COMMENTARY: Malaysian Encounter

A Chance Meeting with a Leatherback Turtle

Having seen nothing but identical offices in downtown Kuala Lumpur for four days, I was ready to be a tourist for a while. A full-color poster in a travel agent’s brought back childhood memories of David Attenborough and the leather-backed turtles of Malaysia. I’d always meant to see these special creatures, and here was my chance! A 45-minute hop across the peninsula had delivered me to the little east coast resort of Rantau Abang—and a puzzle. As my taxi bumped and nosed its way down the single main street I could see something was wrong with the place. The beach was as lovely as the poster had promised—warm sand under foot, but not burning hot, a tree-line of classic Coral Island waving fronds, and a July temperature in the mid-80s. It was humid of course, though quite bearable in the breeze as the sun descended. But the beach and the streets behind it were empty of tourists, buildings were dilapidated, and I was soon to discover why.

Leatherback turtles are on the verge of extinction thanks to long-line fishing and plastic pollution.© Matthew Godfrey & Ruth Baretto

Joe must have been in his 80s but didn’t really seem to care how old he was. He had been running the little shanty beach-bar for decades, and told me he’d been a prisoner of both the Japanese and the British during World War II. His speciality was a Singapore sling of lethal strength, and as I sipped gingerly he told me what had gone wrong with Rantau Abang and the turtles. Fifty years ago, apparently, female turtles nested on this beach in their hundreds during July and August. Now it had fallen to a handful. The leatherback has suffered a 95 percent decline in population since 1980. There is imminent danger of extinction in the next five to 30 years. The main culprits are long-line fishing on an industrial scale, and pollution (e.g. plastic pollution) in inshore waters. Longline fishing involves setting out hundreds or thousands of hooks on lines that can be as long as 60 miles. This crude method often catches seals, sea-birds, sharks, whales and turtles as well as the intended tuna and swordfish. The largest longline fishing fleets are believed to be from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The locals, understandably, had tried to exploit the remaining leatherback phenomenon, leading nightly parties of tourists with flashlights to stalk the huge creatures as they heaved their ungainly bulk, perhaps half-a-ton in weight and six feet in length, up to the tree line, searching for a safe nesting spot in the sand. Turtles are disorientated by bright lights, and the campfires and illuminated snack-stalls on the beach confused and frightened them. People would prod and poke them, try to ride them, even disturb them in the actual laying process. Their eggs would either not be laid, or would be stolen and sold in the market for 10 times the price of hens" eggs.

It’s that old obsession with "aphrodisiac properties," exacting the ultimate price from one of the Earth’s finest creatures. The turtles come to this shore in only tiny numbers now. Sometimes they swallow floating plastic detritus, which they mistake for their staple diet of jellyfish, and perish as a result. The few eggs laid are collected by a state-regulated hatchery and the hatchlings are released into the sea. Tourists, better informed than I, have stopped coming, and the little resort has fallen on hard times.

I went to bed that night depressed as well as tipsy. I would head back for KL and on to London the next morning. I awoke with a headache an hour or so before dawn and decided to give myself the consolation of what was certain to be a memorable sunrise. Half-a-mile or so down the beach I was walking backwards, hypnotized by the colors of the horizon, when I stumbled over a large boulder, half-buried—a boulder that moved.

This female leatherback (the males never land) was close to top-of-the-range in size. But her flippers moved feebly and she had clearly fallen into a hollow, which her efforts were only making it harder to emerge from. Her eyes were closed and I knew she was probably suffering from dehydration. The waterline was about 20 yards away and the tide was close to its highest. Nearby was a battered sun-lounger. I broke off a wooden slat and began digging. The sand was fine and would often cave in to the channel I was carving. After half an hour I was exhausted and despairing.

Then, from nowhere, a boy of 11 or so, just like the ones who had knocked on my taxi window on the way into town, was at my side. He broke off another slat and began digging alongside me. Miraculously, the great creature just behind us started to move along the channel. The boy ran down to the waterline, soaked his tee-shirt, and draped it over her back. We had new energy now, and within 30 minutes we had reached the waterline just as the tide was turning. With one last heave the stately creature, her eyes now wide, pulled herself into the shallows and gently floated, to the unspeakable relief of all three of us. Re-orientating herself with the burgeoning sun, she circled for a minute, swam eastwards and dived.

I turned to the boy. He smiled a serious smile, shook my hand and vanished into the palm trees.

KERRY RENSHAW is a freelance writer from the UK.

CONTACT: Leatherback Turtle Recovery Program