The Malays call them penyu. We know them as leatherback turtles, but no matter what you call them, at 1,400 pounds, Dermochelys coriacea is the largest and most enigmatic of reptiles. Some biologists feel they merit a unique classification. We thought they merited a personal visit.
The salesman who gave Jean and I a lift from Marang had never even heard of Rantau Abang, and we passed it right by. Down the road in Kuala Dungun, he insisted on buying us a cold drink before parting company. A western face is still a rarity on the east coast of Malaysia.
After investigating the fruit stalls of Dungun, we caught a local bus back north and the ticket boy told us when to get off. When we emerged at Rantau, three little barefoot boys led us off with shouts of "four dollah,.. four dollah!" We were not the first foreigners to discover this secluded spot, and they knew by our arrival that we had come to stay. "Penyu, penyu," they cried, pointing toward the shore.
Penyu, the giant leatherback turtle, abides in the open sea from Japan to British Columbia, Norway to South Africa, and from Australia to Chile. Yet they venture ashore only to nest, once in every two or three years. Still strangers to man, their migration patterns remain uncharted, and they have only four known nesting centers.
Although they roam all the oceans of the world, they lay their eggs only on small lonely stretches of beach in eastern Malaysia, southeast Africa, French Guiana, and on Costa Rica's Caribbean shore. Here, driven by instinct alone, these giants of the deep return from thousands of miles of open seas, to a patch of beach only a few miles long to lay their eggs in the sands they themselves sprang from.
Silebache beach in French Guiana and Rantau Abang, on the east coast of Malaysia see the large majority of leatherbacks. In Malaysia, the turtles have been legendary among the local fisherman for generations. But for many years they failed to return to Rantau Abang and were feared to have vanished forever. Then, inexplicably, a few of the turtles returned in 1952. The government immediately imposed strict prohibitions on commercial exploitation of the turtles and the migrations gradually increased. Now thousands of giant leatherbacks swarm this tiny beach each year between May and September.
The village itself is just a scattering of thatched huts between the road and the sea. Down on the beach, a few old wooden shacks among the huts accommodate the less fastidious visitors. Scores of tourists flock to Rantau each night during the summer to watch the turtles perform their timeless ritual, but they usually retire to hotels in Dungun. The thatched-roofed shacks at Rantau, however, better accommodated our simple tastes.
For four Malaysian dollars ($1.60) we got a hard wooden bed, a table, a small kerosene lamp, one shuttered window opening out to the sea, and a well ventilated grass roof. Fortunately, the rainy season was still some time away. The ubiquitous little geko lizards frolicked over the walls and ceiling, less incongruous here than in the old wooden hotels they frequent in the towns.
It was late September and the tourists had all come and gone, as had most of the turtles. None had come ashore the previous night, and only three the night before. But we were pleased to find the beach so quiet, almost deserted. There was just time for a stroll on the shore and a late afternoon swim in the South China Sea. We were in no hurry and vowed to witness at least one giant turtle before we left.
Ramadan, the Moslem month of fasting was into its second day. The devoutly religious east coast afforded us little hope of finding a meal before dark, and the wistful twilight lingered on behind the palms, defying the threads of time.
Later on, we managed to wangle some of the standard fish curry and rice from the locals, and as we savored the rich coconut curry, we tried to learn more about the turtles. We had already surveyed the 'hatchery' ground in front of our hut, but we wanted to know when the eggs would hatch.
"Sekarang... sekarang ini," the reply came back nonchalantly. "Now, at this very moment." We glanced at each other in surprise and bolted down to the beach where the 'hatchery' had come alive, not thirty yards from our meal.
Within the fenced area, rows of little wire enclosures surrounded the transplanted nest sites. Most of them were already strewn with bits of shells, but the very last row was springing to life as baby turtles crawled from their shells and flopped about on the sand. Twenty to thirty of them in each of ten rings were hatching out that night.
The babies are scale miniatures of their Gargantuan parents. They weigh only two ounces and fit easily in the palms of our hands. The seven bony ridges that characterize the shell of the leatherback already appeared as strings of tiny white beads down their backs.
The turtles hatch out in the cool of the evening. Left to themselves, they would crawl toward the sound of the sea. Already they were clambering over each other, trying to escape their enclosures. Under natural conditions, however, many would be left stranded in the sunlight and perish from the heat. Others would fall prey to shore birds or the tidal sea snakes that frequent these waters.
But these youngsters would be ferried out several miles off shore and put into the sea later during the night. With restricted egg gathering still in practice, this precaution insures that the leatherback will always return to Rantau. While leatherbacks are occasionaly encountered or netted by ships in the open seas, juveniles are virtually never seen. One theory is that the baby leatherbacks spend years feeding in the protection of large sargasso seaweed 'fields', until they have grown near full size.
It is the full grown leatherbacks, however, that attract all the attention. They derive their name from the thick leathery skin that covers their entire shell. The shell itself is an intricate mosaic of small bones, a structure unique among turtles. Seven distinct ridges run down the back of the shell and five along the underside.
A full grown female commonly reaches a length of eight feet, and individuals up to ten feet have been reported. Their weight is estimated at 1200 to 1500 pounds, but no one has yet managed to coax one onto a scale. No method has been devised to even estimate their age or maturation period and the few who have been captured did not long survive. Of the males, even less is known. They appear to be of the same approximate size, with a somewhat longer tail.
Attempts to study these creatures in their own habitat are hindered by its very vastness. A number of the turtles have been tagged but few results have surfaced. One turtle tagged in Surinam, on the north coast of South America, reappeared months later near the coast of east Africa. But where she had traveled in the mean time is anyone's guess.
