Sabah’s Thriving Turtles: Nature Prevails in The Midst of The Pandemic

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Text: Cat McCann || Images: David McCann

In the midst of the worldwide pandemic, it is heartening to hear stories of the natural world going on as normal – especially in places that are popular destinations for divers. And even more so when it concerns baby turtles.

A conservation organisation in Sabah has taken a unique way of bringing these uplifting stories to many around the world by live streaming turtle hatchling releases online.

SEAS (Sea Education Awareness Sabah) has released 966 green turtle hatchlings since the start of the MCO – with 3 nests due to hatch during the next 4 weeks. So far 7 of these have been live-streamed in a bid to lift the spirits of many who may be in quarantine or unable to travel as usual.

The Mabul Turtle Hatchery, run by S.E.A.S with permission from the Sabah Wildlife Department, is based at the dive operator Scuba Junkie’s Mabul Beach Resort, a mere 20-minute boat ride from the iconic Pulau Sipadan.

The hatchery, which has been in operation since 2011, has released over 17,000 turtle hatchlings to date, of which 5,000 were released in 2019 alone – their busiest year yet.

David McCann, Conservation Manager for S.E.A.S said, “In the past, many of the releases have been witnessed by tourists to the island – adding a major bonus to their diving vacation. This usually happens at sunset or in the early evening, when we gather people on the beach to form a ‘guard of honour’ for the hatchlings, as they make their first crawl towards the ocean.”

“It is a fantastic sight – the hatchlings move surprisingly quickly, with a quirky gait. It is an experience that people remember for years afterwards.”

He continued, “Since COVID19, travel restrictions were put in place, so obviously there have been no guests to witness the hatchling releases. But people haven’t forgotten us or our work – we are getting messages from people asking if there are any baby turtles. So, we decided to live-stream the releases, and it has proven remarkably popular. In fact, it has been so popular that we began hosting online talks with people around the world about turtle conservation!”

The live-stream is hosted on both the Scuba Junkie SEAS and Scuba Junkie Facebook pages. The videos have also been shared with people via email, as well as being picked up and shared by bloggers and PADI.

“It’s been amazing to get such positive feedback,” mentioned David. “People are thanking us for brightening their day, when really they are giving our morale a boost, inspiring us to keep going with our conservation programmes in these uncertain times.”

“We hope that when the current crisis is over, people will come back and be able to witness it in person again and get involved in our conservation projects once more.”

“Turtle conservation is only one of our conservation programmes here at S.E.A. We actually have six conservation areas: sharks, corals, turtles, tackling marine debris, supporter engagements, and eco-friendly resorts.”

“As well as the hatchery, we also operate the Mabul Turtle Rehabilitation Centre in collaboration with the SWD’s Wildlife Rescue Unit, where we rescue and treat sick or injured turtles before releasing them back into the wild.”

David explained, “We are fortunate enough to live and work within the Coral Triangle, the region of highest marine biodiversity on Earth. As divers, we get to experience the beauty of the underwater world – it is only right that we give back in some way by acting to assist conservation efforts in this area.”

A key part of SEAS work is engaging people in conservation efforts to protect the unique marine ecosystem in Sabah.

“If the recent lockdown means that we can’t do it in person – we will find other ways to do so. Live-streaming turtle releases are an easy way to remind people of the beauty of the world out there, keep spirits up, and to bear in mind that when this crisis is over, we can return to places we love.”