This archipelago in East Kalimantan is one of Indonesia’s best examples of tropical paradise, comprised of six staggering islands and some smaller islets, each with its own adventures and charm. Maratua Island, for example, is known for its sublime sea caves, lakes, and lavish resorts. Kakaban Island offers swimming in a lake full of stingless jellyfish. Sangalaki Island is popular for diving and snorkeling, due to its thriving underwater scene, filled with coral, manta rays, turtles, and more. The relatively remote location helps conserve the natural beauty of this archipelago, making it a pristine and beautiful island paradise in Indonesia.
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 playgrounds 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.
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 traveling 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 traveling 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.
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 recognized 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.
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 recognized 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.