The ocean is an enigmatic world, and I’ve always wanted to get scuba certified so I could explore the depths below its surface. Living in Kuala Lumpur, we had the perfect get certified in the Perhentian Islands, a sparsely-populated pair of islands off Malaysia’s east coast. Known for their low-key, understated island ambiance, the Perhentians are surrounded by crystal clear water and biodiverse coral reefs — a dreamy playground for scuba divers. The islands shut down in winter when the entire region is soaked by monsoons, so we planned our trip for when Michael’s brother Daniel visited us in May.

Despite their relative remoteness, the Perhentians are an easy trip from KL. We flew to the coastal city of Kota Baru, then took a small speedboat across the South China Sea. As we lost sight of mainland Malaysia, we became spellbound by the impossibly blue water, with visibility so clear that we could see all the way to the bottom of the ocean from the boat. In less than an hour, we approached the sun-kissed Perhentians, a tropical Neverland with a lush, mountainous landscape. We were staying on the larger island of Perhentian Besar (which literally means ‘bigger island’), at a small dive resort called Bubbles. We didn’t know it yet, but this resort was a hidden gem. Tucked away in its own private bay and surrounded by thick jungle, Bubbles offered complete privacy and bliss. Besides a group of carefree 20-something-year-old volunteers, there was just one other couple staying there. As we unloaded our stuff from the boat and walked across the beach to reception, I could hardly believe we were in Malaysia. In contrast to the urban concrete jungle of KL, the Perhenthians were the definition of paradise. At Bubbles in particular, there was nothing to do but dive, play in the ocean, and relax on a hammock — our own personal nirvana.

Upon arrival, the resort manager served us cold drinks — without straws. Banning straws is how the resort cuts back on single use plastic, and it made me think about our beaches in San Diego where I pick up a handful of littered straws every single day. This is just one of the resort’s many strategies for reducing their environmental impact – they also recycle, use biodegradable cleaning products, build in a way the minimizes development on the beach, and educate their guests on ocean conservation, among many other things. This was my first and only encounter with a company in Malaysia that was truly environmentally aware.

After dinner our first night, one of the volunteers invited us to the resort’s nightly “Turtle Talk”. Intrigued, I took a seat in the makeshift classroom while a young French volunteer named Anthony gave an eloquent presentation about the many threats facing Malaysia’s sea turtles. Although these amazing creatures have lived on our planet for 100 million years, almost every species is now endangered worldwide. In Malaysia, the situation is particularly dire — three out of their four species of sea turtles (the Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, and Leatherback) are already extinct due to human activity. The last remaining species, the green turtle, isn’t far behind. Turtles are drowned in fishing nets, slaughtered for their meat, or killed for their shell, which is used to make gaudy bags and jewelry for Asia’s elite. Turtle populations have also been devastated by nearby oil production platforms, while coastal development destroys habitats and disorients nesting females. Although harvesting turtle eggs is illegal, nest poaching runs rampant as they are considered a delicacy in Malaysia. Finally, and not surprisingly, one of the biggest problems facing turtles is plastic. Plastic never biodegrades, and turtles have been known to accidentally ingest plastic debris, which causes fatal blockages within their digestive systems. Plastic bags are particularly harmful as turtles mistake them for their favorite snack — jellyfish.

In an effort to save sea turtles and protect the sensitive ocean ecosystem, Bubbles started a sea turtle conservation project committed to protecting nests and helping hatchlings survive. The Perhentians receive about 300 sea turtle nestings per year, many of which happen on Bubbles’ private beach. Female turtles travel thousands of miles from their feeding grounds to nest on the same beach where they were born, laying over 100 eggs per nest, sometimes up to eight times a season. Because green sea turtles can live up to 100 years, females may lay thousands of eggs in their lifetime! With that proliferation in mind, it’s hard to fathom that sea turtles are endangered, but sadly only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood. Protecting turtle eggs from predators and poachers, and helping baby hatchlings get to the ocean safely, is how humans can help give these amazing animals a shot at life.

The incredibly dedicated and passionate volunteers of Bubbles stay up all night long in shifts, looking for turtles that come onto the beach to lay eggs. Because white light can disorient turtles, the resort has a strict no white light policy on the beach after sunset – you can’t even use the light on your cell phone. Armed with red light flashlights, the volunteers pace the beach looking for turtle tracks – a telltale sign of a turtle coming to nest. Because I have a deep love for turtles, this is something I’ve always wanted to see, and luckily I had come to the right place. Hanging on each of our doors was a colorful, turtled-shaped sign that said “YES” on one side and “NO” on the other – an indication of whether or not you wanted the volunteers to wake you up in the middle of the night if a turtle comes to nest. Needless to say, our sign remained on the “YES” side for the entire duration of our stay.

Every night, I went to bed excited, expecting to be woken up with a knock in the middle of the night. But night after night, my sleep went uninterrupted.

Our very last night, I accepted the fact that we would not get to see a turtle nesting and went to sleep without hope. But at 3am, I woke up to a loud knock on the door and a volunteer telling us there was a turtle laying eggs on the beach! Michael, Daniel and I sprang out of bed immediately and sprinted down to the beach, where a small group of volunteers was huddled around the turtle, photographing her with a special camera so that they could match her face markings to an online turtle registry. We approached her quietly and carefully, as not to scare her during this intensely important process. She was enormous – female green sea turtles can grow to 3 or 4 feet in length and weigh up to 700 pounds – but at the same time, she was so peaceful and gentle. At least an hour passed before she was finished, and then she ceremoniously used her flippers to cover her eggs with sand, camouflaging the nest with the beach as protection from predators. When she was satisfied, she slowly made her way back to the ocean and gracefully swam off into the night. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

The next step was for the volunteers to count the eggs and transfer them to the resort’s protected hatchery. Resembling the size and shape ping pong balls. the eggs were perfectly round and slightly squishy. The volunteers counted over 120 eggs – the most of any turtle so far that season! Because of the white light rule, I wasn’t able to capture any photos of the entire experience,

Since that night, I have been lucky to see a number of sea turtles while scuba diving, but I always think back to this turtle in the Perhenthians. As humans, we have a responsibility to protect our blue planet. Sea turtles play a vital role in the balance of our ocean ecosystem – from maintaining healthy coral reefs to ensuring that other species continue to thrive – and I cannot imagine a world without them. With places like Bubbles in the world, hopefully we’ll never have to.