The resilient coastline of peninsular Malaysia is blessed with sandy beaches that attract visitors from around the world, whom seek solace under the sun or diving into watery wonderlands. From March to September though, the long stretches of sand become a haven for a group of visitors that migrate thousands of kilometres, only to arrive at a special destination each year - the place of their birth.
The annual occurrence of sea turtles emerging on land is a marvellous spectacle of nature. The warm tropical seas surrounding the country nurture new life after eggs hatch in nesting sites on shore, with four species of sea turtles - leatherback, green, hawksbill, and olive ridley - relying on this particular habitat. And for the large leatherback, Malaysia is one of only six locations in the world that receives visits annually.
Predominating in East Malaysia and the east coast of the peninsula, observing sea turtle landings has become a popular activity for both local and foreign tourists. Since turtles come ashore in the darkness of night-time cover to lay eggs, it provides holiday goers with an opportunity to enjoy nature and escape the midday sun.
Throughout the decades Malaysians living in coastal regions looked forward to spending their evenings outdoors in search of shoreline sightings of these aquatic inhabitants. Treating the event as a nocturnal picnic, kids in pyjamas fleece the beach for manmade discards, while adults, seated on grass woven mats, patiently await the arrival of a penyu (turtle). Waiting for the right moment, female turtles try to sneak ashore without being detected, but since leatherback and green turtles weigh up to 500 and 100 kilograms, respectively, their chances are slim.
Considered a delicacy, eating turtle eggs has been a coastal tradition as children clamour for the ping-pong to tennis ball sized embryos. The lure of sea turtle eggs has spawned a collecting frenzy, treating them like buried treasure, because of the good prices fetched in the local markets. With buyers shelling out one or two ringget for each egg, depending on the species, a collector can haul in a small bonanza with each nest averaging between 80 to 140 precious pieces. Unfortunately, the strong demand for these appetisers has lead to the over-collection and over-consumption of all types of sea turtle eggs due to illegal harvesting and sale by non-licensed locals.
Although research on these migratory sea creatures is difficult to conduct, the numbers returning to Malaysian shores have dwindled dramatically within the last 40 years of recorded landings. Excessive and illegal egg harvesting continues to be a main reason for the reduction, but development along the beach front that invades remote areas also disturbs original nesting sites. The incidental capture by fishermen and the impact of marine pollution adds to the threat of these endangered animals survival.
In order to protect these valuable visitors, several conservation measures were initiated by state and federal governments. These include the establishment of turtle sanctuaries, the operation of beach hatcheries, and the ban on the sale and consumption of leatherback eggs. Critical habitats set aside from further development ensure the availability of nesting sites for future arrivals on the mainland.
Other sites on islands in the South China Sea are included in marine national parks, which affords some measure of protection. Setting up temporary hatchery operations on frequently visited beaches has been an ongoing practise since 1949. These fenced in enclosures provide a place to deposit collected eggs and monitor incubation, usually up to 55 days, and hatching rates. Realising the perilous position of leatherback turtles, the state of Terengganu banned the harvest, sale and consumption of eggs from this jellyfish eating giant.
One of the best vantage points to view turtles from is the Rantau Abang Turtle Sanctuary located in Terengganu. One has to remember that not all sea turtles occur in every location, and that the different beaches are suitable for selected species. If you want to observe more than one kind, then Terengganu is your best bet because leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley species all find their way to the state�s extensive coastline and outlying islands.
There are accommodations in Rantau Abang at the sanctuary site and most of the coastal resorts provide turtle watching outings during the season. Before nightfall though, spend a few hours at the Turtle Information Centre to read the educational displays and observe the activities of the hatchery. There are a number of rules for observers to adhere to in order for sea turtles to nest successfully because they are very sensitive to light and noise.
In the near future these ancient marvels may either be extinct or totally restricted from viewing at close range in an attempt to conserve the few remaining species. But for now, the opportunity to watch a unique occurrence in the natural world is still found on the sandy slopes of tropical shores.