This is the fourth in a series of eyewitness reports from Niak Sian Koh, who has been volunteering at a sea turtle conservation project on Tioman Island, Malaysia. Despite the island’s remote Pacific Ocean location, its sea turtles are threatened by marine plastic pollution, oil spills, and ocean acidification. Read her first report here, her second report here, and her third report here.

The coral reefs and marine life surrounding the shores of Tioman Island make it a popular holiday destination for nature lovers, scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts. But the beachfront hotel developments popping up continuously to serve this thriving tourism industry are adding to the survival challenges that face Tioman Island’s sea turtles, where quiet, dark beaches for nesting are becoming scarcer.

Bright lights and noise from these developments disturb female turtles seeking nests. If a female senses a threat and leaves the beach without nesting, that’s called a “false crawl.” After several false crawls, she may resort to a less-than-optimal nesting spot, or even worse, deposit her eggs in the ocean instead of in warm, dry sand. In either case, her hatchlings will have a slim-to-none chance of survival.

Based on interviews with local residents, the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) has mapped out past and present turtle nesting areas on Tioman Island. On the map below, “X” represents a previous nesting area that turtles no longer use, while the green turtle signifies areas where at least three turtles nest per year.

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Juara Turtle Project maps past and present sea turtle nesting areas on Tioman Island, Malaysia, to aid its conservation work. Credit: Juara Turtle Project.

JTP patrols daily near its headquarters on Mentawak Beach (the third turtle from the right on the map above), hoping to locate turtle nests and remove the eggs before poachers and other predators get to them, and transfer them to JTP’s protected hatchery.  JTP also conducts a boat patrol every morning to check nearby nesting areas (the first and second turtles from the right).

I get up at the crack of dawn for my boat patrol shift. A little bleary-eyed and disoriented, I climb into the bobbing speedboat with the rest of the sleepy team, and we depart. I hold on tightly to the gunwales as the boat rides over the bumpy waves of the shifting ocean currents.

Our sleepiness is quickly overtaken by excitement as our guide spots faint signs on shore of a nesting female. My untrained eyes failed to recognize her tracks from such a distance offshore, but our guide nods confidently to confirm that a turtle had indeed crawled up onto the beach. The boat ladder goes down, and we jump out and swim to shore in eager anticipation of finding a nest.

Surely enough, upon reaching the shoreline, even we interns can recognize the distinctive tracks of a hawksbill sea turtle entering and leaving this undisturbed, vegetation-covered beach. It is just the sort of shady nesting spot female turtles prefer to protect their eggs from extreme weather, and to camouflage them from predators.

Under the supervision of JTP hatchery manager Alberto Garcia, a marine biologist from Spain, we follow her tracks to the nest.  Carefully we excavate and place around 130 eggs in a styrofoam box filled with a layer of sand for protection and insulation. A hawksbill turtle egg is about the size of a ping-pong ball. It has a soft-shelled, rubbery-paper texture that prevents it from breaking as it falls into the sand pit, or egg chamber, that the mother digs before laying.

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Interns excavate a hawksbill sea turtle nest, placing the eggs in a styrofoam box for transfer to a protected hatchery. Credit: Niak Sian Koh

We also collect data on the depth of the egg chamber, so that JTP can replicate its conditions as closely as possible at the organization’s protected hatchery. Nests are often 40-80 centimeters (16 to 32 inches) deep, and eggs typically incubate for six to eight weeks before little hatchlings begin digging their way to the surface.

Although sea turtles are a protected species in Malaysia, licensed collectors who obtain permits from the government can still collect the eggs of certain turtle species. The JTP team works together with local egg collectors who have traditional knowledge of identifying nests, and have acquired consent from village chiefs to harvest eggs from their land. This collaboration contributes to the local economy of this rural village, whilst ensuring that the turtle eggs are incubated and hatched, and the hatchlings released to the wild.

We cautiously swim back to the boat with our styrofoam box full of turtle eggs (after briefly stopping to retrieve a huge floating tarball in the water along the way), and return to the JTP hatchery on Mentawak Beach.

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Around 130 hawksbill sea turtle eggs, each the size of a ping-pong ball, excavated for transfer to a protected beach hatchery on Tioman Island. Credit: Niak Sian Koh

JTP has hung black netting above the hatchery to mimic the shade provided by vegetation in a natural environment, which helps to control the nest’s temperature. Turtle eggs are best incubated between 28 and 32 degrees Celsius, with warmer temperatures producing mostly females and cooler temperatures resulting in a male majority—or as JTP puts it, “hotter chicks and cooler dudes.”

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Juara Turtle Project manages a protected hatchery for sea turtle eggs to keep them safe from poachers and predators. Credit: Niak Sian Koh

While hatchery manager Garcia excavates a sand pit to deposit the newly collected eggs, he explains why JTP does not keep hatchlings, despite demand from tourists who are sometimes disappointed to find no baby turtles at the project’s home base.

“What some people may not realise is the importance of releasing the hatchlings as soon as they are born,” Garcia tells us as he places each egg into the sand pit. “Once they hatch, the baby turtles are programmed to swim away from the beach for the first few days of their life. This is a survival instinct that gets them away from predators and into offshore ocean currents towards their migration routes.”

Keeping the hatchlings after birth can impair that instinct. “They might then remain nearby the shore while thinking that they have already reached the ocean current,” Garcia says, further decreasing their already-small chances of survival to adulthood.

Later that evening, small movements coming from within the hatchery draw our attention. We discover that a nest of green sea turtles has hatched and several babies are frantically digging their way to the surface.

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Baby sea turtles incubated at JTP’s protected hatchery digging their way to the surface at night, illuminated by a red light to minimize disorientation. Credit: Juara Turtle Project.

Using a red light (because turtles do not see red light as well as humans do), we collect the hatchlings and place them into a box and carry it to the shore. There we gather around to watch them emerge from the box and make their way to the ocean. The reflection of the moonlight on the water’s surface orients the hatchlings in the right direction, thanks to their innate instinct to move towards the brightest light source. This is why brightly-lit beachfront developments can be dangerous for sea turtle hatchlings. Such lights lead them away from the water, and the further they travel in the wrong direction, the less energy they have for swimming to reach those offshore currents.

Wishing these baby turtles good luck, we wave them goodbye and hope they will return someday to nest again on the beaches of Tioman Island.