Where Are The Turtles?

by Audrey Lim, Jan 1, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia / Sabah

If you are looking for turtles, then Turtle Island Park is the place for you. Located about 40 km north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea off the state of Sabah's east coast, Turtle Island Park is where you will find green turtles and hawksbill turtles laying their eggs on the shores throughout the year.

Turtle Island Park is made up of three islands, namely Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakkungan Kecil and Pulau Gulisan. Altogether, they make up 1,740 hectares of space, including the sea and surrounding coral reefs. This island is situated over a shallow and rocky stretch of water surrounded by reefs and corals. On dry land, Turtle Island Park has quite a variety of plants and animals. Some of the commonly seen vegetation includes mangrove, lantana, sophora and its yellow flowers, and also the furry silver-leaved Tournefortia.

Of course, as the name suggests, this island is where the turtles live. Visiting Turtle Island Park without seeing the turtles is almost a sin by itself. Here is where you will get to see the main attractions - the turtles. Over at Pulau Selingan, the green turtles chelonia mydas make their nest and hatches there. The hawksbill turtles Eretmochelys prefers the shores of Pulau Gulisan. The recommended months to view these turtles lay their eggs would be around the months of July to October, although in actual fact, these turtles lay their eggs throughout the years. However, the best times remained between those months as mentioned earlier. It was in the year 1977 that these islands were gazetted as marine parks with the purpose to protect the turtles and to prevent them from extinction.

As opposed to its name, Pulau Bakkungan Kecil is the largest of the islands. For information purposes, the word "kecil" in the Malay language brings about the meaning "small", and Pulau Bakkungan is definitely not small. This island is located close to the Philippines border and has active mud volcanoes within it. Before you get your hopes too high about seeing a true live volcano, let me just warn you that the volcanoes you see at Pulau Bakkungan Kecil are actually mineral-rich mud that was expelled from the depths of the earth. If you want to check out the green turtles on this island, then head over to the northern and western beaches. These two sites are the favorite hatching grounds of the green turtles. Unfortunately, there are no accommodation facilities on this island, so you may want to prepare your time and accommodation elsewhere in advance.

The second largest island is Pulau Selingan with a size of about 8 hectares. Favorite turtle hatching spots are on the eastern and southwestern side of the island. Here, you will get to see the turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs, and then returning when they are done. Most of the time, you can catch this act from dusk onwards - some time after 7:30 pm would be most suitable. Sometimes, the turtles would come ashore during the wee hours of the morning too.

Although Pulau Gulisan is a small place of about 1.6 hectares, its attractions lie with the hawksbill turtles. These turtles apparently love Pulau Gulisan as they can be seen laying their eggs on the northern, eastern and southwestern side beaches. To view a nesting session, you must have patience. Be prepared to wait quite a bit as these turtles do not seemed to be in a hurry. They will slowly come ashore at the right time, find a spot they like, clear the area for the 'occasion', then lay about 40 to 90 eggs at one time, finally conceal the eggs with sand and back to the sea they go! The whole 'procession' could take up to one hour! Talk about them being slowcoaches! These sea turtles feed on marine animals including mollusks, marine worms, and sponges. Carnivorous by nature, the turtles enjoy a bite off the invertebrate animals of the coral reefs. However, the older green turtles are vegetarians, chewing on to underwater grass and seaweed only!

So, what happens to the eggs after the turtles had already buried them and left the scene? This is where the Hatcheries Park staff comes in. Their duties are to collect the eggs and have them move to hatcheries. This way, a successful hatching can be made possible. The eggs require an incubation period of 50 to 60 days. Once the little turtles are hatched, the staff will then release them to the sea from different locations. From then on, each sole turtle must fend for itself?

Viewing the laying of eggs and understanding more of the conservation of turtles is actually an interesting experience one must encounter at least once in a lifetime. A visit to Turtle Island Park will be able to offer you all that. There is accommodation available on the island as well as a restaurant for simple hot meals. Accommodation are however limited. It is advisable to make your bookings earlier.

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Visitor Information:

Getting There
You can get to Turtle Island Park by boat. There are boat services available from the Sandakan Harbor. Length of each journey is dependable on location and the speed of the boat. Be prepared to travel anything from 45 minutes to 3 hours.

Guidelines For Visitors
As with any other national or marine parks, Turtle Island Park is protected by stringent rules and regulations that a visitor must adhere to. In order to protect the sea turtles, its natural environment, coral reefs and other marine life, these are some of the regulations:

  • Visitors are not allowed to wander along the beach after dark looking for turtles. If you want to know the times, check with the Park Ranger who will be more than happy to provide you with all necessary information.
  • Visitors must not disturb the turtles during the nesting process. Do not crowd or come too close to the turtles. Visitors are only allowed to view from a distance.
  • Do not harm the turtles by riding on it, pulling the flippers, turning it over or jumping and injuring it in any way. This abusive act may jeopardize future nesting sessions.
  • This is not a picnic spot, therefore building of campfires, singing, dancing, playing of loud music and any form of bright lights on the beach is strictly prohibited!
  • Visitors must not take photos at night on Pulau Selingan. However, if you can get permission from the Park Ranger, visitors may take night photography on the other two islands.
  • Fishing is permitted with hook and line only.
  • Without prior written permission from the Director of Sabah Parks, no visitor may collect plants, animals or other living/non-living things from the park.