IT’S a journey I’ll never forget. Being a volunteer for a conservation project has its indelible rewards. The fact that I’m just but a tiny part of an endeavour that has brought much needed help for the beleaguered sea reptiles of Lang Tengah island is an experience that will forever stay with me. And with World Turtle Day just days away, it’s an experience I’d like to share.
Like most great journeys, mine began with an inspiration. A quiet lunch with a friend led to the topic of Lang Tengah island, 40km north east of Kuala Terengganu, on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
Images of beautiful sunsets, turquoise waters and, of course, the elusive sea turtles came to mind as he related his idyllic getaway. I was hooked and immediately made up my mind to undertake my own journey to the island utopia.
The Lang Tengah Turtle Watch project was constructed by Hayati Mokhtar in early 2013 with the help of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) conservation specialists and Terengganu state government officials.
It was brought to life with the help of Raphe van Zevenbergen, the first
camp manager of the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch project, and a first rate conservationist —someone I’d get to know in greater depth during my one-week stay on the island.
I’m excited and nervous at the same time on my first boat journey towards the island. My father and I had just completed a gruelling five-hour car ride from Kuala Lumpur to the jetty in Merang, and as I clamber onto the skiff, that inexplicable fear of the unknown follows me, eventually settling in the pit of my stomach as queasy nausea.
Questions like “What would it be like?” and “How will I cope with the daily tasks?” flood my mind as we take off to the sea. However, the distant sight of the white sand glinting golden under the sun soon puts the questions in my head to rest. The calming island air beckons.
It’s not a big island — just under 3.2km in length. The western side is fringed by white sand and shallow waters while the eastern side features rugged granite rocks.
The sandy beach known as Turtle Bay used to be known as Pasir Tok Enjut or Sands of the Bobbing Old Man. It lies on the very southern tip of the island, and within the coastal vegetation behind the beach lies Turtle Watch Camp — my home for the next few days.
As soon as we land, I’m greeted by friendly volunteers and I’m pleasantly surprised by their hospitality and kindness.
I meet with Liyana, one of the camp managers working for the island project and Kat, an intern who works alongside the camp managers. These people, alongside the other volunteers, give me an overview of the project and a rundown of my work schedule during my stay.
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch focuses on monitoring turtle landings, incubating sea turtle eggs to save them from poachers and help boost the sea turtle population.
Volunteers like me take part in night-time patrols around the island in search of nesting mothers, relocate the eggs back to the camp where we live in open-air jungle huts, and monitor the nests during the day.
My first day foreshadows what would be expected of me throughout my stay at Turtle Bay — I get the chance to hold a young female hatchling in a precarious cradle of cupped hands and dry sand!
I soon learn enough about both Green and Hawksbill sea turtles to make me an expert on the turtle species that frequent the peninsular. The days pass by like a blur; time seems to matter little to those on this tiny island. When the sun is up, we’d busy ourselves with camp chores, which includes cooking and cleaning, and nest checks (which alternates with checking the progress of hatchlings as they tunnel their way out of their nests to post-nest inspections).
As day steadily shifted towards night, we’d find ourselves on our backs with our feet in ankle-deep water, watching the sun gently dip below the horizon, leaving behind a breathtaking canvas of intense orange and calming blue hues.
We’d then retreat to the camp and sit around the warmth of the fireplace enjoying the breeze, the sounds of nocturnal creatures coming alive in the dark and of course, the stars that blanket the darkened skies.
Later at night, the beach patrols would commence. There are two beaches and two-hour shifts. We’d patrol Turtle Bay first and then make our way to Lang Sari, a beach location that’s also a favourite landing site for the Hawksbill and Green sea turtle species.
These patrols would occur on the hour, which means long walks scouring the beaches with torches searching for turtle trails or the actual presence of these elusive creatures.
Slumber is sweet here at Lang Tengah, and the island air would lull us to a deep sleep after our patrols at night.
The days flew by quickly, with me carrying out my daily routines and exploring the island with some of the volunteers during our free time. Just when I’m getting used to the languorous island life, the chapter draws to a close.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
From the hammock beds to the outdoor toilets, this unforgettable stay will be etched in my memory long after I leave this remote island.
Watching the turtles hauling themselves out of the sea to nest is hardly an ordinary experience and I’ll miss waking up to the sounds and sights of paradise.
There has been a drastic decline in the population of sea turtle species worldwide over the past few decades, causing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify them as either vulnerable or endangered species, with some almost on the brink of extinction, like the leatherback sea turtle.
My generation has an unquestionable obligation to safeguard the security and sanctity of sea turtle species worldwide, and should take an active part in any conservation effort regardless of how big or small.
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch was an amazing experience. The organisation has and continues to put its volunteers on the front lines of a war to protect sea turtles. However, it’s a war that humanity is currently losing — if we continue to remain apathetic towards conservation and the plight of our natural heritage.
If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer at Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, go to www.langtengahturtlewatch.org
Also, join them on Facebook to find
out more about what life is like on the
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Turtles of Peninsular Malaysia
ONE of earth’s most ancient creatures, sea turtles once navigated the world’s oceans in huge numbers. But in the past century, human demand for turtle meat, eggs, skin and colourful shells have reduced their populations.
Destruction of feeding and nesting habitats and pollution of the world’s oceans are all taking a serious toll on remaining sea turtle populations.
Many breeding populations have already become extinct, and some surviving species are being threatened to extinction. Sadly, it’s estimated only 1 in a 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood.
The natural obstacles faced by both young and adult sea turtles are staggering, but it’s the increasing problems caused by humans that are threatening their future survival.
These gentle reptiles of the sea are facing unprecedented threats and the number of marine turtles in most places has plummeted.
Malaysia is fortunate to host four species of marine turtles: Leatherback, Green, Hawksbill, and Olive ridley turtles. The Leatherback and Hawksbill have been classified as Critically Endangered, Green and the Olive Ridley sea turtles have been classified as Endangered.
DID YOU KNOW...
Sea turtles have been around for a very long time.
One of earth’s most ancient creatures, the oldest known sea turtle fossils date back about 150 million years. Just for context, dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.
Sea turtles are quintessential travellers.
These gentle reptiles of the sea swim great distances and come on land only to nest. Leatherback sea turtles can travel more than 16,093km every year!
For sea turtles, home is where the heart is.
Something that has baffled scientists for years until recently. Sea turtles return to the same nesting grounds where they were born, to lay their eggs.
A research carried out by French scientist Simon Benhamou of the Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology together with other groups shows that the marine turtles use a relatively simple navigation system involving the earth’s magnetic field. This allows them to return to the same egg-laying site without having the ability to correct for the deflection of ocean currents.
Sea turtles are natural divers.
Leatherbacks can dive to a depth of more than 1,000m in search of their prey, jellyfish. The hard-shelled species dive at shallower depths. The leatherback is adapted to deep dives because of its unique morphology. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback lacks a rigid breastbone that allows it to collapse during deep dives. There’s a large amount of oil in the skin and the leathery shell absorbs nitrogen, reducing problems arising from decompression during deep dives and resurfacing.
Sea turtles can hold their breath for hours.
Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles so they need to surface to breathe. However, they can hold their breath for several hours depending on the level of activity. A resting or sleeping turtle can remain underwater between four and seven hours!
Sea turtles won’t win any Mother’s Day awards.
Once a nest has been completed and the eggs are laid, the female never returns to it. The eggs and resulting hatchlings are left to fend for themselves and locate the water upon emerging.
(Information from WWF Malaysia and Sea Turtle Conservancy)