A different way to experience the beauty of Terengganu is to patrol beaches on dark nights to look out for turtles.

WHAT made me take a flight after work from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, and then to wake up at 5am to catch a flight to Redang island in Terengganu to volunteer to save turtles? Perhaps it was guilt.

I recalled vaguely that years ago our family had driven to Terengganu and my husband had purchased turtle eggs. I had actually boiled three eggs and discovered that they could not harden. The children had swallowed those eggs with soya sauce and pepper and then my son had buried one egg in our garden hoping that hatchlings would emerge.

So with this legacy of guilt, my daughter-in-law Daphne and I had enthusiastically volunteered to save turtles in Chagar Hutang, a remote part of Redang island. The Seatru (Sea Turtle Outreach) volunteer programme was initiated in 1998 to assist long term turtle conservation. It was introduced by professors of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu – where we met up with the coordinators while carrying our rucksacks and sleeping bags.

Collecting turtle hatchlings for release into the sea later.

Work first, relax later

“Welcome volunteers! Remember you are saving one of the wonders of the Earth,” reminded Dr Juanita Joseph, who was in charge of the programme.

“You can enjoy snorkelling and hiking but you have to work first. There is a duty roster. After working, then you can relax,” explained Vickie Chew, the research officer.

Volunteers are required to assist in cooking, housekeeping and beach cleaning. There were eight volunteers and our first job was to carry huge bags of rice, biscuits, canned food plus buckets and a parang to the boat. After reaching Chagar Hutang, we had to jump into the water and carry all the bags to the shore.

“Can I carry the three smallest bags?“ I asked sheepishly as I struggled to carry my huge rucksack, slippers, hat and sling bag.

I appeared to be the only middle-aged mother around – the other seven volunteers comprised youthful, muscular men and energetic younger ladies. Thankfully, we formed a human chain and hands passed all the bags to our home for the next week. Daphne sighed, “Look at the huts and floor! It’s messy. And there is no electricity, our phones won’t work … no Internet for days!”

Thankfully, after lunch and a briefing by Chew, we settled down to relax.

“Look! There is a mouse deer in the compound!” someone shouted excitedly.

Protective cover: A green turtle swishing sand over her freshly laid eggs at Chagar Hutang on Redang island.

There were two mouse deers foraging for food nearby. Huge monitor lizards also roamed near the rubbish heap, while macaque monkeys darted in and out of the trees, grabbing pieces of food from the dustbin. Squirrels were running around the kitchen roof and one brave one tried to bite through some plastic boxes to eat the biscuits inside.

When we studied the duty roster, I realised, to my disappointment, that Daphne and I had to be on duty from midnight to 3am that very night, to wait for turtles to lay eggs. We were told that we could rest on the beach on mats, but every hour we also had to patrol along the dark beach with a moonless sky, to look out for turtles.

After dinner we sat on the beach and were comforted by the sight of sparkling stars against a brilliant dark sky. Both of us were sleepy and exhausted, but we had to do our patrols. I had thought that seeing turtles was difficult but at 8.30pm I saw a large dark shape crawling onto the soft white sand.

“Oh! It’s a mother turtle going to lay eggs!” I whispered excitedly to Daphne.

Then we caught sight of two more huge turtles further down. There were 11 of us on duty and we had divided ourselves into four groups. Daphne and I headed for the right side of the beach and we waited until the turtle had stopped under the tree. Then she started to body pit, the term for the first stage of her digging process. She started to dig a deep hole with her flippers throwing sand all over her. It was a spectacular and heart-warming sight to behold.

“Oh no! We have to chase her to another part of the beach! She is destroying an old nest there,” whispered Zu Dienle Tan, a volunteer who is a Seatru intern.

Tan is a true blue turtle lover who had volunteered to stay at this turtle sanctuary for three months. She pushed the heavy turtle with her leg, urging it to move to the right. It grunted and appeared to be annoyed and within minutes, had moved slowly back down to the sea.

I was disappointed but Tan assured me that it would return the next night to lay eggs. It must have been a first-time mother and was troubled by the people around her.

