Have you ever seen one of those nature documentaries where hundreds of tiny turtles hatch out of their eggs and crawl across the sand into the sea, to start their aquatic lives? In one of the most special moments of my trip so far, I was honoured to witness this for myself on the Malaysian island of Tioman.
Catching a bus from Singapore, we crossed the border and arrived at Mersing on the East coast of Malaysia. From here we boarded a ferry to Tekek on Pulau Tioman, enjoying the rather bizarre low-budget Asian horror movie being screened on the boat. At Tekek we met Anna, a friendly, dreadlocked student from London, who had arrived to volunteer at the Juara Turtle Project.
Sharing a taxi with Anna, we crossed the steep hills to the Eastern resort village of Juara. For two nights we stayed in a scruffy, slightly stinky hut with a bathroom that would flood every time we used it. A bad example of backpacker budget accommodation, at only 70 Ringgits (£13) per night. However, the surroundings were lovely: a pristine beach with soft cream sand, a gentle blue sea and trees which, upon closer inspection, housed a collection of snoozing bats. It is so beautiful here that some people come here on honeymoon.
Perusing my Lonely Planet guidebook, I learned about the Bushman accommodation: half a dozen newly-built boutique beachside huts priced at a very reasonable 80 ringgits (£15) per night. The guidebook likened bagging one of these babies to winning the lottery. Maybe we should have bought a Lotto ticket too, as it seemed our luck was in when the friendly Bushman staff gave us the key to the last available bungalow.
The difference was astonishing: high quality fittings in rich dark wood, air-conditioning, a fridge, comfortable beds and pleasant bathroom, all spotlessly maintained. Thoughtful touches included shell and coral decorations, a washing line and a tap to wash the sand from your feet. The icing on the cake was our own veranda and sun-loungers where we could put our feet up and take in the dazzling view of the beach and the sea.
We’d heard about a local waterfall, so the next day we decided to take the 20 minute stroll to check it out. Unfortunately much of the walk was almost vertical – or certainly felt like it – as we climbed up the steepest road I’d ever tackled on foot. Tired and sweating, we finally found the small, low-key entrance and made our way down the narrow walkway, stepping over tree roots and car-tyre steps. Here we discovered a little oasis. A small but perfectly formed waterfall surrounded by trees, rocks, vines and still, transparent water populated with little fish, who didn’t seem at all bothered when we dived in to cool off. Such a soul-soothingly peaceful place.
Being nature lovers, we weren’t going to leave Juara without visiting the Turtle Project. Also a 20 minute walk from our accommodation, thankfully it was a flat walk this time. Immediately upon our arrival we were welcomed by one of the centre’s workers and given an informative and insightful introduction to the valuable conservation work they do here. With the help of a comprehensive exhibition, we learned why many of the island’s turtle nest beaches have been destroyed and the remaining population is endangered. Primarily, of course, due to human interference and carelessness.
Then we entered the cordoned-off area usually only frequented by the volunteers like Anna who work here. Here we met Jo, a giant turtle who they have – unusually – raised by hand as she is blind. The staff assured us that, while she cannot see, she enjoys gentle human contact. They have almost completed a larger tank to house Jo, built thanks to funding from a large water company.
Then it was time to see the hatcheries. A fenced-off section of the beach where the volunteers place eggs for incubation, after rescuing them from beaches around the island where they would otherwise be vulnerable to a variety of threats. Here they can hatch in safety. Each nest contains around a hundred eggs and once one starts to hatch, the rest follow suit within minutes.
This is exactly what happened while we were here. By complete chance, one of the little critters had decided that it was time to emerge, so the volunteers became excited, knowing that it would soon be time to welcome them all into the world and set them onto their natural, instinctive path into the wilderness of the sea.
As the volunteers got busy ensuring that each turtle was checked, measured and accounted for, they kindly invited us to join them for the release into the sea at sunset that evening. This is the final chapter in the centre’s role for each turtle. That is, until the few surviving females become pregnant and search Pulau Tioman for somewhere to lay their eggs.
It felt like an important ceremony, as we lined the beach in anticipation. One of the staff members gently angled the large box containing the turtles, so they could make their way out. Despite being a long way from the sea, all of them knew exactly which direction to head, like an in-built sat nav. It was fun to watch as over a hundred turtles scrambled along the sand using their flippers, racing each other to reach the waves. Once in the sea, they would be on their own, to face their natural predators in the water and search for food to sustain them. One poor creature wasn’t well enough to make it that far, so the staff decided they would nurture it at the centre until it was strong enough to try again.
This was a humbling and fascinating occasion and one I feel very privileged to have experienced. For more information and photos of this hatchling release, check out the Juara Turtle Project’s website.