We’ve experienced many amazing adventures so far, but the last episode of our Borneo trip to Lankayan Island was quite remarkable. The tiny island in the Sulu Sea was so small I walked around it briskly in 15 minutes each morning. There was nothing on this dot of land with coral beaches but the 20 guest cottages, restaurant, staff quarters and Reef Guardian center. Lankayan island is in the “Turtle Triangle,” a small area where Hawksbill and Green turtles nest. The island plays a critical role in the preservation of these endangered creatures.
Lankayan Island Resort has an unusual partnership with the local marine preserve authorities. The whole island and extensive reef that surrounds it, is protected by law. Nothing is to be disturbed, collected, polluted, or harmed. Wastewater is treated with hydroponics and supplies and garbage are removed with the daily mainland speed boat. The Reef Guardians — a marine biologist named Achier, and her staff — maintain the nesting sites. When turtles come on shore, they watch over them while they lay their eggs. Then rescue the eggs, transplanting them to a hatchery where they are safe from poachers or other animals. When the turtles hatch, they are responsible for releasing them to the sea.
The turtles are the stars in this story. Each night we’d put the kids to bed after a full day of snorkeling and swimming in the clear blue water. We’d hang on our door a blue or yellow tag for “turtle nesting” of “turtle hatching.” In the night, the tags alerted the Reef Guards to knock on our bungalow door when there was any turtle activity. When the knock came (and it did every night of our visit) I’d wake the children, get them dressed. Then we’d go out into the warm night and watch a show better than any reality tv series. Let me tell you all about it…
Achier reached gently into the nest and “stirred” the turtles, waking the topmost one with tickling fingers. When he began to wiggle and kick he soon woke his brothers and their movement agitated the brothers beneath and down it went until all of them erupted out of the sand, pouring forth from the hole where the eggs had incubated.
Achier, the Reef Guardian, asked Emma if she would like to collect the newly hatched turtles and count them out. There were twenty-six in this hatching; the remaining thirty eggs in the next would be given a few more days to incubate. Kneeling on the coral sand, Emma reached into the net enclosure and lifted each tiny wriggling turtle out, reverently placing them in a black washtub while cameras snapped around her.
The contrast between the natural world (newborn turtles) and the human one (rough plastic washtub) seemed almost funny in that moment. Perhaps a reed basket lined with banana leaf would have softened the image for me.
It was time to release them to the water. Max was given the honor to carry them to the sea. The crowd of observers parted for him. He was very solemn as he took the tub of furiously scrabbling tiny turtles and headed down the beach.
We walked in silence for about five minutes. The stars winked on the water. The tide was high so we were wading in the breaking waves. But the water was warm, and the coral sand almost white in the moonlight. We reached the end of the island, far enough from the lights of the dive jetty.
The turtles were surging, scrambling, seeking moonlight. As it shone upon their soft shells, I could see mottled stripes of browns and green. Their flippers, no bigger than my thumbnail paddled the air furiously.
In the glimmer of new life, the universe comes into sharp focus just for a moment to make room for boundless possibility. A silvery glint of potential where anything is possible. Abundant with energy, these hatchlings fill us, observers of nature’s sacred moment, with awe and hope.
Max handed over the precious cargo to Achier and we made a semi-circle around her facing the ocean. It was the moment of opportunity for these little ones. Life with a capital letter L hung in the air around us. Josh and I took the kids hands as the naturalist tipped the tub over and the turtles tumbled on the sand.
They raced in all directions for a moment, skittering down the slope of the shore. We were close and they wriggled on our toes. I squeezed the kid’s hands and reminded them to stay still, that it was ok. Pumping their paddle legs against our legs was so tickly. It took all my self-control not to move and wriggle. I can only imagine how hard it was for the kids.
The tiny turtles moved past us and then caught sight of the moonlight on the water. I tried to squint at the sea, what would it look like to a tiny turtle? The bright full round moon hung in the sky and reflecting on the blue-black waves, it looked like a line leading them straight out to the horizon. Turtles raced for the water, in just a wink, they were gone. That one moment when they touched the water, like a newborn’s first cry, was a moment of birth. The blackness of the night sheltered them from our eyes and hopefully other predators. They were home and in terrible danger. The silence in our circle of witnesses was broken when we cheered and clapped for them. I sent love and wishes for their safety out to the moon.
Later, we asked Achier what would happen to these baby green turtles. She said no one really knows what they do for the first years, they hide in shallow waters amid the sea grasses, and a few years later a small number can be seen on the reefs. Hopefully we asked, “How many will survive?” Her resigned reply: “Not many.”
It’s a sad reality that these animals are severely endangered. In the wild, their hatching rates are about 20%. Of the baby turtles that get to sea, only 1% will survive until reproductive maturity (20-35 years) to return and make their own nests. It’s quite horrible to think through the numbers and see that the turtles’ chances are dire. But Archie’s team, and others like them, increases the odds. The Reef Guardian’s protected nests hatch at nearly 80%, and last year they released 20,000 baby turtles.
The next night we saw the cycle continue. Some 25 years ago, one of the babies was born and launched into the dark warm Sulu Sea. Now, she swam ashore as the moon rose. She traveled hundreds of miles since then, now returning the very beaches where she was born — a miraculous circle turning in the night. With moonlight to guide her forward, she achieved the first challenge of the night to complete this journey.
She had a full night’s work ahead. She was built for the sea, with wide flat flippers and a humped carapace almost three feet in diameter. This land travel was strenuous work, but like every mother’s labor she suffered for her young. For over an hour she pulled her bulky body up the beach. Her search for a suitable site for her nest, a sheltered place away from light, led her to the soft sand beneath a beach house at the island’s point.
Driven by instinct she dug a nest with her back legs. Her flippers angled as flat scoops, she expertly excavated. Flick, spray, spray, rest, repeat. The sand flew until she had a hole approximately 30 inches deep. Then she maneuvered herself over and released her eggs.
Milky white about the size of walnuts, the eggs are damp, slightly sticky and are speckled with pink sand as they fall into the nest. Several eggs are laid at once; the laying takes little time. Eighty-six eggs laid in less than an hour!
The mother turtle then covered her nest. This too followed a rhythm known only to turtle kind. Flick, flick, flick, rest, repeat. Gradually she back-filled the hole using her flippers as paddles; compacting the sand around the eggs.
For over an hour we lay beneath the little house watching the mother turtle and listening to the waves. I felt the sand beneath me warm and the light breeze off the water carried off the sounds of other murmuring people around me.
The mother turtle’s nesting finished, now she had to get back to the water. She heaved herself with surprising agility, propelled by her strong flippers. When she was clear of the house we could finally get a good look at her. Her black eye blinked in the flashlight beam as she turned her head back and forth to get her bearings.
In the distance, lightning flashed over gathering clouds, as if the heavens were celebrating with us. Then, without a backward glance at the nest, she made straight for the waves. One, two, three more pushes and she was touching the water. The sea welcomed her, its gift of weightlessness a great relief. Mission completed the mother turtle disappeared into the night.
For more info on Reef Guardians, see their site. Thank you to Achier, aka Chung Fung Chen!