What’s wrong with cool guys & hot chicks?

In April 2017 I visited Bubbles Dive Resort in a tiny bay on the edge of Tanjung Tukas, on the southern end of Pulau Perhentian Besar (island) in Malaysia, expecting standard tourist experiences: diving, snorkelling, Asian cuisine, reading on the beach. I received these pleasures, and found so much more. This is a reflection, appreciation and celebration of individual personal vision and multiplying power of transforming vision into action. It is also a story of unintended consequences due to human intervention into the complex ecology of the sea turtle.

ECOLOGICAL CONTEXT

The green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) is a member of the Cheloniidae family, which has been evolving on Earth for over 300 million years. As herbivores that graze on sea grass, they are important contributors to healthy coral reef ecosystems. The juvenile sea turtles will also feast on jellyfish, crabs and sponges. They reach maturity much later than humans, after 30–40 years, and live to around 100 years. Green sea turtles are now an endangered species, though doing marginally better than other turtle species in Malaysia. Abundant in this region until the late 20th century, the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) are both critically endangered, and the olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is endangered.

CATALYSTS

In 2004, experienced diver instructors, and couple, Pei See Hwang and Ronnie Ng, moved to Pulau Perhentian Besar to set up a dive school for the resort. The seed for Pei See’s conservation project was activated early one early morning as she was brushing her teeth on the beach and she literally tripped over a nesting turtle. She realised then that the resort was situated on a nesting beach.

Not every beach in Malaysia is a nesting beach; fewer since reef and turtle tourism (see above) took off and large resorts moved into the turtle nesting sites. Turtles do not adapt quickly; their ingenious GPS system guides mature female turtles back to lay their eggs at the same beach where they hatched. Once mature, they’ll do this every 2–4 years. Safe beaches, without interfering people, noise, pollution and white light, are now extremely important for the continuing turtle life cycle.

Knowing that turtle eggs were still available in the local markets, Pei See asked Malaysian fisheries why they were still being sold. The response was, “The green turtles are not yet endangered”. Hearing this, Pei See said, “I wanted to cry – this is heartbreaking.” Reaching out to environmental NGOs in the region for support was met with silence. But the pain of realising the experts were not going to help only motivated Pei See’s resolve. She ‘knew nothing’ about turtle habits from a scientific perspective, and she decided to take action to anyway.

Bubbles Dive Resort pledged to protect both its nesting turtles and house reef, and created the Bubbles Turtle and Reef Conservation Project.

COLLECTIVE POWER

This vision of protecting turtles and bringing awareness to the community visiting Bubbles resort has been achieved. The resort now attracts the energy and generosity of volunteers and visitors from around the planet. In 2005, Bubbles’ turtle project got their first volunteers via a UK gap year company. Eleven years later, those early volunteers are now re-visiting the project as adults. Eventually, in 2008, more qualified volunteers started coming and a hatchery was created in 2013. With each new group of contributors, the project evolves.

Bubbles now supports a paid conservation coordinator, Holly Fletcher, and in April 2017 they hosted four postgraduate environmental science interns: Duncan Maguire, Janet Quambusch, Jorge Palomo and Anthony Guichard. The interns explained to me how, as young professionals, this sort of supported gig was rare and incredibly enriching. They certainly demonstrated their commitment to science and turtles.

Every hour though the night, the night watch team take turns to monitor the beach for poachers. “I get up 4 am and do the shift till sunrise. One night I was on my own patrolling the beach, and I saw a dark shape on the water, then I heard a motor. Must be a poacher. I walked toward the boat and flashed my white light. He turned on his light, scanning the beach. Then shone his light on me. My only thought was – I need to protect the turtles. Later I realised maybe I should have been more cautious, but I was relieved when the poacher turned on the motor and left. We hope the word has spread that we are patrolling the beach.” Janet Quambusch, Germany.

THE PROBLEM WITH HOT CHICKS?

Early Malaysian leatherback turtle conservation programs in the 1960s were undertaken with care and good intentions, but scientific knowledge about the species was limited.

In the 1990s, it was discovered that almost all of the hatchlings released over the program’s 30 years were female. It was only in the mid-1980s that scientists discovered that hatchling sex was determined by temperature: above 30 °C they are almost always female while below 28 °C they are males. The hatcheries had left the eggs in open boxes to be warmed by the sun – most would have hatched as females.

While I was visiting Bubbles, a massive job was being undertaken by the conservation team to lift the turtle nests 40 mm higher. By monitoring nest health, they discovered that sea levels on the island had increased to the high point where turtles had safely laid their eggs for centuries. Now this sand was too moist for the healthy incubation of eggs. The team discovered that the eggs were infected with fungus.

“Coming from studies in marine science, biology, and oceanography, especially in the context of extinction and endangered species, being here I really feel like I am doing my part. This work brings alive the science. We have real time frames – treating and monitoring the fungus on the eggs, noticing the impact of sea level rise on the eggs in the nests – this is real.” Jorge Palomo, Spain.

ACTION FOR SEA TURTLES?

2016 was a record for the Tanjung Tukas beach, as 634 green sea turtles were recorded landing; there were 318 nest sites containing 13,402 eggs. A total of 3722 hatchlings made it to the sea, but only fewer than one in one thousand are expected to survive to adulthood. UK intern Duncan Maguire cut to the heart of the matter when he stated, “Effectively one hatchling might survive from this beach each season.”

While hundreds of eggs at Bubbles resort were protected by a laborious daily treatment of tea tree oil this season, it is easy to imagine the global impact of climate change on sea levels and temperatures for green turtle nesting sites: a truly grim forecast for this species.

Every evening the conservation team offer Bubbles resort visitors a turtle or reef talk; these are informative and humorous. They are perfect for spreading awareness, and maybe visitors will appreciate why Bubbles does not serve drinks with plastic straws. Maybe they will stop purchasing items in plastic bags when they return home. All visitors have the opportunity to be woken at night if turtles come to the resort beaches to lay eggs. The hatchery is in the heart of the resort, for all to see its management.

“A simple thing everyone can do that will have a huge impact is to stop or drastically reduce their use of single-use plastics: drinking straws, plastic utensils, cups and lids, face and body wash with plastic micro-particles, food with plastic wrapping and of course plastic bags and bottles!” Holly Fletcher, UK.

I am sponsoring three turtle nests (50 Malaysian ringgit each). For this small contribution, in addition to supporting this initiative, I have received emails about the progress of the nests and pictures when the hatchlings emerge. Alternatively, you can visit Bubbles resort and dive with green sea turtles or join the project for three days as a conservation volunteer. If your timing is spot on, you may have the joy of seeing turtles lay their eggs or watching the new hatchlings make their way to the sea.

I am grateful for the knowledge and commitment of the science community in getting their heads around these dilemmas, and for people like Pei See Hwang and Ronnie Ng, and the Bubbles community, for giving their energy to repair a small part of the natural world so that community can re-connect with its wonders.

Postscript: The resort is closed for the monsoon season between November and February each year.

USEFUL LINKS

National Geographic: Green sea turtle https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/g/green-seaturtle/

Bubbles Dive Resort http://bubblesdc.com/

Sea Turtle Conservancy: Information about sea turtles – threats to sea turtles https://conserveturtles.org/ information-sea-turtles-threats-sea-turtles/

Published in Eingana, VOL41, No1 April 2018

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