I THOUGHT THEY WERE JOKING. We had yet to set foot on Sipadan, let alone get our gear on, and already a couple of my diving pals were pointing and shouting excitedly: There, there, turtle, another one, there! From my obscured position in the boat, all I could make out were dark shapes beneath the glinting surface that looked like stones and bits of coral.Chuan Khoo dived with Borneo Divers, 00 6088 222226, www.jaring.my/bdivers. Contact SOS Turtles on 00 6088 456677, www.borneoconnections.com. For more on Malaysian sea turtles, visit www.uct.edu.my/seatru
We managed to fit in a couple of dives that first day and were suitably impressed by the few turtles we spotted. But it wasnt until the next day that I saw, from our boat, the huge numbers feeding in the shallows. Standing on the bow I enjoyed counting them on our short boat ride to a dive site - at least 40. Each day at high tide, they move into the shallows to feed on the seagrass that grows around this 12 hectare island.
Seagrass, seaweed and jellyfish form the main diet of the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, which is the most numerous species at Pulau Sipadan, or Border Island. Of the four species that nest on Malaysian shores, it is the green and the hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata, that can be found on Sipadan. The smaller hawksbill weighs 40-90kg, the green turtle 110-180kg.
Turtles were present on every dive. Visibility averaged 30m, so they were easy to spot in the distance. I saw one green turtle giving its shell a good scrub by rocking back and forth against a coral overhang. It certainly seemed to be enjoying itself.
At various cleaning stations turtles were having parasites removed by cleaner wrasse. Steve Fish of Borneo Divers explained that you could tell the newcomers by their physical state. Turtles that had been around Sipadan for some time had nice clean shells. They had also grown accustomed to divers and paid them little attention. Nowhere else had I been able to get so close to turtles during a dive.
One of the most appealing images I saw was near the end of a morning dive in around 6m of water. The sun was bright, viz good and the surface calm enough to reveal the wispy clouds above. A turtle had gone up for air and was swimming near the surface. As its flippers flapped up and down, it gave the illusion that it was flying through the sky.
On the first night dive at the famous 600m Sipadan drop-off, I was nearly run down by a huge female green turtle, blissfully unperturbed by my presence. It gently swam off into the distance. An even larger male, identifiable by its large tail, lay sleeping on one of the many ledges along the almost vertical wall.
By the end of the dive I had spotted several more turtles nestled among the cavities and mini-grottoes. For company they had bumphead parrotfish about a metre long, which use this part of the island as regular sleeping quarters.
Divemaster SK doesnt recommend diving below 10m at night here. Just east of the jetty and at around 18m lies the infamous Turtle Cavern. In daylight and good viz the danger sign outside the entrance is easily noticed, but at night it could be missed.
The cavern entrance reaches back some 40m before arriving at a chamber referred to as Turtle Tomb, where about 20 carapaces and skeletons litter the floor.
Over the past 10 years I have seen about five newly dead turtles in the cavern, says SK. Whether they enter by mistake or design, those unable to find their way out in the darkness drown. The turtle dies resting on the floor, then later floats up to the roof. It then slowly decays and bits gradually drop to the floor again. I chickened out of visiting the cavern, citing a recent neck injury, after hearing grisly tales about two human fatalities there, the last in 1994.
It was easy to lose count of green turtles after half a dozen on any one dive, but it was only on my last day that I positively identified the characteristic beak of a hawksbill. It was resting majestically on a coral protuberance in about 10m of water and I excitedly reeled off half a dozen shots before reaching the end of my roll.
Although residents of Sipadan, hawksbills are far more scarce than the green turtles which come to feed, mate and lay their eggs on the sandy shores. Green turtles are not resident here, Steve Fish told me. They do two or three egg-laying cycles. Most come and go on a cycle, so theres a constant turnover.
Collecting turtle eggs for human consumption has stopped on Sipadan since Borneo Divers bought the egg-collection concession. Eggs laid around the island are removed to the hatchery in the north. Ismail, the wildlife warden, told me it was previously at the other end of the island but was vulnerable to predators, including human poachers.
Peak egg-laying season is in August, though turtles come ashore under cover of darkness all year. The process can take up to three hours.
Turtles often lay their eggs near the dive centres close to the jetty, as the drop-off is only a few metres away. Other parts of the island are accessible only at high tide. Sections of the surrounding reef are exposed at low tide and too shallow to allow a turtle to negotiate comfortably the 200m-plus to shore.
