As some of you might know I just returned from over a month and a half in Malaysia. I started out in Borneo for a wildlife trip with David, followed by a week long conservation congress/conference in Kuala Lumpur. The final month was to get hands on turtle experience and conduct research on an island called Redang, located in Eastern Malaysia. The past few weeks have been extremely busy and I have a lot of blogging to catch up on. I will posting these a bit out of order, but I hope this is fine. I’ll start out with my first reflections about Chagar Hutang, the turtle sanctuary I was staying at!
I am currently in what may be the most magical place in the world, Chagar Hutang. It is a turtle reserve located on Redang Island, on the East coast of Malaysia. I have no service here, and little electricity. It is a bit difficult to blog since my phone is hardly charged. But I just wanted to give you all an overview about what I am doing here.
When I was at my Australian conference last year I met Dr.Uzair, the only other person at my conference who studied turtles. I explained my project and how understudied turtles are in the Red Sea, and how there are no other people at KAUST studying turtles so I had no training. He offered to have me come to Chagar Hutang to receive hands on experience and do a research collaboration between our universities. I considered the offer, and then when I received the travel grant to go to the International Congress on Biological Conservation, I knew I would have to try to come out to Chagar Hutang. The dates worked out perfectly and they were kind enough to help coordinate my visit. I was a bit nervous at first knowing nothing about the field site, and I realized what an amazing opportunity this was and that I needed to follow up on his offer. So I will be staying for a whole month here as an intern/ researcher.
I flew into Terengganu right after the conference, where I was picked up my Zalina, who worked for Seatru (sea Turtle Research Unit) which is part of UMT (University of Malaysia Terengganu). Seatru has been operating for 26 years to protect this nesting sites, which has the highest density of green turtle nests in peninsular Malaysia. Collecting and selling turtle eggs is legal here, which is a problem. Fishermen can buy a nest of eggs and have rights to them, for around $40-50 per nest.
Originally, Seatru would buy the nests on Chagar Hutang, with the help of different sponsors, but eventually the funds ran out. Eventually, in the 2000s, Chagar Hutang became a protected area, meaning no one could come to the beach or fish off shore. Since Seatru has been on the beach, the number of nests has increased a lot. There used to be hundreds per year, and now there are thousands. Currently, it is July and we are on best number 1,300 which is super impressive!
Another note, is that this area (Terengganu) used to be world famous for its leatherback turtle nesting beaches. Leatherback turtles are absolutely massive, the size of a small car, and so are the eggs. So poachers would collect the eggs which lead to a local extinction of leatherbacks in the area, which is super sad.
Anyways, I will now update you on a day in the life here, which will start in the evening. Since I’m vegetarian I’ve been cooking my own meals, so a typical dinner could be veggie curry with rice.
Then at 8ish we head to the beach with our group. Each group has three volunteers in it and is lead by one intern. There are three total groups and we rotate duties each night. Everyone will monitor the beach from 8-midnight, and every group has their own section. Then one group will continue on from 12-3 am, and another is 3-6 am, while the last will cook breakfast. Then these shifts rotate each night. While on duty, we check for nesting mothers. We note down the time she lands (crawls onto shore), starts body putting (digging with all her flippers), chambering (using hind flippers to dig a deep hole), laying (depositing her eggs into the hole), and covering (putting sand over the eggs). While she is laying her eggs we will put a piece of coral tied to a string in the nest so we can relocate them after an incubation duration of 45 days. This string is tied to a stick that is labeled with the nest number, date the eggs we laid, and the flipper tag number. Each turtle has flipper rags to uniquely identify who she is, so we can monitor how many times per year she nests and for how many year she returns to this site. We also measure her carapace length and width to assess her growth over time. If she has no flipper tags we have to attach them, which is a process like piercing an ear. All this data is recorded so over time you can imagine all the info we have on these turtles.
In the mornings we do best checks. This includes revisiting the nests made the night before and making sure the labeling is correct, and measuring the distance to vegetation. We also check nests after 45 days if incubation and every three days after. We do this to see the hatchling success rate, and often times we find hatchlings crawling to the surface which is wonderful. They have yolk sacks attached to their bellies which they use as energy to crawl to the surface. When they’re deep they still aren’t super strong and aren’t ready to go to the sea so we note down that they are hatched and then at night we can revisit the nests and see them emerge. I am using hatchling is my study so I can wait at a nest and know it will have hatchlings emerging soon, so I can collect them.
I think it will take me a little while to get used to doing work all night and sleeping in the morning. But it’s fine the experience is well worth the three hours of sleep per night. I have already had so much hands on turtle experience and been leading outreach groups that visit for the day, so I get to do what I’m passionate about which is teaching the community about turtle conservation. I love getting to throw out my millions of fun facts about turtles.