Whenever tourists asked me where they should go for true gems of Nature, I always advocated Kota Kinabalu. The waters are blue, the sand is white, their coral reef is to die for and all the rigmarole.
It wasn’t until I got a trip to go to Pulau Talang-Satang that I realised that such breath-taking beauty could also be found in Sarawak.
On a sunny day, you can float on the water with a lifejacket and a snorkel to see the marine life flitting between the flower-like corals, and the sunlight catching on minute algae as schools of yellowfin fish nibble at them energetically.
All I needed to see was a sea turtle coming in to nest — which wouldn’t happen until night time.
While there are a number of turtles that come to nest such as the Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Leatherback, Green Turtles (chelonia mydas) almost exclusively show up at the Talang-Satang Marine National Park to reproduce.
Located off the mouth of the Sematan River between Lundu and Tanjung Datu, the Talang-Satang National Park is made up of four islands — Pulau Satang Besar, Pulau Satang Kecil, Pulau Talang-Talang Besar and Pulau Talang-Talang Kecil.
This migration trail has been a part of the turtles’ life cycle since time immemorial. It’s part of their charm but also their curse as they are poached by natural predators, and, of course, humans.
Over the last 100 years or so, the turtles have been subject to egg exploitation, commercial harvest and trade, fish trawling activities, habitat destruction, pollution, inadequate research and management practices, lack of communities and other agencies concerned and inadequate funding for research and conservation.
Although it’s a daily battle, conservation efforts under Sarawak Forestry Corporation have been a great boon to the turtle population.
Compared to a 90 per cent population drop from 1950-70, the late 1990s was the beginning of a real effort to conserve this endangered species, boosted by the fact that all sea turtles were listed as Totally Protected Animals in 1990.
According to Wilfred Landong, the marine life park is almost zealously guarded.
Fishing is banned within two nautical miles of the outermost islands, and the turtle islands themselves are restricted to tourists.
Through the artificial reef ball project under Sarawak Reef Ball Working Group (SRBWG), illegal trawling activities have been cut down as nets catch on these concrete balls on the seabed and get destroyed.
The numbers of dead turtles washed up on shore has since decreased from 70-100 to 10-30 annually. But turtle conservation wasn’t all smooth-sailing.
Up to 1841 when James Brooke established his government in Sarawak, turtle eggs were a valuable commodity for Borneo.
On an expedition to suppress piracy in Sarawak in 1846, Admiral Henry Keppel in his book, The Expedition to Borneo on HMS Dido, related how 5,000 to 6,000 eggs were collected every morning by Raja Muda Hashim’s steward.
When Charles Vyner Brooke came into power, the control of the turtle islands was given to the Sarawak Museum in 1941.
From then on, the curator, E Banks, carried out a conservation programme interrupted by World War II when the Japanese occupied Sarawak.
This was a period of misery for both Sarawakians and the Green Turtles. The Japanese military had built an airstrip opposite Pulau Satang at Sibu Laut and used Talang-Talang Kecil for bombing target practice.
What’s more, the turtles were hunted and eaten — a practice not seen in these waters before.
When World War II ended, Tom Harrison, the second curator, carried on with conservation efforts, focusing on perfecting turtle hatcheries.
Between using a hen to hatch the eggs, artificial incubators and a wire cage anchored off Talang Besar, the results proved comically disastrous.
The chicken pecked and destroyed the eggs, the artificial incubators roasted them and the hatchlings kept in the wire cage died after a few days.
Today, the SFC have somewhat perfected their hatchery management techniques to perfectly imitate the turtle’s natural life cycle.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until 1999 that all turtle eggs were put to conservation, effectively prohibiting any sale or purchase.
According to Park Warden Tonny Ganyai, the hatchery tries to maintain the turtles’ imprinting process by allowing them to run down the beach.
“We also protect them from predators by releasing them at night or early morning at different locations,” he said.
It’s especially essential to transfer the eggs within two hours after being laid and with minimal movement.
“The membrane starts to grow and attach the yolk to the inside of the eggshell. Any rolling or jerky movement will tear the membranes and kill the egg,” he added.
Hatchlings are also being released from the Tanjung Datu hatchery, a move Marine Park Warden Christopher Kri speculates will lead to that batch returning in 40 years to lay their eggs there.
Research on the gentle creatures is on-going. Through satellite telemetry studies, their migration routes and feeding grounds have been identified and one is at Kuala Lawas and Pulau Sempadi.
In future, the hatchery hopes to gazette these areas as totally protected.
As Nature tourism is limited to these islands, the only chance anybody might have of witnessing these sea-going reptiles is through the volunteer and turtle adoption programmes.
The Adopt-A-Turtle and Adopt-A-Nest programme allows participants to either adopt a turtle for a RM200 donation or a nest for RM100.
Open from May to September, the Sea Turtle Conservation Programme allows volunteers to actively participate in Sarawak’s turtle conservation efforts by spending four days at the Turtle Conservation Station on Pulau Talang-Talang Besar.
Their duties include beach patrols to locate turtle arrivals, monitoring turtle nesting activities, tagging and measuring turtles, transferring eggs to the hatchery, releasing hatchlings, data recording and other on-site conservation activities.