Selingan (Turtle) and Liberan Islands ( October 16 - 19, 2001 )


Johor Bahru
Kota Kinabalu
Lahad Datu/ Danum
Sandakan/ Sepilok
Gomantong/ Sukau
Selingan & Liberan Is.
Mt Kinabalu
Kuala Lumpur

New Zealand

Selingan Island is about 40km from Sandakan. Our taxi took us to the Padas jetty in the middle of a mangrove swamp somewhere north of Sandakan, where we got onto a Wildlife Expeditions boat for the short trip to Libaran Island. We ate lunch at Liberan (more on Liberan later) and then left for Selingan Island. 

On a personal family note,  Heather lost another baby tooth while eating lunch at Liberan! 

Selingan is a small sandbar of an island that is one of the three island Turtle Islands Park. It is the only island where the public can stay overnight. An average of about 10 turtles a night lay 500 to 600 eggs which are all collected by rangers and transplanted to a fenced area safe from predators (rats, birds, crabs, water monitors). About 500 hatchlings crawl out of the sand into fenced baskets every night to be released into the ocean by the rangers.  

When we checked in, we saw a turtle hatchling. It must have dug its way out the night before and got disoriented with all the lights in the buildings - now it was on a mission to get to the water. Unfortunately, photography of turtles is not allowed on the island, so we have no pictures of turtles. It was a very determined little thing and we watched it make it's way to the ocean and then swim off. Apparently it only has a 5% chance of surviving to maturity. 

Mark and Sarah snorkeling

We rented masks and snorkels and spent the afternoon swimming. The coral and fish were spectacular - much more colourful than Manukan Island off Kota Kinabalu. The water was very shallow (just a few feet), making it very easy to see all the details - in fact, it was so close that I found it a little claustrophobic. This picture is Mark and Sarah.  

We had a quick look at the very good turtle museum and then ate supper. After supper, we sat around waiting for 'turtle time' when we would get to see a turtle laying its eggs. The guides thought it could be quite late - perhaps 2 AM, because the tide was very low and the turtles would have a hard time getting over the coral to the beach. At 9:30, after a few card games, we decided to put the kids in bed. I would wait in the restaurant and then run to get Sarah and the kids at the appropriate time. 

If you've been paying attention to our Borneo trip so far, you'll notice I've never talked about the rain. This is perhaps surprising, as Borneo is mostly rain forest. In fact, other than a few storms in Kota Kinabalu, rain has not affected us. There have been some spectacular but distant electrical storms, and sometimes it has rained at night. We have been lucky - so far.

At 10:20PM, the wind started and I could hear thunder. At 10:30, the guide came and said 'turtle time'! I ran back to get the family through the light rain. At 10:35 we raced back through the heavy rain where we just managed to see the turtle cover up its nest. She had just finished laying her eggs (though the Ranger had removed them).  We then went to the hatchery in the pouring rain to watch them transfer the eggs to a man made nest. We got to hold an egg (slightly soft, about the size of a ping pong ball). After they buried them, they brought a basket of new hatchlings and allowed us each to hold one for a short time. Normally, we would be allowed to release the hatchling on the beach, but we were in the middle of a very violent lightning storm. For safety we retreated to our room. There were so many lightning flashes in such a short time that it looked almost like someone was using a strobe light. Mark and I were counting the time between flashes and thunder - some were in the 1 to 2 second range. 

At about 11:00PM, back in our chalet, Dion explained that turtles do not like storms. The rangers had called us because they thought the storm would keep other turtles away. The Ranger's turtle viewing program was finished for the night. I was disappointed. So was Mark. Not only did we not really see the turtle, but we were soaking wet and the whole event lasted about 15 minutes. I even discovered that my fake Rolex (see Beijing) was only fake waterproof! The inside of the crystal was fogged.

I woke up at 1:40 AM., went into the girl's room and told Sarah I was off to find turtles and would come and get her if successful.

The storm had cleared and the stars were bright. The island was largely deserted. I found some of the rangers picking up hatchlings from the nests and bringing them to the ocean. It was interesting to watch them guide the hatchlings to the ocean using their flashlights - the turtles would head wherever the beam pointed.

I wandered around to the beach near our chalet, and heard the unmistakable grunting and sliding of a turtle pulling itself up the beach. I made my way back to the central area to find a ranger. I bumped into the senior ranger, but he definitely didn't want me around and motioned for me to go away. Disappointed again, I went back on the path to our room. Coming towards me was another flashlight. It turned out to be Sarah. She had decided to come wandering as well. 

