Beach life - Pulau Perhentian Besar
8 Aug 2006
|So from Cambodia I had to fly straight to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with volunteers for Turtle Project. I took the Skybus from the airport and had a chuckle at the following sign:
Dear Valued Passengers
If the following incidents occur:
- Speeding and reckless driving by busdriver
- The bus is dirty
- If the bus stops to drop-off/pick-up passengers midway through journey
- If music/radio is played on the sound system in the bus
Please SMS our Skybus customer service on 012-258-7900.
None of these occurred and I was quite impressed as all the above seem to be common practise and widely accepted (possibly even compulsory) in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia!
There was no time to explore the city as I arrived in the evening then met up with 4 other vols & Co-ord for dinner which was really nice. The other volunteers are all English as well and they are: Ellen, Dental Nurse from Sheffield; Lauren, Veterinary Nurse from Essex; Mandy, a Registered Nurse from London (so many kinds of nurses!!) Chris, about to start Uni in Sept (and Matt, who we met upon arrival on the island as he has already been on the project for 4 weeks and is brown as a berry from all the sun!!) The co-ordinator is an Irish girl called Mary, but we won't see her again as she is just based in KL.
We were put up in a plush hotel in the city connected to a huge shopping mall with a massive cinema in there too - I really wanted to go and explore the shops and see a film as it's been a while since I've done that but we were with the co-ord until about 10.30pm then I had be up and ready to depart at 5am! But I'll be able to do all that after the project. I got a take away breakfast in a bag from the hotel as breakfast doesn't start until 6am. Flew to Khota Bharu (NE Malayasia) then taken by speed boat to 'Our Island' - Pulau Perhentian Besar (Big Island).
We are staying on the Island for 4 weeks to watch (monitor and record) lovely green turtles come up onto the beach at night to lay eggs. Our first view of our new home was just stunning. The island has no roads or anything on the interior but is just filled with dense jungle vegetation and monkeys! There are lots of small beaches around the edges and you have to go everywhere by boat to go from one beach to the next. As we rounded the corner into our little bay we were all in awe of how pretty the place was - white sand, palm trees, clear blue sea and beautiful sunshine (at last it's no longer rainy season for me) - it was like heaven!!! As our speed boat pulled up we were greeted on the beach by Matt, the pre-existing volunteer, who is so brown he could pass for Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks in Castaway!! And Laurence (AKA Lozzer/Lol), the on-site volunteer co-ordinator, who started out as a volunteer himself and has ended up staying on to help out 'til the end of the season - but mysteriously is nowhere near as tanned as Matt - even though he's been there longer!
The 'resort' is very small. It's based around Bubbles dive centre which is owned and run by Ron and Peisee (married couple) and their friend Eric who are the 3 dive instructors. They are assisted by Alice who is training to get her dive-master certificate (and later on in our stay she was joined by Rees, another girl doing the same thing).
There is an open air restaurant which forms the hub of the resort and also houses the reception. There's a couple of small sofas there too just big enough for all us vols to fit in. It was our main evening hang out. We became very territorial of this space and didn't like it when other guests visiting the dive centre for just a day or two took over and sat in our area!! The kitchen was run by Rizwan who was a pretty cool laid back local guy, and he was assisted by various other members of staff. Harrick is another lovely guy who just started working at Bubbles before we arrived. He was in charge of the guests and booking the accom and boats (I think). He was a real sweetie, and he and Lozzer also waited on tables for the guests.
Around the restaurant, the accommodation consists of small 'chalet' huts which are pretty cute. Paying guests obviously get the nice ones with air con and double beds near the restaurant, or family rooms. Staff get small huts furthest away from dive centre on the edge of the forest and we vols are staying in a dorm style hut behind the dive centre. There are a couple of rooms, each with 2 bunk beds so the 2 boys are able to spread out more compared to us 4 girls who are all in the same room. You can imagine the amount of stuff that is always spread all over the floor - especially as there is no real storage space apart from a very small shelf each! So it's rucksack city in our room with a jumble of clothes spilling out all over the place.
The wildlife sometimes spills over from jungle outside into the hut, usually in the form of geckos, but often spiders of varying sizes - which Mandy absolutely hates. Each night before the lights can be turned out there is a ritual of checking for 8-legged friends and of course when clothes or towels are picked up from the floor they need to be thoroughly inspected and shaken out before being put anywhere near the body! Intruders are removed as quickly as possible, usually to the soundtrack of Mandy squealing. Outside we often see monitor lizards prowling around in the bushes but they are quite timid and usually run away if you get very close - and I don't even really want to mention the rats (but maybe it'd be rude not to) which frequent the toilet in the restaurant area and are most commonly seen scampering along the rafters in the roof of the restaurant. We just denied their existence when Ellen was in the vicinity.
The volunteer hut didn't have air con (well it had the box but it didn't work!) but did have a wall fan, however the hut gets VERY hot during the day and stays hot through the night, only just about cooling off before the sun comes up the next morning - ready for the next dose of solar energy. So there's no chance of a lie in as it starts to heat up again as soon as the sun rises - which is very early and sometimes is not long after going to bed following an intense turtle-watching session (latest finish was 6am).
Our first week has been mainly taken up with scuba diving - usually 2 dives a day. Chris, Mandy and I had never dived before so we took the PADI Open Water Diver Course (with another girl called Vicky), while Lauren and Ellen who have already got that qualification did their Advanced course.
