A trip to Turtle Island National Park (Pulau Selingan) is a once in a lifetime experience and a must-do visit if you’re visiting Borneo. This is the perfect travel guide to give you all the information you need to prepare for your trip. Find out how to book, where the boat leaves and what to expect on an overnight stay at Turtle Island.
Quite honestly, we loved our trip to Turtle Island and would highly recommend ti to anyone. Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer awesomeness of seeing these lovely turtles giving birth in their natural environment and returning the babies to the sea. Read on to discover what we got up to and everything you need to know for your own overnight visit to Turtle Island.
Turtle Islands National Park In Borneo consists of 3 islands, which are located 40 km to the north of Sandakan in Sabah. The island is dedicated to the conservation of the endangered turtles (Green and Hawksbill) who come to the islands to nest.
We visited Sandakan and Turtle Island as part of our recent family adventure in Borneo.
When is the best time to visit Turtle Island, in Borneo?
You can visit Turtle Island at any time of the year, as there is no specific hatching season and mother turtles come every day to lay their eggs.
However, the sea is calmer between July and October, so this is a good time to visit.
How do you get to Turtle Island?
You have to take a speed boat to Turtle Island, which takes about 1 hour. It leaves from the jetty just outside of the city. You can walk from town, but it’s not that easy if you are new to the area and it’s probably easier to take a Grab (the Malay equivalent of Uber).
Alternatively, you can book an organised tour from a tour operator, who will arrange collection from your hotel.
Booking a trip to Turtle Island
It’s definitely best to book your trip to Turtle Island in advance, as they limit their numbers to 50 each day.
We booked directly by email with Crystal Quest. The package includes overnight chalet accommodation and three buffet-style meals (lunch, dinner and breakfast), as well as the wonderful turtle experience.
Kampung Buli Sim
As you leave the city on the boat to Turtle Island, look out for the Buli Sim Water Village. This is a village where local fisherman live in a community of wooden houses built on stilts on the water. In fact, the village now stands on the site of the original town of Sandakan.
Visitors can visit this charming village. Take some time to wander along the wooden boardwalks by the houses or stop to sample the delicious seafood at one of the restaurants.
Accommodation at Turtle Island, Borneo
The overnight accommodation at Turtle Island is in wooden chalets. The rooms are basic, but spacious and comfortable. We didn’t really spend any time in the room, apart from sleeping, so they are ideal.
Meals are taken in a communal dining room and are included in the cost of the trip. The buffet had a typical Malay selection of rice, noodles and meat. Plus there was a good choice of fruit for dessert.
We were able to help ourselves to tea, but you can buy soft drinks and beers from a small shop.
Conservation at Turtle Island
Turtles visit all three islands at the National Park and the area has become dedicated to essential conservation work. The conservation programme is managed in a joint collaboration between Malaysia and the Philippines.
The two species of turtle who visit are the Green Turtle and Hawksbill Turtle. These beautiful turtles return year after year to lay their eggs in this safe haven.
Full-time rangers work on the island to oversee the conservation work. Their role is to ensure the hatcheries are safe and protect the turtle eggs from predators. In addition, the rangers monitor and record the results of the breeding programme and ensure the safe passage of baby turtles to the sea.
To further protect the turtles, only one of the islands is open to visitors. Although we got very close to the mother turtle, every precaution is in place to protect her during laying. Flash photography and filming are not permitted and light and noise are kept to a minimum.
What can you do on Turtle Island?
Explore the marine life
We spent the afternoon snorkelling on Turtle Island. We took our own snorkelling gear, but you can hire some when you get there. The kids loved swimming around above the coral, exploring the underwater oasis. There is a safe swimming area, with lifeguards who are supervising.
There’s plenty to see off the shores of Turtle Island. We saw sea cucumbers, star fish and an array of multi-coloured fish. We also saw a sea snake, who wasn’t keen to hang around when he saw us!
Stroll along the beach
After snorkelling in the sea, we took a stroll around the shores of this tropical island. With its golden sands and turquoise waters, the island views are just fantastic.
Although you can walk round Turtle Island, it has rocky edges at one end, so it’s advisable to wear beach shoes if you’re going to try. Keep your eye out in the sand for shells, crabs and abandoned turtle eggs.
And, don’t forget to come back to the beach early evening, as the sunset was spectacular.
Delight in the local nature
As well as marine life on Turtle Island, we saw crabs, rats and a cheeky monitor lizard who was happily lazing in the tree outside our chalet.
Be enchanted by turtles
After a day at the beach, it’s time for the highlight of the trip – “Turtle Time”.
This part of the trip was divided into 3 distinct sections, as follows:-
Part 1 – Mother Turtle
After dinner, we waited in the dining room for the turtles to come ashore and start digging their trench. It’s worth taking something to entertain the kids, as you don’t know how long the wait will be.
We always pack some travel games and had taken the ever-popular family card-game Uno and a new game called Monopoly Deal. This is a card version of the original, but less tedious as it can be over in 20 mins! It is really easy to learn and we played with a Swiss couple we met at dinner.
Both games were ideal as they are small to pack, easy to learn and quick to play.
At about 9pm, a ranger came in and shouted “Turtle Time”. This was our cue to move. We excitedly hurried behind him down to the beach. One of the mother turtles had already arrived on shore and started to lay her eggs here. Careful not to disturb her, we stood right behind her and watched in awe as she lay 73 eggs.
Amazingly, we had a birds’ eye view of this fantastic act of nature. Unbeknown to Mother Turtle, the ranger was carefully collecting the turtle eggs. This was so he could bury them afterwards in the safety of the hatchery.
When she had finished laying, the ranger gave Mother Turtle a quick health check. He, removed barnacles from her shell and tagged her, as she was a newcomer to the island. This is done so they can monitor which turtles are returning to the island.
Part 2 – The hatchery
Once Mother Turtle had finished laying, we followed the ranger to the hatchery. He headed for a pre-dug hole in the sand, where he quickly counted and re-buried the eggs. The rangers remove the eggs to this protected area, so that they could incubate without danger from predators.
Careful planning on which end of the hatchery the eggs are planted, determines the sex of the babies. Half of the hatchery is in the shade of the trees, as this cooler temperature ensures male babies.
Part 3 – The release
Following the burial of eggs, the ranger collected a basket of baby turtles that had just emerged from the hatchery that evening. The incubation time for turtles is usually 50-60 days. We followed closely behind as he took the babies back down to the sea.
We all watched in anticipation as he emptied his basket onto the sand. The young turtles took a few seconds to get their bearings and off they went! A magical sight to see these tiny creatures taking their first steps in the world.
It’s amazing that the turtles start their life journey with no help from their parents, yet instinctively know what to do. One of the babies in the batch had deformed flippers and was a lot slower than the others, so its chances of survival did not look good. In fact, rangers know surprisingly little about the first journey in the turtle lives. And, unfortunately very few survive to maturity.
When we went to bed, we were still buzzing about the amazing sights of our trip to Turtle Island. We arose early the next morning, for a tasty breakfast.
We then headed back down to the beach for the boat back to Sandakan. An amazing trip that we won’t ever forget.
PIN FOR LATER: A Trip to Turtle Island, Borneo