MARATUA, SANGALAKI, KAKABAN & DERAWAN, KALIMANTAN, INDONESIA
'Pearls of Borneo'
Season: Year-round diving
Water Temperature: 26-30°C/79-86°F
Shore based resorts
Nabucco Island Resort
Nabucco's Nunukan Island Resort
Diving: Walls, atolls, coral gardens, drift diving, sharks, critter diving
Willing to share option on liveaboard
Off the eastern Borneo coastline (in Indonesia’s province of Kalimantan) lie four islands and a number of submerged atolls in the Celebes Sea, comprising an area that Uwe Guenther of the liveaboard Tambora, aptly names ‘The Pearls of Borneo.’ Between them Maratua, Sangalaki, Kakaban and Derawan offer a delightful microcosm of much of what Indonesian diving encapsulates. This is a remote area of the globe; only three resorts are located at Maratua atoll and one on Derawan. It is a joy to spend long, warm days with nothing other than the blue sky and blue sea for your vista, with hardly another boat in sight, and at times no land either! Due to its remote nature, some of the sites in this region are off the beaten track, particularly those accessed by the only liveaboard to currently operate in this region; the MSY Tambora.
The most famed of these islands is Maratua, a large, horseshoe-shaped atoll some 90 kilometres (56 miles) in length. Diving off the atoll itself and in some of the islands located inside the lagoon is characterised by gentle drifts along plunging walls, the first 15m (50ft) or so of which are festooned with hard and soft corals. Lighthouse, which lies on Maratua’s northern tip, is a usually calm wall dive offering an easy introduction to the area. Hawksbill and Leatherback Turtles are numerous. Anemones and their endearing clownfish inhabitants dot the reef, and divers can expect to see up to six different species of nudibranchs. Much of the diving around Maratua is safe from fishermen and so the sight of many juvenile fish is a welcome one. At Eagle Run, Spotted Eagle Rays cruise overhead in small schools and by keeping en eye out on the sandy spots you might be able to see sleepy Feathertail Rays, which always look as if they are dragging half a palm tree with them! Maratua’s most famous dive must be Big Fish Country, a current-swept corner on the far eastern tip of the island, where fast currents mean that a battery of barracuda, as well as Grey Reef and White-tip Reef Sharks, can almost always be found at around 30m (100ft). Reef hooks are a must and the only effective way to spend time with the barracuda swirl that come a little closer with each rotation, directed, it seems, by an invisible conductor. Before you know it you are encircled by these fabulous flashing silver fish and if you aren’t paying attention you could forget to look at your computer and end up close to decompression! Small areas around Maratua reveal evidence of the dreaded dynamite fishing, but the recent presence of the resorts in this area has stopped the practice and there is already a promising recovery in the damaged areas. For photographers, Maratua’s walls offer some great opportunities for wide-angle photography. The visibility is good and many of the walls start at 5m (16ft) or less. Midnight Snapper Run is home to the fish that gives this dive site its name. How funny the juveniles look with their odd-shaped fins, but so attractive with their black and white swirly and starry patterning.
One area not too far from Maratua, but far enough away so that the day boats from the resorts cannot reach it, is a submerged atoll which is so large that it has three names; Karang Lintang, Karang Gosungan and Karang Muaras. This area is uncharted and is currently only visited by the liveaboard Tambora. If you like to explore new sites and enjoy the thrill of the unknown, this is the place for you! The diving is very similar to Maratua, with much of the same life to be found, but on South West Karang the macro life is more prolific with Decorator and Orangutan Crabs and a variety of shrimp species. Reefs here are also home to reef sharks at about a depth of 30m (100ft) and you can expect very healthy and extensive reefs with prolific fish life. The anthias come in every colour under the sun! Isla Sambat is especially beautiful and usually a very calm site where you can simply hang in the blue off the reef and observe the clouds of fish whizz by. Most of the others dives are gentle drifts. Fiona’s Palace is a wall densely populated with hard and soft corals in many colours. Hard and soft corals allow for great wide angle photography opportunities and the shallower sections of the wall peter off into coral bommies in a sandy area where jawfish peer from their sandy homes and catfish flit from crevice to crevice. Turtles and rays frequent the area too.
