We sailed away from Sandakan yesterday afternoon, bound for the Turtle Island reserve about 40 kilometres north of the town. Arriving shortly before six, we were too late to get permits, so after a quick dive from the boat (to a shallow reef teeming with beautiful fish and a variety of colourful corals), Mike decide to sail on to what was little more than a small dot on the map: Sebaung Island. But perhaps ‘One-tree Island’ would be a more appropriate name, as through the binoculars in the growing dark we could make out just one tree and two bushes.
Armed with torches, the YEPs jumped into the tender and went to explore. Sebaung is tiny – about 100 metres by 50 metres of rock and bleached white coral rubble, with some hermit crabs and a startlingly beautiful black-and-yellow banded sea snake – it’s not often you see them on land. But the really bizarre find was a white sea bird, long dead, that had been strung up in the tree, along other traces that people had stayed on this tiny spit of land: a lean-to shelter covered in bits of plastic, and places where the coral had been arranged to protect a fire. Quite peculiar – there are plenty of fishing boats around, so it’s unlikely anyone was stuck there.
Sadly there was more evidence of human influence: the skeleton of a turtle that had been someone’s meal, plus loads and loads rubbish. That prompted the unscheduled ACT project – to clean up the island. This morning the YEPs filled 10 large dustbin bags with plastic bottles, old shoes, fishing line, polystyrene, plastic bags, chip packets and more. Mike held up a bright orange cigarette lighter. “This is the kind of thing that kills turtles,” he told the YEPs. “Lighters, toothbrushes, lids – the turtles love the bright colours, but they get stuck in their throats and they die.
“Look at this toothbrush – there’s no village nearby, and here’s a toothbrush, perfectly intact. They’re almost impossible to destroy. Can you imagine how many toothbrushes get thrown away?” Another disturbing find was several plastic ampoules that had contained sodium cyanide. Dr Roswitha Stolz, a physical geography expert from the University of Munich, explained that it’s used by people collecting fish to sell for the aquarium trade. “They empty the cyanide in the water and it tranquilizes the fish, making them easy to catch. But of all the fish caught, only 4% make it to the destination alive.
“There’s also a growing market in China, Hong Kong and Japan for live fish – people want to touch their fish before it’s killed and eaten. A live Napoleon, or humpback wrasse, of more than 50cm fetches up to US$4 000 in Hong Kong.” The rubbish was sorted into types, and it will be compressed on board Pangaea and recycled. Glass was left behind. “It’s silica, a natural substance, and it’s a waste to use heat to recycle it. It’s better to use the natural energy of the sea.”
Pangaea made the most of the breezes for an afternoon of sailing, with five sails up at one stage, and later the gennaker. Destination: Lankayan Island, a dive resort and conservation area, where the YEPs did two dives, through two shipwrecks and later a night dive. Sadly we arrived just too late to see some turtle hatchlings making a desperate dash for the sea, so instead we celebrated Halloween at the resort’s restaurant. More hatchlings are due early on Sunday morning – maybe we’ll be lucky then?