Marinating in This Thing Called Life

Malaysia's flag
Asia » Malaysia » Sabah » Sandakan
April 6th 2016
Published: May 10th 2016
Edit Blog Post

Paradise FoundParadise FoundParadise Found

Or lost, or lost and found. I don't care, its the most beautiful place I've ever been.
Terimakasih Borneo!

You were such a great introduction to Southern Asia. Over the years, I had heard so much about Malaysia, many travelers raved about its beaches and friendly people, but that never quite sparked my radar. And then a few planes fell out of the sky, and I was like, meh.

So it was only after I read an article about rehabilitated orangutans at a sanctuary in Sepilok that I really wanted to visit. I did my standard Googling to see exactly where the hell Borneo was, I practiced how to say good morning, hello, thank you and goodbye in Malay, and most importantly, I watched comedian Bill Bailey do a UK travel program on proboscis monkeys and laughed myself silly for a rather long time. With that, I frantically dusted off my backpack and booked the first available flight.

I spent most of my time in Sabah, the Northern region, and one of the best parts of this trip (and there are too many to list) was visiting a turtle sanctuary at a protected marine park off the coast of the city of Sandakan. Located on one of three islands called Pulau Selingaan, it is only
Cozy CottagesCozy CottagesCozy Cottages

Our digs for the week. Very basic but comfy
accessible by speed boat.

After forty-five minutes on boiling seas, you are dropped off on one of the most pristine beaches I have ever seen. The urge to just fling off all my clothes and wade out into the ocean and melt into the turquoise horizon, overwhelming.

In exchange for our stay, guests are expected to help out with turtle hatchery duties. Sounds like a pretty good gig! With no one around, we were told to spend our days snorkeling, swimming, and sunbathing, however, it was suggested that we grab a nap in a hammock at some point because we would be up all night. Done and done! Our chalets were tidy and simple, and came with blessed air con and wifi. The buffet food nothing to write home about, and the showers, a scary little trickle of salty water, but I didn’t care.

I was still about to go all "Blue Lagoon" on this place.

Little cobble paths lead you to postcard vistas at every turn, while hermit crabs and lizards skittle underfoot. The coconut palms sway gently giving an illusion there would be a reprieve from the sweltering midday heat. There wasn't.

The OfficeThe OfficeThe Office

Chilling at the office as we wait for our night gig.
had an armed escort on the boat, and heavily armed policemen are present at lookout stations all over our island. At first, I thought they were here for the turtles, but after having Googled and finding out about a recent kidnapping of ten Indonesian fishermen, I'm realizing how extremely close to the south Philippines we are, which puts us at severe risk of being kidnapped by the Islamic militants Abu Sayyaf. Gulp.

I wasn’t really concerned for myself though, fat people are hard to kidnap.

So after settling in, I donned my snorkel and literally did a Jesus pose into the sea.

I've never swam in a giant vat of urine before, but I'm guessing this is what it would feel like if you did. WHY is the ocean so hot!!!!

Nevertheless. I dove out onto the corals of florescent purples, blues, greens, and oranges. Fish of every description floated up to investigate me, some with gigantic eyeballs, so we would have a stare down. Amused for hours by the blue lobsters hidden in crevasses was I, and the gigantic rainbow clams that would slam shut if you approached. There were sea slugs, urchins, conches, and
Back to the SeaBack to the SeaBack to the Sea

It seems to take so much for them to pull themselves across the sand and into the sea, but they make it.
Nemos guarding their anemones in every square inch of that bathtub. I just couldn’t get out. My skin has pruned to level 'Sharpei'.

While we wait for night to come, we would just float in the shallows and refer to this as "The Office." No one is noticing we are many shades of nuclear red, nor does anyone seem to care. I do know there will be some serious whinging tomorrow.

Putting myself in imminent danger was not really part of my travel plans, but what can you do. I'm already here. The militant group had ramped up their threats, including asking for a ridiculous sum of money for their two Canadian hostages they plucked off a beach nearby here. Me and the Australians talk about it at 'The Office" and we all decide we can't let the actions of a few nutters ruin our experience. I had time to reflect and walk around the island several times (not a feat, its small) and think about life and how fragile it can be. Two very vibrant women in my life have recently succumbed to cancer, and I too had a cancer scare in January. I need to marinate
Police EscortPolice EscortPolice Escort

We didn't realize how serious the situation was, but we needed a police guard for our stay on the islands.
in everything life offers. Hands down. No regrets. No do-overs. I already know how lucky I am to be on this planet, and I plan to explore every inch of it if I can. Threat of kidnapping or not.

