Sandakan has become infamous of late. A few weeks before we arrived in Sabah a German man and his wife were murdered on their yacht by Filipino pirates just off the coast of Sandakan. The Philippine Islands around Davao are renowned for such pirate activity and are a no go zone for tourists. We did hear later that some cruise ships with itineraries to visit Sandakan were now avoiding the port due to the pirate concerns.
After over 13 months of travel Di and I were losing some of our ‘travel spark’ and we were on the lookout for a much needed travel experience to get the juices flowing again, or give us a WOW moment. We looked at going to Selingan Island Turtle Sanctuary, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Kinabatangan River Lodge and Gomantong Cave by our own means but discovered these places, as individual bookings, were getting expensive and a logistical nightmare. A search online came up with the perfect solution – Borneo Dreams Tours, covered all these locations and at a very reasonable price – we were soon booked on a tour and became wayward tourists again. For AUD$800 for the two us, all the above listed locations were covered, with three nights accommodation, all meals, entry fees and pick up and transfers, especially when you consider accommodation on Selingan Island alone can cost as much as AUD$350 per night.
Borneo Dream started off perfectly by picking us up five minutes before the schedule time of 8.30am. Borneo Dream stored most of our luggage and we only took small backpacks over to the Island. These bags basically contained a change of clothes, toiletries and swimwear – we were now travelling light and someone else was doing all the thinking for us, already we were loving the experience.
There were two other young ladies on our tour to Turtle Island and these were two very impressive ladies. Jasmine and Jill had met at Massachusetts University whilst studying Marine Biology. After completing their degree the two have travelled together and are soon returning to study. Jill will study Veterinary science in London and Jasmine has been accepted into Medicine in the USA.
We arrived at the port of Sandakan and we were firstly amazed by what looked like a crocodile, but turned out to be a large Monitor Lizard, swimming through the floating rubbish in the harbour. Whilst waiting for the boat to arrive we got to know Jasmine and Jill better and once again we felt flattered as to how easily people over half our age accept us as friends and open up to us.
Di of course had read all the horror stories online about how bad and rough the 50 minute boat ride to the island can be. Di popped seasickness pills galore and protected her priceless iPhone with every ‘conservable’ waterproof protection she could find – it became clear, she was not chucking up and the iPhone was not getting wet, nothing else mattered.
We were joined on the boat by a French couple on a tour with a different company and we set off on smooth waters to the island. The 50 minute trip was very scenically interesting as we passed large mosques surrounded by large stilted villages in the ocean. We passed small islands where stilted wooden shacks had been erected on the beaches with absolute views to die for.
The sea remained calm, Di’s seasickness remained calm and life in general was calm.
There are three islands, in this part of Sabah, close to each other that are involved in the turtle conservation. One of these islands is all sand with a small hut on it and looks like an absolute paradise of a place to live. These three islands are the last three islands in Borneo before the islands of the Philippines start – we were really in wild adventure territory, I kept an eye out for Skull Island and King Kong just to be on the safe side.
The boat beached on Selingan island and we all clambered on to the sand feeling that ‘wowness’ already simmering away ready to erupt – we were doing something excitingly different.
It was now 10am and our not so informative guide told us to be in the dining room for a 6pm briefing and then we would have dinner. Jasmine and Jill were like Di and I and wanted more information please!!! The guide was then bombarded with legitimate questions like, ‘What do we do between now and 6pm?’, ‘When is lunch time?’ Where do we get snorkel gear?’ etc, etc. I don’t know if it was his reluctance to speak English or what, but he seemed so frustrated with having to answer questions. He answered what we asked, then dropped us in our rooms and we never saw him again until 6pm.
We soon discovered that apart from the four of us on the Borneo Dream tour, there were six other guests, with different tour companies, staying the night on the island, the French couple who came on the boat with us, then there were two elderly Swedish ladies and an older British couple. This was a blessing as the island caters for up to 30 guests and with only 10 guests the turtle viewing would not be so crowded. We were NOT allowed on the beach from sunset to sunrise without a National park Ranger as a guide.
