Selingan Turtle Island - Sabah, Borneo

All things sacred – the ancient green turtles

hatchlings found by an individual and kept in a tank until due time to release as they get bigger. This is another way that the locals in Peninsula Malaysia do it. But whether this helps increase the survival of hatchlings is uncertain. many resorts along the coastline are now doing turtle conservation work but often, it serves only as another attraction for guests disguised as conservation work

Visitors who come over for their Borneo wildlife experience in Sandakan would most likely embark on a loop tour that includes a Kinabatangan river cruise, a visit to the Sepilok orangutan centre, a trek to the Gomantong caves, and to end the amazing wildlife adventure – a night at the Selingan turtle island.

Selingan Island is one of a group of uninhabited islands straddling the Malaysian and Philippine boundaries lying within the Sulu Seas. This cluster of islands namely three main nesting islands - Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakkungan Kechil and Pulau Gulisan, covers an area of 1,740 hectares and are protected for the sole purpose of conservation and preservation of turtles and other marine animals inhabiting the area.

The islands are grouped relatively close together and if you happen to swim a little further out into the open sea, you may end up in the Philippine waters being picked up by the Philippine marine police for illegal entry! There are normally marine boats patrolling along the invisible boundaries to ensure the safety of the visitors and also to deter large trawlers and commercial fishermen from poaching around the area.

Selingan island is the 2nd largest of the cluster at 8 hectares and contains the park's headquarters, a visitors centre, basic tourist facilities and accommodation and a turtle hatchery. These chalets can accommodate a maximum of 60 persons a night, which is good as that mean only a maximum of 60 visitors can stay overnight at any one time so as not to create too much pressure to the environment and to the turtles.

turtle eggs still sold openly in Terengganu markets. This boy pays RM10 for a bag of eggs

Nesting sites are plenty for the green turtle on our Malaysian shores. Long beaches along Terengganu, Pahang and Kelantan states in Peninsula Malaysia are popular nesting sites for green turtles and the Giant Leatherback Turtles once upon a time. Heavy trawling, coastal pollution & devlopment and local consumption of turtle eggs in these areas have pushed the turtles into severe danger of extinction. Turtle meat in certain countries such as the Philippines are still popular and poor education is allowing such activities to continue like turtle egg collection in Malaysia. Also, certain ceremonies such as those practised in Bali,Indonesia slaughter 1000s of turtles a year and now it’s become a daily slaughter to feed those who crave turtle satay.

Not only dangers lurk in shallow waters but also in open seas. Now, as more seafood is required to meet demands, many more turtles are found drowned and entangled in mile long drift nets. Turtles have an incredibly long distance migration and their range has not been documented, which means that it is difficult to predetermine their activities once they head off to the open ocean for years at a time.

One thing we know is that the turtles that are hatched in an area will normally return to these nesting sites when are ready to mate for their next generation. For turtles to achieve sexual maturity, it will take anywhere from 20 to 50years and there is a pressing need to protect and ensure as many eggs hatch as possible. It is estimated that only 1 turtle may reach adulthood out of every 1,000 hatchlings. This is the reason why protecting nesting sites is of such high importance. The survival of every marine species is important in balancing the delicate ecosystem of the oceans. The oceans contribute to 2/3 of the earth’s surface and abusing this can mean certain unpleasant consequences to us.

Turtle Hatchery at Selingan Island

Our trip to island started off on bumpy palm oil plantation dirt road and continued for about and hour before arriving at Padas jetty. A small wooden hut and a sturdy short plankwalk completed this makeshift looking jetty, hidden amongst overgrown nipah palms lining the mangrove swamp. As tides were ebbing, we were quickly bundled into the speedboat and off we went, the captain manouvering our boat slowly, careful not to run aground on the muddy banks. Along the way, there were several wooden huts on stilts with large nettings pegged into the river. Fish and prawn farming is now a budding industry for villages living along the coastline. Mangrove swamps and forests are good places as they form a natural barrier against badgering storms. The strange global changes in weather over recent years have not excluded Borneo and for the first time in known history, Sabah is experiencing storms and typhoons.

admistrative centre

The boat took us out into the open sea, splicing through calm waters, bringing us closer to the island. An hour later, our boat slowed down. From afar, Selingan Island looked like a deserted island. Rhu or conifer trees lined the beach, and the only visible hint of inhabitants was a marine patrol boat moored close to the beach.

