Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Shelling out: Inside the Malaysian resort mixing tourism with turtle conservation

The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort on Redang Island has a lab dedicated to protecting marine life, as well as five-star facilities

Louise Burke swims with turtles in Malaysia. Courtesy Louise Burke
Louise Burke swims with turtles in Malaysia. Courtesy Louise Burke

With only one eye open – an unfocused slither between drowsy lids – a tiny reptilian head pokes through its freshly ruptured shell.

Less than one day old and not yet fully hatched, the baby Green turtle is already playing an important role in the conservation of its species. It is the first to emerge from a clutch of 40 delicate white eggs buried in a sand box with just the tops exposed. They are marked with a red X to ensure they are placed the right way up.

These babies are latecomers, the last to hatch after a busy season at the turtle lab located within the grounds of The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort on Redang Island, off the east coast of Malaysia. The resort, situated in a secluded cove on one of Malaysia’s finest beaches, is nestled beneath jungle­covered hills teeming with wildlife, from long-tailed macaque monkeys to the swarms of damselflies that rise above the tree canopies. But the undeniable highlight here is the turtles.

A hatchling is released at Taaras Redang Island. Courtesy Taaras Redang Island
A hatchling is released at Taaras Redang Island. Courtesy Taaras Redang Island

Just a few hours after meeting their newest relative, I find myself stepping off the side of a boat into the company of some much larger turtle specimens. I am instructed to stay calm and ball my hands if they come close, just in case they mistake my fingers for a tasty squid tentacle. Today we are lucky. Within just a few minutes, five Green turtles are circling, occasionally brushing my legs and arms with an outstretched flipper.

Two of them are males – almost twice the size of their female companions and a little bit intimidating. I clench my fingers into my palms and try not to think about my exposed toes down below. A few moments pass before I am able to relax into the experience.

I have been told that “Taaras” originates from a Sanskrit word meaning “Goddess of the Sea”. And, enchanted by these magnificent creatures as I float on the surface of water so clear it feels like liquid glass, it’s hard not to feel a little like a mermaid.

Back in the turtle lab, which is located just off the main reception area of the resort, researchers are busily examining data from the nesting season, which is now drawing to a close for the year. Just one last box of eggs is under incubation, carefully watched by scientists and guests alike.

Launched last year in conjunction with Malaysia’s Sea Turtle Research Unit (Seatru), the lab is run by the resort’s marine biologist, Seatru scientists and trained research assistants from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. This year, they are conducting experiments looking at the effects of different types of nesting sand on the strength of hatchlings. Alongside the research, the lab also plays a vital role in community education. Guests can drop in and learn about the life cycle of sea turtles – from nesting and hatching through to species identification, measuring and tagging. During hatching season, they can also witness the joy of seeing the babies being released into the sea – hopefully to return one day. Research has shown that mature sea turtles use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate back to the beach where they were born in order to nest.

The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort is located on Redang Island, off the east coast of Malaysia. Courtesy Taaras Beach and Spa Resort 
The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort is located on Redang Island, off the east coast of Malaysia. Courtesy Taaras Beach and Spa Resort

“It is a proven fact that sea turtle hatchlings have natal homing behaviour, which means they will come back to the place where they are born in the future to mate and reproduce,” explains graduate research assistant Lyvia Chong, who is working in the lab when we drop by. “Seatru is doing a long-term tagging and monitoring nesting trend of sea turtles at Chagar Hutang, one of the most important nesting beaches at Redang Island.

“We tagged every single mother at their first nesting at the beach, to know how many times they nest in a year and the following years. The sea turtles are coming back as we have new mothers every year.”

Inside the SEATRU Turtle Lab at Taaras Redang Island. Courtesy Taaras Redang Island
Inside the Seatru Turtle Lab at Taaras Redang Island. Courtesy Taaras Redang Island

Considered the pearl of Berjaya Hotels and Resorts group’s portfolio in Malaysia, Taaras is the largest resort on Redang. It has 190 rooms and suites, including a hilltop villa with an infinity pool and private butler. My own room, a Cliff Premier Suite, may be modest by comparison, but it’s far from basic. The highlight is a bathtub perched inside an enclosed balcony overlooking the bay, which soon proves irresistible.

Returning to the room after dinner later that night, I climb into the tub and look out over the water. The moonlight is glancing off the ruffled surface of the sea in that awe-inspiring way that only ever seems to happen on holiday. From here I can see the cove where we swam with the turtles earlier, as well as the dark patch alongside the rocks where I’m planning to snorkel out early before breakfast, in the hope of seeing the reef sharks I’m told frequent the area just after dawn. I long to grow a tail, dive off the balcony into that silvery water and stay forever – a reverse Ariel.

Kayaking in the waters around Taraas Redang Island. Courtesy Taaras Redang Island
Kayaking in the waters around Taraas Redang Island. Courtesy Taaras Redang Island

The following day, after our snorkelling session (sadly, we missed the sharks) and breakfast from the omelette bar, clouds begin to gather. By the time the transport arrives to take us to our boat back to Terengganu, it is raining steadily, making it a little easier to wrench free from this little pocket of paradise. It is the tail end of the season and The Taaras is awaiting the monsoons. But even in this weather, I can’t help feeling a little jealous of the turtle hatchling, predetermined by destiny to return to this beach year after year.

The reporter travelled as a guest of Etihad Airways, Tourism Malaysia and Berjaya Hotels & Resorts

Updated: December 2, 2019 09:55 AM

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