Borneo might be a bit off the traveller trail and hardly a consideration for backpackers doing a gap year, but it is surprisingly well developed for tourists. The fact that it is home to some of the world's most precious, endangered wildlife makes it a specialist location for those looking into eco-tours. If you're interested in the more unique experiences that South-East Asia can offer, then you can add it straight to the top of your list, and thank us later! Spending a night on "Turtle Island" is an eco-tour that we were lucky enough to experience for ourselves, and definitely something that we can highly recommend quite happily!
Staying In Sandakan
Not knowing what to expect from Sandakan, we booked a five night stay. Compared to Kota Kinabalu, it was a lot more chilled and we quickly came to like it after finding our favourite spots - Harbour Bistro Cafe, San Da Gen Kopitiam and Balin Roofgarden. Still, staying for five days was far too many, so we cut it short and booked some tours to do instead.
The Turtle Island Tour
We booked the Turtle Island tour through our hotel - Sandakan Central, which was a really nice hotel for the money! The tours in Borneo were surprisingly pricey and this one was no exception at 700 RM each! But without that money, organisations and sanctuaries wouldn't be able to continue with their conservation efforts and help protect the island's endangered animals, specifically the sea turtles! Also, for that price, we knew that we had to make the most of it!
Getting To Selingan Island
At 8:30am, we were picked up in a private car from our hotel and headed to the sea port. Other than the fishy stench that filled the air, we didn't mind spending too long there. Thankfully, there was plenty of seating and cleanish toilets, and the registration officer even let us use his personal wifi hotspot, which was the fastest wifi that we had used on the whole trip!
At 9.30am, we boarded a small speed boat and rode the waves for about an hour before arriving at Selingan Island. The journey was fairly long, very bumpy and much scarier than any rollercoaster ride that we've ever been on! Nonetheless, the captain stayed at full speed for almost all of the journey! We were honestly quite delirious by the end of it, and high from engulfing all of the boat's petrol fumes!
It's safe to say that the island was a complete paradise! There were other islands on the horizon, but we still felt very remote. At first glance, the beach was plastic free and the water was very clean... This is a national park that we're talking about! It wasn't over developed, nor was it overcrowded with over-consuming tourists. That's another benefit to having the price so high - a more exclusive tour!
After a short briefing, we paid the entrance/conservation fee, as well as a camera fee, and then we could explore a little. There were chalets where we slept, a main building where we ate and even a football field and volleyball court! The beach was lifeguarded and the water was safe for swimming but, for some reason, mask and snorkel hire wasn't included, so we didn't actually do any snorkelling. Oh, and of course there were the turtle hatcheries, but more on that later!
We soon made our way to our private twin room in one of the shared chalets. It was a bit better than basic, with air con and a fan, our own toilet and shower, and towels free of charge. The meals were included too! We also noticed that each chalet had water buts to collect rain water and help them to be more self-sufficient... A nice touch!
Our evening started with a short film and a walk around their small exhibition room. Both of which told us a bit about turtles and, basically, why they are the coolest animal ever - all of the prehistoric evolutionary mysteries for example?!
As well as informing us about how the hatchery is helping the turtle population, they showed us why the turtles are under such a great threat - predators, poachers and pollution. The hatchery eliminates almost all of those threats, whilst already being situated in a favourite location for two specific species of turtle! Oh, and did you know that out of 30 species of turtle, only 7 are still around today?!
Of course, they didn't just explain what they do at the hatchery through photo displays and a documentary... We got to see it all with our own eyes!
Our first showing was a female turtle, who was the first of 23 to make their way up onto the beach. Before we could see her, she had already spent an hour digging her nest and starting to lay her eggs. In total, she laid 93 eggs, which were (unbeknownst to her) removed from the nest and taken to the hatchery to be safely buried. It was a strange experience and something quite unusual to watch. But, it was incredible and hard to even comprehend what was happening! We couldn't help but feel a special connection to the eggs afterwards!
