The Yearly Call of the Giant Leatherbacks
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN MALAYSIA
IT IS almost midnight. The full moon overhead casts a golden sheen across a benign and calm sea. On the beach at Rantau Abang are groups of people, some standing, others squatting or sitting on the cool, fine sand. What are they doing here at this hour? They are patiently waiting for the visit of an enormous shell equipped with four flippers—the giant leathery turtle, or leatherback.
These mysterious amphibious visitors have brought international renown to this otherwise overlooked beach. Rantau Abang is situated on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, just north of Dungun and some 250 miles [400 km] up from Singapore. It is one of the few places in the world where the leatherbacks call annually on a noble mission.
Here the egg-laying season stretches roughly from May to September. During the peak months of June, July, and August, it is quite easy to observe the egg-laying process. Usually the turtles will start coming up after darkness falls. Will these visitors from all over Malaysia, Singapore, and the West have waited in vain?
Out Of the Sea They Come!
Suddenly, silhouetted against the shimmering water not very far out from the shore, something is spotted bobbing up and down. The crowd gets excited! As it comes closer to shore, a dome-shaped object begins to emerge from the water. It is a turtle coming ashore! The few guides who are present caution all to watch as quietly as possible, lest the noise frighten it away.
First the head appears, then the neck, followed by the front part of the shell and the front flippers, till finally the whole turtle is exposed on the shore. The gentle tide washes over its tail and back flippers. What a giant indeed, about six feet [2 m] or more from the nose to the tip of the tail! There on the beach it lies motionless.
Abruptly, the turtle lifts itself up by the front flippers and throws its body forward, hitting the ground with a thud. It lies still for a moment, as though to muster up breath and strength for the next lift and throw. This is how it moves on land. The crowd on both sides of it are kept at a distance. The guides are very strict about this. With each forward move, the crowd also surges forward—but very quietly.
As the leatherback hobbles up the shore, it instinctively knows its destination. Its programmed knowledge enables it to find a spot where its eggs have every advantage of hatching successfully. There it starts digging a hole. The back flippers become spades, scooping up the sand.
After what seems to be a long time, one of the guides, who is also a licensed egg collector, comes forward and stretches his hand into the hole, which is so deep that his elbow disappears into it. As he withdraws his arm from the hole, everyone gasps with surprise and excitement. He brings up an egg!
The leatherback’s egg is dull white in color. It varies in size from that of a ping pong ball to a tennis ball. The last few in a clutch are usually only the size of a marble. Unlike poultry eggs, the shell is actually a tough skin that is easily dented when pressure is exerted on it. Curiously, the white of the egg (albumen) stays fluid even when cooked. The taste, it is said, is somewhat coarse and mildly fishy. A turtle lays an average of about 85 eggs at a time. But a record nest of 140 eggs was reported in 1967.
Now the crowd can take greater liberties. Some timidly touch and examine the turtle. Others climb on it or lean against it to pose for snapshots for their family albums. A close look at the turtle reveals a thick translucent mucus dripping from the eyes, studded with sand grains. The change from water to air is said to cause this. From time to time, the turtle opens its mouth to breathe with a bellowing sound.
Burying the Eggs
After quite a while, the creature begins to move its back flippers to push the sand back into the hole. As soon as the hole is filled, the leatherback sends its back flippers into a powerful windshield-wiper action. Sand flies in all directions! The crowd step back quickly to protect their faces and bodies. The swinging flippers continue flailing for some time. What stamina and power are being exerted! When the flippers finally stop, the crowd cannot see a trace of the hole the leatherback dug. Instinctive wisdom indeed! But how infinitely greater is the wisdom of the Creator of this turtle!
Before the leatherback makes its way back to sea, a licensed egg collector tags one of its front flippers. This is done so that its subsequent land visits and its movements in the open seas can be monitored. Each season it nests from six to nine times, with an internesting interval of from 9 to 14 days.
Suddenly the leatherback heaves and hurls itself forward. It turns and heads back to sea, hobbling out comparatively faster than it arrived. When it touches water, the head goes in, then the shell. Finally it is out of sight. When the head eventually pops up, the turtle is quite far out. Swiftly it cuts out to the open sea, the moonlight catching the apex of its nose. How agile and swift it is in water! A far cry from its clumsiness and slow progress on land.
As with increasing numbers of other animal species, leatherback turtles are endangered by the ravages of a polluted environment and human greed. In the mid-1970’s, hundreds of not fully matured turtles were found washed ashore in the neighboring state of Pahang—dead! And the turtles’ eggs are unscrupulously collected to satisfy the exotic palate.
Fortunately for these turtles, deep concern in Malaysia for their declining number caused the passage of the Turtle Enactment in 1951. Private collection of eggs was outlawed. However, mercenary individuals defy this law, profit being too great a temptation. Even so, conservation efforts have not been in vain.
On the beach at Rantau Abang, it is a joy to see rows of tiny placards stuck in the sand. Each marks the site where a small batch of leatherback eggs is buried. The placard shows the number of eggs, the date of planting, and a code number identifying the original clutch of eggs. About 45 days after planting, a wire netting is placed around each placard to prevent the hatchlings from escaping. The incubation period ranges from 52 to 61 days. As hatchlings emerge, usually in the evening after sunset, the number from each hole is recorded. They are then placed in containers and later released at the edge of the sea.
The conservation program has successfully raised many thousands of hatchlings and returned them to their watery home. But their low rate of survival, as well as the declining number of leatherbacks coming to Rantau Abang, continues to be a source of concern.
[Pictures on page 18]
Six feet [1.8 m] from head to tail, the leatherback lays dozens of eggs. About eight weeks later, the hatchlings emerge
Leathery turtle. Lydekker
C. Allen Morgan/Peter Arnold
[Picture Credit Line on page 17]
C. Allen Morgan/Peter Arnold