Meet The Turtles

by Audrey Lim, Aug 28, 2001 | Destinations: Malaysia / Terengganu

This is the last place on earth. Well, almost. It is facing extinction. Well, almost.

Rantau Abang, located in the State of Terengganu, is the very last few places left on earth to attract the huge leatherbacks. Before I go on, let's just take a step back and figure out how we can get to Rantau Abang.

Okay. It is actually very simple. Rantau Abang is located just 43 km from Marang via the Coastal Route 3 that goes south. You will pass many fishing villages on your way to Rantau Abang. Please don't expect the hustle and bustle of city life. All you'll see are a cluster of guesthouses at intervals located along the dusty road. But what made Rantau Abang famous isn't the serenity of the location or the peaceful laidback lifestyle?

Rantau Abang made a name for itself as one of the last few sanctuaries in this world where the rare giant leatherback turtles come to lay its eggs. In fact, it has such a fondness for the place that it returns to the same spot year after year between the months of May and September. Besides these giant leatherback turtles, you will also get a chance to see the hawksbill, the Olive Ridley and the green turtles. But nothing, and I mean nothing can beat the sight of the huge ponderous leatherbacks. It is quite a sight watching these turtles with their black coat and rubbery-like skin slowly making its way up to the beach!

A giant leatherback turtle is not called "gigantic" for no reason. Measuring at 1.5 meter, it weighs an average of 400 kg and that's 4 times my weight!!! Of course, if it is going to lay eggs, you can only expect to see the female turtles heaving up to the beach at night. Using her enormous front flippers, she will lumber on until she reaches dry sand. Again, with the same flippers (only the back one this time), the turtle will start to dig the sand until she has created a hole of about 50 to 80 cm deep. With that, she will start to lay her eggs? hundreds of them at any one time! When she's done, the turtle will cover the hole again with her rear flippers. She will also try to disguise the site by covering up the area with more sand.

Normally, a single turtle would not lay eggs for two consecutives seasons. However, it is possible for the turtle to nest about three to four times within the same season for a two-week interval.

The eggs usually incubate for about 50 to 60 days while the sex of the hatchlings are (interestingly) determined by the temperature of the sand. Warm sand will produce more female hatchlings while cooler sand will see more males. After the eggs have been hatched, you will see cute little turtles crawling out to the surface of the sand. Each hatchling is no bigger than a hand-span.

Most of these hatchlings will make their way to sea during the night. The darkness of nighttime provides them with additional safety from the eyes of predators such as crabs and birds. Larvae or fungi in the sand might even snuff out their fragile early lives.

Somehow, these turtles seemed to have an uncanny knack for directions. Earlier studies showed that the hatchlings moved away from areas with lights whilst others indicated that the baby turtles moved away from land's higher horizon. It was presumed that these hatchlings were memorizing the beach so that they could come back in later life to lay their eggs. But the amazing fact remains?! How can a fifty-year-old giant leatherback turtle swimming as far off as America managed to find its way back to a little coast in Terengganu?

If you want to catch these leatherback turtles in "their act", you must be there at the right season. However, Rantau Abang is a lovely place to visit during off-season as well. Tranquil and peaceful, it'll offer you an untouched beach for relaxation.