Once she was done, she stayed in an exhausted, trance-like state, but made sure to fill the nest back up by flicking sand backwards with her powerful fins, and showering us with sand in the process. Also, she was over a metre in length!
The eggs were taken to a male specific sanctuary, where the sand was shaded with large, leafy trees. The staff at the hatchery try to balance the amount of male and female hatchlings by controlling the temperature of the sand. For an egg to produce a female hatchling, the temperature needs to be about 4 Degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would be for more males. These eggs won't hatch until about 60 days have passed, but we were lucky enough to watch another clutch of hatchlings surface from the sand later that evening! Hundreds hatch every night!
Our third and final showing was a single clutch of hatchlings being realised. The eggs were laid in December 2017 and, by the time they had hatched, the baby turtles were instinctively itching to get into the sea, scurrying their way excitedly to the waters edge until a wave came and swept them away. Some needed a little help because they got a bit tired before reaching the water. We were allowed to help them, but only with a small push.
Now, not all of the hatchlings are going to survive the first few stages of their lives, but that's why there are so many eggs laid - to swamp predators and give a better chance of survival for at least a few of them. Research suggests that only 1 in 1000 turtles make it to adulthood. They are known to protect themselves from predators by hiding in seaweed that they find floating along for the early stages of their lives.
In the morning we got to see the information board, which told us 23 green turtles visited the island but only 14 laid eggs. Supposedly, this was because the sand was still too hot for them. We could also see on the board that 966 eggs were transplanted that night and 179 baby turtles hatched! So far this year, 453 nests have been transplanted and, by the end of the year, the hatchery is on track to have transplanted over 5000 nests, which is up from last year! There was a definite emphasis on hatchery being as natural as possible, and we were amazed by how passionate, caring and, above all, knowledgable the staff were.
Plastic Pollution On The Island
It's very important that the island's beach is free from obstructions and litter, and we were pretty impressed with how clean it was when we first arrived. However, after taking a closer look in the tideline, we found a lot more than we bargained for... Amongst the natural debris, twigs and leaves were lots of smaller pieces of plastic, including plastic cotton bud sticks, plastic food wrappers and more. We even found a large food wrapper floating in the water from The Philippines dated 2014! Obviously, this isn't the fault of the hatchery, but it does highlight how important the issue of plastic pollution and marine litter is. For example, plastic bags can be lethal if swallowed by a turtle. Also, in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, the single-use plastics were hard to avoid and the marine litter was easy to see in and around the harbours and waterfronts...
What Can The Island Do More Of?
Keep tours small. Whilst we watched the female turtle lay her eggs on the beach, it was still comfortable, but a little cramped. If there were any more than eight people, then it would be a different story entirely... A possibly hazardous one for the health of the turtle and her eggs.
No touching the turtles. Whilst releasing the hatchlings into the sea, we were allowed to give them a little helping hand to get down to the water. We asked one of the guides if any harm could be done by touching them and he answered yes - if for too long and especially so if you have insect repellent on your hands. So why would he take the risk?
No plastic straws! It's sadly ironic that a turtle hatchery would be giving out something so damaging to turtles all around the world... Something single use and non-biodegradable. From our experience, the same could be said for Malaysian Borneo in general. The throwaway culture is unfortunately quite extreme.
Free water refills. Instead of selling water in plastic bottles and giving them out at meal times, we could've just been given free water refills from jugs or larger containers. We saw this work very well on our trip with TAO Philippines.
Solar panels. We didn't see any ourselves at least. So, assuming there are none, this is an important step for eco-friendly self-sufficiency.
More effective beach cleans. Whilst a great job is clearly being done to clear the beach of litter and large debris that could be considered an obstruction to the turtles, smaller pieces of micro-plastics remained. Broken down pieces of plastic are found continuously circulating all around the world's oceans and are still a threat to marine animals, not to mention how they make their way up the food chain! We would consider micro-plastic a high priority as well.