Volunteering work at one of the most pristine islands in Malaysia? Sign me up, please!
Fuelled by this fascination and love for these magnificent beings, I acquired a heavy tan due to the inability to pry myself away from the superfine beaches, chucked my phone away thanks to the lack of reception, and picked up the art of water conservation whilst showering in the dark accompanied by the pitter-patter sounds of hermit crabs crawling about. I braved it all during my stint at Lang Tengah Turtle Watch.
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch
On a sunny Sunday morning in May, after an hour-long flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu followed by a 40-minute taxi ride to Merang Jetty, I got on a speed boat heading to Turtle Bay, home of the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW). This conservation project was set up in 2013 to help monitor and protect the sea turtles that come up on the shores of Lang Tengah Island in Terengganu, Malaysia. As the boat was reaching the island, all I could see were the azure waters and lush greens. With the exception of a figure in blue shirt, I didn’t see any sign of camp base, much less civilisation. Hey, where’s everyone?
The figure in blue turned out to be Charlotte, who guided me through a short passageway to reach the camp which was actually nestled amidst the trees! 100% enveloped by nature, with the sound of crashing waves, chirping birds, and animated geckos completing the orchestra of the rainforest, the camp successfully charmed me at first sight. It’s quaint and neat, with a lovely beach just a few steps away. With the sun at its prime, the water was pristinely crystalline. On the right of the beach was a cosy chill-out nook complete with a hammock, a lounger, and a rope swing right in front of a scenic little rocky lagoon. Turtle Bay is particularly stunning when the tide is high.
The simple life
The common area was decked with rattan chairs and loungers encircling a bamboo table that I later learned was handmade by previous volunteers. The main sleeping area can accommodate up to 10 people, whereby each person sleeps on a portable bed with a suspended mosquito net. Volunteers are recommended to bring a sleeping bag for added comfort, whilst a travel-sized pillow and batik sarong got me through the nights just fine. Shower is al-fresco within an enclosure made from palm leaves and there were toilets for when nature calls. Use of organic or biodegradable products though not mandatory, is essential to keep the environment healthy.
Sticking to the most basic needs, the camp has neither running water nor electricity, yet every need is met. There is a portable solar charger to charge devices via USB, not that you will be using much of them. Water comes from a single well, drawn regularly for washing or filled into the water purifier for drinking and cooking. The kitchen is routinely stocked with food items for volunteers to cook, and menu varies from day to day. Those who manage to impress the volunteering family with their dish will earn the recipe a page on the LTTW camp recipe book.
Days on the petite and beautiful Lang Tengah Island are filled with various fun activities, including snorkelling around baby sharks, jumping off a gorgeous five-metre cliff, or simply clearing the beaches from junk. To manage food and water distribution, there is a limit of 12 volunteers at any time. Chances of developing everlasting connections, or at the very least an increase of your Facebook friends list, are quite high. There could also be the occasional odd ones who may have come from another planet, but then isn’t the mixture of characters what makes life more colourful? A week’s stay is paramount to getting the full experience, although longer durations are highly welcomed. Side effects of long-term volunteering include a fabulous tan or an impressive hobbit-like ability to walk barefoot over rocky pathways and washed-up dead corals. But maybe that was just our camp manager James. If you’re lucky like me, you also get to watch a little romance blossoming between two fellow volunteers.
Here comes the night time
A typical patrol duty includes walking around Turtle Bay and Lang Sari Beach on the lookout for nesting turtles, potential threats such as predators that lurk into the existing nests, and poachers looking to make a few quick bucks from selling turtle eggs. Thanks to LTTW’s presence on the island, the latter menace has been very few and far between. Since turtles are very sensitive to light, red lights are used for navigation. Patrols are usually done in pairs, divided into a few shifts between 9pm to 6am. I was okay with waking up for 3am patrols, and okay with breaking into a sweat during each shift. But braving the forest in the wee hours of the night (you need to go through a couple of short jungle trails to get from one beach to another) proved to be a challenge for yours truly, even with a partner. ‘Keep steady’ was the mantra in my head and after a while I slowly adapted to the silence and realised that darkness wasn’t really all that scary. Plus when you look up, the gazillion stars were always looking after you, however many million light years away they may be.
My first few nights of patrolling were unfruitful for turtle tales, but the conversations with my patrol buddies were fun and insightful. From Selina, I learned about life in neighbouring Brunei, as well as the inevitable concern regarding oil reserves in the country and how it affects the economy. Considering the various scientific research on renewable energy sources, isn’t it funny how people still feel the need to dig up oil? On another night, Arthur and I talked about the human greed and their impact on nature and the animals. What can we do to change the current state of things, I wondered quietly.
Things got more interesting on my fourth night, with news of a turtle sighting at Lang Sari Beach. That night, all of us huddled in silence on soft sands under blinking stars, waiting patiently for Myrtle the turtle to construct a body pit, dig an egg cavity, and then finally lay and bury her eggs. On average, turtles lay between 100 to 120 ping-pong ball-shaped eggs, and come up to nest at least two times per season. Turtles have a built-in GPS to come back to nest on the same beach where they first come to life. Wonder what kind of cool adventures Myrtle has been up in the last 50 years.
A new hope
To date, LTTW has seen more than 8,000 hatchlings go off into the sea. Since the start of the 2016 nesting season, there have been 24 nests and counting. Regular nest checks track the progress of existing nests and audit the ones that have hatched. To our surprise, there were three baby turtles that were still alive underneath nest number one that hatched a few days before I arrived on the island. Being the last of their batch to still be there, their chances of surviving into adulthood is pretty slim, as baby turtles are easy targets for birds of prey and bigger sea creatures. But there is still a tiny ray of hope that in decades to come, at least one of the three would come back to Turtle Bay and reproduce. And though I could probably be rocking grey hair and a walking stick by then, I absolutely would still love to come by and visit.
Those who wish to contribute but are not into camping lifestyle can also help by planning a holiday at LTTW’s side project The Perhentian House. The house was originally built in Ipoh during the 1940s and recently bought by LTTW founder Hayati Mokhtar. It was then transported to Perhentian Besar Island and set up as a vacation home to help fund LTTW camp operations. Furnished in an elegant and vintage style à la the good old days, the solar-powered house is secluded and yet close to beaches and restaurants, making it a pretty sweet place for an island getaway.
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch does not operate like your average holiday trip, but instead provides a unique and invaluable travelling experience. My wonderful sojourn there was as much about the connection with the people that I met as it was living the simple island life observing turtles. Before ending my short and sweet stint with LTTW, I caught up with project co-founder Raphe van Zevenbergen, who explained that conservation work is more about managing people than the animals or the environment. And I couldn’t agree more. If each person takes notice of his individual impact on the universe, humanity can definitely evolve into a more compassionate civilisation. And in that, came the simple answer to my earlier question. In order to save the planet, we must first save ourselves from within. ♥
Check out more pictures on our Facebook page here.
Lang Tengah Turtle Watch welcomes volunteers from March to October every year. Volunteering fee for a whole week is MYR 560 for Malaysians and USD 240 for other nationalities. For more info, visit www.langtengahturtlewatch.org.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kuala Terengganu from Kuala Lumpur. For flight info and lowest fares, visit AirAsia.com.