One of the things that I wanted to do when I visited Kuantan, on Malaysia’s east coast back in 1989 was to see sea turtles. A few of my friends from dental school went together for that trip.
Being a boy growing up on a small island, I had my fair chances of seeing the sea. My bedroom in Hong Kong faced the sea and I regularly took the boat to the Jumbo floating restaurant to enjoy a dim sum breakfast with my parents. My favorite past time as a toddler and young boy was to hang out at the beach with my uncle, my father’s younger brother. My parents used to purchase fresh catch directly off the fisherman’s hands on a daily basis, may it be in the evening or right before sunrise. My life could not be separated from the ocean.
One of my classmate at St Louis High School, Patrick, thought I lived on a boat as I had very dark skin as result of regular swimming. Oh well, I almost swam like a fish. At a rather young age, I could manage to swim under water for over 50m by holding one breath. It was practically impossible for me to imagine life without the sea. However, I was out of that privilege in my subsequent life in North America but I had no complains. Life is about winning some while losing some. I did not give up too much while I gained a lot.
In that 1989 August holiday in Kuantan, Malaysia, we paid extra money to sit in front of the beach one evening to quietly wait for sea turtles swim to the shore and lay eggs. Countless mosquito bites and many hours later, there was no turtle in sight. We left the next morning for a conference in Kuala Lumpur.
We met an older Aussie backpacker and he shared with us his experience of turtle watching. Firstly, it does not happen often – There is no convenient phone number to book a turtle to arrive on the night we are there. Nature has its own way of randomly calling some of the turtles from the endless sea. Based on probability, one turtle may happen to land on the beach where we are, but seldom more than one.
This Aussie gentleman said that after a few night at the beach, he saw one turtle swim ashore. It took the giant animal a few hours to crawl up the beach to where it wanted to lay its eggs. Then it was another few hours to dig her nest (hole) in the sand, followed by another long time to drop her eggs. By now you have guessed it – it was another long time for her to cover the eggs in sand and then after another few hours for her to slowly move back to the sea. Mind you, this was the time before we had cable TV and National Geographic shows… After we heard that process, we realized that we were just not being unlucky not to see the turtles but rather our luck was on par with everyone on an everyday basis. It was not meant to be.
One of the latest research studies shows that turtle swim back to the beach where they were born through the recognition of magnetic fields. In other words, the turtles were born with a rather sophisticated navigation system.
Fast forward two decades later, the truth is revealed that out of the numerous little islands around Hong Kong, some turtles were born and some do choose to go back to their birthplace to lay eggs on a semi-regular basis!! One of the beaches was only about 3km from my bedroom window over the other side of Lamma island off Aberdeen, at the south side of Hong Kong island. All it takes would be a rather economical 30 minute boat ride from a little pier 4 minutes from the front door of my Hong Kong home (my bedroom actually overlooks the pier!!) followed by another 40 minutes hike on Lamma Island.
I could have watched numerous turtles (with or without laying eggs) when I was growing up!
Don’t forget to smell the roses…