For security reasons and to avoid disturbing nesting turtles, visitors are allowed to walk around the island at night only if guided. The guru is Wayne Pedrosa, aka Turtle Man. A rather unassuming personality, he came to Sipadan more than five years ago to do security for Borneo Divers. He was appalled then at the unruly way in which visitors behaved when watching nesting turtles. People didnt know how to handle the situation, Wayne remembers.
He began to get interested in turtles and has since built an impressive collection of memorabilia and a turtle library, with many books donated by the grateful visitors he chaperones by night, making sure they dont cause alarm or distress to the egg-laying turtles.
Wildlife officers tour the island each night and bring eggs back to the fenced-off, open-air hatchery. Rows of green wire netting tubes, about 30cm in diameter, both mark and guard each batch. The female green lays 80-100 soft-shelled eggs, resembling ping-pong balls. The sex of the young is determined by the temperature; warm for females, cool for males.
Incubation about 30cm under the sand takes 50-55 days. We cover the top of the circular cages when the eggs are due to hatch, otherwise the hatchlings might get eaten by blackneck herons, says Ismail. There are also monitor lizards around - I watched one nearly 2m from head to tail enjoying the midday heat behind the visitors chalets.
The hatchlings, about 6cm in length, now have to face a gauntlet of new predators at sea, including crabs, birds, reef fish and sharks. I watched the wardens release a newly hatched batch, and was impressed by how fast these little creatures scuttled down the beach and swam towards the setting sun.
Eggs are also brought to the hatchery by the soldiers who patrol the island at night. Since the kidnapping of 21 people by the Filipino Abu Sayyaf group last April, a permanent garrison has been stationed here alongside the police. There are at least a dozen of them, dressed in plain clothes, I was told, to avoid, alarming visitors.
Much has been made by the Malaysian authorities about their security-strengthening efforts in the region. In a recent interview, the Deputy Defence Minister said there was no reason for anyone to fear, as security along the Sabah coast was at its highest level ever. I saw police or naval boats patrolling daily and there were occasional reconnaissance flights over the area. Certainly there was no sense of foreboding or concern among the divers to whom I spoke.
Visitor numbers have now recovered after the dramatic drop following the kidnapping saga. In fact, to make up for the shortfall in revenue during 2000, most of the five resorts on the island have surpassed their allocated quota. This has occasionally resulted in the island hosting more than the total 80 visitors allowed at one time on Sipadan, a limit designed to safeguard its delicate ecology.
Id love to see the occupancy numbers enforced more rigidly, said diver Peter Wingett, now on his 12th visit. Some resorts dont enter into the spirit of things.
First impression of the turtle population is that it is doing fine. Sabah Parks conservation projects have helped the number of nesting turtles to begin recovery and the Sipadan hatchery is invaluable. However, all the turtles that nest in Malaysia are listed as endangered.
Just outside Semporna on Borneo, the main kick-off point for Sipadan, I saw long slicks of rubbish at sea. Some of this inevitably finds it way to Sipadan. I fished out a couple of plastic bags from the shallows, and there were more on the beach.
The juveniles are threatened by eating this pollution. Fishing nets, destruction of coastal habitat and feeding grounds and collection of turtle eggs are just a few of the problems. On a couple of dives I even heard blasts from illegal bomb-fishing nearby.
Most of the resorts on the island are fairly environmentally conscious. Signboards on diving dos and donts are prominently displayed and divers briefed before dives. Trash is burnt or collected by regular rubbish boats from Borneo.
Pulau Sipadan was designated a bird sanctuary as far back as 1933, and a turtle egg native reserve of Sabah in 1964. A sign-board just off the jetty also declares that the island and waters surrounding the island have been protected since October 1997. However, boards alone are no guarantee of protection.
I met Christine Perroud under the shade of the Borneo Divers veranda, with various turtle paraphernalia spread out over a table. Most of the local people I have come into contact with are not very environmentally aware, says Christine, an expat who has lived in Asia for 15 years. She is setting up SOS Turtles: The Borneo Society for The Protection of Sea Turtles.
Our main objective is to educate the public and mainly the local people as to why sea turtles are endangered, what we can do to avoid their extinction and what advantages the sea turtle can bring to Sabah tourism and the jobs that can be created from it, says Christine.
Sipadan has been called the turtle capital of the world. They are so numerous that its easy to become blasé after a while, especially with so many other diversions on the island. My buddy and I felt an extra week or two wouldnt have gone amiss. For me, despite all the barracudas, jacks, whitetip sharks and the teeming life of the reef, the stars at Pulau Sipadan remain the turtles.
We just hope Sipadan continues to act as a sanctuary for breeding sea turtles and so play a significant role in reversing their declining numbers. For despite all our efforts to protect them, humans remain their biggest threat.