Exploring and Diving Derawan Archipelago

Derawan

Map Derawan

Derawan is the historical center of tourism in the archipelago, thanks to its relative proximity with the shore. There are many accomodations, small restaurants and souvenir stall on the island.

I made Derawan my base because I wanted to dive with an operator there but otherwise, I think it’s better to stay on Maratua.

Boat chartering is not exactly cheap in the archipelago, if you dive you will see the main islands anyway. Otherwise you’d better stay in Maratua, because you will be closer from Kakaban and Sangalaki.

Derawan
Many accomodations in Derawan are bungalows built over the water

I’ve stayed at Scuba Junkie Sangalaki, which is on Derawan island and not Sangalaki. More info regarding the diving in a following section.

From the rooms, you could see turtles everyday swimming by the jetty. The guys from the diving shop put us in touch with a guy who’s hatching and releasing turtles for conservation. I attended a turtle release with the other guest one night, that was great (gave 20’000Rp to the guy for donation).

Sangalaki

Sangalaki is a small island with an idylic beach, good diving and if you are lucky schools of manta rays.

It seems that manta rays were seen year round a few years ago and now their presence has become much more irregular. Some suspect rogue outside boats coming at night to get their gills.

By the time of my visit in May, they weren’t around, but guests who already came the previous year in February told me they had seen plenty back then.

We took our lunch between 2 dives behind the island one day, there were like 5 or 6 baby black tips sharks swimming in shallow waters.

Sangalaki

Kakaban

Kakaban is a long-shaped and uninhabited island famous for its inner lake filled with tons of harmless jellyfish. I have already seen such a lake in the Togian island, but this one is ever more impressive.

The density of jellyfish makes the underwater view unreal.

A small fee is collected for each visitors at the jetty (about 20’000Rp if I remember well).

Maratua

Maratua is the second large inhabited island of the archipelago. There are a couple of expensive resorts there but also cheaper homestay. Motorbikes can be rented to drive the island.

The island has an airport since 2016 and is already accessible by plane from Berau. By the time of my visit, tickets could not be bought online and the priority was given to the locals to board the plane.

But there is also a direct boat from Berau to Maratua maybe not everyday but at least a few times each week. Beaches are better in Maratua than in Derawan, snorkeling too and you are closer from Kakaban and Sangalaki to charter a boat.

Maratua

I have only seen a little bit of Maratua during our surface interval but I’m planning to get back there soon and I’m planning to skip Derawan.

Whalesharks

Whalesharks are sometimes spotted near the fishing platform (bagan) around the full moon. The small speedboats of Derawan can take your there if it’s the right time.

We got a tips for the dive center that whalesharks have been spotted the previous day. We got picked up at 5:30AM and left with 2 small boats, but eventually no whalesharks were to be seen.

The price of one boat was 700’000Rp (divided by up to 4 people), the boatman I had was very honest and asked only for the gas given we saw nothing (200’000Rp/4).

A more reliable spot in called Talisayan, the right time to be there is 5AM :

  • You can get there by shared taxi from Berau (about 4h)
  • With a good boat (250hp) it takes less than 2h. If I remember well the daily cost for such boat would be around 2Mio IDR. You may want to be to Talisayan before 5AM to maximize your chances.

On the way you could spot to Manimbora island :

 

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Diving

I put Derawan and nearby island in my top 3 divings spots in Indonesia (with Raja Ampat and Komodo).

  • Derawan is good for the macro, especially at night
  • Sangalaki is where you can spot manta ray but their presence is far from guaranteed. I didn’t saw any but the spots are great anyway : great corrals at the cleaning stations, lots of fishes. We saw 2 leopard sharks during one dive.
  • Kakaban has good wall diving, we saw many reefs sharks and barracudas, plus tons of fishes. Sometimes tresher sharks can be spotted.
  • Maratua is also great, I remember in particular :
    • At Fusilier Paradise I counted more than 50 sightings of turtles within an hour. Lots of fishes, barracudas and many nice boxfish and puffers. I got told than they often get more than 100 turtles at another spot called Turtle Run.
    • At Lighthouse, there was a stunning reef with beautiful butterflyfishes and tons of anthias.

On our way back from Maratua, our captain got us a school of dolphins one day :

Dolphins Indonesia

I picked Scuba Junkie Sangalaki (which is based on Derawan islands and not on Sangalaki). The dive guides, the gears, the boat, the facility, everything is top notch.

I was simply a bit annoyed by their management, they like to have their guests booking everything in advance and they like it their way. I feel they were rather annoyed by my lack of planning (arriving at 10PM the first day because I took me longer than expected from Tarakan, making more or less dives than announced on a given day).

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that the people answering their email and their Whatsapp is based in Bali, and if you send a message outside office hours, the staff in Derawan will know the next day. This created a misunderstanding on the first and again when came the time to pay.

