Sunday, 21 July 2013

Turtle conservation in Malaysia, and how to help

The West coast of Malaysia unsurprisingly isn't much different to the West of Thailand at this time of year. Rainy season spans from April to November, so we were glad to be heading to the East coast (with almost opposite seasons).

Whilst researching things to see and do on the Perhentian islands, I was very excited to find a turtle conservation project where we could volunteer. After a few issues with some admin and eventually locating somewhere for a medical certificate (for diving), we got ourselves to Kota Bahru, and the following day took a taxi to the boat jetty at Kuala Besut.

This is the only way to get to the Perhentian islands, as there is no airport and also no roads. The boat journey takes about 45 minutes but is extremely bumpy so I recommend sitting nearer to the back. Note that there is a marine park fee of 5RM (£1) per person and a return boat costs 70RM (£14).

The project is located at Bubbles Dive Centre on the South East of Perhentian Besar (the big island). I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely private beach as well as some very reasonable digs to enjoy during a week of volunteer work. To top that, the food was amazing with a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner with both Western and Malaysian dishes. Sadly, working either of the night shifts patrolling the beach, didn't allow for the cooked breakfast experience. Instead, lunch soon became the first meal of the day as my body clock adjusted to the late nights/early mornings far too easily.

The first day was nice and easy, with an afternoon orientation and an extremely interesting turtle talk before dinner. There were 8 volunteers there at the same time, and we were all keen to get involved in the night patrols before our allocated shifts started, so when they did, the following day, we knew what to expect.
I learnt a lot during the turtle talk and was sad to hear of the declining numbers of the 3 remaining species of turtle that are found in Malaysia. More shocking was the news that the 4th species, the leatherback is virtually extinct in Malaysia.

Conservation projects like the one at Bubbles have been running for a number of years, but the results may only become apparent in many years to come, as turtles are estimated to live long lives; up to 100 years and may only reach sexual maturity after 15 to 40 years depending on species.

The turtles found nesting here are green turtles and generally return 30 years after hatching; laying an average of 100 eggs at a time.

It is hard to accept the fact that the turtle hatchlings we released whilst there only have a small chance of survival, due to the impact of the developing world on feeding grounds, and other factors such as the excessive shrimping boats that may entrap them in error.


The tourism industry continues to destroy many coastal habitats including beaches and coral reefs. Even the work carried out by a conservation team is not fail safe and the beach they protect cannot be fully protected when humanity is involved.

Despite that, the work carried out at Bubbles is being carefully monitored and the data collected will in time be adequate to determine whether conservation has limited the damage to turtle life here on Perhentian Besar.

I was able to get involved in a variety of tasks during my time on the project and that was during a week without nesting turtles to deal with as well:

- Jobs in the hatchery, which has recently been extended: nest health checks, clearing out unhatched eggs; fixing up and making lids to protect nests from predators; digging more holes for nests; fixing the fence.

the hatchery

- Beach clean: collecting rubbish and helping with recycling anything useful.
- Maintaining information: keeping guests updated; sharing information via white boards/signs; collecting and verifying data.

Maintaining information and making people aware is probably the most important part of conservation, as often a simple lack of understanding can result in damaging actions. For example, cigarette butts and plastic are the most common waste found in the stomach of a turtle. During a beach clean it was evident that guests should be made aware of this small fact! So, we created some useful ashtrays, which we hope will increase awareness amongst guests and reduce the littering.

ash trays from recycled cans

Some volunteers got involved in coral cleaning in the nursery which is being maintained just off the beach. As I cannot dive I was given the opportunity to take a Discover Scuba Dive (DSD) course but unfortunately struggled to overcome my phobia of being under water,  only managing to complete the mask clearing skill after about 20 minutes of pathetic attempts in knee deep water.

Perhaps under less time pressure and with more help I will have another go elsewhere, but when you just don't feel it underwater, sometimes it is a sign to stick to the snorkeling and accept that you will never be an underwater baby!

As well as daily jobs, there are the all important night patrols, which were also a good time to get to know people better. The 7 and 5 hour shifts were filled with card games and consuming coffee to stay awake.

We were unlucky not to see any nesting turtles. However there were a few hatchlings to release quietly one night and also a full nest eruption, which meant an official release with guests and the need for crowd control, so plenty to do.

hatchling release

The weekly volunteer schedule also includes some recreational activities: snorkeling (I saw a shark and some turtles), jungle hiking and a visit to the village and fisheries hatchery.

The latter was disappointing as there was no one there and the reality of what goes on here became apparent. There is a verbal agreement with the department of fisheries regarding the collection of eggs as part of the conservation project. Currently only 20 eggs are kept from each nest by the project team and the rest are passed to the fisheries representative for their own hatchery. What they do with them does not appear to be as extensive as the work carried out at Bubbles, but maybe they just had a day off that day!

