The Perhentian Islands are famous for throwing Malaysia’s craziest beach parties. But the islands are hiding a secret from the party goers. Tucked away on a secluded beach there is a little team of people. Living on the beach and sleeping under the stars.
While the tourists are up partying, the team are up helping green turtles lay hundreds of eggs. And keeping them safe until they hatch 2 months later.
Working alongside the Malaysian fisheries department they all live and work on this beautiful beach, and it is surreal. This has to be one of the few places in the world you can be woken up by a turtle throwing sand at you as she shuffles by.
When they find her they keep track of how long each stage takes:
1. Climbing the beach
2. Making a body pit
3. Digging the nest
4. Laying eggs
5. Closing the nest
6. Camouflaging the nest
7. Returning to the sea
It’s not always straight forward! Some females, particularly new mothers, can make up to 10 body pits and still never lay eggs. Others are found climbing up rocks or trying to nest in tree roots. But when you do find a mother who starts digging a nest with her back fins, it’s incredible.
She’ll go into a trance when she lays, completely unaware of what is happening around her. That’s when the team make their move. They dig a tunnel into the nest and carefully remove the eggs. Even in trance she is still very sensitive to touch, particularly her tail. If anyone touches it she will immediately stop laying and return to the sea.
The team also gather data. Every turtle has individual face and shell markings which can be used to identify them. So they take photos of the face and shell, as well as the shell measurements.
She will still close and camouflage the nest, unaware that it’s already empty. Turtles are incredible camouflagers. Even though the team sit by her during the whole process it can be hard to figure out where the original nest was. This is why the team have to remove the eggs as they’re laid!
We have a great relationship with the Malaysian fisheries who share the beach with us. On a quiet night they’ll keep us busy with their pranks. Taking newbies on a wild goose chase following fake turtle tracks. They’ve mastered the fin prints, but an expert can spot they always forget the tail trail!
(Note: Only the photos using red light were taken by the team. Turtles are extremely sensitive to lights. You should never take flash photos of them.)
The team give the eggs to the fisheries, who create new nests. Safe and guarded in the hatchery. Each stick marks a nest holding up to 200 eggs.
After 2 months in the hatchery the nests will start to bulge at the surface. As hundreds of hatchlings clamber over each other inside, ready to break out.
To give hatchlings the best possible chance they are released all at once at night. They are never handled or posed with. They need to save all their precious energy for their first trip out to sea!
The bay is also a nursery for black tip reef sharks. If the team use any light at all (even red light) the shark pups will soon associate it with an easy meal. It’s no problem though. Moonlight is more than enough to see them race down to sea, and quickly disappear under the waves. It’s beautiful to watch.
Where they go is a complete mystery. The team won’t see them again until the females return to nest in 20 years time. But this isn’t the end of the conservation effort…
(Note: Daytime release and underwater flash photos weren’t taken by the team.)
From the project base in Kampung the team carry out daily surveys. It’s the best way to spend your day, your job is taking photos of turtles!
The team kayak to Turtle Bay, where turtles gather to graze on seaweed. And free dive to each turtle, taking photos of the individual markings on their face and shell. (Everyone receives a crash course in snorkelling and free diving at the start of the trip. You’ll leave the Perhentians feeling like a mermaid!)
Senior members of the team analyse the photos. They will identify the turtle, or register it to the database as a new one. By monitoring the local turtles the team can better understand the population levels. And decode the mystery twenty years between release and returning to nest.
If you are ever lucky enough to go to the Perhentian Islands and snap some turtle photos, please email the photos to the team with the location, date and time. You never know, you could have discovered a whole new Perhentian resident ??
Dead turtles are often found with their stomach and intestines filled with plastic and other trash. It completely blocks their digestion system, starving them and impacting their buoyancy. Trash impacts the entire ecosystem, not just the turtles.
So the team carry out regular beach cleans. The worst offender is Long Beach, home of the crazy beach parties. The team can fill trash bag after trash bag. Straws, carrier bags, fishing hooks and all sorts of other deadly items.
It gives you a great feeling as each trash bag filled has the potential to save hundreds of turtles.
Tiga Ruang Beach (the beach the team live on) is protected. Under Malaysian Turtle Law it’s illegal to poach there. But every other beach is first come, first served.
The fisheries will patrol other beaches. But if poachers get to a turtle first there is nothing the fisheries can do. The poachers have the legal right to take and sell the eggs.
Selling and consuming leatherback turtle eggs has been banned. But it’s too little too late – leatherbacks are virtually extinct in Malaysia now.
Green turtle eggs are still legal because they are considered a delicacy in Malaysia. After decades of eating turtle eggs it’s now a cultural norm. They’re believed to have medical and aphrodisiac properties.
There is no scientific reasoning or proof behind these claims. But you cannot disregard local culture or traditions. Turtle eggs sell for up to 6RM each, or $1.48. So a nest with 100 eggs is worth $148. That’s a great income for the locals.
Poaching is one of the biggest and most complicated battles the project faces.
Snorkel Tours & Cooking Lessons
One of the simplest ways to fight poaching is providing income in other areas by using local restaurants, local boatmen and local snorkelling tours. Any injection into the local economy provides an alternative to poaching.
Plus these things are fun! Learning to cook traditional food from locals the traditional way is fascinating. Snorkel tours are also a great way to remind the team what they’re fighting for, and how important it is to save it.
Connecting with locals is integral to responsible tourism. Because of this Malay dinners have become standard practice across all Ecoteer Projects. They are also they key to fighting poaching.
The team go to a different house each night and eat with a different family in the traditional way. That means sitting on the floor eating with your hands, whilst wearing traditional skirts. The team pay for the food, much like going to a restaurant. But the difference is that it builds a genuine connection between the project and the locals.
In Merapoh Malay dinners are so successful that the team are often invited to local weddings, and other personal events. People even scold the team if they haven’t visited recently!
It helps the project gain a greater understanding of why locals poach. It also helps spread the word why the team is protecting turtles and how important they are. With the hopes to plant the seed that will, in time, shift local opinions.
Cultural change is a slow uphill struggle, if possible at all. But tackling it with all guns blazing won’t get you anywhere. Disregarding local traditions or trying to prosecute poachers won’t encourage anyone to rally behind you. They’ll rally against you.
YOU CAN HELP TURTLES
In nature, one in ten thousand turtle hatchlings survive long enough to return as mothers. Through projects like these their chances rise to one in a thousand!
It’s not only the green turtles. Leatherback, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles have been known to lay at Tiga Ruang Beach. They haven’t been seen for years, but if they do find their way back there will be a safe beach waiting for them, offering their eggs a ten times greater chance at survival ?
Step 1: Visit the project, they’d love to have you!
Step 2: Share, if it’s not your cup of tea but you know someone who would love it let them know!
Step 3: Adopt a sea turtle to help WWF protect them.
Step 4: Subscribe to become a Wild Hearted Traveler and stay informed about exploitation!