Turtle Islands Park in Sandakan (Sabah, Malaysia)

Turtle Islands Park in Sandakan (Sabah, Malaysia)

The Turtle Islands Park situated off Sandakan in Sabah (Malaysia) are home to two species of turtle, the green and the hawksbill. They are two of the four species turtles found in Malaysian waters. Every evening, scores of female turtles go through the same arduous procedure to lay their eggs. Despite swimming long distances back to Sabah, the turtles return to the same beach regularly.

This once in a lifetime spectacle is witnessed by small groups of tourists of fortunate enough to visit the marine park. Located just 40km off Sandakan, Turtle Islands Park (Taman Pulau Pulau Penyir), comprises the islands of Selingaan, Bakkungan Kechil and Gulisaan. The park covers about 1750ha with most of this area being the waters surrounding the islands. The park provides a protected haven and a key element for the survival of various turtle species. All the islands in and around the park are important turtle breeding grounds. Unlike most other areas in Malaysia, the turtles lay eggs every night of the year, with July to October being the most frequented months.

The journey to the park across the Sulu Sea takes over an hour but during the monsoon season from December to February it could take as long as three hours in choppy waters. Selingaan Island is the only one accessible to tourists but all three islands are in the turtle programmed supervised by Sabah Parks. Selingaan is the smallest island at 8ha and its only real sign of development is a communications tower rising above the coconut lined beach. In the distance, several small islands demarcate the border with neighboring Philippines. A transboundary park has been proposed where common policies and laws would protect the islands and turtles of both countries. In May 1966, the park was established as Malaysia's first turtle hatchery. Conservation steps started long before when hunting of hawksbills was restricted in Sabah in 1927.

While most visitors arrive around lunchtime, the main event starts when the sun sets After dinner, it is a waiting game as visitors patiently relax for the ranges to announce the arrival of the first turtle. Each turtle lays about 100 eggs and then slowly crawls back to the water to recover from the ordeal. The whole process can take a few hours. Each morning the beaches are lined with tractor-like turtle tracks trailing into the water's edge. The rangers select one turtle per night for viewing the egg laying process. Huddled in a semicircle behind the groaning reptile, everyone gets a clear view of this natural spectacle. Each turtle is tagged to maintain scientific records and monitor the animal's health and the success of the programmed. To protect the eggs and enhance the hatching success, rangers carefully remove them to the safety of a nearby turtle hatchery for the 50 to 60 day incubation period. Activity is feverish as the newborn turtles emerge. It is estimated that just three percent will reach maturity.

The highlight of the evening is when visitors assist the rangers to release these hatchings into the sea. Human intervention probably contributes most to turtle survival but the activities of other people in polluting waters, collecting eggs and setting fishing nets lead to the demise of turtles. While the turtles are the star attraction, it is possible to snorkel around a coral reef on the northern side of the island. Here are exposed reef, rich in marine life, is accessible for those won don't want to venture into the water. For those who do, the waters around the island are clear and shallow enough for non-swimmers to have fun. While birdlife on the island is limited, observant and patient birdwatchers may spot white-collared kingfishers, grey herons, doves and the white-breasted sea eagle.

Accommodation on the island is restricted to 30 visitors so bookings are essential, especially during the peak season. Limiting visitor numbers is an integral part of the park's management. Visitors need to appreciate that the park was set up for the conservation of turtles. Therefore, management of both tourists and turtles is carefully orchestrated. Visitors are briefed about the procedures for viewing the turtles and the "do's and don'ts" are clearly but pleasantly outlined by the rangers.

Turtle islands is a great destination to see more of Malaysia's unique marine animals. The guarantee of seeing turtles every evening means that visitors will not be disappointed by their long journey.

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