Turtles and Beaches in Southeast Java

by Michael

This post is Part IV in my series: Jumping Around Java. You can see the Preview with index here.

After our trip to the Ijen crater, we had just a few days before we were scheduled to meet Elizabeth’s parents in Jakarta before heading off on a scuba diving trip. We were in Banyuwangi at the far end of Java, so we booked a domestic flight back to Jakarta in a few days time and headed off on an adventure to go see baby turtles crawl into the sea.

Sea turtles lay eggs at Sukamade beach, which is part of Meru Betiri National Park. As part of a conservation effort, rangers watch the beach at night, then collect the eggs that are laid and bury them in protected cages. After the eggs hatch, the rangers release most of the baby turtles. A few baby turtles are kept for tourists to release for a small donation — though you must release the turtles early in the morning to increase the odds that the turtles survive.

But first, you must get yourself to Sukamade beach.

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If you’ve noticed a trend in Java, it has been that it can be tricky to arrange transport. This was no different. We could have booked a tour with Blue Flame Tours again, but it would have been expensive (1,700,000Rp/$127for transit only, or 3,500,000/$260 all-inclusive). Instead we opted to attempt the multi-stage do-it-yourself transit that was described in our guidebook.  We took a taxi to the bus station, where we caught a largely empty bus along the main road to the town of Jajaj (30,000Rp ($2.25) each, probably a rip off). While waiting for a minibus to Pesanggaran, a truck driver hauling baskets and his workers stopped, and we hopped into the back of the truck. He didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia or Javanese. But he figured out where we were going and off we went. He let us out in Karetan (I think), without accepting any money, where we were told by some locals that a bus to Sukamade would be passing through in a couple hours.

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Selfie in the bed of the truck.

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Our fellow travelers were entertained.

We had a smoothie while we waited, but then heard from a shop keeper that the bus would not be running that day. Faced with the uncertainty (and our failure to pick up a hitch), we haggled with the driver of a van carrying vats of petrol to take us to the town of Sarongan and quickly made a dent in the savings from the free ride (100,000Rp). The road to Sarongan was pretty bad and very empty. I have a hard time imagining that there is a regular minibus that runs this route.

From Sarongan, the guidebook identifies three options for getting to Sukamade: take a truck that doesn’t run on any fixed schedule, hire a jeep, or take a motorbike taxi (called ojek in Indonesia). The route includes a couple river crossings, and we were warned that during rainy season (which we’re in) taking an ojek was risky. When we arrived in Sarongan, there were no trucks in sight (and no one responded to our questions about them). The ojek guys wanted 150,000Rp (~$11) per person and we were worried about how we would balance our backpacks on the bikes during the river crossings. A shop owner used his own cell phone to put Elizabeth in touch with a jeep operator, and it turned out to be a pretty good deal.  For 850,000Rp ($64) we got a driver to take us to Sukamade, spend the night, and return us to nearby Red Island the next day. We were pretty happy with our decision. The next segment would have been crazy on the back of a motorbike — it was bouncy enough in a jeep and took about two hours. We also avoiding having to find or pre-arrange return transportation from Sukamade, which was completely isolated and had only one other small tour group while we were there.

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Photo actually from the return trip. The water seemed lower in the morning than it was the prior afternoon.

We finally arrived at the park office at about 4pm (having left Banyuwangi at 9am). Accommodations were a bit confusing — if we wanted to stay near the beach we had the option of staying in a tent or in the ranger’s office, which had a simple room and bed. There was a small guesthouse nearby (which we thought was Mess Pantai, but someone told us it wasn’t), but it appeared to be closed. We opted for the room in the ranger’s office for 150,000Rp. Other lodging options were about 5km away and would have meant long, uncomfortable rides back and forth from the beach for any activities, so even though our room was super basic, it was worth it.

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We made it to the beach!

