Borneo's Biodiversity Bonanza Part 1

Trip Start Jan 08, 2015
Trip End Feb 26, 2015

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Sunday, February 15, 2015

Anyone visiting Borneo who fails to be thrilled by the wildlife and spectacular scenery should check they still have a pulse! In ten square kilometres it has more biodiversity than North America and Western Europe put together. How staggering is that? It's also the third largest island in the world and comprises 3 countries. Sabah to East, where we were and Sarawak to the west which became part of Malaysia in 1963, the tiny Sultanate of Brunei between them and to the South, the huge Kalimantan, which is part of Indonesia.

We travelled to Sandakan by bus so we could "feel" the interior of Borneo. It was a good move. As we climbed out of Koto Kinabalu the mighty, misty 4000m plus Mt Kinabalu emerged. The tumbling foothills were covered with primary rain forest giving us a taste of what we were to see in 2 days time. However 3 hours into the journey the landscape changed to "non biodiverse" monoculture......gudzillions of plantations established to deliver Palm oil products including biodiesel. Huge tracts of forest have been lost to agriculture but fortunately the Malaysian Government have recognised the need to protect what remains. Indeed some plantations have been allowed to revert to diverse (secondary) forest where the plants and animals can once again proliferate and endangered species have a chance to survive.

We stayed overnight in Sandakan where it was difficult to find a restaurant selling alcohol as the North Western area is predominantly Muslim. The town was a strange mix of new buildings and tired looking concrete blocks. Our hotel was one of the tired variety and in need of a refurb but was fine for the night. However one of its redeeming features was a restaurant and bar on the roof overlooking the Sulu Sea. After our bus trip we were thirsty so it seemed rude not to go there for a drink. The view over the town, harbour and out to the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River was fab. Strangely there was an engagement party just starting as we tackled our iced lemon tea and the first tune they fired up on the karaoke machine was "please release me let me go, for you don't love me any more" by Engelbert Humperdink! We looked at each other and smirked! We left them to it and went for dinner with Pam and Jen from Northampton, young 20 something's who we met on the bus. I treated us all to a slap up dinner at a Habeeb Curry House for the princely sum of 7! Pam told us her life story of marriage at 20 to a South Africa through to her recent relationship when she discovered her boyfriend had cheated on her when she a acquired a "nasty STD!" All very illuminating.

After a night in our luxurious (not) 4 poster bed at the shabby but not chique Nak Hotel, we were keen for our next adventure to start. Jamil who was to be our guide for the next 4 days, took us to the Sandakan Yacht Club where we boarded a two engined power launch captained by the sharply dressed Siti. This was going to be fun. Siti flicked the switch, powered up the nautical equivalent of the "Quattro" and we sped off to Selingan Island which lies close to the Phillipines border in the Sulu Sea. Here green turtles return to its beaches to lay their eggs and it looked just as you would imagine a tropical island paradise should be be. White sand, Palm trees and blue sea. We were shown to our bungalow where we would be overnighting and then were free for the remainder of the day. We were impatient to see the turtles which would arrive under the cover of darkness........however what a day it proved to be. We hired masks, snorkels and flippers and made off to the beach where there was a shallow coral reef........we slipped into the warm sea and within 5 metres we were swimming with iridescent blue and green fish, multicoloured corals, giant clams whose green, white, blue and brown lips gently closed as we swam over them. Neither of us had expected this treat. We stayed in the water for hours and in between times lay on the beach or just sat in the warm sea. As we left the beach we were confronted by a 5 foot long monitor lizard which ambled past and disappeared into the undergrowth. No camera at the ready, just our startled eyes! We had seen plenty of monitors before but they were 2 feet max!

At dusk we gathered with the other dozen folks on the island....and given the low down on what should unfold later and learnt about the remarkable life cycle of these giant turtles. During their lifetime the females travel for thousands of miles through the oceans. They reach sexual maturity after 20 to 30 years and when they have mated (goodness knows how they find a male to have jiggy with!) they return to the island where they first hatched. At high tide they clamber 50m up the beach, dig a large hole, lay 50 to 150 eggs and cover them over before returning to the sea. After 60 days the tiny turtles (turtlets?) hatch, clamber to the surface and scuttle down the beach. Survival rate is miniscule. Due to this rather inefficient reproductive process and pollution affecting their food sources they are now an endangered species.

In August there are 70 to 80 turtle beachings on Selingan Island each night, however we were in the low season when there would probably be 7 of less. Also the time of arrival was unpredictable....maybe as late as 3am. This was going to be a long vigil. However around 9pm we got the call from one of the Rangers looking for turtle tracks on the beach. We were taken to witness a 103cm long female laying her eggs......she seemed in a trance and unfazed by our whispering presence. It seemed a little voyeuristic but was magical. This particular lady turtle was tagged and this was her 3rd visit to Selingan.The ranger carefully extracted the eggs from beneath the turtle before she managed to cover them with sand and took them to the hatchery where the eggs were buried at a uniform height and protected from predators. This process ensures most of the eggs hatch, if nature was left to its own devices less than half would survive at this stage.

Next we released a load of turtles which had hatched in the nursery that was fantastic watching them skedaddle down the beach as they were instinctively drawn to the waters edge and quickly dispersed by the ebbing tide. We felt privileged to be there and went off to slumber in our lovely bungalow feeling happy.

The next morning we found out there were 8 further beachings and could see the tracks all over the we took the 10 minute walk around the island. Marvellous. By 0730h we were back on our motor launch with Siti aand Jamil. The nautical Quattro was fired up once more and we raced back to Sandakan as the sun rose in the sky. Top turtling!
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Barbara Reynolds on

As ever, just amazing! I can't imagine how you will be able to keep all the beautiful things you have seen in your head, thank goodness for technology eh? Keep enjoying your trip of a lifetime you two, lots of love and stay safe xxxx

lydie on

Quite superb. As always a stunning account. Thank you for sharing. Loving every bit. Hugs as always xxx

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