Do you think it’s possible to fall completely, madely, unexcpectedly in love with a specific place? You know, with all the accompanying butterflies in the stomach, a constant, uneraseable smile on your face, and an uplifting feeling of pure happiness that never goes away? Twelve days ago I might be doubtful about this kind of possibility, especially in such an overwhelming scope, but now I can proudly say I’ve become a full-blown believer.
Like all the unforgettable experiences in life, this one came as a complete surprise. In our style of last-minute planning, we decided it was time for us to spend some time on the seaside again and we immediately went on a look-out for some nice bungalows on pretty much any of the hundreds of islands in Malaysia. But instead of a picturesque beach hut, we found something completely different and at the same time unimaginably better – a volunteering sea turtle project on the paradise island of Tioman! I would be lying, if I said we weren’t immediately excited about it, but what really awaited us there still managed to completely blow our minds.
The initial surprise came the minute we got our first glimpse of the island from the ferry and laid our eyes on a sun-soaked lush, green, hilly mass in the middle of gorgeously clear turquoise water. Sure, we have heard immense praises of the island before, but that sight still managed to leave us in a state of complete awe. And it just kept getting better! After stepping on the jetty in Tekek we spent at least 15 minutes just looking in the sea and admiring the unbelievable amount of fishes, while the ride to our temporary home in Juara on the other side of the island amazed us with an extremely steep road straight through a real, movie-like jungle that covers the mojority of the island. We were already in heaven, even though we didn’t actually arrive there yet.
The place that avaited us was everything we hadn’t even dared to hope and so much more. The Juara Turtle Project (JTP) welcomed us with its cosy, open-space setting nestled between the green jungle and a golden sandy beach and, more importantly, with its awesome staff and friendly group of co-volunteers (and a cute bunch of cool cats!). You can imagine, it didn’t take us long to feel at home. But, since we didn’t just come there to soak up the breathtaking surroundings (which we still managed to do in plenty, by the way), our days were constantly filled with all kinds of interesting, fun, and enjoyable activities that ranged from sweeping the floor, gardening, painting, fixing up bikes, doing beach and boat patrols to making boards, scrubbing foot buckets, cleaning the beach, and of course learning an enormous amount of new information about sea turtles (and corals and fishes and a whole bunch of other random stuff). JTP is obviously primarily focused on helping sea turtles by searching for their nests and protecting the eggs in their hatchery until safely releasing the little baby turtles into the ocean to ensure their survival at least until they swim away towards their sea turtle life. But another just as important aspect of their activity also includes informing the local and tourist public about sea turtles and our unfortunately huge influence in the declining of their population, which is now already seriously endangered (yes, if you’re thinking about fishing nets, plastic bags, boats, egg collection and consumption, shell souvenirs, resort-filled beaches, you’re on the right track). So as volunteers, one of our tasks included giving tours to visiting tourists (which, frankly, I initially dreaded, but later actually enjoyed) and contribute a tiny part to a better awareness about this issue. So right from the beginning, we were both swamped with a big blast of new and interesting facts about sea turtles and the many dangers they face … for instance, did you know, that only 1 out of 1000 hatchlings survive to reach their mature age, when they can start breeding? And that can take them from 10 to even 50 years, depending on the species? It’s quite a miracle they have managed to survive over 120 million years! Needless to say, I immediately fell in love with these incredible creatures and happily soaked up all the things that make them so special. Like the fact that their shell is covered with a nervous system, which makes them able to feel our touch, if we stroke them (although we really shouldn’t). Or that the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature in the nest, so we get cool dudes and hot chicks. Or that the baby turtles get an imprint of the beach they were hatched on while first rushing into the sea, so that they can later return there every time they breed and nest. And I could go on and on and on (but I’ll spare you the lecture and leave it to Google).
As I mentioned, we didn’t spend our days in paradise only working, because volunteering at our beloved JTP also means a whole lot of fun. After completing all of our daily assigned tasks, there was always a lot of time left to fully experience everything Tioman has to offer. And so we did! We went snorkelling almost every day and were constantly amazed by the abundance of marine life just a couple of meters off our beach … that means seeing turtles, sting rays, sharks (actually only one, which I luckily quickly avoided after Tina informed me about its presence), morays, lion fish, blow fish, all kinds of crazy fish, actually, and of course gorgeous gardens of corals. We also did three dives on the other side of the island, which were again completely amazing (and where I did see two sharks, while actually managed not to panic) and gave us a hard time to not swim around open-mouthed from all the excitement (since we still had to breathe under water somehow). Besides enthusiastically exploring the breathtaking (sometimes literally) underwater world, we naturally also had to turn the other way and head into the lush green land, where we were again rewarded with some awesome sights like a refreshing waterfall at the end of a trek through the jungle or a peaceful kayak ride on the river with the company of monkeys and monitors. Besides relishing in the gorgeous nature, we also immensely enjoyed the more social parts of our too short stay at the JTP and we already miss the small weekend night market, movie nights, beach and boat patrols, volleyball (even though I sucked and Tina sprained her thumb), fun motorbike rides, lying in the hammocks, and pretty much everything and everyone.
It’s quite hard to wholly describe all the precious impressions and warm emotions of this special place, it’s more than obvious we both fell hopelessly in love with Tioman and the JTP (and the sea turtles, of course). And even though we didn’t really get to experience the nesting of turtles (unfortunately they’re running late this year and will hopefully return in big numbers soon!), we still got a lot more than we had hoped for and are unbelievably grateful for it. We got to learn so, so much, have tons of fun, experience amazing things, and most of all, we got to meet the most awesome people. So despite risking a sentimentality overload, I have to say an enormous thank you to Izati, Alberto, Dan, Lia, Ella, Syam, and Carmen, you’re the best! ❤
P.S. Save the turtles!