As dusk approached, we all elect to sit side by side on the beach to drink cold beers and excitably watch as the crimson sun falls into the sea. I play with the sand, a mixture of pulverized coral and tiny shells, it sieves through my fingers and feels beautiful. Little knats buzz around my head but do nothing. I have to admit, I am really enjoying the company of these particular Aussies, so sharing this particular moment with them was golden.

Now for the wait. All lights on the island have been turned off, so the shy female turtles will come ashore. We talk in hushed whispers, no one is sure what to expect, or if any will actually come. But they do.

Turtles! Turtles! Turtles! The rangers are yelling at us. We all jump up, but in the dark, you can’t tell which direction to run. My legs have fallen asleep, and it becomes a Benny
Coral and ShellsCoral and ShellsCoral and Shells

The beaches were pulverized down to lovely sand
Hill skit as everyone is running in different directions and slamming into each other, some fall, some trip over an actual turtle, some accidently shine their torch into someone else’s face, temporarily blinding them.

Hundreds of turtles ascend the island. I cannot believe how big they are. The green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is the largest on earth, with a circumference of a small minivan. They, and the smaller hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) lay their eggs here year-round. The green turtle can live for a century and grow to 160 kg. They are endangered due to their eggs, which are considered a delicacy. The females come ashore to dig trenches in the sand and lay between 80 to165 eggs. The Hawksbill turtle around 100 to180 eggs per clutch. Approximately 600,000 eggs are collected each year on this island alone. Afterwards both turtles return to the sea.

All the confusion turns to seriousness as we start finding turtles that have hauled their huge bodies up onto the beach and are flinging sand around. The Rangers handle the technical stuff, identifying the turtle mothers by their flipper tags and making notes on her current condition. Any new turtles are tagged and
The ViewThe ViewThe View

The view from my cottage, looking out on the sea
new stat sheets are created, the turtle is measured and poked and probed. Luckily, she is in a trance and has no idea what is happening around her.

We turtle rookies are in charge of plucking up the eggs as she lays them, verifying a count between two volunteers, and gently placing each egg in a bucket, and that’s about it, we can’t be trusted to do anymore than that. In the excitement, I admit I lost count a few times and may have written down a bogus number, so they have a point.

Each bucket of eggs is marked with an identification number and is walked up to the centre of the island where hatcheries have been marked out behind chain link fencing. A hole is dug and the eggs are delicately placed underground to incubate for the 50 to 60 days. This helps protect them from its natural predators such as lizards. The temperature of the nest actually determines what gender the baby turtles will be, so each bucket of potential girls is placed in the blazing sun, while the boys, under the shade of an old teak tree.

I’ve been involved in turtle conservation
Green Turtle ChaosGreen Turtle ChaosGreen Turtle Chaos

Hundreds of gigantic turtles drag themselves up onto the beach each night to lay eggs in the sands.
projects before and one of the things scientists have discovered is that a turtle’s GPS is so fine-tuned it will actually crawl through jungle to pinpoint its exact hatching site. This is a problem because the hatching sites are often located far from a beach. These findings are further proven true when we come across lost turtles bush-whacking through the jungle somewhere near the middle of the island. This unnecessary excursion is so exhausting that some will actually die, so we are called upon to carry them back to a suitable beach site so their instincts kick in and they will dig a nest and hopefully lay their eggs. No one tells you that turtles are actually very strong and their flailing flippers bruise us from head to toe as we try to help them. No one gets left behind.

As dawn finally creeps in, we all sit on the beach exhausted, like we've just been in a turtle war.

The last of the females drag themselves back towards the ocean.

Where they go, no one really knows. I think this is what makes turtles so magical. They make a yearly appearance and then slip away seamlessly.
Sunset on Turtle IslandSunset on Turtle IslandSunset on Turtle Island

The most beautiful day punctuated by the most beautiful sunset

Best vacation ever.

(Sadly after I wrote this, one of the Canadians kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf was beheaded when their demands for his $8 million ransom were not carried out by our government. Sincere condolences to his family, RIP John Ridsdel. The fate of the other Canadian unknown at this time but it feels grim, the 10 Indonesian fishermen were released unharmed, and a couple from the USA had family pay their ransom, and they were released)

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


A confused TurtleA confused Turtle
A confused Turtle

Several turtles would crawl too far and need to be brought back to the beach so they didn't die of exhaustion.
Eggs upon EggsEggs upon Eggs
Eggs upon Eggs

Eggs are kept in areas in individual sand piles that are marked off by plastic to keep things out, and keep baby turtles from escaping
Empty BeachEmpty Beach
Empty Beach

My own beach to snorkel and frolic on.
Off to bigger and better thingsOff to bigger and better things
Off to bigger and better things

Some of the turtles hatch out before it's time to release them.
Paths that lead to somewhere wonderfulPaths that lead to somewhere wonderful
Paths that lead to somewhere wonderful