Then I sat down to watch another turtle digging furiously in another hole. We had to keep very quiet while writing down the times that the turtle landed, body pitted and chambered (the final stage of digging). After that she was ready to lay her eggs. Mind you, a turtle can lay about 130 eggs one night.

Another turtle appeared and it seemed to like me. It kept following me as I attempted to walk slowly about. The turtle seemed happy and decided to dig just beside me. It was exhilarating to watch two turtles laying eggs, my very own two female turtles to take care of. It was thrilling, but sadly, we were told that for every 100 baby turtles, only one will survive to adulthood.

That second turtle was an older and experienced mother who was sure that our beach was safe for her to nest. She laid her eggs after digging and resting for one hour. I had to call Aziz Mann Mustaffa, the resident turtle caretaker, who measured the turtle and studied the metal tag on her flipper. The numbers on the tag revealed that she had laid her eggs there in 2006. We carried a book which had notes on all the turtles that had landed on this beach before.

Mann (as he prefers to be called) inserted a long stick into the hole to number the nest. After he measured the turtle, it began to crawl down to return to the sea. That night, 28 turtles landed to nest on the beach. All of us worked hard to write notes and mark the nests while catching some rest in between on our beach mats. I kept patrolling but by 3am, I fell asleep on the dark beach.

Sharks eat turtles

Next morning more work was in store. We had to mark the new nests and help to check the old ones.

There were about 200 nests on the beach. We dug up the old nests to protect the eggs and hatchlings from predators but were dismayed to find small ghost and hermit crabs plus red ants attacking some hatchlings in the nest.

Then I saw a dead hatchling with a hole in its chest. Sadly, it had been bitten by a rat. Then there were two tiny hatchlings with three flippers. Mann said that these disabled creatures can still grow into adult mothers and return to lay eggs on that beach. That was inspiring news. It was wonderful to find the lovely hatchlings and we kept them in a tray. Later in the evening we released them into the sea.

To our horror, we saw baby sharks waiting in the water to eat the hatchlings – very few survive to be adults. Someone thought of catching the baby sharks, but it is illegal to catch any fish in the Redang marine park.

One afternoon a loud shriek was heard, for someone had discovered a green snake in our room.

“It’s not venomous and harmless!” shouted Mann, the caretaker.

File picture of turtle hatchlings at Seatru rescued from an attack by an army of ants.

The snake was caught gently and released into the forest later. More excitement was in store later that evening as a colourful mangrove snake was seen in the rubbish bin. It chased away two macaque monkeys nearby. We were told it was a resident snake which came every night looking for dinner. Large eagles soared in the sky and butterflies in myriad colours danced in and out of the trees nearby.

Apart from engaging in turtle conservation activities, volunteers can also swim and snorkel in the crystal clear sea. Some also hiked to Turtle Rock (a natural formation) and visited a natural prawn spa. The latter had us sitting down and inserting our feet into the cool, sparkling water of a rock pool and within minutes little prawns began nibbling on our feet hungrily. The sensation was ticklish yet relaxing. So one does not have to pay RM40 per hour to visit a fish spa in a city shopping centre because it’s free here!

It is fascinating to know that more than 3,000 volunteers have participated in this programme to save turtles. People can gain the rare privilege of being close to nature while helping to conduct research and actively saving wild turtles from extinction.

The magnificent Leatherback turtles which were common 20 years ago have become effectively extinct in Terengganu now. Many people are still purchasing turtle eggs (of other species) in the local markets and consuming them. Thankfully there are many other nature lovers who treasure these threatened turtles.

All in all, volunteering at the Seatru program at Chagar Hutang in Redang island is rewarding for it nurtures love and compassion towards nature’s wonders amid our materialistic world.

For me, helping to save these adorable creatures was a memorable experience, to be kept in a corner of my heart always.

Would you like to write about your adventures? Or want to share some tips on interesting outdoor activities, safety, equipment or eco-friendly practices? Please write in to our outdoors coordinator, Andrew Sia, at star2@thestar.com.my