In the previous article, we looked at how marine turtles play an important but often overlooked role in maintaining the ocean ecosystem. For this part of the series, I’ll be sharing about my experience participating in a turtle conservation programme under the Sea Turtle Research Unit (SEATRU). Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) hosted this research programme in Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary on Redang Island. In Malaysia, there are many conservation programmes and hatcheries that have been doing their part to arrest the declining numbers of marine turtles. In 2015 marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed her team removing a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose. The turtle in that video eventually became the poster child for the anti-straw movement. (Trigger warning: blood)
Marine Turtles Conservation Programme In Redang Island
In September 2018, a friend of mine shared her experience about volunteering with SEATRU. She strongly encouraged me to experience it myself. Up to that point, I knew very little about marine turtles. I only knew about their endangered-species status, and not much else. Neither did I realise how important conservation is. So I decided to sign up for the one-week SEATRU volunteer programme in September last year. Organised by the university, there were six interns, two rangers, and a research assistant on site to ensure the programme ran smoothly.
Chagar Hutang is located in the northernmost part of Redang Island, which is densely forested. Hence, we were completely devoid of any mobile network connection. Neither was there electricity. It was going back to basics and learning to make full use of the day before night came around. Provided with raw ingredients to cook our meals, cooking duties were split amongst our team of ten volunteers whilst the six interns organised our workflow. With only ten volunteers allocated to each slot, there was plenty of opportunity to get to know one another over the week. As expected, we’d definitely have more meaningful and personal conversations without the interruptions of text messages or phone calls. We had the whole secluded lagoon to ourselves, including the entire strip of fine sanded beach and crystal clear waters.
My Week-Long Experience With Marine Turtles And Hatchlings
When we first arrived at Chagar Hutang, the rangers briefed us on what to expect and the week-long activities. Following that, they assigned each intern to four volunteers, forming different groups. A typical day of the week consisted of checking on the turtle nests in the morning. This became our schedule for the rest of the week. First, identifying the nests with unique four-digit codes denoting the dates the turtles came ashore. We can literally see the whole beach scattered with these wooden planks. Next, we would be given log sheets to check on nests that are expected to have possible hatchlings. And if there are, we would excavate them to release them during the night.
Sea turtle hatchlings have an inborn tendency to move in the brightest direction. As such, we would guide them seaward using turtle-friendly red light. This is to prevent the hatchlings from being led astray and thus, improving their chances of their survival.
Wave(ing) My Regular Sleep Schedule Goodbye
At night, we work on shifts to patrol the beach to record down any female marine turtles that come on to the beach to lay their eggs. After dinner at 8pm, each group would then have a particular section of the beach to patrol hourly until midnight. Two groups would then have a shift each from midnight to 3am, and another group continuing from 3am to 6am. The group that isn’t on patrol has breakfast duties the next day. Night patrols were when all the action happened and we also learned the true meaning of conservation work. We had to follow a standard protocol when turtle watching. Firstly, to note down the time the turtle came ashore. Secondly, the time it starts to create its body pit. Thirdly, the time it digs the egg chamber. And lastly, when it lays its eggs.
Before female marine turtles lay their eggs, they would come on shore to ‘scout’ for a suitable nesting area. When they come ashore, you’ll be able to hear a rustling sound from their ‘paddling’ or even grunts from their exhaustion of long travels. After they’ve found a spot, they’ll make a body pit. They fling away loose sand with their flippers as they rotate their body. Subsequently, they’ll dig an egg chamber. Here, they use their cupped rear flippers as shovels. The egg cavity is about an arm’s length deep and usually slightly tilted. Finally, they’ll lay their eggs in the chamber with two or three eggs at a time. A whole clutch or nest would have between 80 and 120 eggs. What’s amazing is that the shells are somewhat elastic hence they won’t break as they fall into the chamber.
Where The Conservation Of Marine Turtles Begin
Right after a female marine turtle lays her eggs, we have to record down the length and width measurements of her carapace using a measuring tape. The most important part is checking her flipper for a previous tag. If she’s untagged, then we’ll tag her with a fresh one. This helps keep a record of nesting patterns of either an old or new mother. Using her rear flippers again, the mother would refill the nest with sand as a form of camouflage from predators. She would then return to sea and won’t return to shore to meet her hatchlings. The interns reminded us to be extra careful around the sea turtles. Hence, we are told to only turn on the red light on our headlamps or torchlights. Red light emits a very narrow portion of the visible light spectrum which prevents any distraction towards the egg-laying process.
Long-Term Results Of Marine Turtle Conservation
This experience opened our eyes to the dedication and passion invested in the humble conservation work. It takes more than just determination and commitment of resources. It’s a cause that’s bigger than any of us. And it’s so important to realise that every little help along the way is crucial in keeping the hope alive for the endangered species. Although Malaysia is home to such beautiful creatures, all of us locals also have a part to play that indirectly contributes back to the cause. The turtle egg trade is still very much active and many Southeast Asian countries still consider it a delicacy. Apart from that, humans poach marine turtles for their shells. Turtle shells also make pretty ornaments, adding another reason for the illegal poaching.
The results of conservation do not happen overnight, neither will there be a significant difference after a few weeks. However in the long run, conservation efforts does work, showing positive results in increasing the number of marine turtles. Having the patience and believing in a cause one is contributing to is greatly rewarding. It has also been studied that conservations can be self-sustaining. Also that long-term egg protection is effective in rehabilitating marine turtle populations from decline. If you have an interest in learning some interesting facts about sea turtles, here’s a great video.
Interested In Sea Turtle Conservation Or Visiting Turtle Sanctuaries?
SEATRU runs this volunteer programme annually from April to November, however you would have to be aged 18 and above. You can learn more about their cause and what they do here. Their Facebook page also actively posts various information about turtle conservation, webinar events and even giveaways! Recently, they carried out a quiz that allowed winners to win their special anniversary T-shirt design. You can also check out their Instagram as they would publish when the next volunteer intake is open for registration. UMT runs SEATRU purely as a non-profit initiative, hence their reliance on volunteer programmes to sustain themselves. If you would like to support their efforts through other means, you can also adopt a turtle or a nest and will receive updates on the turtle’s activities. If not, just following their Instagram and Facebook page will suffice.
If you believe in supporting this cause, but can’t contribute directly, consider other ways that you can contribute without volunteering with SEATRU. There are a few turtle sanctuaries and hatcheries to check out. The Department of Fisheries or other NGOs at different locations manages multiple sanctuaries at different locations.
- Sabah (Turtle Island National Park);
- Sarawak (Pulau Talang-Satang);
- Perak (Turtle Management Centre at Segari);
- Melaka (Turtle Hatchery Centre at Pulau Upeh, Turtle Management and Information Centre at Padang Kemunting);
- Terengganu (Ma’ Daerah Turtle Sanctuary);
- Penang (Turtle Hatchery Centre at Kerachut); and
- Pahang (Cherating Turtle Sanctuary, Pulau Tioman).
What About Immersing Yourself In A Dive?
Malaysia is known for our beautiful beaches and are also known to have really good diving points. Read here to learn more about Mabul’s diving points. (Psst! You might even be lucky enough to witness sea turtles on the seabed.)