A Trip to the Turtle Islands

The Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIPA) consists of a group of nine islands: three in Malaysia and six in the Philippines. They are appropriately called the Turtle Islands and represent a transboundary conservation agreement focused on protecting the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). These nine islands are some of the most important nesting beaches in Southeast Asia.

The story of the sea turtle and its life cycle is an inspiration to me — a motivational message about overcoming the odds. Each day and night I walked along the beach in search of nesting sea turtles. Most often in the early morning light, I would see the tracks, but occasionally I would encounter a nesting turtle that pushed its massive body across the beach from the sea to lay its eggs on land, starting a new generation.

One of my most awe-inspiring moments on the Turtle Islands was when I observed and photographed baby sea turtles breaking through the sand and racing to the water’s edge. For the hatchlings, this is truly a life-or-death drama. Most don’t make it past the hungry gauntlet of the seabirds and fish within the coral reef; it’s estimated that less than 1 percent survive. There is still much we don’t know about the ocean and the animals living in it, but it’s clear that those that survive to adulthood are the lucky ones.

One evening on the sandy beach I asked Romeo Trono, the executive country director of Conservation International Philippines, to describe what it was like before he and others established this conservation area. He humbly told me that it never dawned on him that he would see the hatchlings they released in the eighties return to the same beaches 20-30 years later. In 2011, both the Malaysian and Philippine park rangers reported a record number of nesting sea turtles on their beaches — most likely a direct result of the conservation work over the past two to three decades.

The Turtle Islands are a success story and a testament to the long-term triumphs of conservation efforts. They remind us that, like the sea turtle hatchling racing for the water, we too can beat the odds.