As we approached its white, soft sandy beach, the rangers’ headquarters came into view. Every visitor has to register at the rangers office upon arrival. Once that is done, we were each assigned to our chalets or rooms. The accommodation is located towards the other end of the island, only some 15mins walk. The rooms are comfortable, with air conditioning and fresh towels. Shared bathroom and toilet, located on the lower ground floor are clean and well kept.

all visitors must register when on the island

Buildings on the island are located away from the beach, behind a wall of shrubs or trees so that hatchlings do not become disoriented by artificial lights. The hatchlings tend to gravitate toward lights and unfortunately with artificial lighting at night straggling hatchlings may disappear into the interior rather than out to the sea. Normally, the ranger’s task is to relocate nests once the female turtle has finished laying her eggs. These eggs are then taken to the hatchery and placed in a pit of the same depth, the pit filled, labelled and a protective cylindrical wire meshing placed around the pit so that when the hatchlings burst out from their nest, they will be contained in the area until the ranger collects them in a basket to be released on the beach. Like the crocodiles, the sex of the hatchling is detemined by the temperature of the nest. Essentially, the hotter the sand surrounding the nest, the faster the embryos will develop. Cooler sand has a tendency to produce more males, with warmer sand producing a higher ratio of females

accommodation on the island

Green turtles nest every three or more years. An average of three to five egg clutches are laid approximately twelve days between each nesting. Each clutch contains an average of 50 to 80 eggs, which requires an approximately 60-day incubation period. These turtles need quiet, dark beaches and sometimes can be fussy in locating a suitable nesting site, attempting several times and abandoning the pit. Nervous females have been seen to dump their clutch in the water on exit if there are disturbed or surprised at the beginning of their arduous task.

An evening with the green turtle

Visitors are invited to witness a female laying her eggs. There are generally a number of rules:

Not to wear any footwear on the beach in case there are little hatchlings moving around. Only thing is to beware of scorpions hiding in shrubs

Not to use flash on the turtle as this aggravates her. This still happens unusually often with visitors and even stern warning from rangers doesn’t usually stop them. It should be mandatory that visitors be banned from using their cameras during these visits.

Only one turtle is shown to the visitors per night. There are strict rules that visitors are not allowed to roam the beaches after dark without a ranger. But again, this happens at times and is a nuisance especially when the sole purpose of the park is not as a tourist centre but a conservation centre.

Strictly no video cameras allowed.

Not to make a racket as this may scare away the other females landing on the beach.

The females come up onto the beach at night and sometimes the ranger would round all visitors even before dinner is done.

When we got to the site, the female was already laying her clutch. It was only safe for the ranger to invite visitors for the watch once the female had comfortably settled in motion. Whilst laying her clutch, the ranger got to work measuring this gentle creature’s carapace lengthwise and widthwise and placed in the records and if she was a newcomer, then she would have to be tagged. The average size of a green turtle is 3.5 to 4 feet in carapace length (76-91 cm) and weighs an average of weigh between 300 to 400 pounds (136-180 kg).

As she nests, the female turtle appear to shed tears, but the turtle is just secreting salt that accumulates in her body..not to worry.

Barnacles were cleaned from her carapace and as she started filling the pit, the officer adroitly removed the eggs and placed them gently into a bucket.