Again when I paid, they gave me a bill which was like 30% higher than what was discussed by email previously even though I did like one additional dive. They add to contact the person in Bali, it was annoying.

Last thing, they don’t want to take new guests to Kakaban on their first day because of the current. So you’ll have to dive Derawan instead or wait the next day.

When it comes to prices :

  • They have a 4 people dorm, charged 200’000Rp which is rather ok for Derawan.
  • I paid 5’850’000Rp for 11 dives, gear rental included so about 530’000 per dive.

There are other local dive operators in Derawan. I cannot really tell about their profesionnalism, I saw a couple of small boats overloaded with tanks and guests to save costs, be sure of what you are paying for. Besides their little lack of flexibility, I strongly recommend Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.

If anyone knows a professional and not super-expensive dive shop in Maratua, please let me know in the comments.

Practical tips

How to come here

First step coming to Berau

You have flights from Tarakan, Nunakan and Balikpapan to Berau.

Flying is not mandatory :

  • From Balikapapan you can follow the Balikpapan – Samarinda – Sanggata – Berau road :
    • Shared taxi do the trip straight everyday.
    • Otherwise you could decide to make a stop the way, for instance to visit Kutai National Park.
      • Shared taxi from Berau to Sanggata 250’000Rp. We left at 1:30PM and I got dropped at Sanggata at 11PM, but we dropped a passenger in the middle of an oil palm plantation in the middle and also stopped to help a fellow driver to repair his car on the way.
      • From Sanggata to Samarinda, a couple of bus from 6AM to 5PM. 55’000Rp for an AC bus, 42’000Rp for an economy bus
      • The bus drops you a bit far from Samarinda, take an orange angkot (that they call taksi) and ask the driver to drop you at the right place to take the green one. The first ride costs 10’000Rp and the second one 5’000Rp.
      • You have large and comfortable bus from Samarinda to Balikpapan. It costs 38’000Rp.
      • I left Sangatta in the morning and was in Balikpapan around 9PM.
  • If you come from the North (I started from Tawau in Malaysia)
    • Take either the speedboat to Nunukan (90RM) or Tarakan (145RM, plus 1,3RM for every kilo of luggage above 10kg). I took the one to Nunukan (10:30AM on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), we arrived in Nunukan around 1:30PM.
    • From Nunukan :
      • You have boats leaving to Tarakan at 7:20AM, 7:40AM, 8:20AM, 10:15AM, 11:30AM, 1PM, 1:30PM.
      • There are also one boats a day to Tanjung Selor, leaving at 9AM on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 10AM on Thursday, 1:30PM on Friday, 9AM on Saturday and 1PM on Sunday. I took the one on Wednesday, we left at 9:15AM, it costs 330’000Rp plus 2’000 of retribution for the harbour. We arrived around 1PM.
      • The boats for Tarakan / Tanjung Selor leaves from a different harbor than the one used by the speedboat from Tawau, 3km away. Angkot and ojek are available but it’s hard to catch the daily boat anyway given you arrive from Tawau at 1:30PM…
      • In front of the Tarakan / Tanjung Selor harbour you have cheap accomodation for 110’000Rp a day (single room, fan).
    • From Tanjung Selor harbour (if you took the Tawau-Tarakan boat, you need to take another boat to Tajung Selor first). You have a DAMRI bus leaving at 11AM. Otherwise shared taxi wait for the passenger to disembark and can take you to Berau for 110’000Rp (1:30PM – 4PM).

From Berau to Derawan or Maratua

To go to Derawan :

  • Take a shared taxi from Berau to Tanjung Batu (100’000Rp, a bit more than 1hour). Just ask the driver from Tanjung Selor to connect with someone from Berau.
  • From Tanjung Batu, take a small speedboat to Derawan. They run from morning until night. Price per passenger is 100’000Rp, on the return I saw villagers paying 50’000Rp so there is probably so room for negotiation. To return from Derawan, go to the jetty behind Bank Kaltim.

To go to Maratua, there is a speedboat leaving directly from Berau and taking you to Maratua for 300’000 per person. I don’t know exactly where is the starting point. The harbour would be a good place to start asking.

Otherwise you could charter the same small speedboats from Tanjung Batu to go to Maratua for about 1’000’000Rp.

Accomodation

Food and accomodation is rather expensive in Derawan. Expect to pay about 30’000Rp for a basic dish and 50’000-75’000 for good seafood.

Most of the accomodations starts at 250’000Rp for a double room with fan. Next to Scuba Junkie Sangalaki, Penginapan Miranda rented me a double room with fan for 200’000Rp. The dorm of Scuba Junkie Sangalaki is also priced at 200’000 per person (4 beds), including the breakfast.

From what I understand you can find some homestays in Maratua from 250’000Rp a night.

There is one resort on Sangalaki, I forgot the name but you cannot go wrong because there is only one.

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