Once in a lifetime

I have had two experiences that I could call magical in my life thus far.

The first was running, rom com style, through the stalls at Wembley Arena to hear Bruce Springsteen play my favourite song in the whole world as a second, surprise encore with nothing to accompany him but a mouth organ and an acoustic guitar. We’d just been about to leave and I’d been hoping throughout the whole concert, somewhere deep in my heart, that he’d play it. My mum ended up rubbing my back while I clutched embarrassingly at the railing and sobbed for five and a half minutes straight. I felt, stupid as it sounds, like he was somehow playing it just for me.

The second was swimming with wild manatees in Florida, watching these giants of ridiculous girth and surprising speed come right up to you, investigate you gentle with a bristly but soft skinned mouth, and swim off with a single flick of the tail.

This… this is up there.

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We arrived at INOS promptly after our lift from Dr. Wan, asking after her holiday next week and proffering her half of the cake that we made the day before, for her children. We killed a little time at the office, reading our respective books, before making our way at 9:45am from INOS, across a little patch of grass and under the covered walkway, to the Seatru (Sea Turtle Research Unit) office. There we met again with Yana, who is in charge of the project, and who asked us to fill out some forms to sign away our right and/or our families right to complain if anything happens to us while we’re out with them, including the cheerfully bolded, underlined and italicised death. Just as we finished that, Awin arrived with some hastily packed bags, as she’d pulled an all nighter to meet a deadline.

All together we hopped into the UMT pick up truck, and drove a very wiggly route from UMT, through Chinatown to the port. We passed very near our lodge and we were slightly impressed with our ability to navigate around the city well enough to pick up on the fact that we didn’t go exactly the most sensible route but, hey, no backseat driving from me. Yana parked us up, and after procuring our tickets for the ferry Jess, Awin and I lounged on the benches in the midday heat and waited until noon for the boat to depart, eating the translucent white, musky and sweet flesh of the longan fruit and lazily reading our books. When we eventually boarded what called itself a ferry but could be better described as some kind of utilitarian speedboat, Awin fell straight asleep. Jess was engrossed in her book as it was apparently getting very tense, and I spent the hour and a half’s journey alternately reading snippets of my own and looking out the window as we skipped gleefully over increasingly more cerulean waves.

We sailed past giant rocky stacks, liberally sprinkled with twisting green trees, so by the time we pulled into port at the Laguna Resort on Redang Island I was already kind of stunned. But getting out onto the back of the boat and having a good look around was something else. This sounds incredibly stupid and of that I am aware – it reminds me of when I likened Blood Brothers to Dumbo – but it honestly reminded me of Disneyworld. A decorative Disney scape features shocking electric blue water lapping at worn, round rocks, but only because someone was paid a surely ridiculous sum of money to ensure that it looks so beautifully, paradisally effortless.

This… this actually was.

Feeling rather like VIPs, instead of stepping onto the boardwalk we were helped straight off the back of the ferry onto another, smaller boat, lined on its open sides with seats but where the footwell was full of petrol canisters, for delivery to the sanctuary to power the generators. So we could only sit at the very back, which was no great hardship since it meant that we got the full blast of the warm breeze and sea spray.

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Kirat joined us from where she’d been at Laguna taking part in a turtle awareness campaign, and we took plenty of plenty of pictures. I was feeling elated, high on life. I couldn’t stop grinning. I think I shouted into my filming camera at one point, “I picked the right career path!”, but you couldn’t hear it over the roar of the waves and the engine.

As the waters shallowed around the beach at Chagar Hutang, on the north side of the island, they became crystal blue, and the boat slowed to a gentle chug as it pulled in on the sand. We jumped out and the water was up to our ankles, warm like bath water. We grabbed our bags and helped haul the petrol canisters up the beach into just inside the trees, where we were met by the volunteers at the sanctuary and the leader there, who told us to call him Bob. He ushered us to a table in a open kitchen and sitting area, set back into the trees and surrounded by the three small wooden buildings that constituted the male, female and staff quarters, used when everyone’s not on their turtle patrol duties. We were plied with a mug of lychee juice and a snack of deep fried fruit, which they likened to a jackfruit – but which to me was just like a warm winter chestnut, surrounded by sweet batter-covered flesh – for a quick rest, before he gave an explanation of the work done at the sanctuary, complete with laminated sheets of paper.

Gesturing to a large collection of whiteboards behind him, he explained that the sanctuary takes groups of volunteers for a week at a time and each night, in shifts, they patrol the beach; take note of the turtles coming onto land; watch them through the process of nest digging (what they called ‘body beatings’, whacking sand up with their fins), settling and egg laying; and then after the patient turtle has properly finished, checking her tag number or tagging her if she doesn’t already have one, measuring her and marking her nest so it can be checked regularly during incubation.