Over the last few years I have somehow developed a phobia about diving. I was convinced that I would need to cough or sneeze while under the water and, unable to come up quickly to get air from the surface due to hazards like decompression sickness, I would choke, splutter, breathe in water and drown! So I was pretty scared to begin with and wasn't sure that I'd even do the entire course, but I was determined to give it a go. Thankfully Mandy was also quite worried so I didn't feel so stupid and we encouraged and reassured each other. However Mandy had some trouble with the equalizing when we started to go into deeper waters so she ended up getting one-to-one training and doing her course separately from the rest of us :-( but after the first few dives where we practised the necessary skills (which to be honest I can't say that I enjoyed at all) we started to see more interesting sights like pretty coral and fish and the whole experience became much more enjoyable.
In between the obligatory turtle monitoring, our evenings have been filled with reading, chatting and playing cards along with learning a strange Chinese game called Mah Jong that Matt taught us how to play. Ellen turned out to be an absolute expert at it and thrashed everyone in each game!
The turtles are absolutely amazing and we have been able to see loads of green turtles come up onto the beach at night to nest and lay eggs. I feel so privileged to witness it.
The first time I was on the turtle watch I was with Chris and it was almost a full moon, so it was quite bright down on the beach and you didn't need torches or anything to see. As we stepped down between the palm trees onto the sand I could see this big shape just on the tide line and moving out of the water onto the beach. It was absolutely breathtaking. The moonlight was glistening off the turtle's wet shell as she emerged from the water and it was a really magical moment. We literally just stopped in our tracks and watched until she made her way up the beach. Although I couldn't take a photo of it I think I'll remember that moment forever.
However it's not all peace and happiness on the islands and there are problems with local people charging tourists to come and look at the turtles, but they aren't educating the tourists so that they don't disturb the turtles during this important time, so we have to try to do that as well. We were instructed to always keep quite a distance away and not to obstruct the turtles' path while they are on the move. If we are on the beach when turtles are present we have to stay close to the trees and crouch down in the shadows to stay out of the turtles' line of vision as much as possible. If there is anything that disturbs them or they are not happy for whatever reason, the turtle will return to the sea without having laid any eggs. This is the case even after they have dragged themselves up the sloping beach, searched around for a while to find a suitable nest site which takes huge effort - and could be anything from 10-100m or more from where they came out of the water. Sometimes they just keep wandering and don't actually find a place they are happy with and return to the water without having dug a nest. Sometimes they will dig for an hour or two and maybe come across roots in the ground or other obstructions so will abandon the nest again without laying any eggs, and similarly if they have gone to all that trouble already and are in the nest almost ready to lay eggs the last thing they want is tourists or poachers coming along to have a look or get anywhere near them as all that effort will be wasted. It is a very long process and sometimes the turtles will be out of the water for up to 5 hours. After they have been out of the water so long they do start to dry out and can get distressed. So when a turtle has already made such huge efforts we want to try top prevent any disturbances that will put them and their egg laying in jeopardy.
Sometimes the local people phone their mates on other islands and different resorts and then suddenly a big boat full of tourists arrives and all want to have a look and go really close and of course they make lots of noise and want to take photo's with flashes, but we have to try to keep them at a reasonable distance and be quiet and out of the turtles line of sight and not blocking it's path to/from the sea and stop them using their torches and flashes etc. It can be really tiring and stressful which I wasn't expecting.
There is a problem with poachers here too and they come and interfere with the turtles while nesting and then dig up the eggs to eat or sell. The beach isn't protected (at the moment) but the government have a scheme where they collect the eggs and take them to a hatchery nearby (different beach on a nother island) and keep them for 3 days and feed them high protein food... the idea being that it will give them a head start in the sea when the are released, but it might also cause problems because of moving the turtles and keeping them confined instead of letting them straight back into the sea. Also they are being fed unnatural food instead of fending for themselves so I don't know how well they really do survive once back in the sea - and also if they live long enough to reproduce which beach will they come back to?? it might confuse them because they usually return to the beach they were born on, where the nest site was, but who knows what will happen now. What we volunteers are doing is collecting data about the number and frequency of turtles which come onto the beach, the conditions when they do come up or not (tides, moon cycle, weather etc), how far they crawl before nesting, if they nest at all, and if they successfully lay any eggs. The information is going to be presented to the government so that hopefully they will make the beach protected (it's just a public beach at the moment) and then the turtles will have a much better chance of survival.
Also there are local people who are trying to take advantage of tourists that want to see the turtles - so they charge them a pretty hefty fee (in local terms) to get taken by boat to the nesting beach (which could be 'our' beach or one of the others nearby) then encourage the tourists to go up to the nesting turtle and take photos (with a flash of course because it's night time), and that is really the worst thing they could be doing. Apart from the bright flashes which can damage the turtles eyes, you really need to be very quiet and keep a distance away and not disturb them or they won't lay any eggs.
If they get distressed they can get disorientated and start walking into things and take ages to get back to the sea. We have seen turtles walking around in circles between the chalets and sometimes banging into trees and rocks and it's very upsetting.
So although we get to see the turtles in action and it is wonderful when it all goes well (with just a few people present keeping their distance and observing) it can actually be quite stressful at times when boatloads of tourists would land on the beach and we have to try and control/inform a big group of people. Luckily it isn't like that every night and it is awesome to see them when everything's going well.
While snorkelling and diving we have seen lots of squid and cuttlefish and small sharks, but no octopuses (octopi?) and I still haven't seen a turtle swimming in the sea!! I have seen lots when they come up onto the beach to nest of course, but it's usually really dark and they don't move very well on land. Some of my friends here have seen them swimming while snorkelling and diving and say they are so graceful under the water. I have seen one coming up for air when I was in a little taxi boat going between the islands (apparently that's one of their feeding grounds) but it'd be better to be in the water with them and get a really good view.