It’s not easy being a turtle egg.
Mum’s journey up the beach to lay you has its own dangers, but that’s only the start of it. You and 100 or so potential brothers and sisters then lie buried a metre down in the sand, hoping to survive without being discovered by inquisitive predators. Presuming you manage to get out of your shell and up to the surface, you still have to cover 100 yards back to the sea, avoiding the spider crabs and their holes in a Lara Croft-style obstacle course. Then you’re in the sea and at the mercy of the waves and various seaborne hazards.
By the time you reach the age of majority, it’s easy to understand why you might pat yourself on the shell – you’ve survived against odds of roughly 1000 to 1 to get this far.
The conservationists got involved in Turtle-world when it became clear that human intervention – often to steal the valuable shells and the reputedly aphrodisiac eggs – was starting to challenge even these odds. Then, back in the 50s and 60s, something rather unfortunate happened. The conservationists didn’t know that the temperature of the sand in which the egg is buried has a bearing on the sex of the hatched animal. The devastating impact, particularly on the Leatherback turtle population, was only felt 40 years later (a couple of decades ago) when thousands of female turtles were left stranded without mates.
It’s *really* not easy being a turtle egg.
Nevertheless, turtles are a focus area for conservationists like WWF now, particularly in Malaysia. I had happened across the Ma’Daerah Green Turtle protection programme on the internet, and arranged to spend two weeks helping them out on the beach they patrol in Northern Malaysia.
I was welcomed a couple of weeks ago by Sharifah the biologist, two rangers and a hatchery worker. The basic nocturnal work took a little getting used to. Two night patrols – one at 9pm, one at 2am. with one of the rangers, I would walk the 2km of remote paradise beach by moonlight, lie down on the sand for a couple of hours, stare at the stars with the ranger’s radio gently wafting over the sand, often drifting off to sleep before waking and stumbling to the sanctuary. By the final day, I loved the patrols, particularly those with the middle-aged ranger Pak Mat. Not only did he seem to enjoy babbling to me in Malay (seemingly oblivious to my complete incomprehension), but he also had a caring wife – I must have tasted every kind of weird tropical fruit carefully bagged for beach consumption.
For me, there was high excitement in finding turtle-tracks on the beach, following them up to a nest, and hearing the sound of strong flippers scraping sand over eggs. The job of collecting hatched turtles from the hatchery and releasing them in their 100s into the sea was even more rewarding. Pak Mat just laughed gently at my child-like enthusiasm – for him, it was just another day of his ten years here, supporting his seven children.
With the end of the season approaching (now-ish), we had another job to complete. WWF had acquired four expensive satellite transmitters to fix onto the backs of mothers after they had laid their eggs. This was no easy task – weighing in at 100kg and about a metre long, these turtles were (understandably) not that keen on being boxed for 3 hours in the early hours of the morning while a hot epoxy resin was applied to their shell. But this is a necessary part of the conservation effort – even now, very little is known about the lifetime movements of turtles out at sea.
In my last few days at the sanctuary, Sharifah the biologist started a final small project. Around a headland north of the beach, the lights of a huge Petronas oil refinery cast an eerie red light into the sky. Hatchlings are attracted by light, and Sharifah and her boss had a hunch that the “Petronas effect” was pulling hatchlings North like a magnet once they reached the sea. To test the theory, small lightsticks on polystyrene floats were attached with sellotape and fishing line to the back of 4 hatchlings, which were followed for a couple of hours with kayaks. Results – as yet – inconclusive; though I know where I’d lay my bets.
I left the sanctuary 4 days ago and moved on out to the beautiful Perhentian Islands, renowned for their fantastic diving. Given the increasingly aquatic theme of this section of my travels, it seemed churlish not to learn to scuba-dive, so I’m now a PADI Open Water scuba-diver. Another day, another aquatic qualification.
I’m heading into silent Vipassana Meditation now for 10 days, before heading to Singapore and then Bali, where I plan to surf and do some more free-diving.