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Turtle Island.
Turtle Island.
Sorrel snorkels on Turtle Island.
Turtles at sunset.

Turtle Island

Thursday, January 31, 2002
You will arrive on what seems a deserted island, but when the sun sets, get the camera ready.

Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary is made up of three small islands between Malaysia and the Philippines. It is a major nesting site for the endangered green sea turtle, and the value and importance of the sanctuary cannot be overstated.

Nesting sea turtles, particularly the Giant Leatherback, once would go to Rantau Abang every year to breed, but due to marine pollution and death — accidental and otherwise — their numbers dwindled to an alarmingly small number.

Fortunately, in the 1960s the state Government gazetted a marine park on the eastern side of the island. Turtles — the green and hawksbill varieties being the most common — and their eggs, are now protected. Selingan is the largest of the three islands and is the park's headquarters.

Just an hour's boat ride across the Sulu Sea, it has a visitors' centre and tourist facilities, carefully hidden in the centre of the island. On the boat trip you might see Irrawaddy dolphins, and you will certainly see the striking stilt houses built over the waters of the Sandakan Bay. It is a cheap way to live, and as the residents' livelihoods come from the sea, it all makes sense.

The head ranger of Turtle Islands estimates they have helped millions of baby turtles to survive. Their main threats are monitor lizards, rats, crabs, but worst of all — humans. The protein-rich eggs are sought after as food, and are regarded as a highly potent aphrodisiac.

When you arrive at Selingan, it appears to be a totally deserted island, but after dusk the turtles — up to 500 — make their way to the beach, and visitors are allowed to view one landing a night. This allows the creatures to go on nesting undisturbed throughout the night. The egg-laying process is most amazing. The female crawls up the beach for some distance and digs a deep hole in the sand where she thinks her eggs will be safe. She usually digs and scratches several holes before being satisfied she has made the right one.

She lays between 50 and 140 eggs, carefully covers them and crawls back to the sea, pausing regularly for breath after such a long, hard night. When she reaches the water, the slow and cumbersome creature just slides in and silently disappears into the night.

After each laying, rangers raid the nests when the mothers have made their way back to the sea. The eggs are buried to the same depth in the hatchery. Visitors can participate in the relocation, and that adds to the experience of realising just how precious and vulnerable these creatures are.

Once hatched, the baby turtles are released into the sea, and from then they fend for themselves.

It is a quirk of nature that most of the turtles that have been released and survived the perils they face, actually return years later to lay their own eggs on the same beach. Scientists have no explanation for this phenomenon.

While waiting for dusk, you can swim or snorkel. The beaches are clean and quiet and have interesting coral and general sea-life. As you wander around, you will see the tyre-like indentations the nesting turtles have made in the sand the previous night.

Some important things to be observed while watching this amazing spectacle are to not use flash cameras or torches on the mothers or babies and to keep well away when they are crawling up the beach. Please don't buy turtle eggs, turtle meat or anything made from turtle shell, and make sure your litter doesn't end up on beaches or in the ocean.


40km north of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.


World Expeditions offer an 11-day Sabah adventure trip including return economy airfares with Malaysia Airlines, transfers, accommodation, tours, entrance fees and most meals. Prices start at $3390 from the east coast and Adelaide and $3290 from Perth, per person, twin share.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

World Expeditions
Ph: 1300 720 000 or (02) 9264 3366
For a safe and healthy journey, talk to the travel doctor: 1300 658 844 or visit
Vaccinations: Tetanut/Diphtheria and Measles if under 30 years, Hepatitis A and in some areas Typhoid may be advised. Long stay: Hepatitis B/Rabies/JE/TB. Malaria can be a risk, depending on destination. Anti-malarial tablets may be recommended. Take plenty of sunscreen and an insect repellent containing DEET. Both are almost impossible to find. Gut problems are common and it is good to be prepared with a Travel Kit for quick and effective treatment.

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