BLINK. Blink. After a deep, peaceful sleep, he must have felt like he’d just woken up to a circus. Surrounding his temporary home in the bright blue plastic tray are curious humans, pushing at each other to have a closer look. He must have been glad to be hidden under the matching blue blanket as he thought about his escape.
The young Hawksbill turtle, the star attraction on this pleasant morning, is due to be released into the sea after having spent several days at the Gaya Island Resort’s Marine Conservation Centre. He’d found himself trapped in a fisherman’s bubu (fish trap) and was brought here by the fishermen for further action.
The Hawksbill, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all sea turtle species for their colourful shells, is a critically endangered species. Their population has dropped more than 80 per cent in the last century, due to the trade in their exquisite carapace (shell), also known as “tortoiseshell”.
The star Hawksbill regally climbs out of his sanctuary and onto the warmth of the soft sand.
Waiting across from him in the warm, shallow grey-green water, is the resort’s marine biologist Scott Mayback. Zig-zagging his way across the sand, the Hawksbill finally reached his destination, as the waves caress his body, and float him further away from the shore.
“Stay safe, little one,” I mumbled to myself, as I feel my eyes tearing up.
Gaya Island is set within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a group of five islands surrounded by corals off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. The Marine Centre is situated on Tavajun Bay, reachable either by a five-minute boat ride from Gaya Island Resort’s jetty or through a 45-minute trek.
The centre was set up in 2013 and has since then, rescued, treated and cared for numerous endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and one critically endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelysimbricata).
Outside the turtle rescue centre is a 14,000-litre recovery tank for housing sick or injured sea turtles. This recovery tank also holds a coral nursery that will be used to breed coral fragments to be returned to the sea, and help rejuvenate and improve the natural reefs.
Mayback, the 39-year-old New Yorker in charge of YTL’s marine conservation efforts at Gaya Island Resort grew up in Long Island, USA. A graduate in marine biology from the University of Oregon, he travelled to Central America where he got his diver’s licence before coming over to Sabah.
“I fell in love with the reefs and decided that I wanted to be somewhere where I could do this all the time,” said Mayback.
The Marine Centre, shares Mayback, plays its part in the protection of sea turtles by rescuing and rehabilitating injured or sick sea turtles, and is the first of its kind in the country. This project was initiated with research results showing six out of seven species of sea turtles are endangered or critically endangered worldwide.
Why? Due to fishing, over-development, pollution, or turtles getting stuck, caught accidentally by fishermen or becoming sick or injured.
“Malaysia has been doing turtle conservation for 50 years but the focus has mostly been on hatchlings — eggs, nesting etc. But not much has been done for adult turtles or injured juveniles,” said Mayback.
Through the course of his work here, Mayback said that he has seen everything, from turtles with fractured skulls as a result of being hit by a boat, to those with fractured shells, and others that are so sick that they can’t even dive down into the water.
Before ending the interview, I ask Mayback for a “take-home” message. His immediate reply was: “Every single piece of plastic you drop, whether you live in the city or high up in the mountains, will eventually find its way into the ocean. And what do you think will happen?
“Just do this simple thing. If you have plastic, dispose of them properly.
“Go out there and experience nature and wildlife — if you can. Then you’ll understand why it’s so important to protect them. You can’t protect something you don’t really care for,” he added. — From Sunday Vibes, Jan 22, by Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
critically endangered species
in danger of being extinct
a place for protection
an act or gesture expressing
starting to cry
make fresh or new again
prevention of injury, decay, waste, or loss
restoring to a condition of good health, ability to work
initiated [ih-nish-ee-yet- d]
began, set going, or originated
young reptiles recently emerged from their eggs
broken or split
to put in a particular or suitable place