Malaysia: Struggles of our sea turtles

INTAN MAIZURA AHMAD KAMAL New Straits Times 22 Jan 17;

Adult and juvenile turtles get a second chance at life at the Gaya Island Resort’s Marine Conservation Centre, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal

BLINK. Blink. After a deep, peaceful slumber, he must have felt like he’d just woken up to a circus. Surrounding his makeshift home in the bright blue plastic tray are inquisitive humans, jostling to peer at him up close, like some exhibit, chatter rising to a crescendo as they mull over his next course of action. He must have been glad to be ensconced in the matching blue blanket as he pondered his escape.

The juvenile Hawksbill turtle, the star attraction on this balmy morning, is due to be released into the sea after having spent several days at the Gaya Island Resort’s Marine Conservation Centre under observation. He’d found himself trapped in a fisherman’s bubu (fish trap) and subsequently brought here by the fishermen for further action. Not having done so would have meant a hefty fine or punishment for them as the Hawksbill, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all sea turtle species for their colourful shells, is a critically endangered species.

According to SEE Turtles, a body set up in 2008 to protect sea turtles through eco-tourism, their population has declined more than 80 per cent in the last century, due to the trade in their exquisite carapace (shell), also known as “tortoiseshell”.

“Oh, he’s just groggy from the medication we injected into his body. It’s for his antibodies,” someone whispers into my ear. Turning around to trace the source of the information, I clap eyes on an attractive lady, clad in an all-black ensemble, the words Wildlife Rescue emblazoned across the back of her dark T-shirt. “He’s been here just under three days. We took some blood samples for tests. Now he’s good to return to the waters.”

Pulling on a pair of gloves (‘...because reptiles have harmful salmonella on their skin...’), she crouches down and gingerly coaxes the gentle reptile out of his tray. And like a prisoner receiving his long-awaited pardon for a crime he didn’t commit, the Hawksbill regally clambers out of his sterile home and onto the warmth of the powdery soft sand. Waiting across from him in the warm shallow grey-green water, lying on his front, a water-proof camera clasped in position, is the Resort’s resident marine biologist Scott Mayback, the man responsible for conceptualising and implementing the centre’s various marine conservation programmes.

Zig-zagging his way across the sand, his compass the sea, the Hawksbill finally gets his taste of home as the waves caress his beautiful hard body, and drift him further away from the shore, where an audience has gathered to pay their silent farewells. “Stay safe, little one,” I mutter to myself, as I feel a tear threatening to escape my right eye.

CONSERVATION AND LEARNING

Gaya Island is set within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a group of five islands located off Kota Kinabalu, each with fringing coral reefs. The Marine Centre is nestled on the secluded Tavajun Bay, which is accessible either by a five-minute boat ride from Gaya Island Resort’s jetty or through a 45-minute trek.

The centre was launched in 2013 and has since then, rescued, treated and cared for multiple endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and one critically endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). Prior to today’s turtle release, four other turtles had been released into the waters — Bobby, Ninja, Carmen and Nick Jr, all of which have undergone rehabilitation and research.

There are four coral reef display tanks at the centre, which offer visitors the chance to learn more about reef life. These tanks are also used to produce coral fragments, which would subsequently be returned to the sea. Outside the turtle rescue centre is a 14,000-litre recovery tank for housing sick or injured sea turtles so they can have a better shot at survival. This recovery tank also houses a coral nursery that establishes an artificial environment to aquaculture coral fragments that will be returned to the sea to help rejuvenate and enhance the natural reefs.

The centre is committed to leading the community in marine conservation and is a strong advocate of three conservation pillars — Turtle Rescue, Coral Reef Restoration and Conservation through Education.

CALL OF THE REEFS

With his clean shaven head and serious demeanour, Mayback, the New Yorker at the helm of YTL’s marine conservation efforts at Gaya Island Resort can appear daunting at first. He has that “no nonsense” look of a man who has no time for meaningless chats. But pull him aside and whisper the words “marine”, or “corals”, or “turtles” and watch his sleepy eyes light up.

