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Turtle eggs laying and hatching under the moonlight - Caroline Alamy

When planning ahead for my first trip to Malaysia, I wanted to volunteer for a turtle protection association. It was August so it was the time when turtles would come and lay eggs. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to find on this internet a plan that could fit with the vacation days I had. When we arrived in Kuching (Borneo, Malaysia), we found, completely randomly, a travel agent offering one night on Satang Turtle Conservation Island. We signed for it immediately.

The departure was planned for the afternoon, once all the snorkelers are gone. We were waiting for our boat at the pier. The shuttle brought back a family of 5 who had just spent one night on the island. They were beyond thrilled. That night, 20 eggs hatched and 3 turtles came to lay eggs. We went on the boat, hoping there would be still left.

Satang Island is beautiful: white sand, turquoise water, fresh coconut… But the primary purpose is conversation, handled by rangers who live there. We were the 2 only tourists.

Nice beach…
… and yummy coconut while waiting for the turtles
A small square of the beach is surrounded by a grid. Every time a turtle (most of the time a green turtle) comes on the island to lay her eggs, the rangers remove the eggs from the nest (a hole in the sand), dig another hole within the grid-protected area, and place them inside. They are thus protected from predators such as monitor lizards. About 1.5-2 months later, the eggs will hatch and the babies will “run” to get into the sea.
The hatchery on Satang Island
Each nest is carefully tracked, with the date of the egg laying and the number of eggs
Plenty of turtles came to lay eggs in May and June. We were there late August, so at the end of the high season for egg laying. But there were still plenty of nest to hatch. In the hatchery area, each nest is labeled with the date of the egg laying and the number of eggs inside.
By putting his hand in the sand, the ranger was able to tell us from which nest eggs are likely to hatch in the coming hours and days. He could tell by the temperature and the firmness of the sand. As one of the holes collapsed, he was confident a few babies would come out that night.

After dinner, the rangers told us to get some rest. They would wake us up if anything happens.
We waited on our terrasse, completely unable to sleep. We were not here to sleep!
Around midnight, a ranger came with a bucket in his hand. Inside the bucket: 3 baby turtles who had just hatched. It was the time to release them.By night, their chance to survive are higher as daytime predators (birds) are sleeping. We went on the beach and lightened up our flashlights to show them the way to the water. It is key for them to make the last meters on their own as they will remember this path and, when they will lay their own eggs, they will return at the exact place where they were born.

On his way for the big adventure!

To my surprise, the baby turtles were following very precisely the light trail. So we had to be careful on how we were using the light, and make sure the turtle would reach the water as fast as possible, instead of following our feet (which is cute but not what you want). I felt so responsible of these 3 little cute fellas. When you know that 1 out of 1,000 of baby turtle will make it to adulthood… I deeply wish they managed to make it.
He is following the light
She is here
We went back to our terrasse very happy with this experience. Let’s wait and see if a turtle come to nest! At around 1.30am, the ranger found us. A turtle was coming on shore. He would tell us to come once/if she starts to lay eggs. If people show up before, she may get scared and leave. He came back 20 minutes later. The turtle had started to nest. We were allowed to join. When we arrived, she had dug her nest. A couple of eggs were already inside. We quietly went by her side. She was pushing hard, it sounded tiring. The eggs were popping.
88 eggs in total !
Type of shells the ranger took out from the turtle shell and which could be harmful to her
The turtle already had a tag to identify her. While she was pushing more eggs, the ranger was taking her measurements to update the record later. If she didn’t have a tag, he would have put one. He also cleaned her shell. Many small sea-shells were on it. This could be eventually fatal to the turtle.
The ranger is making sure the turtle is healthy
These are the tags to identify turtles – This one already had one
Once she finished to lay eggs, the turtle filled back the hole with sand by flipping her front and back flippers. Once done, the ranger dug back the nest so we can collect all the eggs and put them in the hatchery. The turtle eggs look like ping-pong balls. Same size, same color. I was surprised, when I took the first one, by how warm, gummy and slippery it was. It was not solid yet. Of course we should not squeeze them. I was really careful not to destroy it, like when I handle a christmas bauble too firmly.
There were 82 eggs in total.
I didn’t expect the nest to be so deep, and the eggs to be so slippery !
During the time we took the eggs to put them in safety, the turtle was trying to get out of the cavity she created while digging her nest. It was not so deep, maybe a few centimeters. But for an animal of that weight (up to 300kg), without arms and legs, it was a real struggle for her to haul up back onto the flat sand. We put some sands beneath her fins to help her level up. Sometimes she would stop, seemingly to get some rest. And then start again. It took her 45 minutes. Once she was back on track, I was surprised by how fast she moved on the sand, and then back to the sea. She was like sliding on the sand.
We went to sleep at 3 am, amazed by what we had witnessed. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip.
That night, no other turtle came to nest.
She was kind of stuck
After flipping a lot of sand, she finally managed to get out of the cavity

If you want to see more pics of Malaysia, this is here.

Quick Photo Tips

In that type of environment, the conditions are particularly difficult: Full night, almost light (obviously no flash, please!) as it is vital from nestling turtle to keep any light away. This is probably one of the very few conditions where I will say that your equipment can really make the difference, and enable you to shoot, or not at all. It is all about getting as much light as possible from your camera. So what should you do/what should I have done to get reasonably good pictures:

  • Tripod: I didn’t have one with me so everything is handheld. I don’t think a tripod would be recommended here anyway as you stay close to the turtle. Use your knees as tripod, hold your breath and shot.
  • Go full Manual : The camera may struggle to “guess” which parameters are needed here. Your autofocus may struggle as well. If you really can’t get it right, switch to manual focus. This is tricky, you need to practice and you may have several out of focus shots, but that may be the only way if your camera is lost.
  • Put the highest ISO you can: Bear in mind that the more ISO you put, the greater loss of quality you get. The maximum you can put depends on your camera body. When I was using my Nikon D90, I would avoid going above 2500 ISO. With a Nikon D4, I can get to 6400. If you don’t plan to print the picture and you mostly want a souvenir, then push as much as you can, despite the pixels you will see. If you want to keep a good quality, test your camera and stop when you start to see too much loss.
  • Get the widest aperture as possible: take the brightest lens you have and put your lens at its largest aperture. (e.g., f2.2). Large aperture helps you cope with low light conditions.
  • Slow but not too slow speed: put the slowest speed you can while avoiding blur: without tripod, and since the turtle is not completely still, you don’t want to go to slow. So it is a tricky balance between getting some light from slow speed while having a precise picture. At the end you will really rely a lot on your ISO and Aperture and the higher you can get on those 2, the fastest speed you will be able to put.
  • My parameters: On the pictures here, ISO range from 4000 to 6400. If I had to do it again, I would not hesitate to stay at 6400. My aperture was at f1.4 and most of the time the speed was around 1/6 which turned out enough when the turtle was not moving but blurry otherwise. Ideally, staying at 1/10 or 1/13 would have helped getting sharper pictures.

Quick Travel Tips

  • In Malaysia, the peak turtle nesting season is from May to September. We were told mid June to late August was perfect to see both turtles nesting and eggs hatching.
  • As always with animals, be extra cautious not to disturb them. We can frighten them without realising it. So avoid loud voice, don’t touch them, don’t get too close and follow the instructions of your guide. He will tell you what you should do.
  • Green sea turtles as listed as endangered. Turtle hatcheries are great help to protect them. If you want to be a volunteer and spend a few days on Talang Satang, they now offer this option.

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