Turtle Island, Indonesia

26 Aug

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Pulau Derawan, a tiny palm and sand island off the coast of Indonesian Borneo, is famous for sea turtles.

Now, in general, when it comes to sea turtles, it’s wise to keep your expectations low. Maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a glimpse of a reptile or two sculling in the blue yonder, when you’re diving. Maybe, just maybe, over a long enough night, one will lay her eggs on shore.

Sea turtle grazing amid coral. Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

The first words we heard in our guesthouse on Pulau Derawan? “Can you see the turtle?”

Over the course of four, very leisurely days, we’ve watched females laying their eggs by night. Helped store the eggs in the hatchery. Released new hatchlings into the great wide ocean. Sat on the dock watching turtles grazing, hunting, surfacing for air.

Oh, and swum with manta rays, too.

These amazing creatures soar and swoop through the waters around Sangalaki Island serene, graceful and unafraid, like opera cloaks possessed by the spirit of the sea.

Were we diving? No.

Just snorkelling. Because when you can swim with turtles and manta rays, and you’re travelling long term anyway, why spend the extra bucks on scuba?

Even if you never snorkel, you’ll love Pulau Derawan. It’s a beautifully serene place, with no electricity during daylight hours, the calm shattered only by the children letting off Ramadan firecrackers in the main street.

If you can call this a main street, that is.
The "main street" of Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

coconuts germinating in the garden of losmen danakan, pulau derawan, indonesia.

sign for losmen danawan, pulau derawan, indonesia.

We stayed with Arish and Mama Riina at Losmen Danakan. For $22 a day, the pair of us, including doughnuts for breakfast, endless coffee and tea, countless variations of fresh fish, rice and veggies for lunch and dinner, and the turtles swimming below us.

back garden of losmen danakan, pulau derawan, with bicycles and flowers.

Room on stilt pier over jade green sea. Losmen Danakan, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

Now, to be honest, the reef off Derawan is a little patchy, still recovering from decades of dynamite and cyanide fishing. It’s the sea grass which draws the turtles, from as far away as Australia and Thailand.

Like eels, turtles will always return, when their laying time comes, to the distant place where they were hatched, long decades ago, but feed wherever necessity takes them in the meantime.

Here are some, one big male almost two metres long, grazing like marine cows and snapping at jellyfish, surprisingly agile, almost delicate as they move.

Just off the dock, also, are more classically beautiful sights. Giant clams, rich blue lips pulsing like a Georgia O’Keeffe underwater flower.

The bright blue frilled lips of a living giant clam protrude from spires of coral. Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

Predatory, poisonous lionfish lurk by stripy swarms of fish, and blue sea stars progress slowly across damaged coral.
Scarlet lionfish lurks under the dock of Losmen Danakan, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia, with swarm of fish below it.Blue sea star spreads over bleached branching coral, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

And at the night high tide, particularly around the full moon, these same turtles, so gracious and fluid in the water, lumber up on land, leaving tank tracks behind them, power through the sand, protrude a tube and lay a hundred eggs or more.

One of the most wonderful things about Pulau Derawan? You don’t need to arrange your chance to view the turtles. You don’t need to pay guides, or stay up all night. You simply wander down main street, cut across the volleyball court, and see if any turtles have swum in on the tide.

It’s harder work than just laying, though. Wouldn’t it always be?
Mother turtle buries eggs in the sand, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia, powering backwards with her front flippers to cover the eggs in sand.

We watched this turtle, maybe eighty years old, maybe more, dig her nest, lay her eggs, and power backwards with her front flippers to cover them completely in sand. By the end of her labour she was alternating between sighs and deep, gasping breaths.

My heart bled. At least until the guys from the conservation project dug a hole to remove the eggs while the turtle, her evolutionary work done, lay oblivious on the sands then lumbered back to the sea. All anthropomorphism replaced with a strange awe at nature and her complex works.

Or, as Z put it, “She’s just going to ABANDON those eggs, is she? Poor baby turtles…”

Z helps transfer the turtle eggs to their new home in the hatchery, Pulau Derawan.

