The islands between Malaysia and the Philippines must be some of the loveliest islands in the world. During the day we relaxed and snorkelled but it was after sunset that the centrepiece of our visit was about to unfold.

Swimming at Selingan Island, Borneo

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Selingan Island | Sulu Sea | Sabah Province | Borneo | Malaysia

After a night in a rainforest lodge, on the banks of the Kinabatangan River watching monkeys and crocodiles, we took a fast boat for an hour from Sandakan, a port on the east coast of Borneo to Selingan, a small island of white sands, palms and clear turquoise waters in the Sulu Sea.

Selingan Island is rather special because it’s where turtles come back throughout the year to nest and where thousands of baby turtles hatch from tiny ping-pong ball sized eggs and make their first journey down the beach in to the sea.

As the turtles lay their eggs at night, turtle-watchers need to make an overnight stay at the island. Tourists’ numbers and movements on the little island are strictly regulated.

Our warden explained the routine for the day:

  • 2 pm – 6 pm: enjoy the beach
  • 6.25 pm: enjoy the sunset
  • 7 pm: dinner time
  • 8 pm: presentation about turtles
  • 8.30 pm: wait for the turtle

The Regulated Beaches of Selingan Island

The beaches have a curfew after sunset (in order to give some privacy to the nesting mother turtles) and we would be limited to seeing only one turtle laying her eggs.

A beach on Selingan Island, Borneo

It was good to see such regulation to the benefit of the turtles; I’ve seen the worse excesses where tourists are left to their own devices (torches, phones and cameras) and go marauding on the beach at midnight like barbarians at the gates of Rome, chasing down turtles, shining lights in to their eyes and picking up baby turtles who should be making their first journey to the sea, just for a photo.

Finding Nemo on Selingan Island

We spent the afternoon snorkelling in the clear shallow waters above a coral reef just off the beach, spying on green, blue and silver fish. The beach lifeguard pointed out the place where clownfish swam in sea anemones, calling them ‘Nemo fish over there,’ he said.

We snorkelled across the water till we saw a patch of sea anemones, their burgundy fingers rippling in the current; sure enough inside the sea anemones were several clownfish, resplendent in their orange and white stripes, and some babies, playful, beckoning and curious. They were so unlike the other fish, eager to dart away.

They are quite unique these groups of clownfish. They are all born male, but when the main female in a group dies, one of the males is able to change its gender to become a female.

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I walked along the beach of white sands, dead coral crunching under my sandals. At a quiet spot at the end of the beach was thicket of trees, mangroves and overhanging branches. In its shade was some camouflage netting on a tripod holding a very large pair binoculars. Behind it was a man.

A man with huge binoculars on a beach where bikini-clad women were sunbathing? An ornithologist? I doubt it. An astronomer? In daylight? A perv? Could be. Something looked a bit dodgy here in the dark shadowy nooks under that tree. I was about to call the police till I realised he was the police.

The Pirates of the Sulu Sea

On a more serious note, and for a very serious purpose, behind the binoculars were two military police dressed in black commando gear, their eyes trained on the horizon. I smiled at them in passing. They ignored me; these guys were hardcore.

A few years ago pirates were causing trouble in these waters, the Sulu Sea, between Borneo and south Philippines. They would kidnap tourists and demand huge ransoms of millions of dollars.

Today men who mug or kidnap people on the waves go by the rather romantic name of ‘pirates’ (which gives them a quite an aura of mystique, of men with eyepatches, cutlases and excessive eye-liner) or the even better sounding, ‘nomadic sea gypsies’ which sounds like a cool band. I think we should change the name of these rascals to something less grand. Like maritime muggers or boat bandits. Yes boat bandit. Not so cool now are you?

In one notorious incident on Sipadan Island in the year 2000, six armed men with assault rifles and grenade launchers, entered a canteen and frogmarched a group of 21 mostly foreign tourists, and kidnapped them, holding them to ransom on Jolo Island. They were being held captive under the unlikely named Commander ‘Robot’, leader of militant outfit Abu Sayyaf. The ransoms ran in to millions of dollars and it went on for some months.

People who went to help, like evangelical priests and journalists also found themselves made hostages. The Malaysian government handed over $3m for the release of three Malaysians and a Philippino. The ultimate release of the foreigners came from an unlikely source: Colonel Gaddafi of Libya raised the funds and had them flown over to Tripoli for their release.

In 2013 the Malaysian government set up a body called ESSCOM to improve security in the waters, give several of the islands their own police posts (hence the man with the huge binoculars under the tree); the number of kidnappings has dropped significantly although it appears that the bandits are now running out of money and embarking on new activities. Even recently Indonesian fisherman have been kidnapped by kidnap-for-ransom groups in the area.

(Author’s note: Anyone contemplating a trip to the islands in the waters between Borneo and South Philippines should visit the UK government website www.fco.gov.uk to check the latest safety updates and which areas to avoid. In addition to security issues, visits to unsafe areas could invalidate your travel insurance.)

