Exploring the Derawan Islands

A Largly Unknown World Class Diving Destination

Fantasy Wall, Maratua. © Patrick Chong
Fantasy Wall, Maratua. © Patrick Chong

The Derawan Archipelago, a group of mostly uninhabited islands off the east coast of Borneo in the Celebes Sea, is something that is now so rare and elusive in Southeast Asia – a world-class diving destination that is still largely unknown.

A tropical paradise of palm-fringed, white-sand beaches above the waves and playground for divers below, these islands have somehow managed to pass under most people’s radar. In a region where you are spoiled for choice by the wealth of renowned dive sites, the Derawan Islands offer you one of the last remaining opportunities to dive somewhere truly spectacular before the rest of the world begins to take notice.

Kalimantan and the Derawan Islands

The island of Borneo is shared between the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, the tiny sultanate of Brunei and Kalimantan, the southern three-quarters of the island that is part of Indonesia.

While Borneo, the world’s third largest island, is hard to miss on a map, Kalimantan is still largely unknown to international tourism – for the most part, due to the difficulties of travelling there. Much of the interior is covered by dense jungles full of exotic wildlife and punctuated by impassable mountain ranges. Transportation infrastructure can be rudimentary, and often the only way of travelling is along rivers by boat. Kalimantan can be time-consuming and expensive to explore, putting it off-limits to all but the most intrepid of adventurers.

This is also the reason the Derawan Islands have remained a secret for so long; despite lying only around 200km south of Malaysia’s near-legendary Sipadan, the Derawan Islands receive only a handful of dedicated dive enthusiasts annually compared to the far more famous site a little further north.

An important biodiversity hotspot

Located off the coast of East Kalimantan, the archipelago consists of 31 small islands, as well as numerous islets and reefs. The islands lie on the western fringe of the Coral Triangle, an expanse of ocean recognised as having the highest level of marine biodiversity in the world. The Derawan Archipelago, and particularly the island of Maratua, is said to be the world’s third most important biodiversity hotspot, with only Raja Ampat and the Solomon Islands providing a home to more species.

Bagang, a floating anchovy fishing platform in the Celebes Sea, halfway between East Kalimantan and Maratua Island.
Bagang, a floating anchovy fishing platform in the Celebes Sea, halfway between East Kalimantan and Maratua Island.

The waters around these islands teem with myriad species of fish and coral along with dolphins, whales and even dugongs. 15,000 turtles are thought to visit the islands annually, mostly green turtles but also closely related hawksbills. The islands are a significant nesting area for green turtles, and at certain times of the year, females can be observed hauling themselves onto the beaches to lay their eggs; around two months later, the hatchlings can be seen scurrying back down to the surf in their hundreds.

The main islands of interest to divers are Maratua, Kakaban and Sangalaki. The archipelago offers a total of around 30 recognised dive sites, mostly around these three islands, and some of them are truly world-class. However, even for those who never venture beneath the waves, the slow pace of life and the idyllic setting will still make for a memorable trip.

Human and non-human residents

The islands are home to monitor lizards and rare coconut crabs, and some have populations of black macaques. Two of the islands also offer the chance to witness a rare evolutionary curiosity – both Kakaban and Maratua encompass brackish lakes full of stingless jellyfish that have become completely harmless to humans.

The villages on Derawan and Maratua, the only permanently inhabited islands, have changed little for generations. The population consists mainly of local Bajau people, also known as Sea Gypsies, as well as some Bugis, descendants of an ethnic group now centred around Makassar in South Sulawesi.

Main street of Teluk Harapan village. This village is also known as Bohe Bukut in the local dialect.
Main street of Teluk Harapan village. This village is also known as Bohe Bukut in the local Bugis dialect. The yellow building on the left is a school.

Sea Gypsies are found throughout Indonesia and the Philippines. They traditionally spend much of their lives at sea and have developed the ability to hold their breath underwater for up to ten minutes or longer. It is now known that this ability is not learned but has evolved over the last 1,000 years in much the same way that Sherpas have become adapted to living in the high altitudes of the Himalayas.

The islands

Derawan

Derawan, the diminutive island for which the rest of the archipelago is named, is one of the first you reach after leaving the mainland. It is one of only two islands with a permanent settlement and boasts several losmen, traditional Indonesian guesthouses, as well as a smattering of warung, inexpensive local-style restaurants.

