Green sea turtles of Derawan Island

Green sea turtles remain a rare sight in many parts of the world, but one Indonesian island tasked with protecting them is being overrun by far too many. The Berau administration in East Kalimantan uses it as its symbol despite the rich diversity of sea creatures and coral reefs in the Derawan islands.

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The sea turtle, particularly the green turtle, is the star of the islands. You can easily spot a sea turtle swimming in the clear water in daylight. If you jump into the water, the chances are you will be swimming with several of them. The Derawan islands have served as a nesting and feeding area for an abundance of sea turtles, particularly green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Erethmochelys imbricata).

The green turtle was once common in the warm oceans of the world, but has become increasingly scarce in areas where it is commercially exploited. As a gentle vegetarian, the species feed mainly on sea grasses and algae that are widely available in the Derawan sea. The hard-shelled marine turtles can weigh 150 kilograms and reach over 100 centimeters in length while their hatchlings are a mere five centimeters long.

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Elegant and tenacious swimmers, they are believed to live up to 100 years. Just like other sea turtles, green turtles have an incredible sense of direction. However, they need to expend a lot of energy when on land. Only female turtles have to do that. When 10 to 20 years old, the female turtles return to the sandy beaches where they were born to lay their eggs there.

A female can be fertilized by several males. Thereafter, the female comes ashore about three to five times within a period of 10 to 15 days to build a nest and lay about 100 eggs each time. If lucky, you could observe turtles laying their eggs either on Derawan or Sangalaki islands. On the latter, about 20 female turtles lay their eggs there daily. Nonetheless, this adds up to a large quantity.

They usually lay their eggs at night to avoid the heat. After dragging themselves across the beach to find a suitable spot, a turtle will dig a hollow in the sand using its flippers. They cover the hollow after laying their eggs and make a fake hollow to deceive predators, before returning to the sea. The process can take hours. Green sea turtles can swim over 1,000 kilometers and cross oceans to reach their place of birth-cum-nesting site.

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The hatchlings rise to the surface after about 60 days. Soon after they emerge on the beach, they encounter the most dangerous period of their lives. They have to run the gauntlet of crabs, birds, octopuses and large fish. They are also prone to starvation or illness. Only about one or two of 1,000 hatchlings survive and grow into adult turtles. However, once fully grown only two enemies are left: sharks and humans.

Sangalaki Island is one of the islands that have been designated as a Marine Protected Area. The area is protected by a high wooden fence. Boards across the fence state the date, the number of turtles and the number of eggs that can be found within. If you pay a visit to the island, you’ll be able to see the incubation and hatching of between 62 – 160 green turtle eggs.

Green turtles take between 56-77 days to hatch from the time the eggs are laid. Once hatched, the tiny turtles will begin the treacherous journey to reach the sea, threatened by sea birds and bigger fish. While visitors may observe this spectacle, they are advised by the NGOs of the region not to intervene, but to instead let the natural processes take their course. The young hatchlings are carnivorous, but once full grown, become herbivores, feeding on algae, seaweed and other marine plants.

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Out of hundreds of hatchlings, less than 50% will survive to adulthood. The green turtles face an almost uncountable number of obstacles, both intentional and unintentional in their battle for survival. Though many of these circumstances are not in our power to control, there are a few things that we can do. Firstly, we must do our part to preserve the animal’s habitat and marine ecosystems, and next, put an end to the illegal trade by not purchasing the turtle’s eggs. Hopefully, if we can follow these few simple rules, we can help preserve this rare and beautiful species before it’s too late.

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