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Sunset at Selingan Island, Sabah, Borneo We sat on the beach and watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. It had so many layers, pastille shades of orange, red, fiery yellow and peach, in a dramatic black and grey. It reminded me of the sunsets in the film Life of Pi, which, at the time, I thought were highly stylised and unrealistic, but think no more.

As soon as the sun had set, a small turtle scurried from the bushes behind us down to sea. This was highly unusual because the wardens collect all the eggs as soon as they are laid in the dead of night. They are then transferred to a safe zone, the hatchery, a fenced off area where the eggs are buried in rounds of plastic tubing to keep them safe from predators. After 8 weeks they hatch and are released that very night in to the sea.

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Watching the turtle lay 101 eggs

In the evening we had our dinner in the canteen with about 50 other people and by 9 o’clock a warden came in and shouted, “Turtle turtle!”

In the moonlight we were taken to a spot on the beach to see a single mother turtle, about a metre in length, who had dug a hole in the sand with her flippers and was laying eggs in to it. One of the wardens identified her serial number from a tag on her flipper and called it out; from the database on his smartphone he worked out she had returned to Selingan after 5 years in the ocean.

We all crowded around the green turtle; flashes on our phones were forbidden; anyone who tried to get to the front of the turtle was told off by a warden and sent to the rear of the turtle.

In all she laid 101 eggs. We weren’t allowed to visit any other part of the beach, where other turtles were landing, making their way up the beach, digging holes and laying their eggs.

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It was very special to see the mother turtle lay her eggs and a little humbling. Once she had finished, she started to cover the hole and me with sand (unbeknownst to her, the eggs were already taken away to safety by a warden with a bucket and a keen eye to be buried in the hatchery.)

Turtle eggs at Selingan Island in Borneo

Burying turtle eggs in the hatchery at Selingan Island in Borneo

Work done, the mother turtle lay there exhausted. Everyone posed for selfies with the turtle. It was a little paparazziesque. I look at that photo now and it feels odd to be posing and smiling next to an ancient exhausted and endangered animal that had just given birth 101 times.

It was humbling too. Green and hawksbill turtles can live up to 80 years, so she could perhaps outlive everyone on that beach. They can swim for hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles. They have magnetic crystals in their brains which enable them to use the earth’s magnetic field to come back to their island of birth and nest there. Nature is really miraculous.

We witnessed about 20 baby turtles being released on the sand. Most instinctively knew which way was the sea, only one or two needed to be turned around. It’s at that moment they register their location, a point that is deeply embedded in their psyche. Sadly turtles survival is all about numbers. Most won’t make it, they’ll get eaten by birds or big fishes, and that’s why the eggs are laid in such big volumes.

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We walked the beach at sunrise; the flipper-dug trackways of the landing turtles were everywhere in the sand. The beaches had been teeming with mother turtles coming home to nest the previous night. It was wonderful that in this new way of seeing the turtles, just one turtle in a regulated way, all the others could nest in peace.

Soon we were back on the fast boat, galloping over large sapphire waves back to Sandakan. We had been on Selingan Island for less than 24 hours, but it was so beautiful, so rich, full of touching experiences, it felt much, much longer.

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This post is part of the series called ’90 Days in South East Asia’ about our travels in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in March to June 2019, and was written on-the-road (mainly on buses, boats and planes.)

All the links to blog posts in the series are as follows:

1) I’m backpacking around Southeast Asia for 90 days

2) Packing for backpacking: 16 useful things to take on your travels

3) How to sleep on a flight (aches on a plane)

4) Flying past Mount Everest

5) A storm in an Assamese teacup

6) On the lazy man’s road: the story of Dhodar Ali

7) Digboi, the oil town in the rainforest

8) To Sivasagar: home of the Assamese kings

9) Things to see in Majuli, the world’s largest river island

10) An unexpected treat on the river Brahmaputra

11) Helpful hints on how to climb a 17 foot elephant on your wedding day

12) Where the rhinos roam

13) The Assamese Bihu: a time of unbridled joy

14) A tale of a dry day in India

15) Kalimpong and a magical Himalayan wedding

16) Chiang Mai, a pretty little temple town

17) Replanning our route, re-routing our plan

18) Luang Prabang in Laos: the jewel on the Mekong River

19) A slow and unintended minibus to Vang Vieng

20) In the laid-back city of Vientiane

21) Laos: Caves, a jungle trek and the mysterious turquoise lake

22) On our way down south in Laos

23) Goodbye Laos, you beauty

24) Friday night at the Saigon Opera House

25) Getting over a fever

26) Vietnam days: Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi

27) Landing in the sea at Halong Bay, Vietnam

28) Mandalay Days

29) Bagan, the jewel of Myanmar

30) Three nights on Lake Inle in Myanmar

31) Finding a perfect perfume in Singapore

32) In Borneo, watching the orangutans at play

33) Watching turtles at Selingan Island

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