Selingan, or Turtle Island, is one of the best experiences in Sabah, a Malaysian state in Borneo. But figuring out the logistics can be complicated.
It's also not the most affordable possible excursion...
But I went, and thought it was totally worth it.
I booked directly through the company that manages the turtle experience, as it seemed more affordable than booking through a tour company. The tour companies provide the EXACT same experience, just with your own guide who tells you what time to get dinner and which room you are in.
To reserve your spot, email Crystal Quest directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. It's Malaysia, so they might take a few days to reply.
They will also neglect to share relevant information with you. For example, as of April 1, 2019, the boat leaves the jetty at 10:30am, not 8:30am, as it may say in your confirmation email or online. (They made the change to make it more convenient for guests arriving on the AirAsia flight from Kota Kinabalu.)
If possible, try to book with another person, as they'll hit you with a $70 single supplement if you're a solo traveler. I was lucky -- I reserved solo, since it seemed like permits were in high demand (though when I got there, it seemed like there was plenty of availability -- apparently, high season is July, and that is when you need to book in advance). But the morning of my departure, I met another single female traveler at the currency exchange place near the City View Hotel.
She had been unable to find a tour operator who would take her solo. I wanted to save $70. When she asked if she could come with me, I said yes -- but you have to RUN back to your hostel and pack, because the boat leaves in 30 minutes.
From my hotel, right near the water in Sandakan, the Grab car cost 4 ringgits, or about $1, to the Sabah Parks Main Jetty, Jalan Buli Sim-Sim. (Hint: if you are going to be traveling in Southeast Asia, download the Grab app BEFORE you go. It is the safest and cheapest way to get around, and will save you time and money when you arrive at the airport. Taxis and transfers arranged by your hotel will cost at LEAST 3x what a Grab car will. AND there is a digital record of where you are and whom you're with. AND you have the option of paying in cash or through the app, meaning you won't have to change or withdraw money at the airport, where they have worse exchange rates and longer lines.)
From there, the boat ride will take about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the sea conditions. The ride is pretty -- you'll pass a stilt village, the city mosque, and some islands on the way. I recommend sitting on the port (left) side of the boat, as you will get more breeze and less sun. The back of the boat is louder, but you will have clearer views, as there isn't a wall in the back.
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Room, meals (lunch, dinner and breakfast the next morning) and return boat transfer are included in the package.
The total cost for 1 person per room for 1 night is RM 730.80 (cash only, paid upon arrival). The cost for two people is about RM 900.
You will also need cash for the conservation and camera fees, paid upon arrival on the island. (Conservation and camera fees are RM 60.00 (adult) and RM 30.00 (children or infant) per person per entry and RM 10.00 per camera (optional).
You will arrive in the early afternoon, and have the day to relax and enjoy after a brief orientation.
You can walk around the island -- there are large monitor lizards, interesting birds, and even possibly some baby turtles.
There is also a beach with police/military (you can see the Philippines from Selingan, so they watch 24 hours a day for poachers, immigrants, pirates, terrorists, and the like). You can see plenty of small fish if you snorkel in the designated area, with the best coral out to the right.
During low tide, the best way to get out into the water is from tbe right end of the swimming area. Ask the lifeguard if you are confused.
If you brought an instrument, bring it to the beach! The military just might want to jam!
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Due to conservation efforts, you have to leave the beach by 5:30, and dinner is around 6:30pm. A small bottle of water is served with each meal. If you want more than that, you can bring, buy, or filter more.
After dinner, you hang out in the main social area waiting for the turtles. This could take ten minutes, or a few hours, so bring a book or game. (Right now, I'm reading The Da Vinci Code and The Three Body Problem -- which is great, because the majority of the tourists I've met the last few days were either French or Chinese, and Da Vinci Code is about France and Three Body Problem is a very popular book in China, and by a Chinese author.)
When the first momma turtle is spotted, they will say, "Turtle Time!" and the first part of the three-part turtle program begins.
First, you go to the beach and literally see eggs coming out of the turtle vagina.
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After the momma turtle is done laying her 60-150 eggs (!!!!!), the ranger collects and counts them, then you proceed to part two: burying the eggs.
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They explain a bit more interpretive stuff, then you go on to part three: releasing the babies that hatched.
After that, the program ends. You can't wander the beach looking for more turtles... but. You can get up early, like 445am or so. You MIGHT see additional mommas... More likely, you will see stray babies:
And, certainly, dozens of sets of fin prints the mommas left going up, then back down, the beach.
You may also see predatory behaviors, like circling shark fins in the water or prowling monitor lizards... A sad reminder that most of last night's turtles are already dead.
Breakfast is at 6:30am, and the boat back to Sandakan leaves at 7. You will be back in time to connect with flights, buses, abd onward adventures, like the 10am feeding at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center or a 2- or 3-day Kinabatangan River adventure.
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