no longer stand by in silence while our wildlife are being used, abused and exploited. It is time we all stand together, to be the voice of the voiceless before it’s too late. Extinction means forever.” 
― Paul Oxton, Founder/Director, Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation

a note of thanks
Vivian and I would like to thank Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure for hosting our stay at Sepilok Jungle Resort and the land transfers, and for arranging a hustle-free trip to Selingan Island for us. A huge thank you to Vendon the tour guide for making us laugh and keeping the whole trip lively, and Jerry the driver for safe journeys.

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with my first time and very good travelling companion Vivian, and cheeky Vendon

final note
Sharing a time lapse of serene sunset in Selingan Island with you (video credit: Vendon)

In nature,
Evon xx

(Trip to Selingan Island, Sandakan 7 – 9 Feb 2019)

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