Where turtles go

By Rio Constantino

Editor’s Note: Rio Constantino is a Grade-12 student at the Philippine Science High School — Main Campus. He volunteered to join ICSC's Francis Dela Cruz and Janssen Mozar Martinez in a trip to the Turtle Islands earlier this month in cooperation with the Turtle Conservation Society of the Philippines.

At the southern end of the Philippines, tucked between the Sulu, Celebes, and Mindanao Seas, is the Turtle Island Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a group of seven small islands in the province of Tawi-Tawi with dramatic clouds and vibrant reefs, and its sandy beaches are vital nesting grounds for the Green Sea and other turtle species.

After crossing kilometers of open ocean, the mother turtles emerge from the waves, dig a hole into the sand, deposit their eggs and swim away. It is a regular, spectacular occurrence. At peak season, thousands of hatchlings may be seen waddling to sea in a single night.

© Janssen Mozar Martinez/ICSC

But their numbers are decreasing. The local community is affected as well. Rising seas wash away fragile beaches. Stronger storms batter the habitats of both turtles and humans. Though most poachers have gone, climate change threatens what remains.

The sex of a green sea hatchling is determined by the temperature around a developing egg. Last January 2018, a paper was published describing the feminization of green sea turtles in the northern regions of the Great Barrier Reef, an important sea turtle population. At 29.3°C, the ratio of male to female hatchlings was found to be at around 50/50. Hotter and you get more females. Cooler and you get more males.

© Janssen Mozar Martinez/ICSC

What does this mean in a warming planet? For the past 50 years nesting grounds at the Great Barrier Reef have been getting increasingly hotter. 99.8% of the juveniles examined by Jensen et al. were female. So were 86.8% of the adults. It is a scenario almost too strange to believe, something straight from the post-apocalyptic comic Y: The Last Man.

Other species may react to a warming climate by changing places. Their spatial distribution shifts. But sea turtles, though migratory, are also in a sense stationary. They almost always return to the beaches where they were born to mate and lay eggs. Though turtles can move, the islands they call home cannot.

Life on the Islands is far from easy. Reliable electricity is hard to come by. Neither are there any doctors or nurses. The only health worker is a midwife. To enter a clinic one must endure a six-hour journey north to Mapun, or cross illegally into the nearby Malaysian port of Sandakan.

Key to the Turtle Islands’ hardship is its remoteness. Wood for construction must be transported across long swathes of sea. Cooking oil and other groceries can only arrive via boat. Though a few generators can be found here and there, fuel must be shipped as well, an expensive process. Far from the capital of Manila, development is slow to arrive.

Their proximity to Malaysia also poses a problem. Traffickers, while non-violent, pass through here often, bringing people in and out of Sandakan. Worse is the garbage. Much of the Islands’ trash is Malaysian in origin. They arrive from the sea - cans, PET bottles, and plastic bags deposited along the shore.

© Janssen Mozar Martinez/ICSC

The sea itself is getting closer. Just one meter of sea level rise would submerge 10.5 percent of the Islands’ total land area, inundating the houses where 502 people live, according to a vulnerability study prepared for the Asian Development Bank last year.

Locals also say the monsoons are becoming stronger. The amihan blows down houses and flattens coastal habitats. The uncertainty of poverty, combined with the capriciousness of a changing climate, creates conditions stretching the capabilities of human life.

In Great Bakkungan, second largest of the Turtle Islands, the main cause of a recent diarrhea outbreak is a lack of freshwater. With no rivers and streams, locals rely on wells or bottled water. A prolonged, exceptionally hot dry season, combined with an invading sea, drastically reduced the water in the wells and fouled what remained with salt. With many lacking toilets, the effects were disastrous.

Still, the Islands are peaceful. The police are well-respected by the community. Often the worst officers have to deal with are squabbling couples, and their only constant enemy is boredom. The last rebels, kidnappers, and other fugitives left the islands years before, when the Marines, Maritime Police, and other armed agencies established stations at Taganak, the largest of the seven islands.

© Janssen Mozar Martinez/ICSC

The people here are friendly. They are hospitable and kind. Living near the Malaysian border, they speak many languages, chief among them Bahasa Sama and Tausug. 
Though most are Muslim, a church is present as well, and the mayor himself is a convert to Islam, or 'balik Islam.'

As fishers, one of their main resources is biodiversity. Every ecosystem is an integrated, interconnected web. What affects one part will ripple to the others. Adult Green Sea Turtles feed primarily on seagrass. They eat only the tips, keeping the grass healthy, and so maintaining the habitat where fishes and other wildlife live. If the turtles disappear, so too does the seagrass, the fishes living among the grass, and the people who feed on the fishes.

Of the seven Turtle Islands, Baguan is the most pristine. Only four wardens live on its soil. A green hill rises at its center. The jungle teems with birds and lizards. A reef sleeps near the coast. Each night turtles paddle out the surf and lay their eggs on the yellow sand.

Baguan is a glimpse of paradise. Far from the wardens’ station there are almost no signs of habitation. It is a giant cinematic still, a castaway’s island, with bright sunlit clearings and beaches gloriously empty of human presence.

Until reality floats in on the tide. The plastic bottle lands softly on the beach. Its contour disturbs the sand. The illusion of paradise is ruined.

Meanwhile, back at Taganak, concrete roads glow white from heat. The wells of Great Bakkungan remain deprived of freshwater. Shifting ocean currents, hotter seas, and capricious seasons impact the turtles and other aquatic wildlife.

May 23 is World Turtle Day. Founded 1990 by American Tortoise Rescue, it is dedicated to the conservation of turtles and tortoises around the world. Yet, despite the name, and because of a turtle’s significance within marine ecosystems, it may also be about protecting other forms of life as well.

Climate change is human in origin. Its tragedy is that it affects everything and everyone on Earth. Left unchecked, it will damage the Turtle Islands’ beaches into unrecognizability, and then where will the turtles go? It is our responsibility to make sure they, and the people who live on the Islands with them, will still have a place to return to.