Natuna Islands are not widely known, despite being situated between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo in the South China Sea. The archipelago consists of 272 islands with the largest being Natuna Besar, an island that looks like a human head from the side. I had to find the location on Google Map when I first heard of it. My supervisor received news that someone from Natuna expressed interest in selling turtle eggs to Terengganu and it was to her interest to find out more about this. The concern was without the ban of commercial sale of turtle eggs in Terengganu, the state will eventually become a hub for illegal trade of sea turtle eggs. The aim of the visit to the island was to look for that person whom we knew by Halim, plus to explore and understand more about sea turtles and the communities.
Getting there was quite a long journey. My travel began from Kuala Terengganu where I flew to Kuala Lumpur early in the morning. There I met my supervisor and her husband and we continued the journey taking a bus to Johor Bahru and a ferry to Batam. We stayed a night in Batam and the next morning flew to Ranai, the administrative centre of Natuna Islands. It was a small military-based airport. We waited for our luggage that was transported by a truck and it was funny seeing everyone walking after the truck. Our luggage was left at an empty space like a basketball court. It felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing how things work, like where to wait and when will the luggage arrive. My supervisor termed it as ‘chaotic organised’.
We took a cab to look for accommodation. After showing us a few, we decided to stay at Wisma Star Inn, a three-storey building located right in the middle of Ranai town. The room is very basic but spacious. I found it strange that the toilet did not have a sink and a toilet cistern to flush the squatting toilet. However, I noticed that every toilet I used in locals’ houses do not have a sink and a toilet cistern. Therefore, bringing a toiletry bag with hook would be very useful.
We started by visiting the market and saw hawksbill turtle eggs on sale. Compared to Terengganu, the eggs are much cheaper in Natuna. It was approximately RM0.80 and RM1.20 for one hawksbill and green turtle egg, respectively. In the search of Halim, we visited the village head who referred us to the Oceanography and Fisheries Department, who later referred us to a few locals. It looks like a fruitless search but we learned a lot about the communities in relation to sea turtles. There has been an effort initiated by the communities to set patrol a small island off the coast of Sepempang, namely Senoa Island. It was a pleasure to be able to join one of the locals patrolling the beach and listening to his stories. Lucky us, we found Halim on our third day. It turned out (thank God) that he did not want to sell turtle eggs to Terengganu but during his visit to Terengganu, he requested the authority here to provide him with satellite tracking to track the turtles at Natuna.
We managed to visit Sedanau Island, off the West coast of Natuna Island, which is a fishing village that looks very organised and modern. We met a few people who shared a lot about their island and natural resources, etc and it was very interesting. A few actually owned fish farms where they raise mainly coral fishes or crustaceans. Indonesia has always been one of the main exporter of seafood, including Napoleon wrasse. I do not dive often and always only at Perhentian. Until today, I have not seen a Napoleon wrasse in the wild and the closest-to-the-wild encounter was in a fish farm. Some of the Napoleons were captured when they are offspring as small as our fingers and being raised in fish farms until they are at least 1 kg before they are sold to Hong Kong. It was heartbreaking to hear that juvenile and adult Napoleons were captured using potassium cyanide. There is a quota set to control the trade of Napoleon wrasse but there are more available in the market than the allowed amount.
In short, the trip was way beyond expectation. The lives of most people living off the coast are heavily depended on their natural resources. Fishing and agriculture are still their main sources of income. Tourism has started but not well developed yet. Many are also involved fish farming and trading industry, supplying any marine resources that are in demand abroad. Seaweed farming is also very common there and to my surprise, the drink made of seaweed actually tasted good! Unlike some animals like chicken that can be breed, most of the fishes cannot be bred and to supply for the increasing demand, they need to be caught in the wild. It is bizarre to learn that most of them feel that their natural resources won’t go extinct. I wonder how true it is for Napoleon wrasse when they fish the babies, the juveniles and also the adults, leaving them with a very slim chance to grow into adulthood and reproduce. I guess that is life and no matter where it is, there are always conflicts between human and wildlife.