Selingan Island is also known as Turtle Island and it is about an hour away by boat from Sandakan. It forms one of three islands (being the only one accessible to tourists) which are devoted to turtle research and conservation and it offers the opportunity to see sea turtles in their natural environment and learn about their reproductive processes. Our ranger for this part of the tour, Jaff, met us outside our hostel in the morning and with the outfit he was wearing he definitely looked the stereotypical wildlife ranger. He accompanied us in the jeep to a nearby jetty where we waited for a little while then got onto the speedboat to the island. Approaching the island, it looked like paradise. It has white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, green palm trees and only about 30 tourists are allowed at a time meaning it is almost deserted.
After checking in to our private chalet, we headed straight to the beach to make the most of our only full day on the island. On the way we stumbled across a huge monitor lizard which is main predator of turtle eggs and hatchlings. It was pretty scary looking and I wouldn't want to piss it off.
We reached the beach and I did a bit of snorkelling on top of the gorgeous coral reef. On my first outing I saw brightly-coloured tropical fish, starfish and a gigantic octopus which I was very careful not to disturb. After lunch, Rob and I went back out and saw even more as the tide was lower and some of the fish weren't shy nibbling at our toes and swimming inches away from our faces. There were some clownfish, angel fish and various transparent fish. Unfortunately we didn't have an underwater camera so no pictures of these.
The sun was incredibly strong and we both got burnt so we headed back into the chalet to take a break from it before going for a walk around the island. There are two hatcheries on the island which are outdoors. The eggs are buried in the sand and wire mesh is placed around them to protect from predators. We saw several monitor lizards trying fruitlessly to access the eggs but when we asked a ranger why they were allowed on the island he told us they were a good way to monitor (excuse the pun) how well the eggs were doing. More lizards, higher success rate. There was a number in each enclosure telling how many eggs were buried, what dates they were laid and identifying the mother turtle.
After visiting this area, we went to watch the sunset on the beach which was spectacular. The sky was incredibly clear affording us an amazing view.
Just as the sun went down, Jaff came over to us and told us a story about how he had been lost at sea near to the area and he pointed out several of the neighbouring islands, some of which belonged to Sabah and others which formed part of the Philippines. While telling us about the program for the rest of the evening and explaining the egg-laying process, out of nowhere he presented a baby hatchling turtle and told us we could release it away from the rest of the group. It was 2 or 3 days old and had just emerged from the sand where it was buried. We were unbelievably lucky to be able to do this as no one else on the island got the opportunity and normally rangers are very cautious in allowing tourists to do this. The turtle could move amazingly quickly considering it's tiny size and within 2 minutes of releasing it it was out at sea and we could no longer see it. We are both still hoping it survives as baby turtles have very low survival rates despite the work of the rangers as there are so many dangers at sea. Survival rate is less that 1%.
We went back to the communal area on the island and went upstairs with Jaff who guided us around the small exhibition on turtles. It gave us an idea of the two different species of turtles who are common on the island- green and hawksbill, and it had visual displays on the egg laying process. Talking to Jaff gave us a further insight into the importance of conservation. We later watched a documentary on the life cycle of a sea turtle and the environmental hazards which could eventually lead to their extinction, including litter in the sea, boats propellers and people discarding fishing nets which they get caught in. Their lives are incredible as they swim up to 2000 miles away from where they are born to then return every 2 years (following the electromagnetic patterns on the sea bed) when they reach sexual maturity to lay their eggs on the same area (sometimes even the same beach) as where they hatched.
After the documentary, we went for dinner and then eagerly awaited the call of the rangers to let us know there was a suitable mother turtle on the beach for us to observe i.e. Turtle time. By suitable, it means the first turtle which arrives which is of a certain age. It's only possible to go to the beach once she has dug a hole to lay in and gone into the 'trance-like' state she falls into in order to lay her eggs. This means that she is unaware of the people around her. We were given strict instructions not to touch or disturb her, to be as quiet as possible and keep torches and camera flashes off. We could still see very clearly however and with the way she had dug the trench, we could actually see the eggs emerging from her.
The turtle in question was a green turtle who was 1m long, 85cm wide and laid 70 eggs that night. When the turtles lay their eggs they look as if they are crying because they have huge salt glands behind their eyes where they store the salt from the sea and this keeps them moist during the 4-5 hours they spend on the beach when laying. We also saw a hawksbill turtle on the beach but as it was a full moon and because turtles are very sensitive to light, she returned to the sea without laying.
After the rangers had collected the eggs, they made sure that she started to fill the hole back in so they knew she had been unaware her eggs were no longer in the trench. When this happened we had to clear the beach to allow her a clear path back to the sea. Along the way, she would dig a dummy hole to confuse predators about the location of her eggs. The ranger told us this is the last thing they do for their offspring.
The next part of the program was to go with the rangers back to the hatchery. We watched them bury the 70 recently collected eggs (they have two hours while the embryos are still viable) into a newly created 30cm deep hole. The location where they are buried influences the gender of the hatchlings as in warmer temperatures (i.e. direct sunlight) more females will hatch, and in the shade more males will hatch. The rangers used new sand to bury the eggs in order to insure limited bacteria and then the mesh was put around the hole. There is nearly a 100% hatching rate which is very high compared to the 7% rate which would occur in the wild.
The last part of the day was to visit the beach with a basket full of 53 baby turtles which had emerged from the sand that day. These 53 were only a small fraction of the 1000's that are released each night, and they are released in batches to allow them a higher chance of survival as it makes it harder for predators to attack with the turtles being in groups which are spread out over the island. It was an amazing sight to see the tiny turtles making their way into the ocean with some getting a bit confused and lost on the way but all eventually making it and swimming off frantically into the distance.
We later returned to our beds feeling we had just experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity. We woke up early the next morning to make our way back to the mainland, both sad to be leaving paradise....