In April I visited Bubbles Dive Resort in a tiny bay on the edge of Tanjung Tukas, southern end of Pulau Perhentian Besar (island) in Malaysia, expecting standard tourist experiences: diving, snorkelling, asian cuisine, reading on the beach. I received these pleasures, and found so much more.
This is a reflection, appreciation and celebration of individual personal vision and multiplying power of transforming vision into action. It is also a story of unintended consequences due to human intervention into the complex ecology of the Sea Turtle.
The Green Sea Turtle is a member of the Cheloniidea species which has been evolving on Earth for over 300 million years. As herbivores that graze on sea grass, they are important contributors to healthy coral reef ecosystems. The juvenile sea turtles will also feast on jelly fish, crab and sponges. They reach maturity much later than humans, after 30-40 years and live to around 100 years.
Green Sea Turtles are now an endangered species, though doing marginally better than other turtle species in Malaysia. Formerly abundant in this region until the late 20th century, the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) are both critically endangered, and the Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is endangered.
In 2004 experienced diver instructors and couple, Pei See Hwang and Ronnie Ng, moved to Pulau Perhentian Besar to set up a dive school for the resort. The seed for Pei See’s conservation project was activated early one early morning as she was brushing her teeth on the beach and she literally tripped over a nesting turtle. She realised then that the resort was situated on a nesting beach.
Not every beach in Malaysia is a nesting beach, fewer since reef and turtle tourism (see above) took off and large resorts moved in. Safe beaches, without interfering people, noise, pollution and white light, are now extremely important for the continuing turtle life cycle. Turtles are not a species that will adapt quickly; their ingenious GPS system guides mature turtles (over 30 years old) return to lay their eggs at the same beach where they hatched every 2-4 years.
Knowing that turtle eggs were still available in the local markets, Pei See asked Malaysian fisheries why they were still being sold. The response was, “The Green Turtles are not yet endangered”. Hearing this, Pei See said, “I wanted to cry – this is heart breaking.”
Reaching out to environmental NGOs in the region for support was met with silence. But the pain of realising the experts were not going to help only motivated Pei See’s resolve. She ‘knew nothing’ about turtle habits from a scientific perspective, and she decided to take action to anyway.
“Being one of the blessed resorts with nesting turtles and a house reef, Bubbles Dive Resort pledges to protect both assets. We believe through education and creating awareness is the best ways to conserve these treasures. The Bubbles Turtle and Reef Conservation Project is designed to offer you an opportunity to be part of a detailed and meticulous protection campaign.” Bubbles Turtle Conservation Project
The vision of protecting turtles and bringing awareness to the community visiting Bubbles has been manifested. It attracts the energy and generosity of volunteers and visitors from around the planet. In 2005, Bubbles Turtle project got their first volunteers via a UK gap year company. Eleven years later the early students are now re-visiting the project. Eventually in 2008 more qualified volunteers started coming and the hatchery was created in 2013. With each new group of contributors, the project evolves.
Today Bubbles is financially supporting a paid coordinator, Holly Fletcher and hosting four post graduate environmental science interns: Duncan Maguire, Janet Quambusch, Jorge Palomo and Anthony Guichard. The interns explained to me how, as young professionals, this sort of supported gig was rare and incredibly enriching. They certainly demonstrate their commitment to science and turtles as every hour though the night, the team take turns to monitor the beach for poachers.
“I get up 4am and do the shift till sunrise. One night I was on my own patrolling the beach, and I saw a dark shape on the water, then I heard a motor. Must be a poacher. I walked toward the boat and flashed my white light. He turned on his light, scanning the beach. Then shone his light on me. My only thought was – I need to protect the turtles. Later I realised maybe I should have been more cautious, but I was relieved when the poacher turned on the motor and left. We hope the word has spread that we are patrolling the beach.” Janet Quambusch
Only Hot Chicks?
Early Malaysian sea turtle conservation programs with Leatherback Turtles in the 1960’s were undertaken with care and good intentions, but scientific knowledge about the species was limited.
“In the 1990’s it was discovered that the hundreds of thousands of hatchlings released into the sea at Rantau Abang over the 30 years of the program were almost exclusively females. Only in the mid-1980s scientific researches found that turtle eggs were very sensitive to heat and movement. If the ambient temperature is above 30 degrees celsius the hatchlings are almost always female, while at temperatures below 28 degrees celsius they are sure to be males. Unfortunately, before the research findings were made known, the eggs at the hatcheries in Terengganu were kept in open boxes to collect the warmth of the sun to hatch them.” Malaysian Wildlife & Nature
While I was visiting Bubbles a massive job was being undertaken by the conservation team to lift the turtle nests 40mm higher. By monitoring nest health they discovered that sea levels had increased to the high point where turtles had laid their eggs for centuries. Now the sand was too moist and the eggs were becoming infected with fungus.
“Coming from studies in marine science, biology, and oceanography, especially in the context of extinction and endangered species, being here I really feel like I am doing my part. This work brings alive the science. We have real time frames – treating and monitoring the fungus on the eggs, noticing the impact of sea level rise on the eggs in the nests – this is real.” Jorge Palomo
Action for Sea Turtles?
Last year was a record for the Tanjung Tukas beach, as 634 Green Sea Turtles were recorded landing, nesting in 318 sites containing 13,402 eggs. A total of 3,722 hatchlings made it to the sea and only between 1 in a thousand, to 1 in 10,000 will survive into adulthood. Duncan Maguire cut to the heart of the matter when he stated, “Effectively one hatchling might survive from this beach each season.”
While this season’s hundred’s of eggs in Bubble have been protected by a laborious daily treatment of tea tree oil, it is easy to imagine that the impact of climate change on sea levels and temperatures will affect all turtle nesting sites globally. A truly grim forecast for this species.
Every evening Duncan, Janet, Holly, Anthony and Jorge offer Bubbles visitors a turtle or reef talk, these are informative and humorous. Perfect for spreading awareness, and maybe visitors to choose to refuse that plastic straw in their next drink, or to stop purchasing items in plastic bags altogether when they are back home. Everyone has the opportunity to see turtles laying their eggs, and the hatchery is in the heart of the resort, for all to see its management.
“A simple thing everyone can do that will have a huge impact is to stop or drastically reduce their use of single-use plastics: drinking straws, plastic utensils, cups and lids, face and body wash with plastic micro-particles, food with plastic wrapping and of course plastic bags and bottles!” Holly Fletcher
I am sponsoring 3 turtle nests (50 Malaysian ringgit each). For this small contribution, aside from supporting to this initiative, I will receive emails about the progress of the nests and pictures when the hatchlings emerge. Alternatively, you can visit Bubbles and dive with Green Sea Turtles or join the project for 3 days as a conservation volunteer. If your timing is spot on, you may have the joy of seeing turtles lay their eggs, or watch the new hatchlings make their way to the sea.
I am grateful for the knowledge and commitment of the science community in getting their heads around these dilemmas, and for people like Pei See Hwang and Ronnie Ng, and the Bubbles community, for giving their energy to repair a small part of the natural world so that community can re-connect with it’s wonders.
Happy Earth Day 2017.
Photos: Turtle credited to Finn Wrigley, thank you to the Bubbles conversation team for other images.