If you love turtles and would love to see them in Sabah, this is the place to head.
Selingan Turtle Island in the Turtle Islands National Park is home to a turtle conservation project. Each day, 40 lucky visitors can spend the night and watch the turtles lay eggs as well as the release of newly hatched baby turtles.
As a huge turtle fan (they are my favourite animal), I was not missing a visit to Selingan Turtle Island on my most recent trip to Sabah. It took a bit of organisation as you can only visit on an overnight package tour, but it is not hard to organise once you know what to do.
If you are at all considering visiting Selingan Turtle Island, keep reading! I’m going to tell you everything there is to know about visiting here from where it is, to how to book a tour here to exactly what the tour entails.
I also describe exactly what it is like when you visit this Borneo Turtle Island from the accommodation to the meals to the turtle experiences and what it’s like on the island.
Even better, I share my video walk-through of the whole experience of visiting here from driving to the jetty to getting back to Sandakan.
This way, you can decide if visiting Selingan Turtle Island is right for you.
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What Is Selingan Turtle Island?
Selingan Turtle Island, also known as Pulau Selingan, is a small island located off the east coast of Sabah. It is part of the Turtle Islands National Park. This is a protected area that includes three islands: Selingan, Bakungan Kecil and Gulisaan.
The island is named after the green turtles that come to its beaches to lay their eggs. Selingan Turtle Island is a major nesting site for green turtles in Southeast Asia, and it is estimated that over 4,000 green turtles come to the island every year to lay their eggs. Some hawksbill turtles do too.
The island is also a popular tourist destination, and visitors can stay overnight in a basic Selingan Turtle Island chalet. The main attraction is the opportunity to witness the nesting and hatching of the green turtles which takes place on the island’s beaches.
The island is also home to a turtle hatchery and a conservation centre which is dedicated to protecting the turtles and their habitat. Visitors can come and learn about the conservation efforts taken to protect these endangered creatures.
Where Is Turtle Island Selingan?
Selingan Turtle Island is about 40 kilometres north of Sandakan in the Sulu Sea. This makes it reasonably accessible as Sandakan is a major transport hub with an airport. Once you have made it to Sandakan, it’s easy to get here on a tour (more about this below). It’s about a one hour boat ride to the island.
Something to be aware of is that many governments have travel warnings about this coastal part of Sabah. This island is very close to the Philippines and extremists in the southern part of that country have kidnapped foreign tourists and local fisherman.
However, this has been rare and hasn’t happened recently. My guide told me that the only incident that has happened here was in 1997 involving a park ranger. Since then, there has been 20 police stationed at the island full-time to ensure the safety of everyone, including the turtles.
There’s also a curfew with no boats after 6pm, and you can’t walk round the island by yourself at night.
While I considered it safe to visit, this is a decision to make for yourself. You can see Australian government warnings here. The US warnings are here and only at level 2 – exercise increased caution.
How To Visit Selingan Turtle Island
Part of the attraction of Selingan Turtle Island is that only 40 visitors are allowed to visit a day maximum.
You can only visit on an organised tour which is an overnight package. There is no way to have a Selingan Turtle Island day trip. Since the turtle action happens at night, there would be no point visiting for just a day anyway.
On the upside, this does make it very easy as everything is organised for you. You can be picked up at your hotel in the Sandakan or Sepilok area (or the airport) and everything will be arranged for your visit. You then return back to the Sandakan area early the next morning.
Various local travel agencies can book this package for you. The only one I found online that didn’t involve an international wire transfer was this option on klook.
Given the 40 person limit, you should book ahead as far as you can to be on the safe side that you’ll spot. My tour in early April was fully booked, and that’s not even a peak time.
Selingan Turtle Island Tour Package
There is a set, one night package to visit Selingan Turtle Island. There are no choices to make or ways to vary it.
This is the basic itinerary:
- Pick up at your hotel for transfer to the jetty
- 10am ferry ride to Turtle Island which takes about an hour
- Check into basic accommodation
- 12:30 – 2pm Have lunch
- Free time where you can explore, swim, snorkelling (extra cost)
- 7pm Video presentation about the turtles
- 7:30pm Dinner
- The turtle program starts sometime after dinner. The ranger alerts guests when a turtle comes ashore to lay their eggs
- After this happens, guests can watch the mother turtle lay her eggs
- Watch the eggs being re-homed in the hatchery
- Watch baby turtles being released into the sea (if there are any new hatchlings)
- 6:30am Breakfast and check out
- 7am One hour boat ride back to Sandakan
Everything above is included except where stated otherwise. You’ll also have an English speaking guide – but the guide experience will vary based on where you booked it. I had my own private guide, for example.
Some people rarely got to talk to any type of guide. It was a bit strange how this worked and why there wasn’t just guides for the group instead of individual travel agencies having their own guides.
