When we do a cultural tour for the State Dept. or an American Embassy, the schedule is packed full of events and the days are long. So when we are not performing or traveling, we are usually in search of food or rest.
We have a saying in the road. Eat when you can, sleep when you can….
because you probably won’t have another chance.
That’s why when we have a chance to go to a place like Turtle Island, we abandon our rest time and we seek adventure.
Turtle Islands National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Penyu) is located within the Turtle Islands, which lie in the Sulu Sea some 40 kilometers north of Sandakan in Sabah, east Malaysia. It consists of 3 islands – Selingaan, Bakkungan Kechil and Gulisaan (often spelt with -an instead of the traditional -aan), including the surrounding coral reefs and ocean. The Park is noted 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 km². The name Turtle Islands, however, refers to 10 islands, 3 of which are part of Turtle Islands National Park of Malaysia, and 7 which belongs to the Municipality of Turtle Islands, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines.
On 1 August 1966, the first turtle hatchery in Malaysia was established on Selingan, funded entirely by the Sabah state government. Turtle hatcheries on the remaining two islands followed shortly after. In 1972, Selingan, Bakkungan Kechil and Gulisan 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 hacheries and tag the turtles for research purposes.
We took an hour boat ride from Sandakan Bay to Turtle island which is a shared resource between Malaysia and the Philippines. We had a police escort boat shadow us the whole way there and back. Johnny called it our Boatercade. Scott, Chew, Shavia, Jeffery, Josie and the guys in the band all were on board our little but fast boat. With so many US Emabssy and Municipal council members on board, I could understand the extra security precautions as we headed into the waters that are known for pirate activity.
When we arrived, they had set out a nice brunch of fruit and sandwiches and insisted we sit down and relax before heading upstairs to watch a movie about the plight of the Green turtles. The movie explained life of the turtle and the steps being taken to ensure greater chances for their survival. The turtles return after 15 years to the island when they are mature enough to find a mate.
We looked at all the things in the exhibit before heading outside to view the hatchery where the eggs are protected from predators until they hatch after 45-60 days. The female turtles come to shore and deposit between 40-100 eggs in a self dug sand pit. The island staff dig up the eggs and place them in rows of protected sand pits, where a temperature difference of 4 degrees can determine an all male or all female hatch.
We knew we were being given special treatment when they brought out that days hatchlings for us to see.
They would be released after dark to further ensure their survival and protection from the heat and the island’s predictors such as birds, big lizards and rats. Each hatchling has a 1 in 10,000 chance in surviving and if they do survive, they can live up to 100 years.
Once released, the hatchlings instinctively head for the water and begin their perilous journey of survival.
We then had a few hours to go snorkeling off the beautiful island beach where we spotted all sorts of coral wonders below the surface.
Our hosts treated us to some fresh coconuts and I was marveling in all the island beauty and how great it was that we all had this time together.
I was speaking to one of the workers on the small island of about 1400 acres and I was telling him how amazingly beautiful it was and he said that he didn’t notice the beauty anymore. We both agreed that often its easier to stay present when you first see something, before their is a mental labeling or judgement. But, eventually the mind sneaks back in and wants more than what is…
I said that I thought he lived in paradise and that i would love to live on an island like this one. He had lived and worked on Turtle island for 7 years and wondered why someone from NYC would ever want to live on this island. In the end we agreed that acceptence of where ever you are and of whatever unfolds in this moment, is paradise.
We thanked our Island hosts, said our goodbyes to Turtle Island and headed off in our boat to make the journey back to Sandakan. I pondered our trip home to NYC and wondered what might be next. I thought about the little turtles that would be heading to the shore later that evening to begin their journey into the unknown and though even though their odds were slim, we still could learn a lesson from their short lives. It’s ok to let go of the need to know what happens next. The journey you are on is just as important as where you are going.
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