We left the turtle to continue her work (it takes 1 – 2 hrs for the female to complete her egg laying process from sourcing a nesting site to returning to the sea when all is done) and returned to the dining hall. An officer was waiting for us at the entrance with a basket of hatchlings that was about to be released. He allowed all of us to hold and handle the tiny replicas of the female that we had just witnessed laying eggs. It was a touching experience. The hatchling was about to be released into the unknown where danger lurks in every corner and for a moment, we got to hold it in our hands – ready to release it into a whole new world of survival, life and death. At just bite size; it can fall prey to gulls, sharks, other larger fishes, octopus, you name it. Before touching the hatchlings, we were told to wash our hands so that any chemicals like repellant, ointment etc will not be transferred to them.

As the hatchling leaves for the open sea, it continues to swim out and lives solely on its yolk in its belly for at least a 3 days. This high energy protein, gives it a boost to swim as rigorously as it can and as far away form the shores possible. That’s why when you pick up a hatchling, it continues to paddle like a wound up mechanical toy. It’s instinct is to swim. If it survives the dangers, it then continues to swim, resting amongst floating seaweed or debris. At less than eight inches long, green turtles eat worms, young crustaceans, aquatic insects, grasses and algae. As they reach eight to ten inches in length, they eat mostly sea grass and algae. The green turtle is the only sea turtle species that is strictly herbivorous as an adult.

photo courtesy of Moti Uttam. taken at Kapalai . Nov 2006

As we walked back from the beach, we found more hatchlings, this time crawling out of a drain cover. I guess, not all nests is that easy to spot? This one must have missed the rangers’ records as the nest was probably laid in the soft sand under the wooden foundation of the dining hall late one night .There were no turtle tracks as she may have dragged herself onto the cemented walkway. We helped in collecting them and sent them back in the right direction – out to the blue yonder.

Hatchlings burst out from their nest usually at night or when the weather is gloomy and cool such as stormy periods. This instinct helps so that the fragile creatures do not get frazzled in the searing tropical heat whilst making its way down to the sea.

Don’t worry if you didn’t manage to get the perfect photo. There are always postcards for sale at the dining hall – RM15 for 3 pieces.

Other Activities

the information centre on the island is worth a visit

The other activity you can enjoy is snorkeling. On the west side of the island, closer to the chalets is the best place to snorkel or just tan in the sun. There are mats and snorkel equipment for rent here at RM15 per set.

If you’re interested in turtle migration etc and also other marine species found in our waters, there is a information centre upstairs of the dining hall.

There are websites on turtle conservation and if you would like to now more about turtle and terrapin conservation in Malaysia or even volunteer your time, try this website at :

Getting there

By car

From Kota Kinabalu, there's a road to Sandakan crossing the mountainous interior

By bus

from Kota Kinabalu is possible by air-conditiond coach and mini bus, (travel time : 8 hrs per way to Tawau). From Lahad Datu to Sandakan, there are 4WD taxis, van taxis leaving whenever the seats are filled and also a daily bus leaving at 12.00noon.

By air

Air Asia - flies from Kuala Lumpur; Clark Airport (just outside Manila); Philippines; Bangkok: Thailand to Kota Kinabalu

Mas Wings - flies to kota kinabalu, kudat, tawau. Within the state of sabah and sarawak to Kota Kinabalu

Asiana - flies from Seoul : South Korea to Kota Kinabalu

Dragonair - flies from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu

Malaysia Airlines - flies from Kuala Lumpur; Brunei; Guangzhou & Shanghai - Mainland China; Hong Kong - Greater China; Taipei, Gaoxiung - Taiwan Region, Greater China; Tokyo & Osaka - Japan; Cebu & Manila - Philippines; Singapore; Seoul - South Korea; Flies from Australia via Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu

Silk Air - flies from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu

Royal Brunei Airline - flies from Brunei ; Flies from Australia via Brunei to Kota Kinabalu

By rail


Best time to go

Nestings are generally more frequent from July to October but we visited the island in March and there were landings every night too. It’s just that the seas are not as rough during the months stated

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