Located just off Berau in East Kalimantan out in the Malacca Strait, the Derawan-Sangalaki Archipelago is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch when it comes to beaches, islands and diving in Kalimantan. Comprising of 31 islands nestled within a 1.27 million hectare marine park, the archipelago is widely regarded as one of the world’s best diving locations. For non-divers, the warm clear waters are perfect for snorkelling.
The archipelago’s coral reefs are remarkably diverse with over 460 different species of coral and 870 species of fish and mammals ranging from tiny pygmy seahorses, frog fish, ornate nudibranch to big schools of barracuda. The islands have their own charms. Some are little more than specks of white sandy beaches wearing jungle crowns. Sangalaki Island has Indonesia’s largest nesting site for the rare and endangered green and hawkbill turtles. At night it’s possible to watch hatchlings emerging from the sand or the giant turtles lumbering ashore to lay their eggs. Nearby in the plankton rich channels, huge manta ray gather to feed. Snorkelling or diving among them as they glide gracefully below is thrilling.
Half an hour boat ride away, the limestone cliff fringed, jungle cladded Kakaban Island hides a rare treasure – the world’s largest jellyfish lake. Containing four unique species of stingless jellyfish, including one that swims upside down, Kakaban is currently being considered for World Heritage listing by UNESCO. Maratua Island, one of the largest, has at least 13 known caves though some predict another hundred remain undiscovered.
Derawan Island can be reached by local ferry from Tarakan, Tanjung Batu or Balikpapan. Ferry’s don’t run from each place every day of the week though so you would need to check ahead. Most accommodation is located on Derawan Island including several dive resorts with cottage style accommodation either facing or over the water. Simple budget style accommodation, cottages and local restaurant are available on Derawan and other islands. Note that although Derawan has great shallow snorkelling, it doesn’t have any beaches to speak of. For that you need to pop across to once of the other islands. If you’re self sufficient, its possible to arrange a local boat to take you across to some of the other islands for camping, an excellent option if you want to witness the turtle nesting and hatchings. Snorkelling gear can be hired on Derawan. For those with a few extra dollars to spend, there are several liveaboard boats based out of Bali plying the Derawan archipelago.