Fresh air bounces off the Sulu Sea as our small boat paces through the gentle waves, providing a moment’s relief from the overwhelming humidity. After a week in sticky jungle heat, we are finally just 45 or so minutes away from lazing by the water’s edge at Libaran Island, in Malaysian Borneo’s northeast.
It is high-tide, which means our driver can take us all the way to the shore where hidden mangrove tree roots border the beach. We are welcomed by the kind staff of the Walai Penyu Resort and Conservation Park with an overwhelming lunch spread featuring fresh, local fish, jungle ferns, tangled noodles and fresh papaya and yellow watermelon to cap it off. The campsite invites visitors on a relaxing stay but also one where they can learn about the conservation work at the nearby turtle hatchery.
Local wildlife warden Harun Haris walks me to my tent, which is plunked on the crisp, white sand beach – only 30 kilometres from the Philippines. He is quiet but sports a warm smile, which tells of his excitement to show us his home and life’s work.
The sand squeaks as we walk over to the hatchery, holding the warmth of the morning sun.
Harun let’s Robert, a local guide, do most of the talking but listens on eagerly, as if at any point he might interject with knowledge about the turtles. As Robert continues on, I watch Harun bend down to the ground. The sand is speckled with cereal bowl-sized circles that have been dug into holes, filled with hundreds of green turtle eggs and then topped with shovels of sand.
Harun picks one of the 20 circles and gently presses into the ground. The sand immediately caves in and suddenly, a tiny wing peeps up from the rubble of the sand. It is the first of many and within minutes we bare witness to more than a hundred baby green turtles hatching and wiggling their way to the sand’s surface.
I can tell Robert is still talking in the background but my concentration is wavering in and out. The turtles’ movements are endlessly hypnotising and it is as if they are as excited to see us as we them. Harun smiles but I can tell it is a bittersweet moment for him. Only one per cent of turtles survive in the wild.
“This is very special, you bring good luck experience for me,” Harun says to me. He places sixty of the turtles, roughly half, into a dark blue bucket which he will later use to farewell his new friends.
As the sun fades deeply into the ocean the melodies of the forest become more prominent. We have waited until dark to ensure the turtles have a better chance of survival against lingering predators, such as seagulls and other marine animals.
Not only are there predators waiting to attack the vulnerable marine animals, but the pollution – mainly plastic and other rubbish – from the nearby water-houses only a few kilometres away also makes in harder for the turtles to survive on their own.
Harun gently lifts the bucket. His head is bowed down as we walk along the shallow edge of the beach. He places the bucket down and pulls out a torch to guide the turtles to freedom.
As the lip of the bucket brushes the wet sand the turtles fly out in bundles, trying to use the momentum of the delicate waves to draw them closer and closer to the sea. They flap their wings in perfect rhythm to the water, as if they have been trained to do so for weeks.
As the last baby turtle goes out of sight I turn to comfort Harun. His eyes are glistening, not because of the amazing journey we just witnessed but because he is worried and sad to have said goodbye to his beloved turtles so soon.
“It is very hard for me. I am very sad,” Harun says under a muddled breath.
We walk back to the campsite and the excitement fades – a sense of fear begins to dominate. Lying flat above my neatly tucked sheets in my tent, I stare at the stars through my netted window and think: Will they survive the night?
Saying goodbye to Harun was almost as difficult as farewelling the baby turtles the night before. He is polite and wishes us well but I can tell he would like us to stay a little longer in his home village. As we say our final goodbyes Harun makes us a promise.
“I will save the turtles.” Its a sincere and hopeful message that lingers. I can only hope that Harun is right.