Hundreds of excited tourists swarmed in the Wushih (
While most were eager to see hordes of spinner dolphins swimming around the northeast coast at the beginning of summer, some had chosen to make a stopover at Gueishan Island (龜山島), or Turtle Mountain Island.
Yang Yeong-sheng (
PHOTO: HSU MIN-JUNG, TAIPEI TIMES
"The business of [whale and dolphin watching] already existed before the island was officially open to tourists, but it was not very popular until the travel ban to Turtle Mountain Island was lifted," Yang added.
Located 10km east of Toucheng Township (頭城) in Ilan County, the island is only open to tourists from March until December. Nevertheless, its unique historical background and rich ecological diversity have made it a popular tourist attraction.
Tales abound about the discovery of the island, but many now believe that it was discovered by accident by migrants from China's Fujian's Province during the Qing Dynasty.
These migrants sailed over the Taiwan Strait and believed that they had landed in Keeling Harbor, but they had actually arrived on the shore of Turtle Mountain Island. The population on the island grew with time.
Records indicate that during the Japanese era the number of residents reached 500, most of whom subsisted on fish.
Chen Chung-mao (陳忠茂), former Toucheng township (頭城鎮) mayor and Turtle Mountain Island resident, said besides poor fishing, there were other reasons many decided to abandon their homes on the island and move to Taiwan proper.
"Inconvenient transportation between Taiwan and the island, inadequate medical resources and issues related to children's education and young adults needing to get married have all became reasons why many chose not to stay any more," Chen said.
The government relocated all Turtle Mountain Island residents to the mainland after a typhoon destroyed an entire fishing village. Soon after the process was completed in 1977, the island became a restricted military zone.
Over the years, an emotional bond seems to have been established between the island and the locals in Ilan.
"There weren't many job opportunities available in Ilan, so most of us have to leave home and seek jobs elsewhere," said a former Ilan resident, Ruth Wu, an office clerk in Taipei. "Whenever I saw the island from a distance, I knew I was home already."
Turtle Mountain Island was finally opened to the public after the government lifted restrictions seven years ago. Strict government regulations have in fact helped preserve the island's ecological environment over the years.
To protect the island's fauna and flora from human exploitation, the number of tourists is capped at 400 per day during weekdays and 500 per day on weekends.
With an area of 2.85km2, the island is the top of a volcano raised from the sea bed, with a contour resembling a gigantic sea turtle.
Some of the underwater sulfur hot springs near the "head" of the turtle remain active, causing the nearby water to turn yellowish and exceed a temperature of 100oC. Hydrothermal vent crabs manage to survive near the high temperatures, feasting on sulfur from the sea.
The island's peak, with an altitude reaching 401m, is located at the turtle's "shell," which was also known as the 401 Highland.
At times, low clouds gather above the island, making it appear as if the turtle is wearing a hat. Over the years, the sight has served as an accurate indicator to the residents in Ilan about precipitation to come.
Soon after the island was taken over by the Ministry of National Defense, the army constructed an 800m-long tunnel to place large weaponry and store ammunitions.
Originally a fish harbor, Turtle Tail Lake was formed from a landslide years ago that partially blocked the harbor's passage to the sea.
The lake water is half-fresh and half saline, as the lake water can still flow into the sea and vice versa.
Two hiking trails leading to the 401 Highland were constructed as well, allowing visitors to personally experience the diversity of the island's ecosystem. The island is now known as the natural habitat for Chinese Fan Palms, migratory birds and more than 100 kinds of butterflies.
Visitors, however, must first register with the northeast coast administration. Only 40 people are permitted to hike on both trails daily.
The secretary-general of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, Ho Tsung-hsun (何宗勳), visited the island about four years ago.
He said that though the government has regulated the number of travelers visiting Turtle Mountain Island, it also needs sound management to ensure natural resources are fully protected.
"The island could potentially set a perfect example of quality travel, where ecological education can go hand in hand with tourism," he said.
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