Nature Escapes

Marvel at Malaysia's Marine Turtles and See a Natural Sight of a Lifetime

Malaysia's Marine Turtles Hit The Beach

By Rick Gregory

The annual occurrence of marine turtles emerging on land is a marvellous spectacle of nature. The warm tropical seas surrounding the country nurture new life after eggs hatch in nesting sites on shore.

Four species of ancient turtles - leatherback, green, hawksbill, and olive ridley - rely on the nation's beach habitat. And for the large leatherback, Malaysia is one of only six locations in world that receives yearly visits.

sea turtle

The resilient coastline is blessed with sandy beaches that attract visitors from around the world whom seek solace under the sun and to dive its watery wonderlands.

But from March to September, the long stretches of sand and scrub vegetation become a haven for a group of wayward visitors that migrate thousands of kilometres, only to arrive at a special destination each year - the place of their birth.

sea turtles turtle

Predominating in East Malaysia and the east coast of the peninsula, observing marine turtle landings has become a popular activity for both local and foreign tourists. Since sea turtles come ashore in the darkness of night-time cover to lay eggs, it provides holiday goers with an opportunity to enjoy nature and escape the tropic heat.

Coastal residents look forward to spending their nights outdoors in search of shoreline sightings of these aquatic inhabitants. Treating the event as a nocturnal picnic, kids in pyjamas fleece the beach for manmade discards, while adults, seated on grass mats, patiently await the arrival of a penyu (marine turtle).

Waiting for the right moment, female sea turtles try to sneak ashore without being detected, but since leatherback turtles and green turtles weigh up to 500 and 150 kilograms, respectively, their chances are slim.

Considered a delicacy, eating turtle eggs has been a coastal tradition as children clamour for the ping-pong to tennis ball sized embryos.

The lure of marine turtle eggs has spawned a collecting frenzy, treating eggs like buried treasure, due to the good prices fetched in local markets. With buyers shelling out various rates, depending on the species, a collector can haul in a small bonanza since each turtle nest averages between 80 to 140 eggs.

Unfortunately, the strong demand for these appetizers has lead to the over-collection and consumption of all marine turtle eggs.

Although research on these migratory sea creatures is difficult to perform, the numbers returning to Malaysian shores have dwindled dramatically within the last 40 years of recorded landings.

green turtle green turtle

Excessive and illegal egg harvesting remains one main reason for the reduction, but beach front development invading once remote nesting sites is a major disturbance. Two other culprits are incidental capture by fishermen and the impact of marine pollution that add to the threat of these endangered animals survival.

In order to protect these valuable sea visitors, several conservation measures were initiated by state and federal governments. These include the establishment of turtle sanctuaries, the operation of beach hatcheries, and the ban on the sale and consumption of leatherback turtles' eggs.

Critical habitats set aside from further development ensure the availability of nesting sites for future marine turtle arrivals on the mainland. Other suitable sites on islands in the South China Sea are included in marine national parks that increases protection.

Setting up temporary turtle hatchery operations on frequently visited beaches has been an ongoing practise since 1949. These fenced-in enclosures provide a place to deposit collected eggs and monitor incubation, usually up to 55 days, and hatching rates.

Realizing the perilous position of leatherback turtles, the state of Terengganu banned the harvest, sale, and consumption of thier eggs from this jellyfish-eating giant that is close to local extinction.

One of the best vantage points to view marine turtles from is the Rantau Abang Turtle Sanctuary located in Terengganu. One has to remember that not all marine turtles occur in every location, and that different beaches are suitable for different species.

If you want to observe more than one kind, then Terengganu is your best bet because leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley all find their way to the state's extensive coastline and outlying islands. Though most sightings are of green turtles.

There are accommodations in Rantau Abang at the sanctuary site and most of the coastal resorts provide turtle watching outings during the season. Before nightfall, spend a few hours at the Turtle Information Centre to read the educational displays and observe the activities of the hatchery.

turtle turtle

Remember marine turtles are very sensitive to noise and light while nesting and observers must adhere to a few rules of good behaviour themselves if the animals are to be successful.

In the near future these ancient marvels may either be extinct or totally restricted from viewing at close range in an attempt to conserve the few remaining species.

But for now, the opportunity to watch these reptilian relics of the natural world is a sight to cherish.

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