Important turtle facts:

- In Malaysia many turtle eggs are harvested for consumption. In Terengganu (state incorporating East coast and islands), only the sale and consumption of leatherback turtle eggs is prohibited. 
- The survival rate of emerged hatchlings to reach maturity is 0.1%. That is just 1 in a thousand!
- Matured turtles are killed to make turtle products such as jewellery, ornaments and souvenirs.
- Trash and waste found floating in the ocean is another common cause of injuries to turtles. Plastic bags can be deadly when consumed.

What you can do to help?

- DO NOT buy or consume turtle eggs. 
- Manage your waste. 
- DO NOT purchase turtle shell products. 
- Spread the word; highlight the perils that turtles are facing, and what we can do to help them.
- Share this post!

The week went really quickly and we very much wanted to stay longer to help out more, and of course to see a nesting turtle. Unfortunately the accommodation was fully booked until the end of August, so we left to console ourselves over on Perhentian Kecil (the small island).

I have since managed to wangle another week volunteering on a turtle conservation project on Tioman Island, a bit further down the coast. It will be interesting to see what they do there and whether there are similar issues. I can't wait...

To volunteer at Bubbles: contact them via their website

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Returning to Malaysian Islands

As we approached the bridge from the mainland, heading to Penang (after crossing the border from Thailand to Malaysia), the sky seemed somewhat polluted and hazy... Was this the same haze that had hit Singapore, from Indonesia a few days ago? Hotel reception soon confirmed our suspicions but assured us the API (air pollution index) was well below 80, and safe.

Fortunately the highest reading was prior to our arrival and just 84 compared to the 750 experienced in Muar on the mainland. 

Still, it was enough to have us debating over, whether to just to head back over the border and take our chances with the insurjents, rather than be exposed to the worst pollution that Malaysia has experienced in 16 years.

Reports of a change in wind and a heavy storm soon cleared the sky and by the following day we had experienced little more than a minor sore throat; which was more likely due to not drinking enough than the haze.

As I understand from recent news, the fires are no longer burning. Indonesia is left dealing with the fall out but at least it's now back on our list of potential destinations ;).

Similarly, so is Penang, at least as far as being a great place to hang out for a few days. The food here is simply amazing and after just a week, despite both of us having visited before, we will no doubt be considering another stop here in the future.

Read all about what we found Penang has to offer and how it has changed since our previous visits: Eating some amazing food

The main difference now being in Malaysia, after having been in Thailand for 6 weeks, is how well the different cultures and religions seem to mix here in Malaysia, in comparison. It seems to me that the issues experienced in the South of Thailand are the result of disputes between the Muslim and Buddhist communities there, and the governments insistence on maintaining a Buddhist lifestyle as the norm.  

Here in Malaysia the Muslim religion is dominant, but the mix with the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities is vast. It's not uncommon to find a mosque in the same street as a temple - in fact, this seems to be to work well, even at prayer time when the call echoes around a temple grounds.

Behind the scenes there is no doubt more to understand, and conclude upon, whether the mix of religion is an issue or not, but it's not something I am keen to debate further here.

After Penang we headed to Langkawi. Outside of Kuah, the islands capital, everything is a little more segregated and spread out. Fridays is the Muslim holy day so everything is shut other than the malls and touristy areas.

I've been here before. Almost 10 years ago, and unfortunately have no positive memories to share. This visit really didn't change my view too much, but we were plagued with rain and bad luck generally, so I'll return to complete the related post when the dust has settled.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

South of the beaten track, Thailand

Having fully embraced most of the well trodden backpacker locations throughout Thailand, over approximately 6 weeks, I wanted to explore the lesser visited areas and specifically the deep South. However, recent reports of almost daily bombings in Yala and warnings on the FCO website not to go there wasn't encouraging. So rather than dismiss the idea based on hearsay, we headed South to Nakhon Si Thammarat, located in the province of the same name; far enough from danger but nearer to the action and hopefully more up to date info.

My daily routine now consists of checking the FCO website and keeping track of  the latest news in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla. It seems that the latter should only involve essential travel in the area on the Thai-Malaysia border, so after Nakhon Si Thammarat we took a deep breath and prepared ourselves for our next desination, Songkhla via Hat Yai (the latter is apparently in the no go area?). 

However, Hat Yai seemed fairly safe and tourist friendly, although the well documented 2012 bombings that occurred here and in Yala have impacted the number of visitors here. It seems to be used by travellers predominantly as a transport hub between Malaysia and Thailand.

Songkhla is just 20 minutes away and has a completely different atmosphere where you feel somewhat safer and it's busy with , as per my post: holidaymakers, but no Western tourists.

I really enjoyed getting off the beaten track as you can see from the posts linked in the text above, and I still hope to make it back to Hat Yai and possibly Yala.

We are currently in Malaysia and next week, will be heading to the Perhentian Islands to work on a volunteer project with turtles. I can't wait for that, but will in the meantime, hopefully get some decent internet and be able to upload the photos of Southern Thailand and the low down on Penang and Langkawi.