Bananas and Baby Sea Turtles

As part of their Tropical Ecology class, the Gustavus Living Diversity program traveled to Malaysia’s Terengganu State and Pulau Redang this past week. Pulau Redang is an island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, and it’s well known as a beach paradise and snorkel/dive hotspot.

We all met at the USM campus late on Tuesday night.  Our charter bus departed at about 10pm and the plan was for us to sleep on the bus and wake up at our destination the next morning.  The good news is that both kids slept quite readily.  As Penelope had cried through the past two nights, I’d been a bit stressed that she would  keep everyone awake.  She didn’t.  In fact, she slept soundly and barely made a peep all night.  I had a harder time falling asleep.  Our bus continued to climb up mountainous slopes and careen down the other sides, the driver frequently straddling the middle line, only to slow suddenly when oncoming headlights appeared.  I think most of us adults were awake.  Sometime after midnight, I finally fell asleep.  Penelope was on my chest, in a baby carrier, and we both had a good sleep like that until morning.

In the morning, we ate breakfast near the mangroves and the students went on a boat tour.  Joel and Simon accompanied them, but the professors warned that it would be too hot for a baby.  Penelope and I checked into our hotel, the Pandan Laut Beach Resort and waited for their return.  The hotel was a simple place with rustic free-standing cabins.  I think our group were the only guests, as we nearly filled all their rooms.

Penelope and I met up with the gang at lunch time.  Some local ladies appeared and taught us the fundamentals of their style of weaving and (of course) offered the products (placemats & baskets) for purchase.


Next stop was the Pink House, a womens’ conservation cooperative.  It was started about a decade ago with assistance from Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Nestle.

Nestlé funded a survey of the socioeconomic needs and existing conditions of communities in key villages in Setiu. The survey identified the local communities’ capacity building needs. Emphasis was put on the women because, as mothers and co-income earners, they had an important role to play in the area’s long-term development in a sustainable manner. The project entailed equipping local women with the skills needed to develop cottage industries, including training on basic entrepreneurial skills, adopting clean “green” practices in food processing, marketing and branding as well as environmental awareness.

http://www.wwf.org.my/?11602/PEWANIS-Making-a-Difference

The organiational chart looks a little different in a woman-owned conservation cooperative.
Simon plays mancala on the steps of the Pink House.
Local paper crafts.

By all the measures, the venture was successful.  The original funding for the program has expired and the women now work to make the Pink House financially self-sufficient.  The women there showcased some other handicrafts and taught us how to make the regional style of banana chips.

You start with very green bananas…
…peel them with a sharp knife…
…slice them thinly…
…and fry in oil until they are crispy, golden brown.

I’ll admit.  I was a bit worried about everyone walking away with their fingers intact.  Using a mandolin slicer without your fingers–no grip–is a bit scary.  But we were OK.   And the banana chips were addictive! The ingredients were: very green, hard bananas, oil, and sugar. So simple; so tasty. Almost everybody walked out of the shop with a few bags to go.

I needed my hands free to chop bananas. Fortunately, there were plenty of women available to help me with that.

Our last stop of the afternoon was at the turtle hatchery. Around the world, sea turtles are at risk because their eggs are harvested and consumed by local people, who often view them as a delicacy or believe they hold special medicinal properties. Because of this, it has become a routine practice for conservationists to patrol beaches at night, identify sea turtle nests, and relocate the eggs to a safe spot until they hatch. Joel and I saw a nearly identical set up when we visited Petatlan, Mexico, in 2012. The biologists explained that while other species used to nest in this part of Malaysia, they’ve all been extirpated except for green sea turtles. Much to our surprise and enjoyment, one of the nests erupted and baby turtles started crawling out of the sand as we watched. Even better yet, we were told that we could witness the turtles being released that evening at the beach by our hotel.

Each red stake represents a relocated nest of turtle eggs, which has 60 to 100+ eggs. The location is guarded around the clock and the fence is sunk into the sand several feet to keep predators out.
Nets prevent the hatchlings from wandering too far before the biologists can take them directly to their home beach, where their mother laid the eggs.
Petatlan, Mexico, March 2012. A nearly identical set-up.
These turtles actually emerged from their nest while we were watching.

Hanging out at the beach at Pandan Laut, where we would release the baby sea turtles a few hours later.


At about 10:00 that night, we all gathered on the beach. We were instructed to turn off all lights and stand completely still and quiet. One of the sea turtle biologists uncovered a box full of baby turtles and tipped it over. The little turtles skittered towards the sea. It was so dark we could barely see them, but they crawled along, occasionally bumping a foot or crawling right over. (Yes, it tickles!) No photographs, because the flash would be terribly disorienting to their sensitive eyes. But everyone agreed that it was a highlight of our trip to Malaysia so far.

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