Turtle Island Sandakan
Introduction and history
Turtle Islands is located in the Sulu Sea, 40 kilometers north of Sandakan, Sabah. It is approximately 1,740 hectares which comprises of three small islands; Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakkungan Kecil and Pulau Gulisan.
Turtle Islands is one of the best destinations in Malaysia for its unique marine wildlife and also not forgetting the most important role as the breeding ground for Green turtles in all of South East Asia. On most evening, scores of turtles crawl onto the soft sand that fringes the islands to lay their eggs. Among the three islands, Pulau Selingan is the main nesting area for the Green turtles (Chelonia Mydas), while another species called Hawksbill turtles prefer Pulau Gulisan. Both species lay their eggs on these shores throughout the year although the best months are between July to October. In 1977, these islands were gazetted as Marine Parks for the protection of the two species in order to save them from extinction. The islands are built over shallow rocky shoals from coral shingle from the surrounding reef on the fringes covered with a variety of plant life, which includes mangrove, lantana, the yellow-flowered sophora and the furry silver-leaved Tournefortia.
Turtle Island or Selingan Island, is the largest of among the three islands and has been developed to house the park's headquarters, a visitor centre, basic tourist facilities and a turtle hatchery. The other islands are usually off bounds to the casual visitor. The nearest mainland town to the park is Sandakan, the former capital of Sabah and was once the heart of a booming timber industry in the mid 1970s. Today, Sandakan is probably most renowned for the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre (Sepilok)
Turtle eggs have been collected from the islands since before the colonial days. Though over-harvesting was already leading to the decreasing off egg production even then, it was not given any form of legal protection until 1971 when the islands were designed as a Bird and Game Sanctuary and administered by the Forestry Department.
Restriction for hunting the Hawksbill Turtle (for their shells) was first imposed by the British North Borneo Chartered Company way back in 1927. Sea turtle hatchery in Selingan Island was started by the Sabah Government in 1966 and in 1977, gazetted the 1,740 hectares of islands and sea embracing Selingan, Bakkkungan Kecil and Gulisan into a marine park.
In general, turtle populations worldwide are dwindling. But in Sabah's protected turtle islands, turtle nesting have recorded a steadily increasing trend since 1991, a positive result after 30 years of conservation efforts.
For a visit to the Turtle Island, usually one can go by speedboat trip which normally takes about an hour. Along the trip, you will be passing the mangrove forests and if you are lucky enough, you might catch a glimpse of Irrawaddy Dolphins.
Turtle landings usually occur after dusk. The park keeps a policy of allowing visitors to only see one landing a night. This is to allow undisturbed nestings to go on throughout the night. You can choose to laze around the beach or snorkel while waiting for the evening’s event. The west side of the island provides an ideal place for this as they are clean, quiet and offer some interesting coral and sea life for a decent day’s snorkeling.
While wandering around the island, you’ll be surprised to see how many turtles have landed in the last few days by looking at their tracks, like mini-tractors, which will be remained in the sand for a number of days. If you want to learn more about sea turtles and also different parks in Sabah and its unique nature, you should stop by at the visitor centre there.
Besides that, while in the island, you may encounter many large bamboo fish traps lining in the shallow waters. Fishermen reap their rewards from fishing in these waters and sell it at Sandakan’s large wet markets.
As the large Green Turtles as they lumber ashore, they will select an area and dig a 12 to 18 inch deep egg chamber with their powerful hind flippers and lays between 40 to 190 eggs, covering them with sand before returning to sea.
Once the eggs have been laid, the eggs are removed by the Park Staff for incubation. This is to ensure that wild predators, such as the monitor lizards, do not get to the eggs.
A hatchery has been established on each of the three islands. These hatcheries are situated 50 feet away from the high water mark. In the hatchery itself, eggs are carefully placed by hand into a pit of 30 inches deep, fenced around with wire mesh and identified by a bamboo marker bearing with serial number of the nest, collection date and number of eggs. These hatchlings will then have to fend for them until they are mature enough to mate and return back to the Turtle Islands.
An incubation period which takes between 50 and 60 days, the young will emerge to the surface by digging their way up to the surface of the pit. This happens usually at night, when the sand is cooler. Usually, these hatchlings are released in the early morning to prevent from being exposed to predators at night while making their journey. But once in the sea, they will be exposed to numerous dangers including being eaten by bigger fish as well as birds. Fatalities can also occur when they encounter plastic bags or mistake tiny hardened balls of oil for food.
The sea turtle is a reptile, which spends all of its life in water. Only the female turtle returns to land to lay its eggs. All sea turtle eat marine animals such as sponges, marine worms and mollusks except adult green turtle, which are largely vegetarian, eating underwater grasses and seaweed. The Hawksbill turtle is carnivorous and eats invertebrate animals of the coral reefs. We do not know the natural longevity of the sea turtles. They grow very slowly, taking from 10 to 20 years to reach maturity.
Turtle egg-laying is a complex process divided into eight stages, they are:-
1. Emerging from the sea, selecting a course to a beach
2. Selecting a nesting area above the high-tide mark
3. Clearing the area with sweeping motions of the front and enclave into the body pit. Excavating the eggs chamber with rear flippers to a depth of about 12 to 18 inches.
5. After the completion of eggs pit, there is a interval before they proceeds to lay eggs.
6. When all the eggs have been laid, they then proceed to cover and conceal the nest pit. The turtle will return to sea and whole process normally takes about an hour.
Visitors are forbidden from engaging in any of the following:
Wander along the beach after dark. (Park Ranger will inform the guides when/where there is turtle laying eggs)
Build campfires, shine bright torches on the beach at night or on the nesting turtle, as strong light will cause harm to the turtles.
Disturb the turtle during the nesting process by approaching too close or crowding around her. Instead, visitors are advised to watch the nesting from a distance.
Under no circumstances, ride on the turtle, pull her flippers, turn over turtle, jump on her or injure her physically. Such acts of abuse may have adverse effects on future nesting returns.
Night photography is strictly forbidden on Pulau Selingan but allowed on the other two islands with permission from the Park Ranger.
Collecting any plant, animal or other living or non-living things is strictly forbidden without prior written permission from the Director of Sabah Parks. Fishing is permitted with hook and line only.
Best time to Visit
The best time to visit this island is between March and September, which are the driest month and the calmest sea. It is not a good idea to visit this between October and February as during this time the island receives the brunt of the north-eastern monsoon gales.
You can take a boat to Pulau Selingan from Sandakan town. Public boat services are not available here. You need to go through the Parks office or alternatively arrange visit through tour operators. Permits are compulsory.
P.O. Box 10626, 88806 Kota Kinabalu
Tel: 088-211811, 212508 Fax: 088-221001, 211585