My first turtle watching experience made me swear off plastic straws

A little baby turtle makes her way from the beach to the ocean. Photos: CHESTER CHIN/The Star

The first time I ... saw turtles laying eggs on the beach 

It's almost 10pm and I’m at a deserted children’s playground, swatting away at flies and mosquitoes. Together with a small group of media folks, we have been waiting idly at that spot for nearly an hour.

Excited whispers suddenly break the monotony of the evening – someone spotted something coming out from the ocean. A green turtle has come ashore to nest!

I’m at a beach in Chukai, Terengganu – under the invitation of Resorts World Genting – and I’m about to embark on my first ever turtle watching experience.

Egg-laying season in the east coast state is typically between March and October. Our guide Fadhil Izzuddin says based on past experiences, May to July are the peak months for potential sightings. We’re visiting at the tail-end of September and Fadhil says we should be counting our lucky stars.

With just the light of the waning moon above, we make our way quietly through large rocks and fallen tree branches on the sandy terrain. Fadhil suddenly stops in his tracks and diverts our attention to a spot under a large tree.

“Look closely at those rocks over there. Can you see something crawling in the dark?” our guide asks, his voice barely audible over the sound of crashing waves on the horizon. I squint my eyes at the area mentioned, but couldn’t make out anything.

Our surrounding is pitch black, and it’s vital that we keep all source of light away – at least while the mother turtle is still nesting.

turtle watching
A mother turtle will return to the same beach where she was hatched to lay eggs.

“We can’t turn on the lights while the mother is digging the egg chamber. She might feel threatened and just go back to the ocean without even nesting,” Fadhil explains.

He adds that visitors are advised to wear dark clothing to blend in with the surroundings. Flash photography is also strongly prohibited as turtles might mistake it for lightning.

At 10.59pm, the first egg is laid and Fadhil shines some light on the egg chamber. Before us, ping pong-sized eggs are rapidly deposited into a deep pit. At the end of the process, the total number of eggs stand at 119!

Turtle eggs are friends, not food

Not all of those eggs will survive though, as I learn the next day at Resorts World Kijal.

The property, situated in Kijal, a town known for its durian and lemang, has been operating its own hatchery and turtle releasing programme since 2000. Guests who stay here are given exclusive access to its 7.5km-long private beach, which also happens to be a nesting spot for turtles.

Only one in 1,000 will survive into adulthood. Natural obstacles are part of the cause. The other major factor, according to Resorts World Kijal manager (Fun & Adventure) Ragunathan Kathirgamu, is humans.

turtle watching
A total of 119 eggs were laid on the night the writer visited the beach in Terengganu.

He says demand for turtle eggs has drastically reduced the reptile’s population. In Terengganu, it’s not uncommon to see turtle eggs being sold openly at morning markets or served as a breakfast item at a warung.

“It’s hard to change mindsets, especially for the older generation. When you tell them they can’t eat turtle eggs, they will ask you why chicken and duck eggs can be consumed.

“And when you tell them it’s not permitted under the law, they will say that the Government cares more for turtles than they do the rakyat,” Ragunathan says.

Ensuring a future for turtles

The cracks are beginning to show in the shores of Terengganu. In fact, Rantau Abang – once a thriving nesting beach for leatherback turtles – has not recorded any sightings in years. He adds that back in the 1970s, leatherbacks that were sighted there were as big as a small city car!

“They practically chased the turtles away. The damage is already done,” Ragunathan says, alluding to locals who poached the eggs, and overtourism. He adds that exposure to fishing nets and plastics are also a hazard to turtles.

A replica of an egg chamber at the hatchery in Resorts World Kijal.

“Some turtles get caught up in plastic items thrown into the sea, and die as a result of suffocation,” he reveals. There are many videos, pictures and articles online that show just how garbage, namely plastics, is a big threat to underwater life. That revelation is certainly going to make me think twice about using plastic straws next time.

At the hatchery within the resort’s grounds, I’m schooled on the intricate process of caring for turtle eggs. Temperatures affect the sex of the hatchlings, with females requiring warmer temperatures to develop.

After all the educational briefings, we’re given the opportunity to plant eggs in chambers dug up by the resort’s staff. While the experience of planting the eggs is special, the next activity feels especially monumental.

Standing at the resort’s pristine beach, I gingerly hold a female baby turtle in my hand and silently named her, as I prepare to release the small creature into the ocean.

In about 20 years time, the days-old hatchling, if she survives, will be guided by the Earth’s magnetic field back to the same spot where she will nest and continue the life cycle.

I carefully place the baby turtle on the ground, watch her delicate frame energetically crawl to the rough sea, and say some parting words: “Run the world, Beyoncé.”

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