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Derawan: Prolific at all levels

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

A group of 31 islands in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia offers prolific sightings of marine life.

When you have a mixed group of people, it is always difficult to find a destination that suits all. In August 2018, our group of seven people ranged from very experienced divers to snorkelers and non-swimmers. We headed off to Derawan.

Getting to Derawan from our home in Bangkok would take us 24 hours. Geographically it is not far, but when we travelled it necessitated a Bangkok - Jakarta flight, an overnight in Jakarta, a flight to Balik Papan, four hours of driving down the coast to Tanjung Batu and a 20 minute speedboat to Derawan Island. As the capital of Indonesia moves to Balik Papan, expect the journey to get easier, but not sure that will be such a good thing?

What will you see?

Aside from turquoise seas that travel magazines love, look out for turtles, mantas, dolphins, lots of bat fish, the biggest school of barracuda we've ever seen, jellyfish that don't sting, clear, clear water....

Don't go to Derawan if your main motivation is resort life with bars. Not that these don't exist, but that's a far way to go for just that. If you are in search of marine life and appreciate a local vibe, small scale dive boats and really good diving, you're in for a treat.

Full Disclosure

I'm not a diver. The divers in my family are not writers, but they are photographers so head on over to the photo section of this website for their photos.

Breakfast with Turtles

Come quickly, there's a huge turtle, oh there's another and over there another.....

Having had plenty of time to rest during our 24 hour journey, we were up early and ready for some adventure. None of us had really done much research, we blindly followed @bromar, secure in the knowledge he wouldn't go back to a dive spot he didn't like. He'd been here about a year earlier for a few days with some Indonesian friends. so it was with much excitement that on our very day that eggs and coffee were left to cool, while we looked over the deck down into incredibly clear water as hawksbill turtles swam below us making it the best breakfast ever. What a way to start!

Kakaban Island

Want to go for a swim in a lake full of jellyfish?

Kakaban is a large coral atoll in the Derawan Archipelago. It has very little actual beach area, and is heavily covered with mangrove forests. Arriving on the beach, you can follow a set of wooden steps all the way up a hill, coming down on the other side to a brackish lake. This is one of only two places on earth hope to stingless jellyfish. That's right, you can jump into this lake with jellies all around you, and even touch them! If you ever felt the urge to know what it would be like to touch a box jelly without a sting, here's your chance.

Unfortunately, we got to Kakaban after a large tour group had just landed, so it wasn't as incredible as it could have been - but a part of that was probably that we hadn't expected to see so many people in an area that seemed quite hard to get to!


As if non-stinging jellyfish weren't enough for one day, we climbed back into our boat and headed out around the bend. The divers dropped into the water with their gear and quickly disappeared from sight, leaving us snorkelers to leisurely get off the boat.. Everytime we were in the water there was always lots to see; it was really tempting to hover close above the coral shelf, but fear of finding ourselves standing on coral, kept us a little further out.

We had only just got back into the boat after exploring the area, when the boatman insisted we jump back in! Not far from where we jumped in we could hover over an incredibly large school of barracuda, it was absolutely incredible - something I never could have thought I'd see as a snorkeler. Our divers came up from 25m through the middle of this school. Watch their video here.

Turtles, Turtles, Turtles

The area around Sangalaki island is known for its large population of turtles. The island has a turtle nursery run by the local government. Fortunately for us, the manager of our dive resort has a connection with the nursery and arranged for us to have a visit. The turtle nursery is open for all visitors. Rangers watch the turtles lay their eggs and night and mark the spots, noting the time so they know when the eggs will be ready to hatch.

A ranger called us over and asked Matthew to start digging in a seemingly unmarked spot. matt used his hands to dig into the sand. soon h e was down to about a foot and appeared hesitant. "Keep digging,"was the instruction and not long after he saw a little baby turtle, he carefully kept digging some more and more and more and more turtles appeared! It seemed that within about three minutes there were about fifty baby turtles all trying to scramble out of that hole! We caught each of them and dropped them into a bucket.

We saw hundreds of baby turtles in buckets and in larger tanks. Amongst the other tourists was an angry woman accusing the rangers of being cruel to the newly born turtles by crowding them into buckets from which they were furiously trying to climb out. She hadn't taken the time to find out that these babies were being given the opportunity to strengthen their legs and bodies so that on their scamper from sand to sea, they could be fast and strong enough to swim away from predators.

Our experience on Sangalaki was magical. I had been looking forward to going to the turtle nursery, but seeing the turtles hatch in the sand was absolutely incredible!


We had barely got over our turtle excitement, but the next day was to bring even more. We headed back to the area near Sangalaki island with a promise of seeing manta rays. We wandered around a bit and it seemed like not much was going to be happening. The divers suited up and headed into the depths, and having the boat to ourselves, I opened my book and settled in for a relaxing read. Barely a page in, the boatman was shouting excitedly. ""Jump in, Jump in, he said, "Quickly, quickly!" Popping my head under water I saw a little far away two mantas, their smooth glide through the water was so mesmerising I couldn't get enough. Something made me turn around and I realised there were three mantas around me - two fully black and one with a white belly. They were really close, they spent a good 15 minutes 'playing' with me, moving all around me, sliding underneath and then around. At one point I turned to see a fourth in the distance, and when I turned back the three had moved far away into the distance - so quickly and smoothly I had to check that I hadn't been dreaming. Absolutely incredible!

Sadly, no whale sharks

Bromar had arranged a trip to see pods of whale sharks. They were quite a long way from our island, we would have to leave at 4am to get there and back. That wasn't the problem. Unfortunately our time in Derawan was during the time of the full moon and local lore prevented anyone being willing to take us to see the whale sharks. It just means we have to go back!

...But the dolphins wished us farewell

A bit disappointed not to be heading out to see whale sharks, we still enjoyed a day around Maratua island. It was our last day and as we headed back, we were treated to a pod of dolphins who kept with us for a good length of time enjoying the bow wave. It was the perfect ending to seven days of non stop WOWs.


While in the Derawan Archipelago, we stayed at Borneo Divers. The rooms were simple, clean and comfortable. Each room had its own toilet. Our package included our meals - at the time we were there the kitchen was led by a chef who used to run a Japanese restaurant. He provided very tasty meals. One of our group, stayed behind a couple of days and he allowed her to observe in the kitchen as he cooked up his catch of the day. Bromar and Jon appreciated the space they were given to manage and set up their cameras. All in all, a great stay.

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