Together we can protect the (turtle) eggs

5th June 2017, World Environment Day

I was chatting with a friend over dinner while waiting for the heavy downpour to subside so that we both could get to our car and leave. We quickly ran towards our car when the rain began to ease off. Just as I started the car engine, a phone call came in and I saw “B” on the caller ID. B is from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch and his call caught me by surprise as I didn’t think he would call me, at least not at this hour. Then he broke the news of a turtle landing at Long Beach but he could not reach the Perhentian Turtle Project’s manager. Instead he rang me up. I always think it is a small circle of people working in conservation. It is just a matter of time that one will eventually know everyone in this field. Anyway, the next thing to do was to call someone from the project so that they could inform the rangers to collect the eggs.

Since the manager was out of reach, luckily I had R’s number saved on my phone so I rang her. “Hi R, how are you?”, and she replied “Hi Seh Ling, are you okay?” I burst into laughter. Thing is R and I don’t talk on the phone. We don’t call each other. We rarely even send Whatsapp messages. Still, her response cracked me up. But yes, the turtle! No time for catching up. I relayed the message to R after realising that the manager was not available as she was praying in the mosque. R said they would do something about it.

All this while, it has been rather difficult to save any nests at Long Beach. Most of the time, we received reports of turtle landing and often not in time to get there before the eggs were taken by someone else. Turtle eggs are sought after delicacy, as well as a source of income to some. Other than protected beaches, turtle eggs on other beaches really depends on who gets there first. The eggs are protected if the rangers get there first. However, that is not always the case.

Meanwhile, B continued texting, providing updates of the situation at Long Beach.

“From how L described it she is body pitting. She is under Oh La La Bar.”

“L is still with the turtle, so is there someone I should put her in contact with?”

“She is laying now.”

I just kept forwarding his messages to R. I was relieved when R managed to get in touch with one of the rangers, and they both were going to go over to Long Beach. Then I informed B that R was going and gave him her number. It was funny that B and I were not at Long Beach but the texting continued as we couldn’t reach R after she texted me that they were going to Long Beach.

“I have told L to expect R and apparently there is a group protecting the nest.”

“How far away is R?”

“Looks like R is there now though.”

Meanwhile, I managed to get hold of the manager, who had also received the news from Turtle Bay Diver. It wasn’t until more than an hour or more later that R replied saying that they managed to get the eggs. There was even a second turtle that came ashore when R was there but it did not nest.

We really appreciate and are always thankful to the staff and tourists from resorts and dive centers calling us to inform on turtle landing, as well as “sheltering” the turtle from the crowd. It is through such collective efforts that we can protect the species. Despite not working at Perhentian anymore, it was really good to be able still help to save the turtle eggs yesterday.

Plan Your Trip to Perhentian Islands

Friends always contact me when they are planning a trip to Perhentian Islands. Most of them would have done their homework, knowing that the Perhentians consist of two islands – Perhentian Besar (big island) and Perhentian Kecil (small island). So, their questions are…

Which island is better? Perhentian Besar or Perhentian Kecil?
Both islands are beautiful. Each offers different attractions. Perhentian Kecil is known as a backpackers’ paradise where Long Beach is the only place for beach party. The two main beaches at Kecil are Long Beach (on the East) and Coral Bay (on the West). Mira Beach, Petani Beach, D’ Lagoon, etc, are a few other smaller beaches that are less crowded, thus giving you more privacy. The only village is located in the Southwest of Kecil. You cannot sunbath or walk around in your bikinis in the village but it is worth visiting the village. Most of the tourists staying in the village are Malaysians (packaged groups). Almost all the beaches on Kecil are accessible by foot. Perhentian Besar is more peaceful, especially at night. The two main beaches at Besar are Teluk Dalam (on the South) and the whole stretch on the Eastern side, plus two smaller beaches at Teluk Pauh and Tanjung Tukas.

Where to stay?
Most of the accommodations are situated next to the beach, except those in the village and along the pathway between Long Beach and Coral Bay. I’ll list the accommodation available on the islands.

Packaged tour or non-packaged tour?
Malaysians usually opt for packaged tour as they are easier to organise and cheaper in price. A packaged tour usually include boat transfer, accommodation, meals and 1-2 snorkel tours. If you do book for a packaged tour, please book through the resorts/chalets or a registered travel company. There have been many cases where customers showed up but there was no booking at the chalets. Don’t be fooled by package that is too cheap to be true. Nothing cheap is good and nothing good is cheap. Always ask for the name of the accommodation (so that you can compare the prices) and double check with the resort/chalet that your booking is confirmed. Non-packaged tour, on the other hand, offers more flexibility to your trip. You can plan your daily activities. You can go diving instead of snorkelling. You can eat at different places.

How to get there?
You need to get to Kuala Besut Jetty before 4pm in order to catch the last boat to the island. There is a direct bus to Kuala Besut bus station from most cities (e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kuala Terengganu, Johor Bahru). If you are flying, fly to Kota Bharu Airport and take a taxi to Kuala Besut Jetty. Alternatively, you can drive to Kuala Besut Jetty and park your car there.

