Wednesday 12 November

Another early start and a boat back to our waiting bus. We return along the bumpy road, although this time in considerably fairer weather, and pass the road off to Sepilok. By mid-morning, we arrive in Sandakan, on the north-east coast of Borneo. We have half an hour to change money and make any other purchases before we must leave to catch our speedboat to Turtle Island. I find Steve, Fi, the other Steve, and Rob in a Chinese coffee/cake shop as I return to the bus, and I’m persuaded to stop for a coffee.

The bus takes us the short distance from the centre, past the squatter camp, to the port. The camps are made up mostly of Filipino illegal immigrants, and we hear from Peter that the Malaysian government is taking a tough line sending them back and demolishing the camps.

We ride for an hour aboard a twin 115 horse power speedboat to the island. Our room on the island is surprisingly well appointed, with aircon, although they have squeezed in a camp bed to get three into the room, and yes, I’ve got the camp bed.

(magnify) Sunset on Turtle Island

We spend the afternoon snorkeling around the small island. There are many brightly coloured fish, but the water is very shallow and it is hard to avoid grazing a knee against the coral. Some of the coral looks quite beaten up. We hope it is due to storms and not the clumsy feet of tourists such as ourselves.

Back in the room, the water from the shower seems to be saline, and has a suspicious smell to it. Never mind. I remind myself that we are here for the turtles. Back at the main building there is an information centre and they show a video on the conservation work of the island. When the female turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, the rangers gather them up and move them to the safety of the hatchery. This protects the eggs from predators, and also prevents one turtle from digging up another’s clutch. When the eggs hatch, the rangers carry the hatchlings in a bucket down to the beach for release.

Hatchlings Newborn turtles at the hatchery (postcard)

There is a slightly unsatisfactory buffet dinner, and then we settle down to wait for the turtles to start coming up onto the island. Come 10 pm, there has still been no sighting of turtles, so they decide to release some of the hatchlings for us to watch. One of the rangers brings out a bucket of about forty from a clutch of probably around 120, and we are encouraged to pick up one and hold it for a few moments. They are clearly very excited about getting their first taste of the ocean, and their flippers are surprisingly strong. They then go back in the bucket and the ranger takes them to the beach and releases them. Most head straight down to the sea, but a few seem to be lost. One, apparently born blind, is clearly not going to make it. Probably few of the others will get much further either. They face poor odds; their natural predators surround the island waiting for a tasty snack.

(magnify) Laying mother turtle (magnify) Burying the eggs at the hatchery

But still no adult females have made an appearance. We settle down in the hall and play cards.

An hour later, the call comes and those of us who are still waiting hurry down to the beach. (A few of the B Team, unbelievably, have given up and gone to bed – outlasted by members of the Saga group also staying on the island tonight!) Laying is well underway. Not far off, another is digging her hole, but our ranger insists that we keep well away from her and avoid shining any lights anywhere nearby. The ranger has a torch held behind the laying mother, and his assistant is gathering up the eggs as they are laid. It is all over quite quickly, and the turtle starts pushing sand back over the place where she believes her eggs lie.

The rangers hurry us away to the hatchery, where a fresh hole is already dug for the new eggs. They are buried under sterilised sand and the spot clearly labelled with the time, date, and number of eggs. The excitement is over, and it is time for bed.