Selingan Turtle Island Review
Now that we’ve covered what Selingan Turtle Island is and what a tour here includes, let’s walk through what this experience was actually like. Everything below is based on my experience of visiting here. I visited alone.
Getting To The Island
The boats depart from a jetty in Sandakan around 10am. I was picked up from my hotel in Sepilok at 9am and was one of the last people at the jetty at 9:30am. I met my guide at the jetty.
I found out once I was at the jetty that suitcases aren’t advisable. There isn’t really room for them on the boat, and it would be annoying at the island. Thankfully, it was no bother at all to store it at the office at the jetty.
My guide gave me a brochure with a map of the island and lots of information while we were waiting. I was surprised that I had my own personal guide, and I realised at this point, there were a few different guides. It seems it depends which travel agency you book through. It seemed a bit wasteful to me, but it was nice having my own guide.
Since the island was fully booked on my night, there were four boats to take us to the island. They distributed us evenly, and we were soon on our way.
The boats were fast and comfortable enough for the only 45-minutes it took us to get to the island. My guide said it’s usually closer to an hour though.
On arrival at the island, we hopped out of the boat and walked to the main building where we would eat and hang out in the evening. There were welcome drinks of what tasted like orange cordial. There was also a small shop here with a couple of drinks for sale, but not much.
I was relieved to find they had a few bottles of bottled water so I could get one. I have found since arriving in Sepilok the afternoon before that everyone assumes you have a water bottle and they offer free water to fill it.
This is absolutely fantastic from an environmental and cost perspective, but a little difficult when you don’t have a bottle.
As my guide had already gone through a lot of information with me, I soon had my key and he was walking me to my room giving more information on the way. Most people hung out round here for awhile getting information though.
We walked past the hatcheries and areas where the eggs were waiting. Some of the eggs were under shade cloths trying to prevent them from getting too hot and becoming girls because they have had too many female turtles lately. Apparently, the heat of the sand that the eggs are buried in determines the sex.
Selingan Turtle Island Accommodation
It didn’t take long and I was soon in my room. There are four Selingan Turtle Island park chalets. Each of them contains multiple rooms. I was in block C, and there were seven rooms. All rooms have twin single beds. There are no other options.
I didn’t expect much because everything describes the rooms as basic. I actually think this is a bit harsh.
They are simple, for sure. There isn’t tea and coffee making facilities or hot water. But you do have your own bathroom, a fan and air-conditioning so I was happy! My room was also spotlessly clean.
The room was small though, and I was very happy I didn’t have my suitcase. There wasn’t really space for luggage. Since I was by myself, I was able to put my things on the second bed.
Other than the beds, fan and air-conditioning, the bedroom only contained a small mirror and wall shelf as well as a couple of hooks. There are power points, and there’s no issue with charging devices.
The bathroom was also simple with a shower on the wall (so everything gets wet when it’s on), toilet and basin.
I was in my room about 11am and then I was basically free for the day until everyone comes together in the evening at 7pm.
Lunch is at 12:30pm and is buffet style, but don’t expect a huge range. The food was all tasty though!
There was corn and chicken soup, Chinese style, chicken, an absolutely delicious prawn dish, rice, a couple of vegetable options and some green beans and tomatoes. There was also watermelon.
On check-in, I had been told which table was mine. It felt a little depressing as the tables are set up for your booking group and mine was just me, but it was right next to some other Australians, so I didn’t feel like a total loser for long 🙂
You line up to get your food and serve yourself. There is water to help yourself to as well.
Exploring Selingan Island
This island is small so you can see it easily with all the free time during the day.
After I dropped my things in my room, I walked round most of the island and explored. It’s very pretty and it feels amazing to be somewhere that feels so remote. You can walk everywhere including by the police barracks.
The best part was when I got to the swimming beach. There were still lots of turtle tracks from the night before as well as burrows. The female turtles will make multiple holes and not put eggs into all of them to confuse predators. They were fun to see, and it made me excited for the evening when we would get to see everything in action.
The most popular activity is swimming and snorkelling at the beach.
It’s possible to hire snorkel, mask and fins as well as towels, life jackets and beach mats. Only cash is accepted. To give you an idea of prices, a snorkel, mask, fins set is RM35. A towel is RM15.
The water was like a warm bath, so lovely!
There is no internet on the island, and I had no phone reception.
If you’re not a huge beach person, like me, make sure you bring something to watch on your device and/or a good book.
Parks Exhibition Hall
This was closed indefinitely when I visited as there are structural problems with the building.
Dinner was at 7:30pm. It was much like lunch with two meat dishes, rice, two vegetable dishes, some salad and soup.
It was very good as well.
The turtle related activities started at 7pm when we assembled back in the dining hall to watch a video on green and hawksbill turtles, their lives, the island we were on and the area and what they are doing to help them.