We had a chance to walk to the beach in daytime before returning to the ranger’s post for dinner (simple fried noodles) and time for relaxation. The ranger-guided trip to see the turtles reach land started just after nightfall (100,000Rp per group). The rules for tourists watching turtles on land are strict: the tourists are in a single group, and the group gets to see only one turtle, maximum. If the turtle doesn’t lay eggs, the tourists cannot stay to wait for another turtle.

The rangers watch from various posts up and down the beach, presumably to deter poachers. Relatively soon one of the rangers radioed our ranger guide that there is a turtle on land but it is not laying eggs. So we had a choice: go see a turtle not laying eggs, or wait and take a chance that another turtle later might show up and lay eggs by the 11pm cut-off time. The risk is seeing no turtle at all. We agree to take the chance. But the other two tourists opt to see this turtle, and since all tourists can see only one turtle, we went along. After some confusion, we reach a full grown female turtle pulling itself toward the ocean.

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It was a full moon, so we could see well without flashlights. So well, and so much better is Elizabeth’s new camera, that our best pictures use only moonlight. The other tourists had a fancy-looking DSLR camera but they kept asking the ranger to shine his light on the back of the turtle.

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She was huge. The effort of getting up the beach and back to the water made us wonder — why go through all the effort and lay no eggs? Still pretty cool to get a chance to see such a big turtle on land (and the big, distinctive tracks she left behind).

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Early the next morning (6am!) was baby turtle time! We were given a bucket with 10 little guys, and escorted back out to the beach by an assistant. The assistant drew a line in the sand, behind which we were to release the turtles. We let them go one by one and watched them swim into the ocean. We even named them — in honor of his Indonesian childhood and the fact that he too was about to be set free, the first one we set free was named Barack 😉 We cannot be held responsible for the sounds of delight that we made during the baby turtle release. It was beyond amazing and a definite trip highlight.

Of course, only 1 in 1,000 baby sea turtles survives to adulthood. Even with the park’s program to hatch turtles in safety, the odds are against our crew of 10. But they sure are cute!

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We released the turtles near a large set of tracks from one of the grown turtles that had come ashore the night before.

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They created their own mini tracks!

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A couple of the baby turtles ended up heading out in a momma turtle’s tracks!

We had a chance to look at the hatchery as well:

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A bucket of turtle eggs. The eggs were about the same size as a ping pong ball (but a bit more squishy).

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So many turtle eggs buried!

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Cat not allowed near baby turtles.

After releasing the turtles we took our ride to the Red Island beach, known in Indonesian as Pula Mera. Our extra connection cost only 50,000 Rupiah (about $4) above what it would have cost to be returned to Sarongan, and on the way our driver stopped at his house to cut two fresh dragonfruit from the plant for us. In the end, our entire trip to see the turtles (including park fees and donations) cost about the same as the transit-only price quoted by Blue Flame Tours. Anyone planning to visit Sukamade should check out the company that we booked the jeep through at sukamadetrip.com.

We spent the day relaxing at Red Island Bungalows, a surf camp run by a friendly Australian. In the afternoon it rained a lot, but the thatch roof held up (mostly) so we could stay dry (mostly). The location was pretty amazing, and we were bummed that we couldn’t stay longer.

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Red Island is backlit. Waves were not good for surfing while we were there, but we wanted to relax anyway.

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And we had a pool.

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Our home, briefly.

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This courtyard became a lake in the heavy rain.

The next morning we left for Jakarta via the Banyuwangi airport. This is the smallest airport setup I’ve seen. Even the dirt landing strips in the Serengeti had more buildings around. The flight was delayed, we were rebooked, but it all worked out to see my in-laws that evening in Jakarta.

[This blog post describes our trip to Sukamade and Red Island, Indonesia, January 12-14, 2017.]

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One thought on “Turtles and Beaches in Southeast Java

  1. Pingback: Jumping Around Java: Our plans (or lack thereof) for 13 days on Java | two backpacks, no plan

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