I brought her to the beach where I had heard the turtle. We could see the ranger's flashlights about 30 m down the beach. A junior ranger came over to us - unlike the senior ranger, he seemed very obliging. Sarah and I got to go and sit on a log about 3 metres away from the rangers and the turtle.

It was a Green Turtle - probably 60 or 70 cm wide and about a metre long.  It was digging out its nest from the sand, and soon started to lay its eggs. 

I ran to wake Mark up. I woke Heather and Chloe too, but they said they wanted to stay in bed. (Heather was most upset the next day and says she did not remember saying that.)  Mark and I returned just in time to see the turtle cover over its nest. The rangers left to transplant the eggs, but we stayed on the beach to watch the turtle return to the ocean. So the three of us sat there watching the turtle cover over its nest in the warm starlit night - it took over an hour with the turtle huffing and puffing and using its flippers to spray sand everywhere. To confuse predators, it filled its nest up by digging a "dummy nest" near the real nest.  Finally, the turtle crawled out of its dummy nest and made its way back to the ocean. 

It was one of those magical moments that I hoped we would have on this vacation  - standing on the beach with Mark and Sarah watching the turtle bumping over the coral back into the open ocean.

Tired but exhilarated, we got back to our rooms at 5:30AM. 

Mark and I did not go back to sleep - we talked for a bit and then at 6AM, went around the island narrating a video to explain what we saw. There had only been three turtles laying eggs that night - and we had seen two of them. 

We left the island at 6:30 AM to head back to Libaran Island for Breakfast. 

After Breakfast, Sarah, Mark and I slept until about 10:30. I awoke to find Heather and Chloe playing cards with Hadi, the amiable manager of the Liberan Island Lodge. 

Liberan Island Lodge

Liberan Island Lodge has 35 very nice beach huts and we were the only overnight guests on our first night there. This was another unfortunate example of the aftermath of the World Trade Centre disaster, with groups canceling their tours en masse. 

The staff were terrific - one climbed up a 10 metre palm tree in bare feet to get three coconuts for the kids. Another staff member got some squid and organized fishing rods. Mark and Chloe spent hours fishing from the wharf, while Heather gathered shells and coral along the beach.

house in mangroves

Dion and the boatman brought us on a boat tour of a mangrove swamp on our first afternoon. We saw a small school on the bank, complete with water taxi to pick up and drop off the kids. The houses were little more than shacks, but almost all of them were covered in flowers. We also saw several mudskippers (all you Biology 101 students may remember those), but not much other wildlife. 

The next morning, we went on a walking tour of the village on Liberan Island, population about 300. We went into a small elementary school - families have to pay 25RM (about $10) for one year of schooling. Some families chose not to send their children. Money is an issue, but another issue is that students are required to go 40km to Sandakan for schooling after age 12. They would be required to board or stay with relatives - a tough choice to make for a family where fishing is the way of life.

The village was very well kept - the sand was swept clean of leaves and flowers were everywhere. Many houses had small boats in various stages of construction using a hardwood frame and plywood. I had assumed these were all done by hand, but I saw one of the men working on it with a power planer. The boats were painted bright colours - pinks, purples, lime greens. They seemed impossibly narrow -maybe 4 metres long but only about 1 metre wide. They looked very unstable, but I saw them out in all weather conditions.

In the afternoon, we went back to Selingan Island to go snorkeling. Dion, who the kids had been bugging for some time, came snorkeling with us even though she said she was afraid of the water and could not swim. She did very well and I think she enjoyed herself.

Selignan Island

One strange thing happened on Selingan Island. We went back top the hatchery to check the nests for the night that we were there and found the three of them with 104, 20, and 14 eggs.  104 was the number of eggs from the turtle in the rain storm. We know the second turtle we saw laid more than 20 eggs, so we are not sure what happened to the other eggs??

Back on Liberan Island, a tour group had checked in, and the restaurant was having a big meal for everyone. They had an outdoor barbecue and organized some of the island kids to demonstrate local dances. It was nice to see the hotel so integrated into the local community.

We left early the next morning. Dion dropped us off at Sandakan airport, and we took a short flight back to Kota Kinabalu.

We returned to Shangri-la's Rasa Ria Resort for another few days of relaxation (and laundry) before tackling the 4095.2m Mt Kinabalu.