Turtle Time on Sabah’s Selingaan Island

We awoke to a similarly excellent birds eye views of Sandakan from our hotel room window. After breakfast we checked out and met our new guide, Joan in the hotel foyer. From there we were driven to the wharf. After about half an hour waiting all the travellers going to Selingaan (Turtle) Island were allocated to one of three boats and we were instructed to put on our buoyancy vests then off we went for a bumpy boat trip to Selingaan Island. Well, initially it was quite calm as we passed the moored fishing boats and the stilted houses along the shoreline.

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However after about twenty minutes the boat started to bounce from the crest of one wave to the next. It really shook us up. I was really glad to have taken a ginger tablet after breakfast to help with motion sickness. After an hour we came into sight of our destination, Selingaan Island.

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The boat drove right up to the sand and then we disembarked, dragging and lifting our cases with us. One of the staff met us with a drink and we were briefed on the program for the day, which would be mostly resting, swimming, snorkelling, eating, drinking and waiting for night to bring us ‘turtle time’.

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Next we were shown to our room, a few hundred metres from the main building. From the outside the chalet looked fine but our room was extremely basic – twin beds, an air conditioner and a small bathroom with a toilet, basin and a shower with a sign saying ‘showers available when we have rain’ which was ominous as we had been told there hadn’t been rain for a while. We decided to take a swim to cool down. The water was quite warm. It was a very hot day in the mid 30s and quite humid. The beach even had its own lifeguard.

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After a while it was time for lunch which was just as well as we could sense that sunburn was a real likelihood if we stayed at the beach much longer. We changed and joined the others, about 20 in all for a delicious buffet lunch. We had a bit of a walk around after that before going back to our air conditioned room for an afternoon nap. ‘Turtle time’ could be just after sunset or any time up to dawn the next day! Lately it had been around 20:30 so we hoped for similar tonight but just in case it was good to be up for whatever time. We came back to the main building for sunset drink time and a chat with some of the others. Our guide Joan gave us an extensive briefing on what to expect. She was really passionate about the island’s conservation program.

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Before dinner we had the chance to see a brief film about the turtles and the conservation program on the islands in this area. Dinner was another buffet meal. After dinner we sat around in the restaurant area chatting with a few of the others, hoping ‘turtle time’ would be earlier rather than later. Fortunately it was. About 20:45 the word came in from one of the rangers and out we all went. The turtle was quite close and the rangers instructed us to turn flashes off on our cameras and to be reasonably quiet, although the turtle is apparently in a trance like state whilst laying. Four or five of us at a time could be in a really good position to observe what was happening. After a couple of changeovers I was in a great spot as you can see.

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The eggs continued to appear for some time. The ranger was discretely collecting them. Then as she finished she began swishing her legs to cover where she thought the eggs were located. At this stage the rangers turned on a powerful torch and gave us the opportunity to take some photos of the the turtle. After a few minutes it was lights out and time for us to leave the beach.

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From there we walked to a fenced off conservation area where the eggs that had been collected would be transferred. A hole had be prepared earlier and sand around the hole was virtually sterilised by the extreme heat of the day. The ranger placed the eggs carefully in the hole.

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After we had a chance to again take photos he pulled in the surrounding sand and covered them. A small green circular fence directly above the hole was put in place and a dated sign was attached with information about the mother turtle and the number of the eggs buried.

The final part of our night was the releasing of baby turtles who had hatched that day after a couple of weeks below the sand in a similar hole. The baby turtles had been collected progressively during the day as they had come to the sandy surface inside a green fence. This was so they didn’t just crawl off to the beach and be at risk of being swooped up and eaten by a predator. We walked to a beach on the other side of the island. The ranger had a shopping basket with about thirty baby turtles in it.

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When we reached the shoreline we spread out along it and the turtles were gently tipped onto the sand by our guide Joan. (Lucky her! She was pretty well known to the rangers from what we could see.) Then off they went! In a matter of a minute or so they had all crawled off and into the water and started swimming off. By releasing them at night they had a chance to make their way out into the ocean as far from predators as possible. The chances of survival are about one in a thousand!

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We made our way back to the restaurant area and sat around talking with Joan and a few of the others. It had certainly lived up to our expectations and more. Totally memorable. We certainly felt privileged to have seen such a wonderful event in the world of nature. After a while we went off to our room and fell asleep with a warm glowing feeling.

The next morning we were up before sunrise as our boat would be leaving right after an early breakfast. On the way to the restaurant with our gear I took a quick diversion to the swimming beach, which faced east. Sure enough I was right on time for a beautiful sunrise. The distant island in the photo is one of many belonging to The Philippines, Malaysia’s neighbour.

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As we came past the conservation area we saw a couple of baby turtles making their way to the surface of the sand. Sadly the light was poor and my photo isn’t that well focused. But it was lovely to see the next batch of baby turtles.

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As we came to the restaurant we looked at the noticeboard of turtle landings on display. The turtle we had seen on the beach laying eggs had been one of five for the night. Breakfast was quickly over and we lugged our cases to the beach and boarded the boats. Here is our boat leaving Selingaan Island.

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The return boat trip to Sandakan was not so bumpy as the one out the day before. That was a real relief and made it more enjoyable.

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On our arrival back in Sandakan we were driven to nearby Sepilok where we farewelled our enthusiastic guide Joan and met our next guide Mason ready for another full day of animals and activities.

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