The island nation of Indonesia straddles the equator between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and lies at the heart of the ‘Coral Triangle’ - the epicentre of the world’s marine biodiversity. Nowhere on earth can visitors experience such a range of spectacular diving - from encounters with huge whale sharks and oceanic manta rays, to muck dives with beautiful Rhinopias and the exceedingly rare psychedelic frogfish.
Running parallel to the coastline of Kalimantan’s northern coast are a string of islands, reefs and atolls known as the Derawan Archipelago. Due to the effort required to get out to the islands, and the lack of any real tourism on the nearby mainland, these islands have remained ‘under the radar’ for many divers. However, those willing to make the long journey to Derawan, Sanagalaki or Maratua are rewarded with some incredible underwater experiences - with whale sharks, turtles, manta rays and huge schools of fish all on the cards.
- Snorkel and dive with manta rays at Sangalaki
- Witness nesting turtles on Derawan
- Explore the unique ‘Jellyfish Lake’ at Kakaban
- Dive Maratua’s channel and swim with the vast school of barracuda
- Encounter leopard sharks, grey reef sharks and even thresher sharks
- Snorkel with whale sharks at Talisayan
The diving around the islands of the Derawan Archipelago has something for everyone - from ‘muck’ and critters, to mantas and sharks, divers of every persuasion can find something to keep them happy. The Archipelago’s mix of different habitats - from mangroves and fringing reefs, to steep walls and atolls - all swept by the continuous currents that flow between the Java and Celebes Seas, have produced the perfect conditions for an extraordinary number of species.
Close to the mainland, where the run off form the mainland reduces the visibility, divers can find plenty of sought after critters. For example, on Derawan’s reefs, sea horses, flamboyant cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus and ghost pipefish are all often found. The island is also a great place to see turtles in the shallows.
Further away from the mainland, the visibility improves and the diving focusing on bigger subjects. At Sangalaki, several sites are well known for their congregations of manta rays and, whilst sightings are never guaranteed, divers stand a very good chance of encountering groups of these incredible animals. Sangalaki is also home to many turtles which nest on the island, as well as friendly broadclub cuttlefish who’s mesmerising hunting behaviour can be seen at close quarters. Sangalaki also has some beautiful reefs and - this being Indonesia - some great macro life.
At Kakaban, the reefs drop away sharply and are swept by strong currents - perfect conditions for schooling fish and bigger predators. Several sites are well known for sightings of leopard sharks, grey reef sharks and the occasional hammerhead shark, and eagle rays are often seen away from the reef. Kakaban’s sea fans are also great places to search for pygmy seahorses. However, the interior of Kakaban hides something a little different - an isolated, brackish lake filled with stingless jellyfish, unusual gobies and even sea snakes. During a surface interval, divers can carry their tanks through the jungle over a ridge of limestone, or simply grab snorkels and masks and spend an hour or two drifting through the clouds of jellyfish.
Maratua lies at the edge of the continental shelf and as such, the diving is dominated by currents and big schools fish. At the mouth of the channel on the east coast, the currents concentrate a huge amount of fish life - the resident school of barracuda at the mouth of the channel is probably one of the biggest a diver is ever likely to see! Maratua is also a great location to spot different sharks species - including thresher sharks - eagle rays and bumphead parrotfish. There are also plenty of beautiful soft corals and sea fans.
On the mainland to the south west of the islands is Talisayan. Here whale sharks gather around fishing platforms known as ‘bagan’ and whilst encounters with these incredible sharks are never guaranteed, Talisayan is fast becoming known as a ’hot spot’ for whale sharks.
The snorkelling around these islands is second-to-none as so much of the marine life is concentrated in the shallows. Whilst you might need to dive to see a thresher shark, pretty much everything else on a visitor's ‘hit list’ is easily seen.
The best places for snorkelling are around Sangalaki with its manta rays and turtles, Kakaban for fantastic drift diving and, of course, the jellyfish lake, and lastly Maratua where divers can simply drift over schools of fish and some beautiful reefs. The whale sharks at Talisayan are best seen when snorkelling and to keep disturbance to a minimum, several of the resorts in the area will not allow divers in the water with these sharks.
The Derawan Archipelago lies off the coast of Berau Regency in East Kalimantan. The 30 plus islands and reefs all lie in the shallow waters of the continental shelf, starting from the coastal waters around Derawan and Panjang and east to the atoll of Maratua which sits on the edge of the deep Celebes Sea basin. The main islands for diving are Derawan, Sangalaki, Semama, Kakaban - with its jellyfish lake - and Maratua. Most of the islands are home to small villages which rely on fishing and harvesting what they can from the seas to provide a living.
The islands of the Derawan Archipelago do need a little more effort to get to and guests should plan for an overnight stay en route. The nearest international airport to the islands is Tarakan with flights connecting to Tawau and onwards to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, or to Balikpapan and onwards to Singapore. Guests can also fly in from Jakarta.
Once at Tarakan, guests travel by road to a nearby port and then onwards to the islands by boat. Guest that cannot meet the resort transfers can also fly from Tarakan to Berau, then arrange a car to Tanjung Batu and boat to the islands.
In recent years, a number of resorts and homestays have sprung up throughout the islands, catering for backpackers traveling on a budget or those looking for a little luxury. There are now a variety of different options on Derawan itself, several resorts on Maratua and a small dive lodge on Sangalaki itself. Most of the resorts in the area offer diving at all of the best locations.
A number of liveaboards also run trips to the area - a great alternative for those that would prefer to stay on board a boat rather than one of the islands.
Being so close to the equator means that the seasons have less of an impact on the Derawan Archipelago compared to further north or south, but the islands do have regular seasons and Maratua's exposed location means rough seas can have an impact on the diving. The dry season normally runs from March to October, with rains arriving in November or December. Winds in January and into February mean that while Derawan and Sangalaki can be dived year round, the the islands further east and away from the mainland can be impacted by waves and rough seas - in fact the resorts on Maratua actually close in January and into February.
Visibility around the islands gets better the as you move father away from the mainland - at Derawan and Samama it is normally 10 - 15m, at Sanagalaki and Kakaban 15 - 25m and at Maratua, 15 - 30m+. The water temperature varies very little between 26 - 29c so guests can dive with a 3mm wet suit or rash guard.
The islands of the Derawan Archipelago are best known for their turtles - in fact the area is considered the largest green turtle rookery in SE Asia. The island of Sangalaki received some protection as a marine recreation park in 1982, but turtle egg collectors were still able to operate and it was soon realised that turtle populations were declining. In the 1990’s a dive resort operator stepped in an bought the egg collecting concession in an effort to protect the turtles of Sangalaki, but this license was revoked soon after. Since then, the Turtle Foundation started a project in 2000 which achieved some success around the islands for a number of years before being discontinued.
Currently, the exact status of conservation efforts in and around the Derawan Islands is a little uncertain however several large conservation groups are working to protect the islands and many of the resorts do what they can to work with the local villagers and protect the incredible marine life of these unique islands.