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Day 9 YEP in Borneo

Lankayan Island, where we’ve been anchored for the past two nights, is the centre of the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area (Simca), and an important part of their work is the protection of green and hawksbill turtles that use these islands as nesting grounds. After just missing the release of a batch of hatchlings on the night we arrived, a small band of bleary-eyed explorers made sure they were on the beach the next morning by 6am, just in case any more tiny turtles had hatched in the night. We were lucky: Achier Chung, marine biologist and Simca’s conservation manager, was standing by with a bowl full of about 50 wriggling babies, climbing all over each other in their bid to get out into the ocean. With the sun just rising over the horizon, they dashed across the sand to the water, little fins flying, occasionally having to detour through a large footprint, or battling over piece of coral. “I wanted to help them because they need to get to the water for food,” Eugénie Guillaume, 18, from France. “But we need to stand back and observe, let nature unfold. It’s instinct, they just know where to go.”

While these youngsters were spending their first few hours of life in open water, the human Young Explorers were continuing with their ACT projects – building the aeroplane coral reef and conducting another reef transect in the colourful waters around the island. They were done in time to be back on the island in the evening, for yet another ACT project: patrolling the island for adult female turtles that had come ashore to lay their eggs. In a bid to safeguard these threatened reptiles – it’s believed only 1% of all hatchlings make it to adulthood – the island conservationists move the eggs to hatcheries where they’re numbered and monitored, to stop them being eaten or damaged. About 10 minutes into the first circuit of the island, the YEPs found the tracks of a green turtle that had moved up the beach into the plant fringe, where she’d laboriously dug a hole for her eggs. Half an hour later there 79 ping-pong ball eggs laid and already saved, as she slowly made her way back into the water. The ‘Pangaea batch’ is now buried in the hatchery, and in about seven weeks, we hope to have a full nest of young turtle explorers! But the night was only getting better. While the female was laying, word came through that a batch of eggs laid in September had now hatched, and the first small turtles had dug their way up through the sand, ready to face the world.

They were clearly exhausted by the effort of digging through 70cm of sand, and the little things were fast asleep. Achier then worked a little natural magic: she wiggled her fingers in the sand of the nest, which prompted an immediate mini-stampede of babies, all pouring out of the earth. There were 23 in all, who were gathered into a bowl and then released on the beach, where they flip-flapped their way into the water and a brand-new life. This morning saw another ACT project, and another link in the chain of life. The YEPs went back to the island to clean the hatcheries. “After a batch has hatched, we leave the nest for one week, in case there are any more turtles still digging their way up through the sand. We count the egg shells and any that haven’t hatched, to learn more about them,” said Achier. It was a smelly business: any intact eggs have to be opened, to learn why they didn’t hatch – can you imagine what a two-month-old bad egg smells like? “It was kind of disgusting, but interesting to see that most had simply not been fertilised – very few had died while they were developing. I had five that didn’t hatch and 70 that hatched. Most are surviving, so that’s good,” said Garrett Celestin, 15 of the USA.

Happily both Dongkyun Seo, 20, of South Korea and Garrett found live babies, which were released to make their way in the world. “I was pulling out egg shells when I saw this little black thing sticking out of the sand, wriggling. I helped it a bit with my finger and out it came. It was amazing, I saved a life!” said Dongkyun. A third live one had a damaged fin, which meant it would be instant shark food if released near the reef. But she was flapping away as hard as she could, determined to survive. So the little one joined us on board Pangaea as we sailed away from Lankayan Island, and was released in deeper water. With a damaged fin the odds are stacked against her, but here’s hoping that in 20 years or so, our little fighter will be returning to Lankayan to lay her own eggs.

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