How much is the boat transfer from mainland to the Perhentians?
A return boat transfer from Kuala Besut jetty to Perhentian Islands costs RM70. Some offer as low as RM50. The earliest boat departing from Kuala Besut jetty is at 8am (sometimes earlier) and the latest boat is at 4pm (sometimes later). It is important to know the name of the resort/chalet that you are staying. The boat will drop you at the beach where you are staying. Times where the waves are strong at Long Beach, they will drop you at Coral Bay and you need to walk to Long Beach. To leave Perhentian Islands, you call the boat operator on your boat ticket a day before. Some resorts/chalets offer to make that arrangement for you. You can either leave at 8am, 12pm or 4pm (not always on time). This is because the boat picks up tourists from different beaches so better be there early. When it is near the monsoon, the only time available is at 8am. Always check with your boat operator.

How much is the boat taxi in the Perhentians?
It is quite common to take a boat taxi from one beach to another beach. There are taxi stands/huts on most beaches. The price varies between RM5-30 one way, depending on the distance. The price doubles after 7pm and triples after 12am. If you are travelling on your own, you need to pay the price for 2 person. Check if your resort/chalet offers taxi service for free.

How much money do I need?
There are no ATMs/banks on the islands so bring enough cash. Only a few resorts/chalets have credit card service. If you are on a packaged tour, you probably don’t need much. However, if you have only booked your accommodation and boat transfer, do put aside RM10-20 per meal. Food is not cheap on the islands as everything is transported in from mainland. Buy snacks and mineral waters from mainland and bring them with you to save money. Boat taxi and alcohol cost the most (if you are not diving). One can of beer costs RM10.

What can I do there?
– Snorkelling: The Perhentians have many nice snorkel sites. The most common snorkel tour brings you to 3-4 sites, for example Turtle Point (a green turtle foraging site), Shark Point (black tip reef sharks), Fish Garden, Coral Garden, Lighthouse, etc. Another snorkel attraction is Rawa Island, which is located to the North of small islands. There are also day snorkel trips to Redang Island.

– Diving: The Perhentians is one of the islands that offers cheap diving package. A few of the more popular dive sites are Tokong Laut, Sugar Wreck, Batu Layar, Shark Point, Vietnamese Wreck, D’ Lagoon and T3. Of course the list continues.

– Kayaking: Since the Perhentians consist of two islands, kayaking is a good way to go from one beach to another and from one snorkel site to another.

– Sunrise and sunset: There are a few places to watch sunrise (before 7am) from the windmill, Long Beach and D’ Lagoon. All the beaches facing the West are suitable for watching sunset (before 7pm). My favourite place is at Teluk Keke and the rocks by Shari-la Resort at Coral Bay.

– Visit the turtle hatchery at Turtle Beach before 3pm. Look for the staff members from the Perhentian Turtle Project who are happy to talk to you about sea turtles and conservation.

– Round-island hike: All the beaches with resorts are connected through a pathway or jungle trekking.

– Hike to windmill: It is a 15-20 minutes walk uphill from Long Beach and the view is magnificent from the top.

– Clean-up: You will come across trash when you walk around the islands. Bring your trash with you and pick up the trash you see along the way. Throw them into the bins. Together we can keep the islands clean.

– Stand-up paddling: Only seen it at Long Beach and Bubbles Dive Resort at Tanjung Tukas.
– Wind-surfing: So far only available at Alunan Resort at Petani Beach.
– Surfing: Usually near the monsoon season at Long Beach.
– Malay dinner: Experience a Malay meal in a local house in the village.

Other things worth sharing:
– A waterproof bag is useful at all occasions.
– Never underestimate the sun. Apply sunblock before getting into the sun and some aloe vera gel if you get sunburned. Sunblock is not good for corals so best is cover up (e.g. putting on rash vest, wear a hat, sunglasses, etc).
– Most of the snorkel areas are shallow and calm. Even without fins/flippers, you can snorkel just fine.
– There is a clinic in the village. Bring along your I/C card or passport, and money.
– Try the doughnuts at PILA Cafe in the village.
– Always snorkel within the buoy line and look out for boats.
– Never leave your belongings unattended (sandals too!), especially when you party at Long Beach at night.
– Try Monkey Juice, which is a mix of Orang Utan (cheap rum) and 7Up. Never mix it with Coke, Pepsi or other carbonated drinks!
– Help build a turtle database by submitting turtle photos to turtle@ecoteer.com. The facial scales of each individual turtle are unique. You can name the turtle if it is a new turtle!
– Check out for volunteering opportunities with Perhentian Turtle Project, Perhentian Community and Conservation Project, and Perhentian Marine Research Station that are based in the village, as well as Bubbles Dive Resort’s conservation project.

Perhentian Islands have a lot to offer so take the time to explore and immerse yourself in the nature!

