Sagalaki - Turtle Island in Kalimantan
Although the kids loved Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malay Borneo, the excursions there were a little too obviously “educational” - visiting Dayak villages and seeing how they lived and going to the zoo. Here on Derawan island on the Indonesian side of Borneo is where they finally let their guards down and started to actively want to learn. Today we visited a nearby island with a turtle sanctuary for the endangered sea turtles that nest around here and by the end they were filled with questions about what the turtles eat, where they travel to and how the temperature of the sand can determine the baby turtles’ sex. None of those questions, unfortunately, could be answered by the park rangers who spoke absolutely no English. I initially thought the whole trip was going to be for nought since it took so long to convey to the rangers that we actually wanted to see turtles but somehow they figured it out and took us to the hatchery where they transfer the eggs from the turtles’ nests to keep them safe from birds and other animals. Once there, they went to a nest of eggs that were 30 days old and opened it up to find a dozen baby turtles all hatched. The kids were able to hold them and examine each little detail.
While Leontine promptly fell in love with their cuteness and started lobbying to bring one home, DE noticed the tiny claw on the edge of their flippers that helps them make their way thru the sand. We all were amazed at their softness and speed. The rangers eventually put the babies into a basket to release later when there were fewer hawks about and told us to come back at 4 pm when they would walk the island looking for new nests ready to hatch.
We went out snorkeling again and at 3 pm we reminded the boat captain we needed to return to the island. Through sign language he indicated we couldn’t since the tide was too low. But we were not to be dissuaded and convinced him we could jump off the boat and wade back to the island thru the shallow waters, which we did, feeling exactly like shipwrecked sailors discovering a deserted island. We arrived at 3:30 and suddenly one of the kids made a shout. We saw what at first we thought were crabs but then realized were hundreds of baby turtles making their frenzied way across the sand dunes to the sea. We raced over to them shouting encouragement, helping out the ones who were stuck or had accidently flipped over. DE and I went back to find their nests and were stunned to see how far they had traveled, from well behind the tree line. By the time we returned the majority had already vanished, leaving behind 20 or so stragglers. They were fast little buggers, you could really see the instinctive imperative in action, they were going to get to that water come what may. But the second they hit the water they turned into speed boats and vanished in a flash. Leontine held onto the last one or two trying to convince them they would be happier with her than at the mercy of birds, fish and speedboats but they were clearly having none of it and she reluctantly let them dash off.
When the ranger came by at 4 pm he couldn’t believe we had been so lucky, they almost never hatch during the day. More importantly, the turtles were lucky that they made their run at the precise moment the sky was completely clear of swooping predators so they at least made it to the water. We showed him where the nests were and his assistants began to dig through them to make sure all the babies had made it out. We found 16 left behind babies who had either not been able to wriggle out of their eggs or who were buried too deep. We were able to hold the eggs in our hands as the turtles broke their way free. The rangers carefully marked the nests and counted the egg shells left behind. I asked them if more or less turtles came to the island every year and sadly, they said less and less.
This day was the perfect example of why we like to travel independently. We had heard about another "Turtle Island" off the Eastern coast of Sarawak that was all set up visits. A nice air-conditoned minivan greets you at the airport, whisks you off to Selingan Island where you spend the night in comfort whilst english speaking guides explain the life cycle of the turtles laying their eggs in front of you. You needed to sign up through a travel agent well in advance and, of course, are with a group of about 20-30 other people. But simple, fast, convenient. Everything our trip to Derawan Island was not. It took us three days, a plane, a bus, a ferry and a speedboat to get here. Almost no one speaks english and there are no guides to be had. The food, though fresh, and the beds, though clean, are sparten at best. Yet we have now been on this island for five days and my kids have stayed up till midnight watching over a giant mother turtle dig her laborious, exhausting nest, dropping her eggs into the soft sand and gently recovering them, they then saw hundreds of newborn turtles escape from that nest and race their frantic way down to the sea and finally they swam and snorkeled next to the turtles grown to full size and gracefully gliding around our cabana overlooking the sea. Instead of simply being told about the life cycle of a turtle, they have lived it. They will never, ever forget the holding a warm, squishy egg in their hand as a newborn baby turtle crawls his way out of it. So, yeah, a little extra effort pays off.
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Writer, producer, editor
Writer, producer, editor