Watching baby turtles running into the sea was one of my many dreams to see. I always wanted to experience it and visit some turtle island. In Mexico I snorkeled with sea turtles and I always wanted to see baby turtles running into the water. And luckily, there are many islands worldwide known as turtle islands due to sea turtles nesting on their beaches.
WHERE TO FIND TURTLE ISLAND?
If you visit Malaysian Borneo, you have to visit this island. It is located on the eastern part of Borneo and we combined our turtle island trip with Kinabatangan river jungle trekking and few days diving on Mabul Island. A perfect week of exploring the eastern part of Borneo. If you haven’t seen orangutans before then you can also visit the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary.
The turtle island we visited in Malaysia lies in the Sulu Sea north of Sandakan in the province of Sabah and consists of 3 islands: Selingaan, Little Bakkungan and Gulisaan. However, you can watch turtles laying their eggs only on Selingaan. The rest of the two islands: Bakkungan and Gulisan are closed to public.
If you would like to go there, you have to stay overnight on Selingaan Island. Turtles come there almost daily during the night so there is a very good chance that you will see them. Almost guaranteed.
HOW TO GET TO THE TURTLE ISLAND (SELINGAAN ISLAND)
My first advice, do not book this tour via a tourist agency. It is better to directly contact a company called Crystal Quest via email ([email protected]) to book the package. It is the only company which has an office on Selingaan Island and organizes these tours. It’s more expensive when you go via other operators. To be precise, you will pay double with other tour operators.
We were basically the only ones without an agency in our group. And I can tell you, that there is not much of a difference. The only difference is that we paid half 🙂 Also, you will have your own guide who will tell you when is lunch and dinner and when you can go to the beach and watch sunset. Wow. Basically all information we got from the reception on the island. It is a very small island so there is not much to do and I find it unnecessary to have a guide to tell you this 😀
You don’t need to worry about on the island. The package includes food; so lunch, dinner and breakfast next morning. In fact, the food was very delicious and every time we had different meals. Even for me as a vegetarian, there were plentiful options, of course a lot of rice, but also a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits, chicken, fish and we even had potatoes. Shocking. You will stay in one of the wooden chalets. They are very basic, but clean and with air conditioning.
Nevertheless, the tourist agency will organize the transport for you from the jetty back to the city. But we just got a Grab car for around RM 5 (€ 1) and within a 5 minutes we were back in the city center.
WHAT WILL IT COST YOU TO GO TO THE TURTLE ISLAND?
We visited in October 2017 and the Crystal Quest fee was RM 614.20 for 2 people, plus an additional conservation fee of RM 60 per person. However, one traveller recently let us know that the fee at the moment is RM 940 for 2 people without conservation fee. On the island you need to pay another RM 10 per person if you want to take a picture of the turtles. Unfortunately, as Crystal Quest is the only company which does these tours, they can change prices at will.
THE PROGRAM ON TURTLE ISLAND
- We left Sandakan main jetty at 9.30 AM
- We arrived at 10.30 AM at Selingaan
- Lunch at 12.30 PM
- Video session at 7 PM
- Dinner at 7.30 PM
- After dinner it is open as you will need to wait for the rangers to tell you when you can see the turtles: However, there are 3 steps in this program: first we watched a big Mama turtle to lay her eggs, then we watched rangers to collect the eggs and bring them to the hatchery station and lastly we saw baby turtles being released into the water
- next day you have breakfast at 7.00 AM
- boat to Sandakan leaves at 7.30 AM
- You are back at the jetty in “beautiful” Sandakan at 8.30 AM
OUR EXPERIENCE ON TURTLE ISLAND
We left the jetty in Sandakan at 9.30 AM and arrived 1 hour later on the magical turtle island, Selingaan. We got all important information at the reception, checked in to our chalet and went straight to the beach until our lunch at 12.30.
You can swim and snorkel there until 6 PM. After 6 PM, from sunrise to sunset you are not allowed to walk on the beach and actually anywhere on the island. Two reasons: to not disturb turtles and due to security purposes. Turtles are very sensitive to movement on the beach and they get scared easily which might keep them from coming ashore and laying eggs.
No pirate attacks while we visited!
