Turtle watching and the release of turtle hatchlings are two activities that a visitor to Terengganu must do. One may go to the East Coast state numerous times and yet have no opportunity to participate in these activities as they are seasonal. Turtle nesting season is from March through October.
During my visit recently, my friends and I walked three kilometres just to watch mother turtles lay eggs and help collect the eggs to be placed in the hatchery. Teluk Mak Nik (Monica Bay) is a popular spot for both activities as there is a turtle hatchery here.
Turtles here, mostly of the greenback species, would come on shore in the dark of the night, look for a comfortable spot, usually under a tree, dig a hole, and try to lay eggs.
Observers have to be extremely quiet and be in the dark as well, as turtles who are distracted will return to the sea without laying eggs. They can hold their eggs for a couple of days.
Each time, there could be almost a hundred eggs or more. The turtle, about 30 to 40 years old, that we spotted just laid 103 eggs. After the tiring process, while resting, a volunteer took the opportunity to help the turtle remove barnacles, a type of parasite with worms, from her hard shell.
Once the eggs have been laid, the turtle will use her back flippers to cover the hole that contains her eggs, and thereafter dig a new hole with her front flippers. The new hole in front is a camouflage. Once done, she will return to the sea, via the same route that she has come from. These turtles will return to lay another batch of eggs in ten to twelve days’ time.
Two of the reasons that human intervention is required to collect the eggs are because of poaching and to protect the turtle population to ensure that the majority of the eggs laid would hatch.
The turtle hatchery, which is located just by the beach at Teluk Mak Nik, has a successful programme to hatch the eggs that volunteers have collected from the beach with a rate of more than 80%.
Each nest contains the eggs of one turtle, unless the turtle has laid a large number, then the eggs are split into two or even three nests. The record number of eggs laid by one mother turtle on this beach was 164 but the average is 70 to 140.
Eggs are hatched under cooler conditions as the authorities are trying to obtain more male turtles. They estimated that there are currently way more female turtles than males, so they are trying to balance the ecosystem.
The process of hatching requires some 45 to 60 days, and the hatchlings are released into the sea as soon as they are hatched. The hatchery here holds a record of more than four thousand baby turtles released simultaneously at one time.
Even so, research has shown that the average survival rate of turtles is very low. Out of a thousand baby turtles released, only about one or two will survive in the ocean wilderness.
Even the release of turtles has its own procedure. They have to be released at least five metres from the shoreline. Firstly, it provides a good exercise for the hatchlings, and secondly it would allow them to recognise the beach. Experts believe that turtles have an in-built Global Positioning System (GPS), and by going through this process, they will return to the same beach even after many years in the future.
The protection and conservation of turtles are huge causes in Terengganu. The turtle is also one of the symbols of the state. It’s no wonder that turtle-shaped souvenirs are hugely popular here too.
If you are interested to participate in turtle activities, you may contact local guide, Pak Su at 013-9064828.
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