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Perhentian Islands

We spent two weeks on Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands volunteering at a turtle conservation project.

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Our time here was thoroughly rewarding and we learnt so much about green turtles (named because their fat is the colour green due to their seagrass diet) and the challenges facing the species today.
Half of the week was spent at ‘the village’, a traditional Malaysian community virtually untouched by Western tourism.

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Due to the majority of the occupants being Muslim, appropriate dress was required whilst walking around, so shoulders and up to the knees needed to be covered. You would find no pork on any menu, and no dogs to be seen. However this meant for a cat lovers heaven, as cats are kept as pets and are very much loved.

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During our time in the village we would participate in activities such as beach clean ups, turtle surveys, pudding making classes at local restaurants, and some evenings were spent round a locals’ house enjoying traditional Malaysian cuisine.

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During our pudding making sessions we made banana fritters and coconut dough balls. The Malaysian’s definitely have a sweet tooth – everything is so sweet. Alot of condensed milk is used and copious amounts if sugar. Dentists must have their work cut out here!

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The turtle surveys were one of the main tasks of the day. This required us to kayak across to the beach where the turtles fed. We would kayak around until we spotted one, then dive down (using a snorkel and mask) and get photos of each side of the head and the shell. These pictures would then be entered into a database for identification purposes.

During the hours spent watching these gentle giants, we were shocked to witness some truly naive and irresponsible actions by both local and Western tourists. Turtles having camaras and selfie sticks shoved into their faces, having people touch them and hang onto their shell when coming up for breath. Why would you think that is OK?! We told every single one of these people why they shouldn’t do it, and thankfully people listened. How stressful whilst they are eating their sea grass to have someone patting them on the head.

Another shock was the amount of people in the water with them. On some occasions no more than 15 boats were in the area at one time, with most of their occupants splashing around chasing the turtles incessantly. The issue that we need to remember is that these boat trips are usually the only source of income for the driver. You cannot just ban them from bringing tourists there. Also you want to promote the fact that turtles are much more valuable alive than dead, so this type of tourism is important. We just feel certain restrictions are needed to ensure safety for both turtle and people. Many accidents have occurred with snorkelers and propellers quite recently there, so it isn’t just the turtles suffering.

Unfortunately propeller injuries are a common occurrence with turtles. The larger ones will survive such an injury, but juveniles won’t.

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The other half of the week was spent assisting the resident interns with night patrols. We would pack our bags for a 3 night stay at a secluded beach on another part of the island, arriving their via boat.
The sunsets their were especially beautiful, as we were the only people inhabiting the beach.

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The night patrols started at 8pm, ending at 6am the next morning. We all participated up until 11pm then the shifts would be split between 11pm-3am and 3am-6am.
The purpose of these nightly patrols was to deter egg poachers, which is the main threat to green turtles in Malaysia (apart from the worldwide issues of pollution in their ocean, by catch in fishing nets, and boat damage). The eggs are a delicacy, and have been consumed by local people for generations. This brings up another delicate issue – how can a group of Western conservationists suddenly come in and tell local people that what they’ve been doing for years they cannot do anymore? It’s all about treading that fine line between educating and offending. Unfortunately conservation is as much about politics as it is about the environment too, which is unavoidable in this day and age.

So, our night patrol routine would be to walk the length of the beach every hour, on the look out for turtle tracks coming out of the ocean.

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On our last patrol Paul and I were chuffed to learn we would be trusted to do it ourselves, and to wake an intern if and when we had a turtle laying.
We got so much hands on experience that night – we saw a turtle about 12am, watched her and wrote down all required timings (when she emerged, started her body pit, started her egg chamber) then when she started laying her eggs we woke up the appropriate people…Paul then measured the width and length of her carapace and I counted all of her 98 eggs.
The following pictures were taken with red light as white light will scare the turtle.

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It was a truly special moment, being that close to a green turtle and witnessing her laying her eggs, with the only sound being the ocean lapping at the beach behind us.
She finished at around 3am, so the next day we were all very tired!

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The island also hosted an array of different critters, some much more pleasant than others!

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On our last night we had an impromptu BBQ during a storm.

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It’s fascinating that turtles return to the very beach they were born on to lay their own eggs – that first touch of sand a hatchling experiences once they are out of their shell is so important, as it imprints in their minds where they return to. They reach sexual maturity at around 25 years old, and after 25 years they will find their way back to that very beach. How incredible is that? In one season they will return up to three times to lay a batch of eggs.
The survival rate of hatchlings is a scary figure – 1 in 10,000 will reach sexual maturity. It’s an incredibly low survival rate, which has been significantly effected by human activities.

An example of the effect of human activities was when a turtle came up on the tourist ‘party’ beach one night, and was obviously hugely confused as this would not have seemed like the beach she left 30 odd years ago.
We got a call at 10.30pm reporting a turtle had come up at a really touristy beach on the island and that egg poachers had already turned up. Our group all rushed to get a boat to the beach and located the turtle – the poor thing had crawled past a really dirty beach campsite with loads of litter everywhere, and was attempting to make her egg pit amongst a load of rubbish in the company of two poachers who were literally on top of her.
One of the poachers had an axe shoved down his shorts (not to kill her but we assumed for intimidation purposes).

One of our group was a Malay so he was our interpreter. We ended up after hours of negotiation having to give him 100 Ringett (£20) to leave.
During this time the turtle had made 4 body pitts, and was moving constantly becoming increasingly stressed.
At 2.45am all but one of us left, and the intern who we left returned that morning saying him and another guy had had to help her back into the ocean at 7am as she had stopped moving and had become exhausted. No eggs laid either. So I believe in a joint effort we all saved her life, as she would have most certainly died there if left alone.
This is an example of what 21st century turtles are up against – however after our experiences here I firmly believe that with education and understanding, humans and turtles can live side by side. However us humans need to be willing to make a difference, and not be afraid to act.

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  1. Love the photos Gem. Amazing info and facts about turtles, really interesting I would love to see those eggs hatch and see the babies find their way today the sea.

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