Z, who isn’t (as we say in the UK) “backward about coming forward”, “volunteered” to take the, erm, orphaned eggs from their cool sand tunnel to the hatchery and stash them away from predators.

Now, he’d met some week-old turtles earlier in our stay, with his new friend Pablo.
Z holding a week old baby turtle, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.Two small boys snorkelling in search of a turtle, Pulau Derawan.

But, this time, he got to name the new hatchlings. And send them scooting into the wild, their endless, almost ludicrous limbs flailing in search of the sea.
Little sunburnt hands releasing baby sea turtles off Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

And swimming, fluently, once they gained it. These little fellas’ names? Zac. And Fred.

If they were girls, they’d be back to breed in fifty years from now. But they’re guys. Z checked.

And so we’ll never know whether they survived the sharks, the cormorants and the eagles, which kill more than one in a thousand baby turtles in the wild, and lived to tell the tale.

But we do know that these are some of the most amazing creatures on the planet.

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14 Responses to “Turtle Island, Indonesia”

  1. jessiev August 26, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    OH! this is my VERY favorite article of yours yet. THIS is why we travel, and why we love being in new places – the beauty, the friendliness, the gorgeousness, the water (of course), and helping others. i LOVE THIS! YAY YOU! we need to head there, ourselves.

    • MummyT August 27, 2010 at 8:53 am #

      Thank you! We were considering volunteering with turtles anyway, so such a result to have the chance….

  2. Kathy August 26, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    What an amazing place! We’ve now added Pulau Derawan to our (ever-growing) “must visit” list. Do the sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs only in specific months?

    • MummyT August 27, 2010 at 8:54 am #

      You should totally visit… The nesting season runs roughly from May to September in Indonesia.

  3. Caroline August 27, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    Wee Zac and wee Fred, setting out in the world. Swim lil fellas, swim! xx

    • MummyT August 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

      Awww! You should have watched them go!!!

  4. Tracy Burns August 27, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Love this story and your photos. But please please please stop finding amazing places to visit. My list of things to see before leaving Asia is getting to long as it is. We’ve never going to make it to S. America at this point!

    Off to add Pulau Derawan to ‘the list’

    • MummyT August 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

      This is how I feel, too! Indonesia, in itself, is so vast we’re not even going to scratch the surface.

      btw, found a good workaround for Indo visa challenges. Get a 60-day in advance from (eg) Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia (takes 2 hours, costs not much).

      Then loads of city guesthouses can arrange sponsors for you to extend by a month each time…

      • Tracy Burns August 28, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

        Thanks for sharing that! We have flights to Seoul in Jan (the weathers going to be a rude shock) and after that Indonesia here we come!

  5. Alice August 29, 2010 at 4:37 am #

    Wonderful share!
    You can get a beautiful view like this,just by snorkeling?
    These is a piece of paradise.

  6. Ryan November 24, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    I really enjoyed your blog!

    I have a bit of a strange question, but I’m wondering if you could tell me if the Reza & Dira Homestay, which is directly beside Losmen Danakan, looked any good? Perhaps you were able to see these rooms?

    Your help is greatly appreciated!

    • MummyT November 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

      If it’s the one to the left, facing the beach, yes, I saw the rooms. They are cheaper than Losmen Danakan, slightly less pretty, but still very good value (they tend to be onshore rather than over the water): we met some people who were staying there. They also have a restaurant, which is quite good. We weren’t there at high season, but there is a hell of a lot of accommodation on the island (homestays all down main street, apart from anything else), so if you’re not time sensitive, I’d take a look at the various options rather than booking in advance.

      • Ryan November 24, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

        Thanks! It’s actually the one on the right of danakan when you’re facing the beach. You didn’t happen to see those did you?

        Normally I wouldn’t book anything however we arrive on december 31 so I’d rather not take any chances.

        Thanks again!

      • MummyT November 24, 2010 at 5:09 pm #

        Yes! That was the one to the right (I have problems with my left and right). It seemed like good value, though the restaurant is (relatively!) expensive, so I wouldn’t necessarily take your meals there. From memory, it was around 100,000 rupiah for a room against 150,000 at Danakan. But clean, nice people, good location…

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