Nice to walk around the islands and see a new view
Clutch of EggsClutch of Eggs
Clutch of Eggs

As she is in her trance laying the eggs, we are removing them and putting them in buckets to be transported to their new home
Island VillagesIsland Villages
Island Villages

Love the stilt houses over the water
Evidence is obviousEvidence is obvious
Evidence is obvious

These trails into the ocean are a sure sign there has been some action here
The IslandThe Island
The Island

A little map of the area for the turtle conservation island
Babies in a basketBabies in a basket
Babies in a basket

We got to release turtles back into the ocean at night to keep down the chances of them being preyed upon.
My bucket of eggsMy bucket of eggs
My bucket of eggs

Didn't count very accurately but there was a lot of action. I'm hoping they all grow up to be gigantic green turtles and I see them some day.
Island Community HallIsland Community Hall
Island Community Hall

A place to relax, have something to eat and get ready to meet the turtles as they pull themselves out of the tide at night.
Corals above the seaCorals above the sea
Corals above the sea

Underneath the water, a beautiful kaleidoscope of colour and depth, I have never seen before.
So Sad to LeaveSo Sad to Leave
So Sad to Leave

Oh no, its time to go, good thing we get to see orphaned orangutans or I'd probably kick up a fuss.

10th May 2016

I love every trip you go on and often wonder why I haven't done that. What a fabulous way to spend your life. Have you written other blogs on turtle conservation projects. I'll have to look back. Re-evaluation is good sorry to hear about the outcome for John Ridsdel. How long were you there?
11th May 2016

Thank you MJ. I think Borneo is my new favourite place. I was thinking of blogging a bit more about what I got up to while there, I'm just back from Vietnam so I will try to get to that soon. Yes, I think I mentioned the Baja Turtle conservation project I'm involved in, in one of my old blogs. It is a great thing. Gotta love those beautiful creatures.
10th May 2016

Yay! life!
I always have a Yay! Andrea moment when I get a notification that you've posted a new blog. Thanks for the fun writing that always transports me from my morning coffee off the continent. Alisa in CO :)
11th May 2016

Yay! Thank you!
I am very happy to be back travelling. I'm glad I can help transport you!!
10th May 2016
Paradise Found

Our precarious lives!
So, even in the paradise of warm, turquoise waters, life for turtles and people can be precarious and must be appreciated. As you saved the eggs from predators by placing them inland, the turtles these eggs later become, risk their lives returning inland to their hatching spots. The project sounds great--protecting both the turtles and the volunteers, and giving you a perfect holiday in heaven. So glad everyone in your group was safe!
11th May 2016
Paradise Found

Precarious indeed!
I am hoping that one day while sitting on the beach in Mexico I will see one of the turtles I saved in Borneo...wouldn't that be trippy! It was a very good project and I was thrilled it went well and safely! Where are you nowadays?
11th May 2016

What a wonderful story! I really enjoyed reading about your turtle rescues. And I'm glad to see that you are back travelling. I've missed your blogs.
11th May 2016

Thank you for your kind comments! I'm so glad to be back travelling and helping the creatures of Borneo. They need all the help we can give!
11th May 2016
Paradise Found

Forever in Peru!
I've been in beautiful, colonial Arequipa, just leading a regular life for almost three years now, except for gaps to Bolivia and Chile. I'm heading in Chiile tomorrow, so when I return, I can hopefully get another 3 months. Then, slowly doing another circle or two among Peru, Ecuador and Colombia before heading north in a year or so. Glad you made it through your cancer scare! I've been doing lung drama--this getting older can complicate traveling, but like you, I'm no where ready to stop. Hope you meet your turtles in Baja!
11th May 2016
Paradise Found

Lucky Girl!
Arequipa was probably one of my favourite cities ever. You are so amazing with all your travels too. Maybe we will bump into each other in Columbia or Ecuador in the future. That would be amazing!
15th May 2016
Green Turtle Chaos

We remember seeing a turtle laying eggs in Costa Rica
We have also seen a turtle laying eggs. It was in Costa Rica. It was a wonderful experience that now, thanks to you, came up in my mind again. /Ake
15th May 2016
Green Turtle Chaos

I'm so glad you had a turtle conservation experience in Costa Rica. I'm so glad I could remind you! How are you? Where in the world are you now?
18th May 2016

Go Girl Amazing :)
I absolutely loved this entry....i agree with the fat people are hard to kidnap theory, i use skinny people would be no good to kidnap due to fragility - im so glad you had this awesome experience. Sorry to hear of your country man.
18th May 2016

Thanks Cindy! I had never been in that part of the world before so now I know why you are such a fan and dive all around there. Beautiful. Where to next girl?

Tot: 1.484s; Tpl: 0.064s; cc: 48; qc: 154; dbt: 0.1591s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 2mb