Pulau Derawan first became known to the outside world in the early 1990s. It has a resort that accommodates divers who are eager for adventure. Great numbers of green turtles live around Derawan, both in the shallow coastal waters and in greater depths of up to 30 meters. In the evening, you can see over 30 turtles digging nests and laying eggs on the islands’ beaches.
But Derawan still faces a rough future in developing its maritime tourism. Market demand for turtle eggs remains high, and many local people have started gathering the eggs.
In fact, turtle egg hunting has expanded to nearly all the coastal waters of East Kalimantan.
Brown river water and dense mangrove forests along both sides escort us as we cruise down the Berau River. On the horizon, we see Pulau Derawan. As we approach the island, we see semi-permanent structures stretching out from the coastline – some of the bungalows that have sprouted up like mushrooms on Pulau Derawan in the past few years.
A walk along Derawan’s dock and beach can be a unique experience. Now and then you see a beak poking to the surface – these are the beaks of the turtles that swarm in the shallow waters off Pulau Derawan. It’s easier to see the turtles swimming underwater when you observe them from the pier.
The turtles are seeking food among the sea grass that grows near the pier.
Diving at Derawan is fairly easy, because the waters are reasonable calm, and the gently sloping seabed makes it easier for divers to descend. With correct buoyancy regulation, even a tyro diver can enjoy a relaxed dive. Many unusual fish species can be seen here, including the crocodile fish, which does indeed resemble a crocodile; fortunately, they don’t attack, and prefer to camouflage themselves among the reefs to avoid detection by predators. In the reefs you also find many types of nudibranch – snails without shells. These nudibranchs have soft bodies with beautiful colors. They move slowly and are generally less than 5 cm long.
Nudibranchs are the sea creatures most often sought by underwater photographers.
You can also see several rare species of “squat lobsters”, which are only 2 to 3 centimeters across and inedible, with hairy bodies; they, too, are very skilled at hiding in the reefs.
On the edge of the lake is another pier – a place to relax and prepare oneself for diving or snorkeling. At first the lake looks just like any other lake; the water’s not particularly clear, and there are a few water plants and mangroves. In fact, this is a huge marsh lake, covering 390 hectares and up to 17 meters deep. Living in the lake are four species of non-stinging jellyfish, which have been trapped in Danau Kakaban for hundreds or possibly thousands of years. Since they have no predators, gradually these jellyfish lost their sting organs, so they’re completely harmless to humans.
Apart from the jellyfish, there are also many species of nudibranch, sea snakes, sea slugs, fish (including gobies and cardinals), and soft-shelled shellfish. Thus far, very little of the lake’s area has ever been dived or investigated.
From Pulau Kakaban, we went to another dive site at Pulau Sangalaki, just 20 minutes away.
Our speed boat headed for the eastern part of Sangalaki, where there are four dive sites regularly visited by groups of manta rays. These rays can have “wingspans” of up to five meters and weigh over a ton each. They have short tails, without the venomous spikes found on most rays; their wide mouths filter plankton from the water. These manta rays pose no danger to humans, and their beauty makes them a major attraction for underwater photographers.
Apart from the many turtles laying eggs on the beach, this island has gained an international reputation for the huge numbers of manta rays. Schools of mantas can easily be seen in the waters off Pulau Sangalaki almost all year round.
Another diving site that is not to be missed is “Sleeping Turtle” at Pulau Maratua, off the village of Payung-payung. Diving at this site is quite difficult, mostly because of the strong currents, but it’s the best place in the whole area to observe turtles. The sea bed slope is not gradual, but neither is it too steep. If you dive here when the current is running, it’s best not to try to oppose the current but rather to simply “go with the flow”. While maintaining your balance, you’ll feel as if you’re “flying” between the reefs.
This was the first time we’d seen so many turtles. Under nearly ever reef we found turtles, with carapaces ranging from half a meter to over a meter across. The turtles didn’t seem to be bothered at all by our presence; when the water is calm, it’s very easy to approach them for a closer look.
There are plenty of other diving sites in the Derawan area, including Barracuda Point, The Wall, and Blue Light Cave at Pulau Kakaban, Big Fish Country, Paradise Reef, and Light House at Pulau Maratua, and others at Sangalaki and Derawan islands. If you wanted to try all of them, you’d need at least two weeks!