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Then we were sent off, to kill time for a couple of hours until dinner – then the work would start. Jess and I escorted ourselves off to a gently shaded area of beach, where Jess used her frankly impressive skills at falling asleep most anywhere yet again. I instead went hunting for shells, and successfully found what I dubbed my ‘mermaid’s knuckleduster’, though the beach was made almost exclusively of small fragments of bleached white, broken coral, dotted among the sand.

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Yes Ariel, of course I’ll marry you.

We congregated for dinner, made by the volunteers, to whom we introduced ourselves and got chatting. Most of them came from another university in the north of peninsular Malaysia, and we had a lovely dinner, including the spicy tom yum soup, of which I’ve heard much about and was very excited to try (Jess found it far too spicy for her, but handled it with much grace and subtlety and I don’t think anyone noticed). Though it was already growing dark we were under strict instructions not to turn on any lights if we could avoid it – turtles navigate largely by moonlight, and there are a lot of fears that manmade light around our coastlines is affecting how the find their way back to shore, particularly for important times like the breeding season. At night there was a boat off the bay, with large bright white lights – I wonder if that was to help them find their way?

We washed up after ourselves, and at Bob’s instruction made ourself scarce until everything started up. We escorted ourselves to the hammocks and took selfies in the sunset. We might have got a bit soppy.

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We were feeling rather chilled out, when Awin ran over to us in the fading light, saying, “Want to see a turtle?” We pretty much fell out of our hammocks in excitement, and rushed over to the beach – there was our first ever wild green sea turtle, pulling her way slowly up the beach. In the distance we could already see another one making her way onto land, too. Bob sat almost lazily in his chair while the volunteers and ourselves hustled and bustled, trying our best to take pictures in the near pitch black. He said that we had to wait until she was far enough up the beach before we could walk behind her to patrol, and after that, to wait until she was laying to go check on her – so we might as well make ourselves comfortable.

We lay out straw mats on the beach – the kind of thing that very invested families put up around their tents on the beach, to secure it from winds and other invading forces. We lay on our backs looking up at the stars – now, this is the magical bit.

There were more stars than I have ever seen before in my life. With only one development on the other side of island, and other no civilisation for hours and hours around us, they were bright and vivid. The nebulous grey clouds of the Milky Way twisted themselves diagonally across the beach, and the occasional shooting star was met with a collective intake of breath from everyone present. With the treeline as an upside down silhouette against a star-bright sky, it reminded me of the canals of Venice at night – when you’re walking along a cobbled street with dark water and just one streetlight shines on the water, reflecting a thousand times in small ripples. It looked like the stars were infinite reflections of one light, but they weren’t – it was simply this immense canopy above us. The sight was broken occasionally by the shadow of a fruit bat flapping above us or a gentle moth the size of a handspan landing on you, just as the silence was broken by chatter between Awin, Kirat and Bob, or the cicadas in the bushes, or the movement of sand as the turtles dug their nests.

I have never felt so wonderfully, immensely small and unnecessary, and loved the feeling so much. It felt absolutely like there was not a single need for us to be there, and we were privileged enough to be let in on this great secret anyway. Jess and I walked the beach behind the turtles a number of times, near holding each other up.

We talked for ages in gentle whispers, despite Bob insisting the turtles are only bothered by light, not noise. We couldn’t help it – it just seemed the kind of situation that deserved a whisper.

Eventually we fell asleep under the stars for a restful seven hours, but only after following the volunteers in their work and watching the first turtle lay her clutch of eggs, and releasing a tray of hatchlings that emerged from their nest the day before. They were velvety soft in our hands as they wiggled, eagerly marching towards the sea as Jess tipped the tray out onto the sand.

The next morning we were treated to breakfast, and sweet tea into which Kirat tipped easily six teaspoons of sugar for me. We only had a few hours before our little boat back to Laguna had to leave, but Jess and I went snorkelling in the blue water, dunk diving to see corals and puffer fish.

Back at Laguna, we had some brief time in the souvenir shop – did I buy something for you, reader? You may yet find out – before we boarded our boat home. The journey back and our single night in the lodge was a blur – naps; Jess’s ice bucket challenge; packing; Jess’s second ice bucket challenge because I didn’t bring the cable for the camera we recorded the first one on.

It was a blur. An amazing, magical blur, which I will ponder over the next week. On we go, for our week’s marine mammal surveying on the research vessel!

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