There are few motorbikes – you can walk around the island in less than an hour – and there is no electricity after dark. It’s a place for kicking back, abandoning yourself to the charms of village life, relaxing on the gorgeous beaches and watching the turtles playing just beyond the surf in the turquoise sea.

Diving around Derawan

Although there are a handful of dive sites around Derawan that are interesting, the best diving is to be found off some of the other islands in the archipelago.

Maratua

The much larger horseshoe shaped Maratua is home to four villages. The villages of Teluk Harapan and Payung-payung are tourist and backpacker friendly, although it lacks a little of the atmosphere and authenticity of the village on Derawan.

Teluk Harapan jetty, Maratua Island.
Teluk Harapan jetty, Maratua Island.

There are known to be at least 13 caves on the island – although it is thought that many more still await discovery and exploration. Also hidden on the island is Danau Haji Buang (Danau is Indonesian for ‘lake’). This tiny, lesser-known jellyfish lake is much more difficult to access than the famous one on neighbouring Kakaban.

Diving around Maratua

The diving around this island is one of the reasons people make such an effort to reach the archipelago. Maratua is known as the ‘Turtle Capital of Indonesia’, a moniker it has acquired largely thanks to a dive site called Turtle Traffic. Hundreds of these enigmatic sea reptiles frequent the spot, and you are practically guaranteed to see so many you will quickly give up counting.

Green turtle, Maratua Island. © Pedro Vieyra
Green turtle, Maratua Island. © Pedro Vieyra

Perhaps the most famous site in the Derawan Islands is also found off Maratua. Simply called The Channel, the name is not particularly inspiring – but its alternative name, Big Fish Country, gives you more of a hint as to what you might see.

Trevallies, The Channel. © Patrick Chong
Trevallies, The Channel. © Patrick Chong

As the tide rises, the water is forced through the eponymous channel, creating the kind of strong currents pelagic fish love. You can expect to see barracuda, potatohead groupers, reef sharks and many more playing and hunting in the rushing water.

Chevron Barracudas, The Channel. © Patrick Chong
Chevron Barracudas, The Channel. © Patrick Chong

Kakaban

Located next to Maratua and variously described as being shaped like a teardrop, the Big Dipper constellation or the number nine, Kakaban is best known for its large lake of brackish water filled with stingless jellyfish.

Kakaban Island at a distance, seen from the west coast of Maratua Island.
Kakaban Island at a distance, seen from the west coast of Maratua Island.

Long ago, geological pressure elevated the lagoon, cutting it off from the sea. Since the jellyfish trapped there no longer had any natural predators, they had no more need for defence – and so over thousands of years, they gradually lost their stings.

There are four species of jellyfish in the lake, each with an interesting evolutionary story. For example, one of them is descended from the box jellyfish, one of the deadliest species in the sea – but the ones in the lake are now completely harmless.

Kakaban lake jetty.
Kakaban lake jetty.

Another, the Cassiopeia jellyfish, swims upside down in order to expose the algae on its tentacles to sunlight. This promotes algal growth, providing the jellyfish with a constant supply of food.

The lake is also home to many other species, including fish, sea cucumbers, sponges and snakes and is considered the most biodiverse brackish lake in the world.

Spotted jellyfish, Kakaban Lake. © Patrick Chong
Spotted jellyfish, Kakaban Lake. © Patrick Chong

Diving off Kakaban

One of the most famous dive sites around Kakaban is Barracuda Point, another site that often features strong currents. Unsurprisingly, given the name, it is known for the large numbers of barracudas that these currents draw in.

Another highly regarded site is The Wall, a wall dive where you can see a multitude of colourful reef fish along with sea fans and many species of hard and soft coral.

Sangalaki

The last of the four most famous islands in the archipelago is Sangalaki, an island known for two things: turtles and mantas.

Sangalaki is the largest known nesting site in the Celebes Sea for endangered green turtles, and the island has been an Island Nature Tourist Park since 1982. The only inhabitants of the island are turtle conservationists and researchers – there was once a dive resort on the island, but it closed in 2009 and there are no plans to reopen it.

Diving around Sangalaki

Below the waves, the stars of the show are not the turtles but the mantas that are drawn to the island in great numbers. These majestic, graceful giants can be observed all year round, but the best time to see them is at the start of the rainy season in November and December. They also tend to arrive in the greatest numbers at the time of the new moon. The most famous site for seeing mantas is the aptly named Manta Parade.

