Volunteer week with turtles

Ecoteer Turtle Conservation, Perhentian Island, Malaysia.

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I came across this volunteering opportunity completely by chance and it sounded like a perfect way to get involved with marine turtle nesting and at the same time experience living in a small fishing village.

For those of you tracking my travels, the Ecoteer project is based on Pulau Kecil, the smaller of the two Perhentian islands off the north east coast of Malaysia, accessible by a 40 minute speedboat ride from the small port of Kuala Besut. I journeyed there from Kota Bharu, a town further north which has an interesting history, the Japanese having occupied it (poor show from the British not defending it better) until the Malay Emergency in 1948. In KB I also experienced my first live football match when I was given a ticket to the match between arch rivals Kelantan and Terrenganu, two neighbouring provinces. It was a needle match with lots of tribal drumming, hysterical girls shouting for their heartthrobs and tons of food of dubious provenance. Luckily the locals won 3-0. As usual I was the only westerner but I’m used to that by now.

Perhentian Kecil (kecil means small, besut means big) actually has a fair size – population c.2,000. The men are fishermen or snorkel-tour operators whilst the women run shops and restaurants. There are 167 children at primary school with 18 teachers. Older children go to school on the mainland from Sunday to Thursday, at a cost of £5 a month. The village is 100% muslim and has a huge Mosque built into the sea. In the village it was no bare shoulders or knees but on the beach it was more relaxed but still modest.

Turtle House is home base. My initial impression was that I’d walked into student digs. Scruffy sofas, empty coffee cups, overflowing ashtrays, laptops and interns scatted everywhere and nothing in the fridge. That impression didn’t change in the four days in spent in the house but it didn’t matter; I had a nice roommate from Germany, my bed was clean and comfortable and we were out working on the project or relaxing on the beach all day.

After the volunteer initiation of having to jump off the jetty, the first thing I had to master was free-diving to a depth of about 5-6 metres in order to be able to photograph turtles. Easier said than done. On dry land I can hold my breath for about 90 seconds. However, 30 seconds after I dived down I felt like my lungs were going to explode and I had to come up for air. Also my ears refused to equalise. Fortunately the intern helping me master the skill was very patient and counselled going into a sort of meditative state, reminding myself that I had sufficient breath to clear my ears and sit on the sea bed for the 3-4 seconds needed to take a photo. I cracked it on day 2 and even managed to take a photo of a turtle.

Turtle surveys take place morning and afternoon and involve a 30 minute kayak across open water (South China Sea) to and from the bay where they are most likely to be found. All photos are logged, turtles identified and the research fed back to Plymouth Uni where data is being analysed for frequency of sitings, increase/decrease in population etc.

Like a human thumb, a turtle face has unique markings through which it can identified and named. In addition there may be a metal tag on one of the feet to aid identification. If a turtle can’t be identified there’s understandably much excitement. On one of my free-dives we thought we saw a new turtle but it was swimming too fast to be photographed. Let’s hope it stays around.

In addition to turtle surveys, volunteers help with beach clean-ups. There had recently been an oil spill with chunks of oil floating around off shore. One morning oil washed up onto the village beach so we raced down and collected sack loads of the goopy stuff before it started to melt in the intense heat. The damage isn’t yet known but they believe it isn’t catastrophic.

The most rewarding part of the volunteer programme is the 3-night night patrol on a secluded beach. We were 5 – two interns and three volunteers staying in a wooden hut next to a resident team of fishermen from the Perhentian Fisheries department who visit the local beaches every night collecting turtle eggs and placing them in the beach hatchery.

Starting at 9pm we patrolled the beach – a stretch of about 500m, with rocks which had to be climbed over in the dark at high tide, at hourly intervals through to dawn (6:30am), looking for turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

There had been no nestings the 3-day patrol preceding mine, making me hopeful I’d see some action. I was in for a treat…….

Night one I witnessed my first turtle crawling up the beach at 11pm. It’s a slow process because of the sheer weight of the turtle. If you happen to miss her crawling along you can easily see the tracks lit by the night sky because they are like tractor tracks.

Once the turtle crawls up the beach you stay with her for the duration of her nesting. Firstly she finds a suitable place to dig her pit, typically in the undergrowth at the back of the beach. Whilst this was happening we sat on the warm rocks listening to the rhythmic lapping of the sea and marvelling at shooting stars. Digging the pit can take more than an hour.

