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By: Ario Triwibowo
Photographs by Ario Triwibowo and Agustinus Sri Setiawan
The Derawan Islands remained undiscovered until early 2011, when tourists from Indonesia and around the world started noticing the Derawan Islands.
Derawan Islands is administratively a part of the Berau regency, East Kalimantan. Geographically speaking, the Derawan Islands consist of 31 islands, large and small, inhabited and uninhabited. The whole area itself covers around 1.27 hectares. Marine biologists say that the Derawan Islands are number 2 on the list of biodiversity abundance, just one spot behind Raja Ampat on West Papua.
Even though there are many islands in this area, there are 4 that stand out the most, which are Derawan Island itself, Maratua Island, Kakaban Island, and Sangalaki Island. All of these islands are well known for their white sandy beaches, crystal clear water and astonishing underwater beauty.
Derawan Island: The Starting Point
Derawan Island is the main island representing all the other islands in the vicinity. It probably becane synonemous for the whole region because visitors used it as their starting point to explore the area. Many people choose to stay on Derawan Island because it is the most developed and remains quite affordable.
For a remote island, Derawan’s facilities are actually far from primitive. It has running water, electricity and abundant lodging facilities in a variety of prices and small kiosks selling basic items-including cold drinks! Derawan Island is a great place to take a walk on the beach, feel the tranquility or mingle with the locals in the village. But the main attraction of this island is the beauty below the water surface. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving. The inhabitants of these waters are already visible in the shallow waters near the beach such as the protected green turtle (if you are lucky enough, you can see them lay eggs at the beach at night or even help to release their newborns into the open sea!), clown fish, anemones, lionfish, triggerfish, wrasses and many more. If you plan to scuba dive you can go deeper and see more interesting marine life assembling in the coral reefs.
Maratua Island: Dive Deeper
Maratua is another inhabited island with plenty of lodging facilities. The Nabucco and Paradise resort is well known as one of the best resorts of Derawan. Prices are certainly higher than the accommodation on Derawan Island. Maratua Island is very similar to Derawan Island with its white sandy beaches and clear blue water. Its beach is longer and wider than the beach on Derawan Island.
But what makes Maratua Island famous are its dive sites. Its beauty tempts any diver to go deeper to explore the mystery underneath. According to the dive master I talked to, you are required to have excellent diving skills and plenty of experience because the currents underneath are rather strong and sometimes unpredictable. If you feel uncertain, then snorkeling is always an option. Shallow waters around Maratua provide the same beauty as in Derawan.
There are numerous diving sites in Maratua Island, but the most popular are the Big Fish Country, Turtle Traffic and Shark City diving sites. Big Fish Country is the most challenging dive site among all, because of its very strong currents. Make sure you are fully prepared and listen carefully to your dive master before going under. At this site, you can see pelagic fish such as reef sharks and barracudas. The main attraction is a large school of barracuda. Shark City is the place to be if you want to swim with sharks. You might encounter reef, hammerhead and tiger sharks, along with eagle rays. Turtle Traffic is much smoother than Big Fish Country and Shark City. At this site, as the name indicates, you can see green turtles and if you are lucky, you can also see the rare hawksbill turtle.
Kakaban Island: Jellyfish Paradise
Kakaban is a uniquely formed lagoon that forms a lake in the center of the island through natural formation for millions of years, resulting in a gigantic lake with thousand of non stinging jellyfish. It is safe to swim here and interact with the jellyfish. There are only two places in the world like this, which are Kakaban in Indonesia and the state of Palau.
The jellyfish inhabiting the lake have actually been trapped inside from the open sea and only feed on the green algae in the lake. People believe that this diet might cause the jellyfish to lose their defensive stinging mechanism. There are several species of jellyfish in the lake, such as the common or moon jellyfish and the spotted or golden jellyfish.
After swimming with the jellyfish, most people hop on their boat and head over to their next destination. But in Kakaban Island, it’s not just about the jellies. The diving sites here are also incredible! You can encounter sharks and barracuda or descend into the blue light cave which is located at a depth of 21 meters.
Sangalaki Island: Manta Madness
Sangalaki is home to another famed sea creature: the manta ray. These gargantuan fish can have a wingspan from 5-7 meters across and can sometimes ascend to the surface of the water. If you are lucky enough, you might not even need to go deep. Many people have snorkeled in Sangalaki Island and managed to see these mantas near the surface on several occasions. But most of the times, mantas are seen in deeper waters and despite their size, they are quite illusive. So you might have to rely on your diving gear and skills. There are other dive sites in Sangalaki Island where you can see green turtles, eels and more.
Overall, Derawan Islands are extremely beautiful and definitely worth a visit. It is both pristine and majestic and never fails to surprise. So, if you are confused on where to find that perfect beach or a holiday surrounded with endless natural wonder in Indonesia, the Derawan Islands are the ones you might be searching for.
How to Get to Derawan:
- There are direct flights from all major airlines in Indonesia to Balikpapan.
- After reaching Balikpapan, you can go either to Tarakan or Berau. The airlines departing to these places are more limited but get you there in the end.
- In Tarakan, you will continue with a 10 minute car ride to the harbor and take an approximately 2 hour boat ride to the Derawan Islands, while in Berau, you have to take an approximately 2 hour car ride but only around a 20 minutes boat ride.
- Since there are no public boats heading to Derawan Islands, you have to contact a local travel guide to arrange your boat ride. This also includes your lodging, meal, travel guide, and snorkeling/travel gear.
- For those who have custom sized apparel for scuba diving, such as your wetsuit and flippers, it is advised to bring your own, since not all sizes are available here.
- If you plan to scuba dive, be sure to consult with the dive master regarding safety and underwater conditions at the diving sites.
- Taking pictures of the beautiful scenery both above and under the sea is a must. Bring your waterproof camera or an underwater casing for your camera.
- Remember that the Derawan Islands in also a conservation area. Avoid any kind of littering and don’t touch corals.
- Arrange your budget. A four-day trip at Derawan Island will cost you around IDR 3,3 – 4 million (around USD 330 – 400), including airplane tickets and accommodation. It can be cheaper or more expensive, depending on the season and your preference in accommodation.
Thank you Bartasan Wauran and Zee Artha from KakiGatel for making this trip possible.