The Turtle Islands are located just 40 km off Sabah’s North-Eastern coastline, in the Sulu Sea, near Sandakan. They are Borneo’s best destination for encountering turtles, as virtually every evening, scores of Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles crawl onto the sands which fringe these small islands, to lay their eggs. Sabah Parks has stepped in to assist the Green Turtle population to establish itself again, after reaching danger levels. Visitor numbers are monitored by the authorities so as to avoid disturbing the turtles. Turtle Islands Park comprises three small islands; Pulau Selingaan, Bakkungan Kechil and Gulisaan. Sabah Parks has created a marine park around the islands. In all, the park covers an area of just 1750 ha. and the protection the park provides for the turtles, makes it important for the survival of these endangered species.

All the islands in and around the park, including those in neighbouring Philippines, are significant turtle-breeding grounds. Unlike most other areas in Malaysia, turtles return each evening. The lack of seasonality in the breeding cycle here, makes the park a year-round attraction but monsoon storms from late November to early February, do occasionally restrict tourist access.

Selingan Island is the main island visited by tourists, but all three islands contribute eggs to the turtle hatchery programme administered by Sabah Parks. Selingan is a small island with little development, apart from a communications tower rising above the trees scattered around the island, and some chalets for tourist accommodation. The accommodation is restricted to 38 visitors daily. Bookings are not only recommended – they are imperative. The Chalets offer good value with basics like beds, fan and a refrigerator. Communal showers and toilets are provided in each chalet which have four bedrooms each. Some of the chalets offer private facilities – obviously at a surcharge. Camping is not permitted on the island.

The “turtle show” doesn’t begin until after sunset. To fill in the day, visitors can take the opportunity to rest and inspect a very comprehensive turtle display in the Visitors Centre. It is also possible to snorkel around the coral reef on the Northern side of the island. Also in this area, for those who do not wish to venture into the water, you will find an exposed rock pool which is rich in marine life. Observant and patient bird watchers watchers may spot white-collared kingfishers, grey herons, doves, birds of prey and wading birds around the reef. Meals are provided in an airy cafeteria which overlooks the turtle hatchery. All meals are provided in the tour package provided.

Visitors should appreciate the fact that the park has been established for the conservation of turtles more than for promoting tourism. The management of both tourists and turtles is, therefore, important, and visitors are briefed on the procedures for viewing the turtles and the “do’s and don’ts” are clearly outlined by the rangers. Cameras and torches are banned while visitors are around the turtles, so as not to disturb them laying eggs. After dinner, it becomes a waiting game, The tourists wait patiently for the rangers to announce the arrival of the first turtle. Finally the shout goes out, and everyone will scurry off in groups following the dim, solitary torchlight of one of the rangers.

Both female green and hawksbill turtles lay their eggs in holes which they laboriously dig in the soft sand. Adult turtles can grow up to half a metre in length and weigh up to 40 kg. Each female turtle lays between 80 and 120 eggs before crawling back into the sea. Every morning the beaches are lined with turtle tracks. To the uninitiated they look like the tracks of alien vehicles. The Park rangers measure each turtle to monitor the success of the programme, and then remove the eggs from where they have beenlaid to the safety of a turtle hatchery, for the 50 to 60 day incubation period.

While new eggs are placed in the hatchery, hatchlings are emerging in other parts of the protected area. There is feverish activity in these holes as the hatchlings struggle to the surface and their chance for freedom. One of the highlights of an evening is when the hatchlings are returned to the sea under the benevolent eye of the rangers. Visitors are also able to assist the rangers to release the new born hatchlings to the beach, where they race to the sea. Left to nature, some of the eggs would be destroyed before they hatch, or the hatchlings would not make the journey to the water without being eaten by predators. Even with all the “outside” assistance provided, only 3% to 5% of the hatchlings are likely to reach maturity.

Photographs on this page are copyright to Penny Favilla and Borneo Eco Tours. With thanks to David Bowden for some of the information contained in this article