Kakaban island is famed for being home to Barracuda Point (has anyone wondered how many Barracuda Points there are throughout the diving world?), a heart-pounding fast current dive where you should use a reef hook. A lip at around 30m (100ft) is the first place to hook onto and watch the barracuda swirl pass by, and if you are lucky, pass over your head too. Grey Reef Sharks, Black-tip Reef Sharks and White-tip Reef Sharks frequent the site and there have even been sightings of Thresher Shark and a Great Hammerhead! After releasing from the reef, divers are swept towards the tip of the island where a rope has been placed for divers to hold on to at around 15-20m (50-65ft) in the maelstrom! From here it is an entertaining challenge to pull yourself along the rope to the sheltered shallow reef which makes for a truly wonderful finale to a very thrilling dive! On the colourful and shallow reef top it is a true joy to spend time hanging out: each outcrop and crevice, each fan and each anemone, each table coral and each patch of reef is home to its own aquatic community.
Kakaban also harbours a Jellyfish Lake. Some say that Palau is the only place on earth with a Jellyfish Lake and non-stinging jellyfish, but this region is home to two! The one with the most straightforward access is right here on Kakaban. A wooden walkway and steps lead you straight to a large lake that takes up the bulk of the interior of the island. The jellyfish swim throughout the lake but due to the size of the body of water, are spread quite sparsely compared to the lake’s Maratua counterpart. Diving here is not permitted due to the fragility of the jellyfish bodies. Snorkelers are asked to take great care when swimming amongst the jellyfish whose fragile bodies can be chopped to pieces by a careless flick of the fins.
Sangalaki, once one of the most famous places to dive in western Indonesia, no longer has the healthy reefs that once bloomed here thanks to dynamite fishing. However, it remains a great spot for seeing its star attraction – Manta Rays. A steady throughput of plankton means that the resident Manta Rays have plenty to feed on and the topography of the coral bommies and pinnacles surrounding the island lends itself to providing the perfect location for cleaning stations. Naturally, the visibility can be quite poor and diving here tends to be on shallow sandy bottoms where you can easily kneel in the sand to observe the Manta Rays as they glide by and swoop overhead. Of course, sightings cannot be guaranteed, but you would be very unlucky to spend the day here and not witness one of these remarkable creatures. The patch reefs and bommies that remain are definitely worth spending 20 minutes or so exploring at the end of a dive. Cleaner wrasse will clean those patient and still enough to fool these fish into thinking that you are part of the underwater world. Reef squid zoom by, in their beguiling stop-start way, and schools of snappers pick up the scraps left by the rays.
At Derawan the patient and watchful diver will be greatly rewarded. A small dive light and a magnifying glass are highly recommended tools for diving off Derawan. Nudibranchs abound, ranging from the very small to the very large, and Hawksbill and Green Turtles frequent the sites here, especially at Tuturang where they are clearly used to the presence of divers. Shipwreck is possibly the best dive at Derawan. More of a twisted lump of metal than a shipwreck, one can quickly recognise that this dive is fantastic, both in the day or at night. The dark crevices of the mangled boat harbour Tiger Moray Eel, while Crocodilefish sit in the sandy bottom, staring up at you with their goggley eyes. Sea fans not far away are home to pygmy seahorses, though you may wish to leave the spotting duty to the guides! Several Yellow-barred Jawfish sit around the wreck. At each full moon the male incubates the eggs in his mouth for a week before releasing them into the sea. This site is an excellent location to witness such an event, though the male tends to release the eggs very early in the morning, making a dive to see this phenomenon more of a night/dawn dive! Snapper Point is not far from the shoreline of Derawan. Blue Ribbon Eels can be found here and the site is excellent for small fish portraiture and abstract images formed by the sea fans and hard coral formations.
There is a minimum stay of 6 nights. Prices given below relate to a stay of 7 nights.
NABUCCO ISLAND RESORT: Price from about $1344 for 7 nights. 7 nights half board (breakfast and 5 course dinner) accommodation on a twin/share basis in a Double Rom at Nabucco Island Resort; 10 boat dives; dive guide; road and boat transfers from Berau to Nabucco return. These transfer costs are based on 2 people. Reduction for non-divers. Single Occupancy Supplement: from about $292 for 7 nights.
NABUCCO'S NUNUKAN ISLAND RESORT: Price from about $1344 for 7 nights. 7 nights half board (breakfast and 5 course dinner) accommodation on a twin/share basis in a Double Rom at Nabucco' Nunukan Island Resort; 5 days of 'unlimited' unguided shore diving; road and boat transfers from Berau to Nabucco return. These transfer costs are based on 2 people. Reduction for non-divers. Single Occupancy Supplement: from about $292 for 7 nights.