Blissful Borneo: Sea Turtles & Orang Utans in Sandakan

Day 2 of our trip to Borneo had us up at the crack of dawn, ready for the next adventure. This time it was back to Kota Kinabalu airport, ready for a 30-minute flight across the island to Sandakan, the former capital of British North Borneo.

Kirsty was lucky enough to be sitting on the left hand side of the aircraft, which is the best place to get a great view of Mount Kota Kinabalu.

Air Asia, who we flew with, doesn’t let you choose your seats and since the flight was full, we couldn’t sit together, so I’ve borrowed her pictures of the mountain!

Once we touched down in Sandakan, it was off to the port for our first adventure of the day – Turtle Island!

The main reasons we flew to Sandakan were to see the sea turtles and the orang utans, and we were lucky enough to see both.

We had a bit of time to spare so we just waited at the port while the rest of the passengers who’d be joining us on the trip arrived. Turtle island is only open to maximum 40 people a day, but we just had a small group, and you have to stay overnight, as the main “program” (i.e. the turtles laying their eggs) happens at night.

It’s around an hour boat ride, and having been up super early to fly in from Kota Kinabalu, I think I had a little snooze on the boat, as did Theo, who was fast asleep as soon as the boat started moving!

After arriving on the island, we were given the keys to our room and told when to be back in the evening. It’s a fairly small island with very basic accommodation and not much to do other than the beautiful beach, so bring a book!

We spent the day relaxing on the beach, alternating between reading, swimming, and sunbathing. Theo had his first dip in the sea and seemed to love it!

There were quite a few little sand flies which would come and hang around our feet, but we soon got used to them. However, in the afternoon as I was lying reading my book I got stung by a huge hornet, which left a horrible red bite on my leg, which turned into a big scab and is now a little scar, quite a few weeks later! Luckily a couple of the guys working on the island saw it happen, and quickly came over with some sort of liquid to put on it. I had no idea how much a hornet sting can hurt!

By the end of the afternoon most of the other people had left the beach, and just as we were getting ready to pack up and head back to our room to freshen up, one of the locals came over for a chat and asked if we’d seen any turtles yet. We hadn’t, so he very kindly brought over a few of the babies that had just hatched, and released them into the ocean for us!

This was honestly one of the most incredible experiences ever, watching newly hatched turtles scramble across the sand and make their way into the ocean.

We couldn’t believe how lucky we were, as there was nobody else around to witness these beautiful creatures running across the sand. They were so tiny and absolutely adorable, and we both hoped that they would survive out there.

After dinner, we watched a short informative video about the sea turtles, and they had a great display with a lot of information, as well as a couple of skeletons of the sea turtles. It’s a waiting game in the evening as to when you might be lucky enough to sea a turtle laying her eggs, and some of the reviews on TripAdvisor had said there might be a wait of up to a few hours!

Kirsty had managed to get Theo to fall asleep in the sling, helped out by the lovely girls working on the island who were absolutely in love with him and couldn’t stop playing with him! So we hoped that it wouldn’t be a late night, and we were lucky when around 8pm we heard the call for “Turtle Time” from one of the guides.

All of us rushed down to the beach, and were instructed that no lights or camera flashes were allowed. There are mixed opinions regarding the lights and how much is too much, and while the turtle was laying her eggs the guide only shone a torch at her behind so we could see it happening.

All of the turtles that come to the island are tagged, and since this one was a new mother that hadn’t yet been identified, after she’d laid all her eggs it was time to give her a quick tag on the fin. I did feel a bit sorry for her, having just laid 82 eggs, to then get a tag through her fin! She had a torch shining on her then, although the guide did seem to be careful in making sure it was always on her side or back and not on the face.

The eggs are all collected quickly, and immediately taken to be put back in the sand, in the hatchery. Did you know that the temperature of the sand decides on the sex of the turtle? Colder sand produces male turtles, and warmer sand produces female turtles!

Turtle Island is a national park, and is a safe haven for the endangered green and hawksbill turtles. It is one of South East Asia’s most important nesting and breeding grounds, and it is a protected area for the conservation and preservation of the turtles.

After we’d been taken to the hatchery, it was time to release some of the newly hatched babies into the ocean!