The 39-year-old, who grew up in Long Island, US, a place of beautiful beaches and estuaries which he delighted in as a child, has been in the country for the last eight years, and with YTL ever since the Resort opened. A graduate in marine biology from the University of Oregon, his love affair with marine life began after a backpacking trip in Central America. “After graduation, I backpacked to Central America where I finished in Honduras. I got my dive licence there. I fell in love with the reefs and decided that I wanted to be somewhere where I could do this all the time,” shares Mayback, making himself comfortable on the wooden seat by the jetty for our chat. Around us is the mesmerising vista of the beautiful aquamarine waters of Gaya Island.

So it was to the Land Below the Wind, Sabah, that he headed, finding employment with a local company where he helped set up a marine conservation centre and aquarium. He picked up invaluable hands-on experience in coral reef restoration as well as turtle rehabilitation. But three years later, due to a lack of funding, Mayback left for greener pastures and into the arms of his present employer, YTL.

The Marine Centre, shares Mayback, plays its part in the protection of sea turtles by rescuing and rehabilitating injured or sick sea turtles, and is the first of its kind in the country. This project was initiated with research results showing six out of seven species of sea turtles are endangered or critically endangered worldwide.

Why? Due to fishing, over-development, pollution, or turtles getting stranded, caught unintentionally by fishermen or becoming sick or injured.

“Malaysia has been doing turtle conservation for 50 years but the focus has mostly been on hatchlings — eggs, nesting etc. But not much has been done for adult turtles or injured juveniles,” says Mayback, before adding: “Maybe there have been parties who’ve done stuff here and there but there’s yet to be a dedicated centre.”

The centre first tasted sweet success when it managed to save Bobby, the sea turtle found floating, unable to dive down or even eat due to an intestinal blockage caused by an infection. With much care, Bobby, of the green turtle species, was rehabilitated within five months and released into the sea in conjunction with the centre’s launch.

“Then we had Ninja, another green turtle, which was chronically debilitated. He was malnourished and covered in barnacles. We nursed him back to health and returned him to the sea once we had confirmed that he was well enough to leave. He was with us for more than three months. Since then, we’ve done further turtle rescues and also looked after turtle hatchlings received from Sabah Parks,” shares Mayback, eyes shining.

Through the course of his work here, Mayback confides that he has seen everything, from turtles with fractured skulls as a result of being hit by a boat, to those with fractured shells, and others that are chronically debilitated, which means that they’re so sick that they can’t even dive down into the water. “They end up floating on the surface wasting away like a starving person. You can see their bones,” says Mayback, eyes clouding at the memory.

CHALLENGES APLENTY

Virtually a one-man show here at the Marine Centre, challenges are a given. But it’s not so much the workload that Mayback offers as his biggest challenge when posed the question — it’s the emotions that engulf him when an animal is lost or when he sees a turtle being washed up to shore in a perilous condition. “It’s important to be able to separate your emotions from it because you need to learn as much as you can. It’s very challenging, especially if you’ve been keeping it (the animal) for a while and you become attached to it like a pet. It’s emotionally taxing to lose an animal in your care. But you must do your best to separate that and learn from every casualty.”

Suffice to say, sad casualties are aplenty. “There was one time when a turtle was brought here and it was suffering from a neurological disorder. It just kept swimming upside down. We suspected that it had gotten too close to fishermen using bombs to fish,” shares Mayback.

Brows furrowing, he adds: “Last year, three turtles in a row were brought in to us. But their cases were just too serious. We weren’t able to do anything and they died eventually. Each time this kind of thing happens, we learn. and we continue to learn.”

Preparing to return to the centre to complete his day’s job, I ask Mayback for a “take-home” message. Without hesitation, he replies: “Every single piece of plastic you drop, whether you live in the city or high up in the mountains, will eventually find its way into the ocean. And what do you think will happen?

“Just do this simple thing. If you have plastic, dispose of them properly.”

His voice low, he concludes: “Go out there and experience nature and wildlife — if you can. Then you’ll understand why it’s so important to protect them. You can’t protect something you don’t really care for.”

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