Selingan island is very small but the Turtle Island National Park covers three islands, Selingan, Little Bakkungan and Gulisan and is 17 square kilometres. The National Park turtle sanctuary was established in 1966 and is the oldest in the world. During peak turtle season (October) up to 50 turtles can come ashore each night to lay eggs. These turtles are normally Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles.
I hired snorkel gear for 50 ringgits and two beach towels for 30 ringgits. We spent the rest of the morning snorkelling in a roped off area from the beach. The water was clear, with good visibility and enough fish and coral to see to occupy us.
We were served a good lunch and met all the other tourists to the island. It is funny how the minds of the staff work. The lunch room seating arrangement were three tables for two people and one table for four people. The reason was we were all booked with different tour companies and the staff, for whatever reason, felt it best to segregate the tour companies rather than simply having one table for ten people so we could chat and get to know each other.
After lunch Di and I were enthralled for the next two hours talking all things travel, American politics, marine biology, American university life and ways to save the planet with Jasmine and Jill – I think my daughter Charlotte would have loved these two girls. I spent another hour snorkelling and it was soon time for the 6pm briefing.
The four of us sat through a painful briefing, we didn’t think it was the guide’s English, as he spoke quite well, we just think he just was not interested in speaking to us. Di actually stood up and left the briefing to get her sunset photo, such was her waning interest in how the briefing was being conducted.
So this is how the evening would go, a lot of this we learnt from the other groups. After the briefing we watched a documentary on the turtles and their breeding habits – of course this was fascinating. We then had dinner, and this time we moved tables so some of us could sit together. From then on we were in ‘lock down’, no one could leave the building, until a turtle came ashore to lay her eggs. This waiting period could last up to 3am, there had even been nights when no turtles came ashore to lay eggs and the guests missed out completely. So we waited.
Luckily, at 9.35pm the call came ‘it was turtle time’. Everyone grabbed cameras and out we went to the beach. The turtle was already in position to lay her eggs, this was because the National Park Ranger had helped position the turtle to make her as comfortable as possible with all us photo snapping tourists stomping around. The night was simply beautiful with a full moon beaming down on a windless beach.
Three things then occurred which to me were all WOW!!!!!!! Firstly, there were three very heavily armed police officers, machine guns, bullet proof vests, camouflage gear, the works with us. At first I thought they were on the lookout for poachers and to protect the turtles. Alas, though they were there to protect the occupants of the island from pirates – Captain Jack Sparrow still lives apparently – we were just too close to the Philippines and the pirate threat was real!
The second WOW moment was when a second turtle came out of the ocean right in front of us. I felt so sorry for this second turtle because as she was half way up the beach she sensed us in front of her. This caused her to stop and move at a right angle along the beach before doing another sharp turn to move up the beach beyond where we were. With the full moon and the windless night, we saw her grimace at each thrust of her flippers to move herself the few centimetres on the sand, we heard each scrape of her shell on the sand. Us being there caused her to have to push her massive body which, weighed at over a 100 kilos, a heck of a lot further than she should have, but the brave mama turtle did it!!
Whilst that turtle endured the climb up the beach, the other WOW moment was the laying of 48 eggs before our eyes by the other turtle – we were living a David Attenborough documentary!!!!!
The guides shone flashlights under the turtle and the eggs popped out, it was not a time to be shy. The Park Ranger said the turtle goes into a trance and is unconcerned with the lights, our presence and at being touched. I guess it is a bit like female humans at child birth, as they too go into a trance when giving birth and all they think about is ‘I will kill you F@#$ B#@#$# for what you have done to me’, and then plot their eternal revenge on the male!!!
We had to stay with the one turtle so that we caused as minimal disruption to other turtles as possible. We watched the Ranger measure the length and the width of her shell.
The young female turtle was untagged so he tagged and recorded one of her flippers. The Ranger then chiselled a few barnacles from her neck. The eggs just kept on plopping out, with the ladies in our group gasping in sympathy as each egg made its journey into the world.
