Malaysia’s East Coast is a well-known nesting ground for turtles. There are 7 species of marine turtles in the world and 4 of these lay their eggs on Malaysian beaches. The 4 species are:
- Leatherback turtle
- Green turtle
- Olive Ridley turtle
- Hawksbill turtle
Turtle eggs make for a lucrative business for the poachers. If a chicken egg is only worth RM0.50 each, the selling price of a turtle egg is around RM2.50 per egg.
To encounter this problem, several turtle sanctuaries have been built along the beaches to protect the turtles and their eggs, as well as raise public awareness. Some of the sanctuaries are government-funded, while some are privately owned.
Cherating Turtle Sanctuary
Cherating Turtle Sanctuary is the official, government-funded sanctuary in Cherating, Pahang. It is located next to Club Med on Chendor Beach, and has been opened to the public since 1998.
Every year, from April to August, the sanctuary collects eggs from the beach to hatch them in a protected area away from poachers until they are ready to be released back to the sea. They also organize a special program that lets visitors experience first-hand what it’s like to release the tiny babies.
So, my friend and I paid a visit to Cherating with the sole intention of participating in this activity. The sanctuary was easy enough to find. It was a traditional-style wooden house with a large front yard.
Unfortunately, we received a less than enthusiastic welcome. The two ladies seated behind the counter didn’t even bother to acknowledge our presence or say hello. Even as we approached and greeted them, they still appeared completely disinterested. All they did was point out where the donation box was.
We thought that maybe we were being ignored because they knew we were locals. That’s a common discrimination in Malaysia or anywhere in Southeast Asia, where I might be mistaken for a local.
Presumably, only the honorable foreign tourists (especially white ones) are worthy of their attention. But we were wrong this time. A couple of Caucasian tourists who came in before us were also left to their own devices.
Well, what a shame. If they wanted to spread awareness about the endangered turtles, the least they could do was be a little more welcoming to people who came and showed interest.
We asked the two ladies at what time they were releasing the baby turtles that night. Much to our disappointment, they said they were not going to release any because there had been no new hatchlings.
When we called them the previous week for confirmation, they told us not to worry. “Just come,” they said, “we release turtles every night in August.”
Not wanting to let our disappointment show, we went in anyway to look at the exhibits. There were a few posters on the wall with information on sea turtles, along with several replicas. Outside, in the backyard, there were three ponds of varying sizes, each containing a different species of turtles.
Volunteers from a local university were busy cleaning the ponds during our visit. It seemed like we had come all the way from Kuala Lumpur just to watch turtles swimming in a pond.
At one corner, we saw a basket containing really tiny baby turtles. Apparently, they were a few weeks old, but nobody explained to us why they were not being released to the sea.
While we watched the volunteers at work, a group of tourists from Club Med arrived. Club Med had their own tour guide. Unlike the lethargic sanctuary workers, this tour guide actually took the time to explain everything about the turtle lifecycle and what the sanctuary had been doing in the conservation effort. We stood behind the group to listen.
After they finished, we left and started asking around if there was any other turtle sanctuary nearby. I searched online, but nothing came up. It was only toward the evening when we finally stumbled upon one called Rimbun Dahan Turtle Hatchery, located just a few kilometres away.
Rimbun Dahan Turtle Hatchery
Rimbun Dahan Turtle Hatchery (RDTH) was founded in 2013 by Kasturi Resort’s owner Angela Hijjas, with the help of Pak Su, a military veteran with a profound love for nature and marine wildlife.
In the beginning, when funding was low, he had to use his own money to buy turtle eggs from egg sellers in an effort to give the unborn turtles a chance at life. Luckily, people were quick to help and in one year, he managed to save around 25,000 turtle eggs.
Similar to Cherating Turtle Sanctuary, RDTH collects eggs from the beach and incubates them in a safe space. They also organize turtle-releasing and turtle-watching programs that allow the public to get closer to these animals in a supervised setting. On top of that, the hatchery regularly takes in volunteers and interns from local universities. The dormitory where they stay at was built by Pak Su himself.
UPDATE: Three months after our visit, I learned that Pak Su had passed away. The hatchery is now run by his two children.
Releasing the Turtles into the Sea
We reached the hatchery at 5.15 pm. The turtle-releasing program started at 5. I was already preparing myself to get disappointed again, but the staff kindly let us participate despite our late arrival.
The fee was RM20 per person. However, it should be noted that this is no guarantee that you will get a turtle to release. It will depend on the number of visitors vs the number of hatchlings, which you can only find out later. If there are not enough turtles for everyone, you might have to share.
Since we had missed the briefing, we went straight to the hatchery where the participants had gathered to watch newly hatched babies emerge from their nests. The volunteers and interns at the hatchery were very accommodating. They even offered to help us take pictures and videos of the turtles, since we were only allowed to watch from afar.
Then, all of us headed to the beach and — as per the volunteers’ instruction — formed a line 5 meters away from the shoreline. The turtles have to be released from this distance (or more) to provide them with the exercise they need. This will help them build enough muscle strength to survive in the rough seas.
Another reason for this is to allow the turtles to recognize the beach they were born on. Apparently, turtles will always come back to their birthplace to mate and lay eggs, no matter how many hundreds of miles away they have migrated over the years.
Once we had formed a straight line facing the sea, each of us received a turtle. There were enough for everyone after all! We were shown the correct way to hold them, i.e. by their sides. Their skin was surprisingly rough. I had half expected it to be soft like a baby’s.
The volunteers then announced that we would be having a turtle race. Everyone had to squat down and — at the count of three — release their turtles. I was not sure whether mine was a boy or a girl. For fear of misgendering it, I decided to give it a unisex name: Alex (short for Alexander or Alexandra).
Unfortunately, Alex’s navigational skill was only about as good as mine. While the other turtles were sprinting towards the water, Alex was turning and turning around like a broken compass. (S)he kept going in the wrong direction (towards me). I’d like to think that maybe (s)he was finding it difficult to say goodbye.
It took a lot of coaxing and cheering before Alex finally went on his/her way. This was Alex looking at me one last time:
And finally, Alex’s first taste of water. I felt like a proud parent.
We were the second last in the race. Most of the participants had already left. If the amount of time spent on the beach was the measure of their strength, then my turtle should be stronger than the rest as (s)he had had the most exercise. I watched his/her head bobbing in and out of the water until it was gone.
What a privilege it had been to witness this momentous part of the turtles’ lives. They have a long, long way to go. Studies show that a turtle can take up to 50 years to mature into adulthood and start reproducing.
However, only 5% of turtle hatchlings will actually survive to reach that stage. I hope mine will fall into this small percentage. But it’s a little sad to think that I may no longer be on this Earth when (s)he comes home.
Have you seen a baby turtle up close? Share your experience in the comment section below.