Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sea Turtle Rescue Unit Volunteer Program (SEATRU)

I ain't even sure how to start with this.

7 days on the remote side of Redang, an area off limit to tourists, sipping river water, using candlelight at night, sleeping on the beach, hunting and fending off monitor lizards, tagging turtles, releasing babies, watching shooting stars, snorkeling, I can go on forever.
Kuala Terengganu
It was the 29th day of Ramadhan when I arrived at Kuala Terengganu. That night I discovered something special about Kuala Terengganu-- the people of Kuala Terengganu do not wait for laungan azan at 7:30pm to end their fasting. Neither do they watch the TV nor stare blankly at their watch. Instead they wait for a cannon fired from Bukit Pak Apil, which signifies the end of fasting. It is a much efficient way because the sound of the cannon can be heard up to 10 km away, and the laungan azan from different mosques can be incoherent and confusing at times.
Look at the size of that fish!
Flying fish
The journey to Redang island was a rough one and everyone was sleeping during the 45-minutes trip. Except me. As the boat broke one wave after another I saw something shot out of the water and glided for at least 5 meters in a straight horizontal path before landing back into the water.
5 meters! That's surely not a simple splash of water--it must be the flying fish, because I saw with my own eyes some fish-shaped creatures FREAKING FLEW over the waves!

Monitor lizards
There were so many monitor lizards on the island, thanks to the ample supply of food--baby turtles and human waste. These intrepid creatures were so relentless during our stay they crawled into the vicinity of our living quarters. And they're quick on their feet too.
All the staffs headed home for Raya holiday, leaving only two Research Assistants (RA) on the island to help coordinate our program. I was assigned to the kitchen to do the cooking. But I soon found out that cooking for 11 person was really an unpleasant experience.
Le me cooking
Shooting stars
It was the first time in my life to see so many stars in the sky--literally billions of them, ornamented occasionally by shooting stars. And the cool soothing breeze made it even better. I was surprised there were no mosquitoes on the beach. One of our volunteers is pretty knowledgeable in astrology, so he started talking about scorpio, leo, and other horoscopes. Glad that I didn't speak of my disgust for astrology.
We were unable to snorkel on the first two days because the staffs were still on holiday. So we ventured out to the bay ourselves with the guidance from the RAs and saw some blacktip sharks. Again it was a first time for me, and those corals were just awesomely beautiful. There were triggerfish swimming right below me, like, wow. But I contracted sea-sickness and fumbled back to land.

On the third day the staffs came back and brought us to three other islands for snorkeling--Pulau Lima, Pulau Paku and the Redang HQ. Pulau Lima snorkeling session was equally awesome--I met some clown fish, jellyfish, and all sorts of weirdos of the sea. Then came the climax-the staff brought out chunks of bread and threw those into the water, and the fishes went berserk.

The Redang HQ, however, was a bad one. There were so many tourists on the beach I was so pissed and eventually lost my mood. Fuck commercialization.

Prawn Spa
Deep inside the forest behind our living quarter there lies a pond.
And in that pond you dip your feet, and come forth tiny crustaceans from the deep.
That's the prawn spa. We dipped our feet inside the pond and the shrimps would start chomping on the dead skin on our feet. It was a refreshing experience, to sit in a serene forest and enjoy the tranquility within while the servants ate away unwanted layer of skin.

Turtle Rock hiking

This is another highlight of this trip--an hour's journey to the cliffs and gosh the view was so breathtaking we could see Perhentian Island from where we stood. I wondered why would anyone dish out thousands of ringgit to visit other mediocre countries when they have one of the most beautiful islands in the world in their own country. But that's what Malaysians are famous for isn't it?

We had our first turtle landing on the first night. The female took almost an hour to prepare her nest (ascending, body pitting, chambering), and then laid around 100 eggs.
Not many people have seen wild turtles in the wild and I was really fortunate to see such a huge specimen right in front of me. It takes 26 years for Green Turtles to reach sexual maturity, so the specimen was at least a year older than me. The carapace was a meter long and the front flipper, I reckoned, was around 0.5 meter.
Touching the carapace of a wild turtle for the very first time is a feeling I would never forget. NEVER!
Another interesting episode occurred when another female attempted to cover her nest. The RA decided to re-position her so as not to disturb other nearby nests, so we tried to haul her a little bit to the right. And holy cow the female was so heavy three of us failed to lift her up, and I got smashed in my left calf by the powerful front flipper of the struggling kraken. Yes the KRAKEN. We eventually managed to re-position her enough by continually tapping lightly on her carapace. But trust me, getting slapped by a female turtle is not something you would want to experience.
Turtle eggs
While wandering around in the local wet market I saw several stalls offering 10 turtle eggs for RM15, which makes each nest worth about RM150. That's very disheartening considering the odds of baby turtles surviving to sexual maturity is only 1 in 1000.
Turtle eggs, unlike those of birds, are soft. A female turtle lays around 100 eggs each time, and out of the hundred, around 5% wouldn't hatch, while the remaining 95% will risk attacks by monitor lizards, ghost crabs, army ants, and humans. Even the monsoon poses a risk for the eggs, as floods could destroy the nest when it rains.
When the hatchlings emerge from their eggs, they fall prey to fish, sharks, monitor lizards, crabs, ants, humans, and even herons and seagulls. Once in the sea, they have to avoid collision with boats and fishing nets, and avoid diseased, polluted seas. They need to be diligent and fit to survive for 26 daunting years before they can start adding to their numbers. Even with our advance medicine we fall sick at least once a year. These turtles, without any antibiotics to help them combat the simplest of ailments like flu, could very easily die from diseases which would otherwise considered harmless to humans.
Another volunteer argued that turtle sanctuaries are not needed and the turtles should be left alone instead of getting a helping hand from us humans.
I disagree.
By default, the odds of baby turtles surviving to sexual maturity is only 1 in 1000. That is the result of predation by monitor lizards, ants, crabs, and other animals, in addition to ailments and natural accidents. But when we add in the human factor--pollution, boat accidents, oil spills, turtle egg consumption--the chances of any hatchlings to survive to adulthood will drop further, say 1 in 100,000. If there were no turtle sanctuary in place the turtles will be gone by the end of the decade.
And since we cannot stop fishery and tourism development, we need to create a sanctuary for turtles--a place where turtle eggs are protected against humans, monitor lizards, and crabs to prevent prenatal death. By increasing the number of hatchlings we hope to improve the chances of any baby surviving the jaws of sharks and fishes. Moreover, the sanctuary also functions as a turtle research center where turtles can be tagged and monitored to improve our understanding of the creature. Doing so can help to better derive ways to save them.
The tragic case of Leatherback Turtle
SEATRU volunteer program has helped me to understand turtles better--at least now I know things like body pitting, chambering, etc, and that baby turtles are attracted to light source at night. I've had a number of first times in this trip, and it really opened my eyes to the beauty of Redang.
If anyone wants to join the program, you can book a slot at seatru.umt.edu.my. I started planning for this trip in November last year, aiming for the Raya holiday slot so that I wouldn't have to take too much leave from my boss. I would also like to encourage you all to propose this program for your company's corporate social responsibility (CSR) program.
You will not regret joining SEATRU volunteer program.



  1. Nicely written article. Sounded like you had a great time. Envy the stargazing and turtle watching. LOL at the kraken. :D



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