When the turtle was finished laying her eggs, the eggs were quickly scooped up in a bucket and our guides led us away from the Ranger and the turtle.
We quickly walked to the fenced off protected turtle hatchery.
The sex of the turtle can be influenced by where the turtle eggs are buried. For example, there will be more females born if the eggs are buried and hatched in a hot place with direct sunlight. Thus, there will be more males born in a shaded cooler location.
The eggs looked like ‘ping pong balls’. By burying them in a protected location the chance of these eggs hatching is as high as 96%. If the eggs were left in the wild predators like lizards, crabs, ants, birds, could dig the eggs up. There is also a chance that another turtle could accidentally unearth them when digging her own place to lay eggs. The eggs take five or six weeks to hatch.
Once the eggs were buried we were off to the beach on the other side of the island for the next WOW moment. We had 49 hatchlings from the previous night to release into the ocean. We all know that babies, regardless of their species, are just so cute and adorable, well magnify that cuteness and adorableness by a 100 and you will get a sense of how enchanting these little turtles were – they just melted your heart. They were being released at night to try and give them the best chance of survival. The ocean is full of predators like, fish, sharks, crabs, birds, who just love to dine on these adorable little turtles. The full moon made the night look brilliantly beautiful but it was not good for the turtles as they are seen easily by their predators with the light from the moon.
The little smoochy, woochy turtles are released on the sand and they make their way down into the water. This is better than releasing them directly into the ocean as the little turtles get a sense of where they are to assist them to return to the island later in life.
Like most juveniles some scamper eagerly from the nest into the freedom of the big wide world, others have to be coaxed along and given a shove, whilst others fall asleep and have to be woken, then there are those who simply go the wrong way and need a huge shove. We were able to assist the little cutesy, wootesy turtles, who fell asleep (they actually did) or went the wrong way, on their quest to reach the ocean by gently prodding them with our fingers. Well the cluckiness erupted big time with the seven females in our group, they were all on their knees pushing and cajoling these wayward turtles as if they were their own offspring – the three men stood back and slowly tssked as they shook their heads.
Once the little sweety, weety turtles were in the water they darted around on the waters’ surface and I swear I heard them saying, ‘Look at me mum, mum, look at me!!!’. The ladies all giggled and swooned in motherly adoration as the baby turtles disappeared into the night.
The really sad part of all this is that without human intervention only about 1 in every 50 turtles hatched will reach maturity. With the help of the hatchery this figure rises to about 3 – 5%. In essence we were sending these little fellows off to their near certain death.
Despite the best efforts of the hatcheries, turtle numbers are still in decline. The problem is of course humans. Firstly, pollution is a big problem, in particular plastic. Turtles will eat a floating plastic bag thinking it is a jelly fish, this suffocates the turtle. Turtles also get stuck in fishing nets, hit by propellers, are eaten for food by humans and sadly killed for no reason.
It was now after 11.30pm and our WOW night was coming to an end. We all babbled on like school kids as we walked back to our rooms, we were just that excited – I felt like I was living the dream!
To our horror we had to be up and at breakfast by 6.30am. We needed to be packed and ready to leave at 7am, expletives were flowing that morning let me tell you. This was one of, if not, the best nights we have experienced since our journey started – both Di and I felt invigorated.
We saw that three turtles had in fact come ashore on the island overnight. All the eggs from the night before were buried in the shade to make some cool dudes!
The morning was breathtakingly beautiful with the sun rising on the glassy ocean surface as we boarded our boat for the journey back to Sandakan. At Sandakan, we said good-bye to the French couple and admired the monitor lizards again lurking around the jetty. To our relief the guide said a quick goodbye to us and introduced us to a much better guide, who would escort us on the next leg of the tour. We climbed into the waiting minivan and there were three new people joining this leg of the tour – more about these three later. We all set off for even more WOW moments.
The adventure continues………………………….