Sandakan: Turtle Island Park

OMG!! This you HAVE to do!!

And don’t waste your time organising through some tour group. You do not need a tour guide for this experience. Do it by yourself, and book it directly with Crystal Quest. Not only will it save you a bit of money, it also gives you a bit of freedom to explore. As we did.

Read on.

DSC_1571Turtle Island Park is actually a group of islands, co-managed by both the Malaysian and the Philippines Governments. Selingan Island is the only one open to the general public to view and learn from Rangers, with the intent of raising awareness and support for the conservation of turtles.

The island is a long way from land – beautiful; small; quiet. Along with the set activities, we were also allowed snorkelling and swimming in designated beach areas. We all loved this as the snorkelling was far better here than the islands of KK (did I mention that the visitor numbers are kept low?)

If you’re a sucker and booked with a tour group, you will be met by your guide at the Jetty, and they will take care of most things for you. If, however, you have booked it yourself – You turn up to the Jetty at the required time; check in; pay your balance, conservation fees, and camera fees; and then hop on board when they tell you. No big deal.

The trip out takes about an hour, passing water houses and a temple or two along the way. It is very noisy – there is no deflection of noise from the motor. If you suffer tinnitus, bring some ear plugs. There was another family with young kids (7 and 4) who appeared to suffer the same issues.

DSC_1586Upon arrival, we were given some brief instructions as to the usual procedure for the night and then given some free time. Of course, B & S headed straight to the beach for swimming and snorkelling. N was still feeling sick at this point, so we simply headed for a nap in our little bungalow.

Main meals are included with some provisions to buy snacks as needed. After lunch, S & I separated from the other two. Funnily enough, both groups saw monitor lizards.


In our case, S and I hurried back to our bungalow to grab cameras for the opportunity.

For B and N, they had to hurry to find a Ranger – they had spotted a monitor lizard in the hatchery itself. It was pretty easy to tell its intent with the long tongue licking away, but fortunately B spotted it fairly quickly and the Ranger has a pretty good hammer-throw for monitors.

The tricky part comes after lunch. See, the Big Event is late in the evening. And sometimes it can be really late in the evening – dependent on where your group is in the queue, and the availability of turtles laying their eggs. Fortunately, our boys crashed for almost 3hrs in the afternoon, so they were plenty rested for the evening.

DSC_1627The evening started at 6.30pm with an educational slideshow, followed by dinner at 7.30pm. This is where it gets a little tricky. The Rangers usually split all the guests into three groups, and you can even hear ‘negotiating’ with the tour guides as they try to score the best time for their guests.

Fortunately, having kids AND no tour guide pushed us up to the first group. Where most guests were totally dependent on their booked guides to share information with them, we had been talking to the Rangers directly. They were really impressed with the kids and their genuine curiousity. They were also impressed with S having his own ‘photographers pass’. This meant the Rangers were happy to move the kids up to first to avoid a late night… and because they are cute. If you are in the 3rd group, you could be waiting until 10.30pm for a turtle sighting. No matter which group you are in, bring some playing cards for the wait. We only had to wait until 8.30pm.

Our first stop is on the beach, where we are witness to a beautiful large mother laying her eggs – 83 in total.


Now – B did an awesome job with photography here, but obviously no flash (do not disturb the natural wonder you are here to witness). This lovely photo shows the size, while the Ranger is busy noting measurements, markings, general health, etc.

It is definitely worth paying the little bit extra for a photographer’s pass, even for the kids. We have some amazing shots captured by S that are just his personally. You feel so lucky to participate in this. It doesn’t feel like a touristy exercise – you genuinely feel like you are observing a natural wonder under the watchful eye of trained Rangers, committed to doing the right thing.

We then visited the hatchery and watch the Rangers carefully relocate the eggs, with markers and details recorded with each clutch.


Our final stop is back on the beach, this time to participate in the release of some new hatchlings back to the ocean. This is where the Rangers were absolutely magnificent with the children. S and N were allowed very close to help redirect the babies. Like, arms-reach! That’s N in the yellow and white t-shirt in the photo.

DSC_1658The night didn’t end there! While we walked back to our bungalow, still stunned by the whole experience, B and S found a loose hatchling on the footpath. This time B held the baby while S found the Ranger to help return it to the hatchery. In one day, both kids had been heroes to at least one baby turtle. And B held one in his hands!!

Overall, the experience was amazing. Truly amazing. The Rangers are so approachable and love sharing their knowledge with anyone willing to listen. The boys learnt a lot from the experience; things they still remember 4 years later. And being able to participate in a conservation program, even on a small scale, really leaves you with a good feeling for the holiday. Like, it’s not just about relaxing on a holiday. It is part of a grander scheme as well.



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