The Malaysians have tagged over 6,000 specimens, with no finds reported except those who returned to nest again years later. But they have learned that, while each female will nest only every second or third year, in that one season she may nest as many as eight different times, at ten-day intervals.
We were told that the turtles might not come until 11 pm, or much later in the cool of the night, so we decided to get some sleep first. But a quick pounding on our door awakened us at 10:30. "Turtles come, turtles come!" our host dutifully alerted us.
Outside, there was a small gathering on the darkened beach. It seems that we had a 'guide' who would lead us to the turtles in return for $5 Malay. We didn't know just where we stood, but we appeared to be in some position to negotiate. After some bizarre bargaining in pantomime, he came down to $2.50, and we all stalked off down the beach.
A mile to the south, the drama was in full swing. The balmy night air rustled through tall palms and a group of eight men reclined against a heavy log on the beach. The silhouetted hulk of a giant penyu lay gasping in the sand nearby. Accustomed to floating on the high seas, breathing becomes difficult on land where the entire weight of her shell and body presses down upon her chest.
Flashing our torches, we scanned her huge form, but the egg gatherers cautioned us not to shine the lights in her sensitive eyes. She had come thousands of miles to lay her eggs here, and they did not want her upset.
Slowly, resolutely, she had dragged her giant body, laden with its precious cargo, some fifteen yards up onto the beach -- an awesome feat in itself. Now, out of her element, she began digging a hole with her powerful rear flippers. She sucked in long deep breaths, and the sound of her exhaling rattled loud and heavily. Yet slowly, laboriously, she dug a neat hole beneath her hindquarters, two and a half feet deep and as wide.
Hours had already passed. We gathered round while the turtle enjoyed a well-deserved rest. Then, after testing the hole with her flippers, she began to move away! Something was amiss; perhaps the pit was not damp enough for the eggs to survive. She moved on steadily, searching for a new site.
In the course of the night, this turtle excavated two more holes within five yards of the original, before she finally laid her eggs. However brief it is to describe, the process took all night, and dawn was not far off when finally she lumbered down the beach and slid back into the sea. For her, it was a long night of tortuous exertion -- for us, a night of watching and waiting.
Happily, one of the men smoke English. We had talked for some time before I realized that he was the local Constable. He wore dark clothes, was unshaven, and quite friendly like the others. I had taken him for an egg gatherer. They make their living collecting the eggs of the giant turtles. His job is to insure that no one harms the turtles nor takes any eggs from the restricted part of the beach.
As we squatted in the cool sand, he explained that the national government rents three miles on the end of this beach to a collective of ten families for M$23,000 a year (US $10,000). They are allowed to take eggs only from July, although the turtles first arrive in May. Each leatherback lays 50 to 100 eggs, the size and shape of tennis balls. These they sell for about 30 cents Malay each at the markets. The government gathers about 100,000 eggs each year for their hatchery grounds.
Meanwhile, a second leatherback had emerged from the surf about thirty yards down the beach. That hungry little crescent of the moon had already appeared and we could barely discern her form against the faintly glistening sand. After a slow crawl up onto the beach, she finally found her spot and we gathered to witness the complete process as she rested up for the dig.
We could better distinguish her features now. The shell of course was huge, appearing bluish in the faint moon glow. The ridges running down her back were prominent and the shell tapered to a point between her hind legs. Little light blue spots blotched her entire shell and skin.
Her skin was thick and truly leathery, and her flippers lacked the scales and claws common to most turtles. The front flippers were thick and muscular, as they must be to pull her huge bulk across the sand. The smaller rear flippers were now digging away. She worked for a while, straining to breathe, then stopped to rest. Finally, the hole met with her approval and although several people crouched behind her, she began to deposit her posterity.
The first bunch were not fully formed and they fell in a mess to the bottom of the pit. Then nice round white ones came tumbling down. Now the man crouching over the hole went to work. He reached deep into the pit, pulling up the eggs by twos and threes. The drama continued for some time: the huge leatherback carefully deposited her eggs into the sand for safekeeping, and the egg man immediately removed them to his pile.
Feelings here were mixed. The locals remain unstirred by this sober reality which appalls most foreigners -- robbing the turtle of her children as soon as they hit the ground. But life does go on -- for the turtles as well as the Malays.
They loaded huge piles of eggs into gunny sacks as Mother Turtle began to fill in the hole with her rear flippers. She flapped her huge front flippers in powerful strokes, showering masses of sand over her hind quarters and on anyone unwise enough to get behind her. But this was not enough. For another half hour she flopped about in circles over the sealed nest, spraying the area with sand and leaving strange markings on the beach.
Now that the booty was secure, we could shine our lights to see her face more clearly. Her head is snub-nosed, and her eyes protrude from each side. The mouth is jagged and fearsome, but her jaws are actually quite fragile, and the leatherback preys mostly on jellyfish and seaweed.
Her nostrils flared as she heaved loudly in labored exhaustion. A thick lubricating mucus flowed from her eyes. It hung in long glutinous strands and she appeared to be crying -- as if she knew..... Finally, her mission complete, she left the nest -- as her mother had left her -- not to return for years, if ever at all. Back toward the sea she lumbered, carving out another strange trail in the sand.
By this time a tardy third turtle had appeared up the beach, and we gathered again to watch. At the end of a long and quietly thrilling night, we turned back to our hut for some welcomed rest.
The sun was shining brightly when we awoke the next morning and hiked down the beach to re-examine the nest sites. The beach looked like a battle ground. Unearthly scars dented the sand and broad trails led in and out of the water. But in the sharp glare of the mid-morning sun, the giant leatherbacks were gone -- gone back to the sea where they prevail, and man is the curiosity.