Because Every Picture Has A Story to Tell

When I first read about sea turtle photo identification, I was really excited because it provides an opportunity to study more about the sea turtles at Perhentian Islands. There is a lack of research done on sea turtles here, hence a paucity of data about the population around these islands. Moreover, tagging has not been practised for more than a decade.

Photo identification is a reliable method of identifying every individual turtles. Each turtle has unique facial scale and spot patterns on both sides and these features are visible on photos. It is less invasive to sea turtles as no physical contact is needed. Moreover, tagging only studies the nesting females on the beach but photo identification enables the study of both juveniles, male and female adults at nesting beaches and feeding grounds in the sea. Even if a turtle loses its tags, it is still possible to identify the individual through its face. It also enables the understanding of sea turtle habitat use around the islands. More interestingly, the locals and tourists can participate in the study as many take sea turtle photos when they encounter one. Of course, this is all possible if the photos are clear and sighting data such as date, time and location the photos are accurate.

Out of curiosity, I started looking for sea turtle photos that I have and looked at the facial scale patterns of these turtles. True enough, it is actually possible to identify each and every one of them! Hence, the Perhentian Turtle Project was set up in hope to better understand the sea turtle population size here. As some turtles were seen more than once and for a few years, I realised photo identification is not merely about identifying individuals and knowing their movements. It also enables us to monitor their progress, more of like every photo taken of the same turtle at different times shows how the turtle is at a particular time.

For example, we saw P15F for the first time in May 2012. The next recorded sighting of P15F was in August 2014 and the photos showed a cracked shell, which looks like boat strike. However, lucky for the turtle, it survived and the injury healed. The scar is visible on photos taken in May 2015.

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

When P15F was sighted again, it had a cracked shell

When P15F was sighted again in 2014, it had a cracked shell

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from the hit by boat propeller

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from boat strike

Unfortunately, P5F, an adult female green turtle, suspected to be hit by boat, may not be that lucky. The first photo of P5F was taken in 2012. In 2013, it was seen having tags on both of her front flippers. After zooming in the photos, the tag numbers showed 5911 (left) and 5912 (right). They were tags from SEATRU (UMT Sea Turtle Research Unit). SEATRU confirmed that P5F was tagged in May 2013 and up to July that year, she laid 9 nests at Redang Islands. It was seen again in September 2013 at Perhentian Islands. It has been around since. It is one of the tame turtles that don’t mind having snorkellers watching it feed. Sadly, when it was seen on 8th September this year, it had a huge crack at its shell. She seemed to be feeding like normal, only God knows how it felt. The crack looked severe and I can only hope it survives the hit and continue to live and breed. It has not gone back to Redang Islands to nest since 2013. If it survives, it may still in the future lay more nests. Most feel for injured animals. In this case, P5F is not just an animal. As it is frequently seen, it feels like I know P5F, which is why the more heartbreaking it is to see this happening to it.

P5F was first spotted in 2012

P5F was first spotted in 2012

One year after, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

One year later, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Every adult female can lay on average of 100-120 eggs, between 2-10 nests a breeding season. Most conservation efforts are put into protecting the eggs and hatchlings because sea turtles have a very high mortality rate when they are young. It is believed only 1 in 1000 to 10000 hatchling survive to adulthood. It takes them an average of 25 years to become sexually matured. The fact that only that small number of hatchlings will make it to adults makes it more important to increase protection measures to protect these adult turtles so that they can continue to breed.

Boats are one of the main threats for sea turtles at Perhentian Project. There are many identified turtles with injuries and scars from boat strike. Some survived, some didn’t. So far this year, the project received 3 reported death of sea turtles. 2 had decomposed and were beyond identification. Meanwhile the other one was not found on the database, meaning it has not been spotted anywhere in the water or on the beach.

Malaysia has started using TEDs to reduce turtle bycatch which is also one of the main threats to sea turtle besides turtle eggs consumption. What about threats from boat propellers? To come up with mitigation measures, that everyone agrees to, is always the hardest part. Everyone acknowledges the problem and when it comes to solutions, there are conflicts. To entirely protect the feeding grounds by not allowing boat traffic is not entirely impossible but locals would disagree because their livelihoods depend on bringing tourists to these areas to see turtles. To enforce a rule that every boat needs to slow down the speed of their boats at feeding grounds needs continuous monitoring which requires manpower that the authorities involved lacks of. Maybe a boat propeller cover can be a solution, as long as it doesn’t affect the speed and fuel usage of the boat.

However, the mortality of juvenile or adult sea turtles is increasing in an alarming rate. Is it really enough to only increase the efforts on nesting beaches without taking more protection measures to mitigate threats to sea turtles in the ocean?

The project is new and we only have photos from 2011. An on-going photo identification research allows a better and more comprehensive understanding of the sea turtle population, their habitat use and movement around these islands. Any turtle photos taken, even from previous years, can be submitted to the project for identification. Conservation efforts can be improved with a strong and sound understanding, which is what the project is trying to achieve.