It stood out as one of the greatest wildlife encounters of her life, and led her to book a volunteering experience at a turtle sanctuary on the Malaysian Perhentian Islands years later.

During those two weeks volunteering in Malaysia, Emily saw a female turtle lay her eggs, slept in a hammock on a desert island, paddled, snorkelled and swam, and learned so much about sea turtles and Malaysian culture.

Here she shares her experience including the best things about the program and why you should apply to do something similar…


Make New Friends 

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Sleeping in very modest shared accommodation, we had little privacy – even monitor lizards would saunter in and out of our bare wooden huts. These close confines led me to become very close to my fellow volunteers.

We spent 24 hours together, sometimes taking part in physically demanding tasks and sometimes just lolling around with little to do. We learnt a lot about each other very quickly.

Stand-out memories occurred during regular night-time patrols of a turtle nesting beach. Lit only by moonlight, we walked up and down the beach each hour.

In the middle of the night at the far end of the empty beach, two or three of us would sit or lie on a large rock, look up at the stars and share intimate stories of our lives with near strangers. The beauty and closeness of nature, as well as a shared task, brought us all together. 


The Nesting Beach

Perhentian Isands, Malaysia

The turtle nesting beach sat on an island reachable only by boat. Though tourists arrived via speedboat in the day, they were picked up at dusk leaving only the turtle sanctuary staff, volunteers and the Malaysian fisheries.

We’d cook a simple dinner on the gas stove, read our books, chat and play cards until the night, when we would take it in turns to sleep in hammocks (away from the creepy crawlies), or patrol the beach.

It was on this beach I witnessed the first turtle of the season lay her eggs. The experienced staff made sure we didn’t disturb her, and when she was done, the eggs were safely hoarded to protect them from poachers and predators until hatching.

This way, many more hatchlings make it to the sea and have the best chance of surviving into adulthood. 


Get to Know the Real Malaysia

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

After spending a month in the country (two weeks of those on the Perhentian Islands) Malaysia became one of my favourite places in south east Asia.

I absolutely loved the people, the natural beauty, the influences of different nationalities and how easy it is for English-speaking tourists. The turtle project let me understand far more of the local culture than I would have as a tourist.

I spoke to locals about their lives, heard about their challenges and played a small role in helping a community and its wildlife. I even helped a woman paint the shelves of a new bookshop café which would become the first air-conditioned building in the fisherman’s village.  


The Communal Meals

Sunset Perhentian Islands

The international volunteers and staff cooked our meals together every day. The groceries available were limited, and we usually ate some variation of pasta, bread, cabbage and carrot.

Our often-strenuous days made even the simplest meals taste delicious. Cooking as a group was also a very relaxing and bonding experience.

On one special day, we visited a woman from the village’s home and she cooked a beautiful local-style meal for us. The charity pays various local women to take it in turns to cook for volunteers as one way of engaging them with the project.

The turtle project is run by Malaysians who are sensitive to the culture and the needs of the community.


The Wildlife

Turtle Malaysia

It was the wildlife that brought me to Malaysia, and it was the wildlife which gave me the greatest memories. I was literally woken by a troop of monkeys as they jumped through the palm trees my hammock was strung from. They shook me awake and dropped dried leaves.

But much of the wonderful wildlife I saw was under the water. Though it would be a month until I learned to dive in the Philippines, we were able to see so much with snorkels alone, including the fabulous sea turtles.

As the turtles grazed on sea grass, we dived down, careful not to get too close and disturb them, to watch and photograph them for the project’s records.

During snorkelling trips we also saw amazing coral life, such as small blue-spotted rays, box puffer fish and even reef sharks. The waters were teeming with iridescent life, which further motivated us to protect it from harm if we could.


Go Do Something Similar

I made many wonderful memories volunteering in Asia, but crucially, I felt like my time on the turtle conservation project and the money that I spent had a positive impact.

I was able to do something I found fulfilling and get to know Malaysia in a sustainable way, which is something I now try to incorporate into my travel as much as possible.

If you enjoying reading my experience search volunteering programs abroad.


By Emily Andrews