The Search for Turtles off Gili Trawangan

The Gili Islands are a chain of three islands off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia. Comprising of Gili Trawangan (the largest), Gili Meno and Gili Air. They are a peaceful place to relax offering a slower pace of life from that on Bali or Lombok. You can soak up some sun, fill your belly with local cuisine and observe aquatic wildlife. To help maintain island life cars and motorbikes are not allowed on the islands but due to their size everything is easily accesible by foot, bicycle or horse and cart. The islands are a popular destination for backpackers and families alike. With a mix of fancy hotels and cheap homestays, every budget is catered for. I chose to visit the largest and busiest island of Gili Trawangan with the hope of seeing turtles in the wild. I had heard they were abundant off all three islands and that the islanders were making steps to preserve them. If  you’re interested to hear about my experience looking for turtles on Gili Trawangan then please read on.  

Whilst at my homestay in Ubud, Bali I purchased an open return ticket to Gili Trawangan with a company called Wahana. It allowed me to return to any of the main Balinese locations on anyday for a total cost of £30 boat and transfers included. I was transported by mini bus from my homestay to a crowded jetty with backpacks lining the shore. The mini bus driver pointed to some wooden stairs, at the top of which appeared to be a resturant. He told me to go in there and exchange my receipt for a boarding pass. Whilst travelling southeast Asia I’ve come to expect this kind of beaurocrucy, so without questioning I climbed the stairs. At the top I found myself in a long queue of warm and bewildered backpackers winding their way round the resturant tables amongst the dinners. At the head of the queue was a couple of Wahana employees sat at a resturant table. They took a page of my receipt and gave me a sticker with my destination. When I asked when the boat was leaving and where from I was told it would be outside and leaving now. None of these statements were entirely accurate. Without knowing where to go, I collected my bag from the pile of luggage littering the beach and headed towards the jetty. In my mind this would be the most logical place to find a boat. Other backpackers gave me no indication of where the boat would be. They all seemed to be heading off in different directions. As I neared the jetty I was stopped by a man. He ushered me into what can only be described as a holding pen on one side of the jetty. I was packed in with other tourists all marked with coloured stickers indicating our boat company and destination. Eventually the man returned to the pen and whispered the name of our boat. I surged forward with other tourists from the pen onto the boat and was on my way at last. The boat journey itself was about an hour and a half. The crew allowed the tourists onto the deck and sold them beers (at a premium of course). 

As we pulled up at Gili T I joined a queue to disembark. We were funnelled out of the boats side doors as the middle door was being used to unload the luggage. I stepped out the door expecting to land on a wooden jetty. Instead I was greeted with a straight drop into the most turquoise water I have ever seen. Luckily I managed to stop myself and shuffled along the narrow edge towards the front of the boat where a ladder desended into the shallow water. 

That evening I perused the various shops and stalls looking for a snorkle but soon realised I was not going to find one to fit my backpackers budget. It was time to think of alternatives. There are many stalls and stands selling snorkeling trips around the Gili islands. These guarantee turtle sightings as they take you out on a glass bottom boat to various known spots around the island and provide you with flippers and a snorkle. I looked at this but again the cost was too high and I was hoping for a more personal turtle experience. I found a stand where you can hire snorkels or a snorkle flipper combo for the day for 25,000 rupees. This was ideal as the cheapest snorkle I had seen for sale on the island was 400,000 rupees. The staff did not try to cohource me into booking a tour or rent me more than I needed. I just had to bring back the equipment once it was dark or as soon as I had finished. 

The following morning armed with my equipment and a strong sense of hope and determination I walked along the beach until I saw a wooden sign saying ‘turtle point’. There were also a couple of other hopeful snorklists in the water. As I gingerly stepped in (trying to avoid stamping on the dead coral) I realised it was surprisingly wavy compared to how it had seemed the evening before. The water was cloudy and I could not see the bottom. Had I made a terrible mistake? Should I have booked the boat tour? Feelings of doubt began to wash over me as I swam out into the sea. After a few minutes of swimming the water had cleared slightly and I could see grass on the bottom. Hope returned but it was met with a sharp stinging pain on my arm. Followed by another one to my stomach. Baby jellyfish. I was familiar with these irritating creatures from my time in Kuta. The pain doesn’t linger for long but on mass it can be really annoying and hard to ignore. Then I saw her. A green turtle. I was swimming in less than a meter of water and had only been in the sea for 5 minutes. She was right in front of my mask. I panicked as the waves carried me over her as I did not want to scare her or accidentally brush against her. I pushed away to the side and tried to stand, my mask taking on water. By the time I had recovered from the shock and put my face back in she was gone. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds.  I searched for her and others for a bit but the jellyfish stings were becoming more intense. The other snorklers had left the water or moved further down the coast. I got out. 

After a few minutes on the sand I decided to try again. This time I went much further down the coast (away from the jellys). There were quite a few snorklists in the water and a few glass bottom boats suggesting this would be a good place. I spent hours in the water just following the beautiful fish. There were so many different species, as well as a couple of large clams and urchins. I didn’t see anymore turtles but it was still a great day.

The next day I decided to rest and have a lazy island day as spending all day in the sun and sea had left me somewhat unwell. By day three I was back to the snorkel rentle place and back at it. After a couple of hours watching some fish I decided to take my turtle hunt out to deeper water. Almost immediately I saw her. A large graceful creature about a meter long swimming down from the surface. I observed her for about 20 minutes. She would swim down to the floor and search for food then surface for air and repeat. At one point during her surface she swam right towards me. I had to take evasive action and push back as I did not want too brush against her. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I will not be forgetting anytime soon. My experience has shown me that it is not difficult to see wild turtles off Gili T. With a snorkle and some patients anyone can do it. Both days that I entered the water I saw a turtle and have spoke to many other tourists who have achieved the same on the islands. 

My top tips for seeing turtles off Gili T 

  1. Be patient. It might take a few hours in the water before you get lucky.
  2. Take regular breaks out of the sea and sun and drink plenty of water or you might find yourself with sun stroke. I actually collapsed on the night of my first day turtle hunting simply because I had spent hours straight in the sea without drinking enough fresh water. Your body might not feel thirsty if it has been kept at a constant cool temperature in the sea but trust me it is. 
  3. Save money by renting a snorkle rather than buying one or taking a turtle tour.
  4. Look at where the tour boats have stopped or where other snorklers have gathered. These are good indicators of prime turtle viewing spots.
  5. Look but don’t touch. Take care not to get too close to the turtle and don’t reach out to touch them. I know it’s tempting and you will probably see other tourists doing it but it’s wrong. These are a threatened species and we don’t want to do anything that might scare or distress them. Turtles also need to reach the surface to breath so don’t crowd them. Give them space. 
  6. Finally have fun. The sea is beautiful and there is so much wildlife to observe.

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