Once done the turtle digs a chamber in which to lay her eggs. Once she starts laying she goes into a trance like state and it is at this point that we could approach, using a red light torch (bright white light is a no-no). The trick is to collect the eggs as they are pushed out, but depending on the depth of the chamber and the angle of the turtle’s tail this isn’t always possible. On this occasion were were joined by two of the fisherman who are experts and so we were able to collect all 100 eggs over a laying period of about 30 mins. We then took measurements – this beauty was 106cm x 95cm. We also photographed both the right and left side of her face for identification purposes and finally we noted the features her carapace. This was a green turtle, the most common in the area.

Once she has finished laying her eggs the turtle starts to cover the pit. Never mind if you’re still doing measurements or scooping up eggs she’ll sweep the sand and send it flying everywhere! Covering the pit takes a further hour and then the slow crawl back into the sea 30 mins or so more. Round trip total 3 hours.

It was such an exhilarating, magical experience that I didn’t feel at all tired, which was just as well because low and behold another turtle came on shore. This one did what is known in the business as a ‘false crawl’ i.e. crawling up the beach, having a look around and then crawling back.

Amazingly a third turtle came on shore at 3:30am and this one completed the full circle, crawling back into the sea at 6:15am. For some reason she only laid 27 eggs. We marked the spot of the chamber and, in case of poachers, the interns stayed by the pit until daylight until, with the help of the fishermen, they could dig up the pit to search for more eggs. We didn’t find any. Our supposition is that the tail, which is very sensitive, struck a tree root or some rough coral and the turtle came out of her trance-like and the process stopped. I took her measurements (a fraction bigger than the previous one) and also took the photos.

Apart from spending daylight hours eating, sleeping, reading in a hammock and snorkelling with reef sharks (!) we carried out ‘tourist awareness’ walks which involved walking along the beach advising people to wear a life jacket when in the water (too many incidents of boatmen not seeing snorkelers with shockingly regular fatal consequences); not to wear fins because of inadvertently damaging the coral or kicking a turtle; to dispose of plastic bags as they can blow into the sea and be eaten by turtles; not to grab a turtle for a selfie (yes there are some idiots who do this). We also had to make sure everyone was picked up by a boatman by 4pm so as to calm the waters in expectation of a turtle crawl. Everyone was very receptive and also interested to learn about the Ecoteer/Fisheries programme.

Night two was quiet with no turtle activity. Night three we were two volunteers and the project leader, a young Malay woman who has an excellent relationship with the fisherman which meant we had more interaction with them and learned lots about turtle behaviour.

We spotted our first turtle at 9:30pm. She managed to wedge herself under the root of a tree so we had to leave the eggs (90) until the morning. Meanwhile, another turtle came ashore, had a look around and crawled back. She was followed by another turtle who helpfully chose to dig her pit in easily accessible sand. I lay by her pit until 4am. Whilst the two nesting turtles were doing their thing, turtle number two came back and we were quite literally surrounded. She had another look around and crawled away again. The fisherman think she eventually laid her eggs on an adjoining beach because they collected two more lays on their morning sweep round the area.

I was incredibly lucky to have another very active evening. Total: 4 nestings and 3 false crawls. The number of eggs depends on if it’s the first, second or third lay in the nesting season. First lay tends to be around 180, second around 120 and third around 80. All of ours were likely to be third nesting.

The morning I left the beach I watched the ‘senior’ fisherman (we were nicknamed granny and grandpa!) dig false chambers in the hatchery in which to place the fragile, golf ball -size eggs. They will take 6 weeks to hatch and will then be released at night. Normally only one in 1000 survives. Years later, having swum to far off places, those females who survive will return to lay their own eggs, thus completing the cycle.

 

Back at the village it was Labour Day so everyone was off work. I sat in a cafe by the jetty eating a breakfast of Roti and lentils and sweet tea to keep me awake. I was joined by the fisherman whom I happily treated to breakfast.

It was a memorable week; learning how to free-dive; swimming alongside turtles trying to snap a photo; helping with a beach clean-up; spreading turtle awareness and best of all having hands-on experience of their fascinating nesting ritual.

I can’t say sleeping on the beach is something I’d want to do regularly and even sleeping in a hammock or on the hut floor wasn’t the best, but for three nights it was fine and actually, as you can see, there wasn’t much sleep to be had!

 

Interesting facts:

The sex of the turtle egg depends on the temperature of the sand. Heat produces females, milder weather males.

Selling turtle meat is illegal but selling the carapace (made into jewellery, boxes, combs) isn’t.
Poaching turtle eggs is illegal and yet selling turtle eggs isn’t. Neither law makes any sense.

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