Furthermore, there are also a few security guards walking around the island with guns protecting the turtles and the visitors/staff from Philippine-based pirates. You don’t have to worry, the Philippines and Malaysia work together to protect the turtle islands. However, in the past there have been a few reports of kidnapping tourists in Sandakan and in other parts of Borneo, so you will see some military now and then.
From the beach you can see 2 islands which belongs to the Philippines. So when you lay down, almost next to you there is little military station with 2 guards and large googles.
You can only swim in the designated area. We did snorkel but the water was a bit murky so the visibility wasn’t very good. However, we still saw some fish (one of them even bit me :D) and many colorful corals.
We absolutely enjoyed the beautiful sunset at the beach near by the reception. Again, the guide will tell you to go there 😀 hmm, isn’t it obvious :D? The colors of the sky were incredible.
We saw baby turtles hatch “in the wild”
We thought that it cannot possibly get better. I said to Nico: “let’s take a sunset picture”. Then, we turned around and saw a baby turtle next to us running to the water. Completely shocked we looked at each other and silently watched. I have to say, we both had tears in our eyes. Suddenly, we saw another baby turtle running into the sea.
It was so beautiful that I can still close my eyes and see how the baby turtle is touching the water for the first time. After we found out that not all nests are emptied by the park rangers. The reason is that natural predators of the turtles such as lizards, eagles and other birds need the turtles for their survival, otherwise they might become extinct as well. If the rangers would collect all the eggs other local animals would be in trouble.
With a big smile on our faces we went for dinner, feeling so lucky because no one else saw it. Plus, we didn’t even have a guide 😀
Before dinner we walked by the hatchery and saw little turtles running around. We watched 30 minute video about the park and of course turtles which was very interesting and I am very happy how they protect the turtles. I just can’t believe that turtles face extinction. After dinner we all at waited for a ranger to announce: “Turtle Tiiiiiiiime.”
After a few coups of tea and reading a book, at around 9.30 PM we were all called out to watch a big mama turtle laying eggs. She was huge and she laid 76 eggs that night. Incredible. You will be allowed to observe only one turtle laying eggs per night. There is not really a season for turtles to come ashore, but October to November the likelihood is the highest. Around 50 turtles come to the island to lay eggs per night. Incredible.
The rangers carefully took all the eggs and we followed them to the hatchery station where they placed them in the sand, or the so called “man-made incubation chamber”. This chamber is 60-75 cm deep and protected with a net to make it impossible for predators to come in and eat the eggs.
What is really interesting is that the temperature will determine the sex of the turtle. With higher temperatures there will be females and with lower temperature males. So part of the hatchery is shaded to make sure male turtles will hatch and the part on the open sun is for future female turtles.
An unforgettable experience
In the meantime a few baby turtles hatched from their eggs. In the last step the rangers released them into the sea. I was right behind the ranger carrying the basket of 45 little baby turtles and watched them crawling over each other. I was so excited to see them run to the water. In fact 45 of them run chaotically into the water. Baby turtles are released at night to increase their chances of survival.
To see the baby turtles and the process how the eggs are being protected was an unforgettable experience and definitely one of my highlights in Malaysia. I am very happy to see how the people in the park care for the turtles.
However, I was very disappointed by how much trash we saw in the water when going to the Turtle island. There are several fishing villages outside of Sandakan and people living there clearly do not know how to take care of their trash and what it can cause. Sandakan is also not the cleanest city. In fact, we stayed there 1 night and we had an ocean view to forget with the shore a full of trash. I simply do not understand why this is not being cleaned regularly, why the government does not make strict rules for trash disposal and educational programs. Again, this comes down to everyone. Everyone can make a difference and this is a global issue so please take care of your trash, never leave your trash behind. And even when you come to the beach and sea plastic on the beach or in the water, take it. No one is asking you to clean up the whole world, but just fill a little plastic bag with trash you can find. This already makes a big difference.
Clean after yourself and others
People around will see you, notice it and you can inspire them to do the same thing next time. This is how I got inspired. I saw a girl in Koh Lipe picking up the trash on the way to her boat. She just picked the trash she could carry. We saw it and were amazed. We immediately got our empty plastic bag and filled it with whatever we could find.
I hope you will have wonderful time on the turtle island and let me know if you need any help with planning your journey.