From Yogyakarta we took the train to Banyuwangi, stopping at Surabaya for a night on the way (mostly to do teeny bit of shopping at the mall). Banyuwangi is a smaller port town that serves mostly as a gateway to various nearby natural attractions. We stayed the night at a cute resort and were picked up the next morning by our ride to Sukamade beach. Sukamade beach is in Meru Betiri National Park. It’s about a 5-ish hour journey from Banyuwangi, the first half of which is along paved road, and the second half on extremely bumpy dirt track. For this reason (plus there is a river crossing part way) you can only get there in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Chris was possibly more excited about riding in the 4 X 4 across a river than actually going to Sukamade.
The drive goes by some beaches, rice fields, and cacao plantations. Our guide picked us a cacao fruit and we ate it in the car. We also stopped at a palm sugar factory and a little warung (a.k.a. family restaurant) for lunch, where Chris predictably burnt his face off with spiciness.
It was mid-afternoon when we made it to Sukamade. The beach there is important because it’s where four different species of sea turtle come to lay their eggs – green sea turtles, leatherback turtles, hawksbill turtles, and olive ridley turtles. As such, it’s protected 24 hours a day by park rangers. With the ranger station there is also a turtle hatchery; eggs are often dug up and moved to the hatchery to protect them from predators (such as poachers, wild pigs, monitor lizards, etc.). Sea turtle eggs take about 2 months to hatch, so there is lots of time for them to be eaten in the wild. Baby turtles from the hatchery are released back onto Sukamade beach (as you will see!). We stayed in one of the 4 guest rooms at the actual hatchery. They are very very basic, so most tourists seem to opt to stay in one of the fancier hotels in the nearby town. This meant however that we had the hatchery and beach all to ourselves to explore. Since the ranger station is basically in the middle of the jungle, there were tons of monkeys around, and we were given explicit instructions not to leave any of our stuff unattended. Since there were currently very few turtles in the hatchery (most hatch overnight and are released in the morning), we decided to go to the beach for the rest of the afternoon. It was totally empty, so we walked up and down the entire coast taking cheesy photos.
The beach was longer that we thought so we barely made it back before it got dark, but saw a pretty sunset while walking.
Back at the ranger station we ate and hung around waiting for TURTLE TIME with a French couple that had also showed up to stay there. Around 8pm, about 15 other tourists were shuttled in from the nearby hotels, so we knew it was time to go. The rangers gave us some instructions (no lights AT ALL, be quiet, no flash photography, no walking in front of the turtle if we find one) and we headed to the beach. Once on the beach, the rangers told us that basically what would happen was we would sit there in the dark with the guides for 0-4 hours while the rangers did their nightly patrol. If a turtle was spotted coming to lay her eggs, they would radio in and we could go watch. Our guide Anam said that they get 0 to 4 turtles coming ashore each night but hadn’t seen any the last couple of nights, so hopefully one was due. The night sky is crazy out there because there is no light pollution, so we settled down in the sand to stargaze and wait. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait that long, in less than an hour we got word that a turtle had come ashore further up the beach, so the guides shuffled us over to that area. The rangers then told us that we would have to wait another hour or so while the turtle decided where to make her nest – they don’t let you go within 100m of the turtle until the actual laying process starts, lest she get scared back into the sea. Chris laid down and took a nap. Eventually the rangers came to get us and we all hurried over excitedly, trying not to fall in the sand in the pitch blackness (especially Christopher, who was only 50% awake). When we got there a ranger shone his flashlight on a BIG green sea turtle, sitting in a depression in the sand and laying the first of her ~150 eggs. It was pretty exciting, although some people got a little too excited for my taste (i.e. noisy and forgetting to turn off the flash on their cameras). Thankfully everyone eventually calmed down after they had all gotten a chance to take some pictures and realized the laying process was going to take quite some time, as 150 eggs is a lot of eggs. A bunch of people got their pictures taken next to the turtle, but we decided it was a bit weird to be squatting and smiling next to an animal giving birth.
Eventually she finished and started burying her eggs. The rangers put a marker where the nest was, and tagged and measured the turtle. They then told us to back up so she could leave the nest undisturbed. Once she was on her way, a ranger turned his flashlight back on so we could watch her slowly make her way back to the sea.
The rangers then took us back to the nest to watch them dig up the eggs so they could be transported back to the hatchery. There were 153 eggs! We got to hold one and it was very exciting.
After all the action had died down we headed back to our room. Our guide said that turtles come ashore all through the night, but tourists are only allowed on the beach until midnight. This was fine with us as Chris was basically sleeping standing up at this point. We were up SUPER early the next day so we could be the first to get some baby turtles to release back into the sea. Much to our delight, several nests had hatched overnight so there were tons of baby turtles crawling around the hatchery.
Since we were up first we chose the liveliest-looking bucket of ten teeny turtles and headed to the beach with our guide. The turtles were SO CUUUUUUUTE OMG. I can’t even.
We were the first ones on the beach, which is quite lovely in the morning. Our guide drew a line in the sand an appropriate distance from the water where we could release the turtles – it’s important for them to make the run to the sea so their “turtle GPS” kicks in properly and they know which way to swim and how to find their way back to this beach when it’s their turn to lay eggs. I had read somewhere that the general survival rate for newborn sea turtles is somewhere between 1/100 to 1/1000, but our guide told us that the hatchery process is believed to increase the survival rates to something more in the 1/10 to 1/100 range, since the majority of fatalities happen when the turtle is an egg or making its first crawl to the sea. Basically, this means that we’ll be extremely lucky if one of our turtles makes it to adulthood, but I have high hopes! I named one Christopher, which he thinks means I doomed it to be immediately eaten by something due to laziness.
Anyways, we put our turtles on the beach and watched them frantically waddle to the water. Some seemed a bit derpy and initially confused about which direction the ocean was in, others took a few tries getting into the water due to the waves, but they all made it in the end. We watched and took pictures until they all had swam away, then headed back to the camp. On the way, we passed the rest of the tourists from the surrounding guesthouses going to release their turtles, and were glad were had gotten there before them.
Back at the ranger station we had breakfast before packing our bags and heading out. While eating we got to see a monkey stealthily snatch another guest’s unattended breakfast box from the table, to hilarious results. The monkey seemed pretty pleased with himself as he sat in the trees eating the nicely cut watermelon.
On the drive back to Banyuwangi we stopped for a visit to Green Bay, named so because the water is a picturesque green. It’s a bit of a hike down so I went for a swim once we arrived, though Chris refused because the water was pretty darn cold. He was entertained by a larger Indonesian tour group also on the beach though, who came over and asked for pictures with him haha.
For the rest of the drive we mostly slept, making a quick stop for a fried chicken lunch before reaching our homestay. We figured we would just go to bed early after an exciting last couple of days, but our evening turned into a whole different sort of adventure, up next!