Sunday, January 31, 2010

MEGAPOST - New Years at the Juara Turtle Project

This is a MEGAPOST, meaning it will be curiously long. The subject of this MEGAPOST will be the details of my New Years trip to Pulau Tioman, an island off the east coast of Malaysia, where I volunteered at the Juara Turtle Project.This post is about my week on Pulau Tioman from around Dec. 28 to Jan. 5. After Kuala Lumpur , I took a six-hour ferry ride to Mersing, a port on the east side of Peninsular Malaysia, and then took a one-and-a-half hour ferry ride to Tekek, a port on the west side of Pulau Tioman. From there, I took a four wheel drive taxi up and over the mountain on the middle of the island to Kampung Juara (or Juara Village, in English - Kampung means Village in Malay).

First of all, Juara isn't very big. There's a decent tourism industry, with a few resorts ranging from full on AC rooms to beach shack accomodation. To that end, most of the locals are used to seeing foreigners and tourists. However, most still don't really speak English. The entire village was this one long road:
It wasn't much, and besides the houses it was pretty much jungle on one side and the ocean on the other. Most people had satellite TV and cell phones and the motorized scooter was the preferred mode of transportation.

I was volunteering here, at the Juara Turtle Project:
It started off as a conservation project run by the government, but then it was taken over by people who own the resorts here after the government involvement ended. So it's owned by the same people who own the biggest resorts here and it's probably better that way. They have support from United World Colleges Southeast Asia (UWCSEA) and that allows them to more adequately control things like the temperature of the turtle hatchery - which is important to determine the sex of the baby turtles (more on turtle hatching later!).

The Turtle Project wasn't a very large site, just a big main area (below) with a kitchen, space for a garden, built accomodation for volunteers, the turtle hatchery and I guess the land that stretches out into the ocean.
You can tell that they don't waste any money on superfluous things; everything there had a specific purpose and it was all turtle-related. When I arrived, it was the offseason (turtle nesting and hatching peaks in the June/July; I came in December) and it was just this one guy, Charlie, holding down the fort. I didn't have to fill out a form and go through a complicated approval process. After an exchange of emails, I just arrived and came ready to contribute.

So first, let me answer a key question that I'm sure is on all of your minds. "Jeff, why would you volunteer at a turtle conservation project?"
Well, while my initial motivation was merely to try and contribute something to the place that I was traveling through, I learned a lot while I was there about these critically endangered species:

For one, they are endangered. Most people don't think of turtles as endangered, but that's land turtles. Sea turtles (ones that spend most of their life in the ocean) are super duper endangered. For a few species, they're almost down to a few hundred. That's bizonkers! At the Turtle Project, we were helping the population of Hawksbill turtles and Green turtles, both of which have been decimated by human activity.

For another, we can easily help them. The reason they're endangered is because, frankly, they're pretty easy for humans to prey on. They breed relatively late (around 15-25 years old, depending on diet and other factors) so most don't live long enough to breed (only 1 in 15,000 eggs reaches breeding age) and, when they do, they're easy prey for poachers. An adult female turtle will saunter up out of the ocean, dig a hole on a nice beach, and lay like a hundred golf ball-sized eggs. Since most turtles do this at predictable times of the year, humans have been able to just take the eggs (they're a delicacy in some parts of the world) and in other cases just take the mother (in certain Caribbean countries, turtle meat is as ubiquitous as beef in North America). The fact that nesting turtles also like the same beaches we do doesn't help either, as some turtles will come on the beach, see a couple making out or whatever, then decide to go back in the ocean, foregoing nesting at that time.

Even if the cache of eggs remains untouched, they still face an uphill battle. As mentioned before, the temperature of the egg determines the sex, so since the beaches are usually near human development, we've been affecting their population genetics with our the latent heat we generate. Not only that, but when baby turtles hatch they find the ocean by light (usually sunlight), so if they see a street light, they'll go that way instead and probably get run over by a car or something. And, of course, this is without even mentioning the amount of baby turtles that die due to fishing nets, miscellaneous garbage and speed boats. We sure make it hard for these turtles!