The guide shone a torch into the direction of the ocean, and nobody was allowed to use any light in case they followed the light and ended up going the wrong way. All of them made it into the ocean, although some needed a little nudging in the right direction. I wonder just how many will survive!

The next morning we were up early again, this time to take the boat back to mainland at sunrise.

The next animal adventure was awaiting us – the orang utans!

After the boat ride we hailed a taxi and it was around a 30 minute drive to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. The centre has been open since 1964, and wass the first official orang utan rehabilitation project for rescued orphan baby orang utans, which came from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunting, or from being kept as pets. The orphaned animals are trained to survive again in the wild and are released as soon as they are ready.

There’s no guarantee that you will actually see any orang utans, and the rangers say that the less you see the better, as it means they have been successfully rehabilitated.

There are feedings every day at 10am and 3pm, which is when you have a good chance of spotting them. However they are fed a monotonous diet of fruit and milk, which encourages them to go out and forage for their own food.

We strolled along the walkway, hoping to be as lucky as one of the couples at Turtle Island, who’d spotted an orang utan just swinging right past them! No such luck for us unfortunately, but the surrounding rainforest was still great.

Once we arrived at the feeding platform, we soon spotted a couple of macaques, who were just as eager for the orang utan food!

And soon enough, we spotted an orang utan, swinging through the trees, coming to look for his breakfast.

It was amazing to watch the orang utans in their natural habitat, knowing that the reason we only saw one was because the others have been rehabilitated back into the wild, where they belong.

At the centre, somewhere you do have a chance of spotting some more orang utans, is at the baby nursery! Here they can play, swing along the ropes, and there’s an inside viewing area where you can sit and watch them from. It was great to sit inside for a bit in the air-conditioning!

After watching the orang utans for a while and stopping for a local lunch in the cafe, it was time to head next door to the sun bear sanctuary.

The sun bear is a small bear found in the tropical forest habitats of South East Asia, and is classified as vulnerable due to the large amount of deforestation that has occurred over the past 3 decades. The Malayan sun bear is also known as the “honey bear”, which refers to its appetite for honey and honeycomb!

Theo was very happily chilling in his sling, although poor Kirsty was feeling quite hot from wearing it all day!

Just up the road from the Sepilok Orang Utan Centre and the Sun Bear Centre, is the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Luckily there were plenty of cabs waiting around, so we found one who offered to wait for us while we did some exploring, then take us to the airport later on, which was perfect as we could leave our bags with him.

The rainforest discovery centre has a beautiful garden with all sorts of tropical plants and flowers, a small lake, as well as a canopy walk through the rainforest that is over 25m above ground.

We had weak knees walking along the edge of the canopy walk, especially at the end where it just stops!

After a long day visiting the orang utans, sun bears, and the rainforest discovery centre, it was time to head back to Sandakan airport to catch our flight to Kota Kinabalu. Having not had wifi for the past 2 days we stopped off at Gloria Jean’s for a coffee and to use the wifi, since we ended up with plenty of time to spare!

Soon enough it was time to board our flight back to Kota Kinabalu, and I’ll be sharing our adventures there very soon!

P.s. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook & Twitter for more day-to-day updates of where I am in the world! πŸ™‚


  1. Muhammad Shoaib
    July 12, 2018 / 2:21 pm

    Have been reading your bog since a week now, starting from your layover in Lahore, and loving every single one of it! Wish you luck and safe travels! Your way of writing reminds a bit of Enid Blyton, the way she ended the chapters with more adventures to come πŸ™‚ Regarding Borneo, is it part of Malaysia or an independent nation for which you have to get a separate visa for??

    • thedubaidiaries
      July 26, 2018 / 3:21 pm

      Hi Muhammad, thanks for reading! Glad you enjoy my adventures πŸ™‚ Borneo actually belongs to Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Since we only went to the Malaysian part I didn’t need a visa!

  2. October 20, 2017 / 12:41 pm

    This trip sounds absolutely amazing, what an experience to see those turtles! Proper bucket list goals here. I can’t wait to read more on what you got up to xxx

    • thedubaidiaries
      October 21, 2017 / 1:09 pm

      The turtles were definitely the best part of the trip, so amazing!! πŸ˜€ xx

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