During my childhood, I lived for 3 years in Malaysia where I learned from many different experiences.
It was early morning when we set off. The tropical sky pale blue and fringed with pink in the soft light. I was half-asleep, roused from my bed for an early start. We sat in the car, my mother and sister and I, waiting as Dad secured the house then climbed over the courtyard wall. He jumped down on the outside of the wall and took his place in the car. We set off on the drive to Malaysia's east coast.
Muddled with sleep, I remember little of the first part of the journey to the east coast. Possibly I slept for a time. The cityscape of Kuala Lumpur was soon behind us and dusty verges lined the road.
We stopped at a roadside store to buy drinks. Inside the shop was dim and the air laden with the aromas of fresh and dried produce. Hessian sacks filled with rice lined the floor. In a basket were eggs, round and with a tough flexible covering rather than a shell. They had been retrieved from a sea turtle nest on one of the nearby beaches and were considered a delicacy by the local people.
We arrived at last at our hotel. Our rooms were on the second storey, located away from the central dining and living area. There were pathways through the gardens to the main restaurant where you could sip coconut milk through as straw, directly from the shell. Other pathways led to the beach.
The first morning we walked along the beach. Malay fishermen were bringing their catch and boats to shore. We stopped and talked, and Dad helped them push the boats up the beach away from the ocean and the tides. They laughed and chatted, smiling broadly at us.
Our days were filled with visits to the beach to lie on the sand or play in the water. Swimming, splashing, and diving beneath the water to touch the sand and search for silver dollar starfish. Meals were eaten in the hotel restaurant, and nights with sleep.
One night, late one night, my parents woke me. A turtle had come ashore to lay her eggs in the sand near the hotel. We set off down the lighted pathway to the beach. A crowd had gathered. Some, like us, were staying at the hotel. Others were Malays, talking excitedly. They carried a light and a cloth bag.
Sea turtles are cumbersome creatures on land, moving slowly, like clumsy machines. This turtle made her ungainly way up the beach, using her flippers and dragging her heavy, shelled body across the sand. When satisfied that she had found a suitable place, well above the tideline, she dug a hole, scooping the sand with her flippers. It was little more than a hollow in the sand. Deep enough to cover the eggs and give them some protection, but sufficiently shallow for the warmth of the sun to penetrate and incubate the eggs.
Oblivious to her onlookers, or perhaps just resigned, she began to lay her eggs. The Malays counted and collected most of them from beneath the turtle, placing them in the bag they had brought. She laid almost 100 eggs in her sandy nest. I am not sure how many were left to incubate in the sand.
The turtle’s task completed, she covered the nest with sand, using her flippers. Then she trundled back to the water and was soon lost to sight in the blackness of the night.
Sea turtle eggs are incubated by the warmth of the sun which penetrates through the sand. When they hatch, they burrow out of the nest and scurry to the water. Many are devoured by predators before they reach the relative safety of the ocean.
I feel very privileged to have had the experience of watching one of these remarkable creatures laying her eggs. It taught me to respect the natural world and the environment.
Turtles are now protected. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, turtles returned to the largely deserted beaches of the east coast of Malaysia to lay their eggs.
© 2021 Nan Hewitt