This leads me to what the Turtle Project actually does and how they're making a difference.
During nesting season, they go and grab the eggs from the nests, taking them back to their turtle hatchery (in the background with the thatched roof, above). The turtle hatchery is essentially a bunch of pits dug into the ground with protection around. Then they wait for the turtles to hatch and release the babies back at the beach where the mother turtle nested. They release the turtles at sunrise and away from the developments to make sure the turtles have a fighting chance to reach the ocean. The turtle babies still have their work cut out for them in the ocean, but some of their major obstacles have been removed.

Some other conservation places will raise the turtles until they're a bit older before releasing them, as they say this helps them to have a greater chance of survival (as well as providing the place with a great attraction for tourists - baby turtles!). However, at Juara, they think that this actually decreases the turtles' chance for survival as they grow up sheltered and not adapted to living in the wild. As the sign says, this is not a zoo. I'm not an ecologist so I don't know which way is better, but I thought I'd mention it in the interest of equal time.

So with all that background, I can now delve into my experiences there. My responsibilites included feeding the resident turtle Jo every day, helping to set up the new tool shed, and other odd jobs, such as helping to pump water from the ocean into Jo's tank and cleaning up around the project (raking leaves, etc.).

First, let me go through the process of feeding Jo. Jo is a turtle that was born blind and is now four years old. The turtle project takes care of her because she can't be released into the wild. She used to live in this tiny tank but ever since last year they built her this nice big tank that she can swim around in.
Every day, at around 5 pm, Jo gets fed around 5 raw fish. I'm not sure what kind of fish they are; Charlie buys like 40 pounds of them for 40 ringgit in Mersing.
The cats LOVE to try to steal some.

The first step in feeding Jo is to move her from the big tank... the small tank (it's really more of a big plastic tub). This is so that the big tank doesn't get dirty as easily and so it doesn't need to be cleaned as often.

Then you take a fish, removing the head (the cats love the scraps), and remove the bone in the middle so that it's easier for Jo to eat.Jo can eat the entire fish whole, but it's just easier for her this way. Since Jo is blind, you have to put the piece right next to her face so she can sense it...then she SNAPS and slurp the fish is gone.

The next thing I had my hand in was a bit of woodwork and painting. For a long time, the Turtle Project's been needing a shed to put tools, paint and other miscellaneous things. So I rolled up my sleeves and channeled that one time in elementary school when I made a birdhouse:This is me working on the table that was built to do work on.

I have to say, I was pretty impressed with how quickly we built it and moved all the stuff in. When we were finished, it looked like the room had been in use for years!That's Charlie in the picture by the way.

Besides that, I also did a lot of painting. Here's a door I painted:
And a table I painted:I also painted some other things (door frames, walls) but these were my best pieces.

Outside of working on Turtle Project stuff, I didn't do too much. It was my winter vacation, after all. I read some books, laid on the beach, played with the cats there:This is Emily, she's such a cutie patootie.

I also got bitten alive by bugs there:It was pretty bad. Good thing they didn't have malaria eh?

I also tried riding one of those motorized scooters once. I got about to the end of the road before crashing into a beach shack chalet. Charlie thought it was pretty funny:I got scratched up a bit, but at least I ensured that Charlie would remember me!

Oh, and if you're wondering how I spent New Years, I spent it drinking in a circle on the beach with a bunch of the local Malays and a few tourists. Randomly, as part of the night, a bunch of them start doing firespinning. It was a memorable experience, if only for the moment where I realized "What the heck, I'm sitting on a beach on an island in Malaysia with a bunch of random Malay guys celebrating New Years."

HOWEVER, what sticks with me most was when I first arrived and one of the guys asked me in broken english, "You drink?" and then, after I nodded, shouted elatedly, "Ahhhh. CAPTAIN MORGAN!!"Captain Morgan, indeed, good Malay sir. Captain Morgan, indeed.


  1. Hey Jeff, thanks a lot for sharing the experience. I'm considering volunteering in Juara this June/July.

  2. Hi Raiyan, that's amazing! You should definitely do it. My experience was not so typical since it wasn't turtle breeding season, but if you go around that time you should have plenty to do! Say hi to Charlie for me!

  3. This was a great read and very informative. Thanks!

  4. Hi,I'm interested to volunteer but they don't seem to be picking up their phone.How did you contact them?

  5. I emailed Charlie at the Juara Turtle Project email. He got back to me in a couple of days.