Rantau Abang - Terengganu Malaysia

At 22km north of K.Dungun and 80km south of K.Terengganu, is probably the most talked about tourist spot in Terengganu. There was a time when a great number of giant leatherback turtles came to Rantau Abang to lay their eggs between May and August. (Peak egg laying months are June and July). The beach terrain here is favourable as it has a steep and deep slope so that the turtle can 'land' straight up the beach. If the beach has a shallow and gradual slope, the turtle would have to spend much of her energy wading through a fair distance before finding a suitable nesting site closer to the vegetation line. She must conserve as much energy as possible for what she has to do later. The mother turtle comes up in the cover of night to lay her eggs. Leatherback turtles can grow to a length of 2m and easily weigh up to 500kg. Unlike other turtles species who have hard bony shells, they have soft, leathery shells or carapace with 7 ridges running longitudinally down. The design and shape of the carapace reduces water friction and together with the long flippers helps the turtle propel smoothly through water. This is a more suitable design, for these long distance swimmers have to travel across great oceans every 2 to 3 years to return to the same breeding ground. It is believed that the long distance travel is related to seasonal drifts of the jellyfish.

Graceful reptiles in the water, on land their weight and shape can be cumbersome. Each female nests between 5 to 9 times per season and each nest has between 50 to 140 eggs. The male, on the other hand, never comes ashore. Once the mother turtle has laid her eggs and covered them, she rests for a bit and then makes her way back into the sea. Exhausted from the ordeal, she swims out into the open sea to feed and replenishes her energy. This is the time when she is most vulnerable to shark attacks. There have been reports of leatherbacks with disfigured fins and wounds caused by sharks.

In the 1950's, there were around 11,000 nestings reported at Rantau Abang. By 1999, it had dropped to fewer than 10 nestings. There are a number of factors attributed to the sharp drop in numbers. In the early years when there were no rangers monitoring the beach, local tourists were seen riding on the turtles, pulling their flippers, shining flashlights into the poor, suffering creature's eyes and all sorts of gross misconduct. Turtles are extremely sensitive creatures and are not accustomed to such stress. On top of the terrible treatment on land, high activity of trawlers scouring the coastal waters and pollution lingering around the coastline were added dangers. Leatherbacks and other turtles were often trapped in nets that slowly drowned them, killing 100,000s every year worldwide. Adding to the turtles' misfortunes, the turtle eggs were collected by locals to sell in the markets. The locals claim that these eggs have aphrodisiac and beautifying properties although there is no scientific proof for these claims. It is reported that their nutritional value is even less than that of a chicken egg. Turtle eggs are still sold at markets around Terengganu and will continue to do so until authorities realise the importance of protecting the species at every stage of its lifecycle and development.

Their numbers are dwindling. Without the turtles around, Rantau Abang itself has fallen into shambles. Many of the outlets and some resorts have been abandoned. What used to be a busy seaside resort has now become a little more than a place for gas refill.

If only there was more concerted effort to educate the people on the sensitivities of these turtles then perhaps that could in a small way help arrest the disappearing population.

For more information on the leatherbacks, there is a Turtle Information Centre managed by the Department of Fisheries at Rantau Abang. The rangers have been patrolling the beaches to ensure safety for the turtles when they come onto shore to lay their eggs. They have also released 100,000s leatherback hatchlings back into the sea through a series of successful incubation and release programmes. The centre is open every day except Friday and public holidays.

If however, you are truly interested to learn and live with turtles, you can opt to stay at Pulau Redang with the turtle researchers for a week (at a cost of course!) under the SEATRU or the Sea Turtle Research Unit of the University College of Science and Technology programme. Dr Chan and Mr. Liew from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) run this programme and they have a turtle breeding centre at the Uni. A couple of interesting albino hawksbills are kept in tanks at the centre. However, this is not open to the public so if there is any interest please contact Dr. Chan at (6)09-668 3251 or Mr Liew at (6)09-668 3250 or visit the website atwww.kustem.edu.my/seatru

Accommodation at Rantau Abang

Rantau Abang has seen its heydays. Today, many bypass this place, in search of other interests. The turtles seldom land on the beaches due to the excessive harassment from local visitors and fishermen. Most of all, these turtles are dying off and if you get to see one, you may be the last few people to ever see them. Soon there will be none left.

The town seems more like a ghost town. To recommend a place to stay would be difficult for there is no telling how long the motels will sustain themselves for lack of visitors. However, the beaches are beautiful.. a dream really and extremely quiet. Just as it was years ago...