It was a great video. I felt like I learned a lot and it was only about 15 minutes. We then had dinner and waited until the main events.
There are two main events in the evening. The first is watching a female turtle lay her eggs. The next is to release baby hatchlings. This is what you come to the island to do.
As we were a full group, they usually split the group into two. The first group goes out when the first turtle is spotted. The second group waits for the next one. You can’t pick what group you are in.
On this night, they didn’t as they were worried how late it may be until a second turtle arrives. I really didn’t find it an issue having this many people as everyone was respectful. The guides were great at making sure people kept rotating to get a turn (if they wanted) of being in the front and getting any photos they wanted.
As the female nesting relies on nature, there’s no exact timing.
My guide told me that it varies a lot when these things happen. In August, many turtles can come in to lay eggs from 6pm. Conversely, it can be as late as midnight.
If there isn’t a female laying eggs by 9pm, they release the hatchlings first so you can watch that while you are waiting.
While waiting, everyone has to stay in the main dining hall. It can be a long evening! There are games. I took my laptop and a book with me to stay entertained, but I didn’t need them as there were plenty of friendly people to talk to.
Thankfully, we were called to a female laying eggs just before 9pm. My guide was absolutely fantastic at making sure I had great positions and missed nothing and got us both to jog to where the turtle was so we were there in the front. If you lag behind too much and the turtle doesn’t lay many eggs, you can miss out on a chunk of the experience.
I didn’t need to worry though as this turtle laid 104 eggs! There’s only one light by the turtle nest to help the ranger remove the eggs from the nest as she lays them.
It was absolutely amazing to sit right behind her as she popped the eggs out. She was such a magnificent creature. I enjoyed it fully.
Most people did not actually seem to want to watch up close so I had multiple turns being in the front and watching the eggs.
You can’t film but you can take photos without flash. It is dark so forgive my bad photos. Hopefully, it gives you some idea.
When she was finished laying, she pushed her back flippers together and started filling in the (now empty) nest. There were more lights as the ranger measured her and added a tag as she hadn’t visited these beaches before. We were able to take photos.
I love turtles, but I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be watching one lay eggs. I found it absolutely fascinating though and amazing to get to experience.
We then walked to the hatchery and watched them bury the eggs and label them in a safe space away from predators. We learned more as they did this.
The final part of the evening was taking the just hatched hatchlings to the water to let them go. There was just one torch light over the sea to encourage them in the right direction.
They were so so so so so cute! And soon, they were on their way into the ocean.
All this took about an hour, and we were soon on our way back to our rooms. There were police with us the whole time, and it felt very safe.
It was all absolutely amazing. Worth everything I spent in both time and money (and much more than that). I love turtles even more now. I highly recommend it!
It was also great having my guide. He talked me through everything, told me what was going on and ensured I always got a great position.
I had a great night’s sleep. This was good because while you have a lazy day on your arrival day, you get going early the next day.
Breakfast is served at 6:30am ready for the boat back at 7am.
Breakfast was simple, but good. There was some noodles, scrambled eggs, baked beans and fruit. You can see everything that was on offer in the video.
Heading Back To Sandakan
Sadly, by 7am, we were in the boat heading back to Sandakan. It was smooth and easy and we were back at the jetty at 8am.
Selingan Turtle Island Video Walkthrough
Below is a video I made from my experiences on this island. It’ll show you everything you can expect!
You’re not allowed to film the turtles laying eggs, but you’ll see my photos of this.
When To Visit Selingan Turtle Island Borneo
The top Selingan Island turtle season is between July and October.
You can visit Selingan Turtle Island at any time of year. However, when it comes to the best chance of witnessing the nesting and hatching of green turtles, the best time to visit is between July and October. This is the peak nesting season.
During this time, you are more likely to see turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs and hatchlings making their way to the sea. The sea conditions are generally calmer at this time of year.
However, if you prefer to avoid the crowds and want to enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere, you may want to consider visiting Selingan Turtle Island during the non-peak season between November and February. During this time, the seas are rougher, and there are fewer visitors on the island.
I visited in early April when I wrote this review.
Booking Your Trip To Selingan Turtle Island
As mentioned above, it is important to book your Selingan Turtle Island park trip early since only 40 people can visit a day.
You won’t want to miss a visit here!
Visiting Selingan Turtle Island is amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed it all. While I had only been focusing on the turtle aspect in the lead up to going, the island itself is awesome and worth the price alone. It was lovely to hang out here for half a day.
However, that doesn’t even come close to how amazing the turtles are and the events in the evening. It was amazing watching the female turtle lay eggs, seeing the process of giving them a new home and then watching the hatchlings make their way to sea.
I really can’t recommend this experience enough especially as it’s cheap for everything you get.
Looking for other things to do in Sabah? Find our full guide here. You can also find our full guide to things to do in the Sandakan area here as well as places to stay here.
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