Marine Turtle Conservation
The Turtle Islands National Park is
located some 40 kilometres north of Sandakan. The park consists of 3
islands - Selingaan, Bakkungaan Kecil
and Gulisaan, including the surrounding coral reefs
and ocean. The Park is famous for its green turtles and hawksbill
turtles which lay their eggs on the beaches of the islands. The Park
covers an area of 17.4 km˛.
On August 1, 1966, the first turtle hatchery in Malaysia was
established on Selingaan, funded entirely by the Sabah State
Government. Hatcheries followed on the other two islands, too. In
1972 all three islands were designated as a Game and Bird Sanctuary.
In 1977, this status was upgraded to that of a Marine Park.
Permanent park staff monitor the turtles, protect the hatcheries and
tag the turtles for research purposes.
Only on Selingaan there are chalets for overnight visitors, and
those who wish to see the turtles laying eggs must stay overnight. A
curious fact of the three islands is that turtles come ashore
nightly, not only during certain seasons and thus one is virtually
guaranteed to see those ancient mariners. During the peak season
(October) up to 50 turtles come ashore to lay eggs.
However, park rules and regulations are strictly enforced and
visitors are not allowed on the beach from sunset to sunrise as not
to disturb the turtles. A ranger will call all visitors to observe
only one turtle laying eggs per night. The eggs are collected and
the visitors liberate the beach immediately as not to shy away other
turtles which are very susceptible to movement on the beach. After
the laying and collection of eggs, and eventual tagging of the
turtle if it is a ‘first time visitor’ tourists are allowed into the
hatchery to observe the further work of the rangers: the
transplantation of the freshly laid eggs into a man-made incubation
chamber. The chamber is no different from that of the turtle:
between 60-75 cm deep, in the sand, but within a protected hatchery
to make it impossible for natural predators to dig the nests open.
Since temperature determines the sex of the turtles part of the
hatchery is shaded, while the rest remains under the open sun.
After the transplantation of the eggs visitors will get turtle
hatchlings – baby turtles – to release into the sea, which is also
done by night to further increase their chances of survival.
Not all nests are emptied by the park rangers, but some remain
undisturbed and develop naturally. By conserving the turtles the
park does not want to endanger other wildlife on the island: many
animals that are natural predators of the turtles such as monitor
lizards, a crab specialising in turtle hatchlings, eagles and other
birds, and marine animals such as sharks. They need the turtles for
The turtle conservation programme in Sabah is the oldest in the
world and with the most detailed statistics and research. Marine
turtles have been around for 230 million years at least, but due to
human activities they have been brought, over the past hundred
years, to the brink of extinction. Let us hope that the work of
Sabah Parks is contributing to their survival!
Out of the five
still existing marine turtles two species frequent the islands,
the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Green
Turtles lay an average of about 100 eggs per session and may
come to the shore to lay eggs twice in one season, but then they
disappear again for up to three years before their next
appearance. The whole process, from crawling ashore, looking for
a suitable nesting area, digging a breeding chamber (60-75cm
deep) and laying eggs, closing the chamber and returning to the
seas can take up to five hours. Eggs need about 7 weeks
incubation and the hatchlings take anything from one to three
days to dig through the sand of their breeding chamber to the
surface. The temperature in the chamber determines the sex of
the turtles: higher temperatures mean more females, lower
temperatures result in more male turtles. It is believed that
less than 1% of the hatchlings survive and reach maturity, at
the age between 25-50 years - little is known about the
life-cycle of the turtles, but it seems that they do come back
to the beach where their lives started.
How to Get to the Turtle Islands National Park & Accommodation
Tour operators in Sandakan organise fully arranged trips: boat
transfers, accommodation and meals. Since there are only some 50
beds on the island (chalets with aircon twin share rooms; some with
shared bathrooms) it is recommended that bookings are made early.
Beach mats, snorkels, masks and fins are for hire on the beach of