Manta ray, Sangalaki Island. © Pedro Vieyra
Manta ray, Sangalaki Island. © Pedro Vieyra

How the islands got their names

As is often the case, the origins of the islands’ names have been lost in time, but there are several local legends that may shed some light on the subject.

According to one story, long ago, the island of Maratua was inhabited by a half-human, half-devil creature named Kokok that sometimes kidnapped local women and carried them off.

To rid themselves of this fearful menace, the villagers came up with a plan to cook the local tuba root into a poisonous liquid that looked like milk. Having prepared the potion, the villagers left it as an offering outside Kabok Cave where the demon lived – and when Kokok discovered the offering, he drank it and died.

‘Maratua’ is said to be a corruption of the Indonesian expression masak tuba, meaning ‘cook tuba root’. To this day, islanders still leave offerings outside Kabok Cave for three days at times of accident or misfortune.

Another version holds that Kokok were ghosts that haunted the island. The tuba root was boiled up to produce the white liquid and was given to these ghosts at a feast, after which they disappeared. The process of boiling the root is called mellatua in a local dialect, and this is another possible source for the name.

A different story tells of a wedding party that died in a shipwreck while travelling in the area, and each person who drowned was turned into an island. A virgin on the boat became Derawan, the mother became Semama, the older brother became Kakaban, the groom became Sangalaki and the bride became Maratua. In Indonesian, perawan means ‘virgin’, and the Indonesian words for the other family members also sound similar to the names of the islands.

A final theory suggests that the name of Kakaban comes from a local word for ‘hug’ since the island ‘hugs’ the brackish lake in the lagoon.

What to do on dry days

For such small islands, there is plenty on offer to occupy any days when you are not diving.

Of course, one of the most popular trips is to Kakaban to swim with the harmless jellyfish in the lake, but you can also try to catch sight of spinner dolphins early in the morning around Maratua Island.

Mother and pup spinner dolphins. © Patrick Chong
Mother and pup spinner dolphins. © Patrick Chong

The village on Derawan is worth a visit and is one of the most authentic. On Maratua, Payung-payung village is the most accessible and is so named for a stone there shaped like an umbrella (payung means ‘umbrella’ in Indonesian). The other three villages can be visited too, and Maratua also hides a number of caves that can be explored by the more adventurous of spirit.

Back on the mainland in Berau, there is a palace that has been converted into a museum to showcase local history and is worth a look on the way to or from the islands.

Sambaliung Palace, Berau, has been converted into a museum.
Sambaliung Palace, Berau, has been converted into a museum. The sultanate of Berau has a recorded history dating back to the 1400s.

Where are they and how do you get there?

Reaching the Derawan Islands is becoming easier, but it still requires a little planning, determination and several changes of transport, however you decide to do it.

The Islands belong to the Berau regency in East Kalimantan state, and the best access point is the main town in Berau, Tanjung Redeb. From there, you can take a speedboat directly to the islands – which can be expensive – or you can continue downriver to Tanjung Batu, from where boats to the islands are cheaper.

To reach Tanjung Redeb, the easiest way is to fly to the recently expanded Kalimarau Airport – there are direct flights from Jakarta, but it may be simpler to fly to nearby Balikpapan and transfer to Tanjung Redeb from there.

Another possibility is to fly to Balikpapan or Samarinda and continue by road, but this would involve a gruelling bus journey of up to 24 hours and is hardly recommended.

It is also possible to reach the islands by boat directly from the island of Tarakan near the Malaysian border.

A small airport has recently been completed on Maratua, but flights are inconsistent and are usually only available for locals and not a practical way to reach the islands for most people.

Since the transport situation often changes, the best advice is to contact us for the most up-to-date information and advice on reaching the islands.

When to go

It is possible to dive year-round at the Derawan Islands, but the best time to go is during the dry season, from March to October. However, for the best chance of seeing mantas, the best time of year is the beginning of the rainy season around November or December.

Travel tips

The islands are remote and rely on the mainland for deliveries. There are no money changers, so you need to make sure you arrive with enough cash for your stay. There are places to eat, but you may find choices limited, but meals are provided by the dive resorts you stay at.

Which dive resorts to stay at?

Ready to explore the best of Derawan Islands? Here are dive resorts we recommend to explore this amazing area: