A Small Island in the Sulu Sea of Malaysian Borneo
One of three small islands in the Turtle Islands Park, Selingan “Turtle” Island invites travelers to witness a magical wildlife experience. Green turtles and hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay eggs after the sun has set and darkness covers the little island.
Area: 8 hectares (approx. 200 x 400 m)
Location: Sulu Sea, 40 km north of Sandakan
Population: Only rangers and lodge staff
Accommodation: 1 lodge with 24 basic, but comfy guest rooms
Main attraction: Green and Hawksbill turtles (laying eggs and hatching)
Likelihood of witnessing turtles: >99%
Waiting for the Gong
We are all done with our dinner meal, a buffet with options for all tastes and lots of fruits to end it on. We have heard the instructions: Do not interfere with any turtles approaching from sea, be quiet as you experience the scene, stay with the group, follow the directions from the ranger etc. No one is talking, not even the talkative old British couple with whom we had shared stories. 40 people waiting in quiet anticipation. Our small island was swallowed by darkness a few hours ago, and it could happen anytime. Most people were hoping for an early sighting in order to catch as much sleep as possible, before the early morning rise.
Initial panic as everyone got up from their chairs and looked around as if they had forgotten the instructions. The rangers took charge, and we all followed their flashlights down towards the beach. A ranger had spotted the first green turtle appearing from the sea to dig a large hole in the sand, position herself, and then lay her eggs. We stood in a half circle around the big turtle as the rangers directed their torches at the newly dug turtle nest. One by one the eggs fell into the pit. Now and then a ranger would carefully remove the eggs and put them in a bucket.
Turtles laying eggs are in a trance, their actions totally controlled by their natural instincts. We were informed that once the egg laying started, they would not mind the people around them or anything else for that matter. We followed a ranger back to the hatchery, as other rangers continued to collect eggs from turtles.
A hole had been prepared at the hatchery. The eggs were lowered into the sand and carefully covered up. In two months, hopefully, small baby turtles would start to stir the sand trying to dig themselves out in search of the sea. We didn’t have to wait two months. The baby turtles from a previous nesting had hatched and they were now ready to start their turtle life. Once again we went down to the beach where cute baby turtles were released and directed to sea by the helping rangers. The Sulu Sea had once again been enriched with a batch of baby turtles in an effort to defy the odds of survival and to ensure that the dwindling sea turtle population will once again be strong and stable.
Early Morning Surprise
As soon as light broke, we got up. It is not uncommon to spot the last turtles laying their eggs in the early morning hours. We walked around the little island. There were plenty of turtle tracks, and it seemed like all the turtles had already returned to sea. That’s when we saw Molly, a large water monitor lizard. We kept a safe distance to the lizard, but Molly was clearly more interested in what lay beneath the sand.
We were somehow saddened to see Molly end the chances of survival with each egg she swallowed. Just the night before we witnessed the protection of turtle life, and right before us now a big lizard was feasting on unborn baby turtles. We passively watched as nature brutally worked through its routine as it has done for millions of years. After all, we agreed, we had come to assist wildlife not interfere with it.
Selingan Island: General Information
Selingan Island Resort
The only people actually staying on Selingan Island are turtle rescue volunteers, researchers, rangers, and lodge staff. There are 24 guest rooms on the island. They are split into four buildings each with 6 rooms. We were expecting very basic accommodation, but found the rooms to be spacious and comfortable. If you need a tv and a fridge, you are in the wrong place anyway. The rooms recently got aircondition, but to save the scarce energy on the small island, we suggest you only use the ceiling fan. If you need to cool down, a swim in the sea or a quick shower will do wonders.
The rooms are with twin-beds and as such they are designed for two people traveling together. If your travel party consists of more than two people, you need an extra room. The resort does have extra mattresses for children, so check beforehand if you are allowed to sleep in one room if that’s your preference.
Walking from the guest rooms towards the common visitor area, you pass the fenced hatchery, where collected eggs are kept safe from predators. The main building on Turtle Island is the lodge with common seating areas, information, and the restaurant. On an information screen in front of the entrance, you can see the latest details from the turtle hatchery: How many turtles laid eggs the previous nights and at what time, how many eggs were transferred to the protected hatchery, how many baby turtles hatched, and the accumulated number of turtle nests during the year.
More Than Turtles
Selingan Island is not only about turtles. The island itself is beautiful. It’s small enough to walk around in half an hour, but still big enough to find small secluded spots along the way. There is a designated area for snorkeling, and snorkel equipment for cheap rent. I don’t like boundaries when swimming in the sea, but I guess it helps keep the other parts of the island wild and the lifeguards can easily survey the swimmers. The sand is white and very smooth, the water is clear, and you can view other small islands in the horizon. The sunset was stunning.
Near the guest chalets there is a dirt football (soccer) field. You can join the rangers for a game, if you can bear the heat. There is also a volleyball net at the main building, which no one seemed to be using. If you want to learn more about turtle life there is an information centre above the cafeteria area.
Here are a few more images of our turtle island experience. Are you tempted to go?
Each and every night Selingan Island is visited by egg-laying turtles. You can witness the turtles on any day of the year.
- Morning transfer from Sandakan Airport or hotel to the pier. A pleasant speedboat trip will take you directly to Selingan Island in less than an hour.
- Check-in and information by your guide. The rest of the day is free at your own leisure. You can snorkel, take a walk around the island, and visit the turtle hatchery.
- There is dinner in the evening, and then everyone awaits the signal from the rangers when they spot the first egg-laying turtle on the beach. Green turtles are most common, but the island does get hawksbill turtles as well. You witness the turtle laying eggs, the collection and transplanting of eggs to the hatchery. Small baby turtles are waiting to be released under the cover of the dark night. Once again you walk down to the beach and help direct the cute turtles into the sea to a safe start of their dangerous life journey. Note that guests are encouraged not to pick up the small turtles.
- Overnight in one of the twin-bedded guest rooms.
- Get up early for a chance to see late-comer turtles lay their eggs in the morning light. After breakfast, return by boat to Sandakan.
- The turtle experience on Selingan Island ends here, but most packages include a visit onwards to Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.
- Swimming wear
- Light and comfy clothes
- Flip-flops (no need for shoes)
- Money (for beverages, snorkel rental, and camera fee)
- Sun lotion, toiletries, personal medicine
The Selingan Island Turtle Experience
A visit to Selingan Island should definitely be on your Sabah itinerary. Day guests are not accepted, so there is a maximum to how many tourists will be on the island at any given time. This allows you to have a bit of the island by yourself. We were positively surprised by the standard of the rooms, although this was not and should not be a priority. In the end the trip more than lived up to our expectations – we were not expecting the charm and beauty of the little island.
A few improvements to the experience could be…1
Guests are repeatedly told that smoking on the island is strictly prohibited due to environmental reasons. At the same, some rangers and guides casually smoke on the island in front of everyone. That’s Borneo!2
The stretches of beach around the island were not properly cleaned of marine debris, empty plastic bottles etc. It would not take long for one volunteer to walk around the island with a bag to pick up the garbage.
More on the Selingan Turtle Island Experience
We were not the first ones to enjoy this wonderful turtle experience. Take a look at these resources where you can find further descriptions and images from Borneo’s Turtle Island.
Turtle Island Borneo: The official website of the island, providing valuable information about the package, itinerary, and images.
Borneo Eco Tours: The local travel agent we booked with. Borneo Eco Tours cover all of Borneo, they have a strong social and environmental profile, and their guides and drivers are excellent.
As Her World Turns: Erica tells us about her Selingan Island trip in two posts. In Arriving at Turtle Island, Borneo she gives a magnificent account of the first day experience through ample photo documentation. She eats, she snorkels, she explores, and shows what you can expect from Selingan Island. Her adventure continues in The Turtle Island Experience, where – you guessed it – we are walked through an evening of turtle hatching, egg transplantation, and baby turtle release with great photos from the activities.
The Adventures of M&M: A photo story about the turtle island experience in Borneo by Michael and Martina. Great photos and a very impressive early morning video of an egg-laying green turtle. See it right here:
If you want to learn more about Borneo and the rest of Malaysia, take a look at our Malaysia Destination Guide.