It was 5am when the turtle finally dragged herself back into the sea, pausing only momentarily to catch her breath.

She was the first green turtle of the year to visit the nesting beach on Malaysia’s Perhentian Island, Kula Besar. By the time she returned to the lapping waves, we had been quietly sat by watching her for over two hours.

It was a Monday, and I was at the start of my second week volunteering with the Perhentian Turtle Project, thrilled to witness the first nest of the year. We’d been patrolling the beach at hourly intervals throughout the night, deterring poachers and scanning the sand for turtle tracks.

The Perhentian Turtle Project and the Malaysian Fisheries work together to monitor and boost the sea turtle population in the region. Turtles are at risk from poaching – eggs are still bought to be eaten – and other human interference, such as discarded rubbish and tourist beaches.

Kayaking out to a snorkel survey: “Don’t touch the turtles!”

During my time with the project I saw Green turtles grazing on sea grass, and the smaller Hawksbill turtle while out on a snorkel tour. The project staff and volunteers record these sightings for their database.

The other volunteers and I helped with surveying the turtles’ feeding grounds, with the identification of the turtles and with other various tasks around the project’s bases in the fisherman’s village on Pulau Perhentian Kecil and on Besar.

We also enjoyed Malay dinners cooked by local women, which included chicken curry, fried fish, soft potatoes and fiery chilli chicken – eaten with the fingers – and we visited a range of rich and diverse snorkel sites around the islands, sighting outstanding coral and sea life such as rays, Bumphead Parrot Fish and Puffers. I was particularly excited to glide above Black Tip Reef Sharks, some of which were up to two metres long.

I had several once-in-a-lifetime experiences with the project, but nothing quite matched the privilege I felt while watching the green turtle, panting noisily as she dug her nest in the sand and laid her eggs.

nesting turtle
A turtle digs her nest

Shockingly, only 1 in 10,000 hatchlings will become an adult turtle (up from the natural figure of 1 in 1,000 due to human factors), but luckily for this turtle, her eggs will be watched over until they hatch and are delivered back to the sea as safely as possible. If any of those hatchlings make it to adulthood, they will instinctively return to the beach from which they hatched to lay their own eggs.

I feel lucky to have witnessed a part of this cycle, and to have contributed in a small way to the work that is done by the project.

To find out more about the Perhentian Turtle Project, including costs and available programmes, visit Ecoteer, which champions responsible and sustainable travel.

 – Turtle images courtesy of the Perhentian Turtle Project