Trip to Derawan

Trip to Derawan

December 2017

The best thing about travelling with Mike is that he lets me organise everything. This is not always a good thing, but in the case of diving trips, it is. I am incredibly picky about diving locations, and I refuse to let anyone else choose for me. The trip to Derawan, off the coast of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), was supposed to be a solo trip. I had heard about this remote archipelago and its amazing underwater life from a magazine that always gives great travel tips (‘How to spend it’ by the Financial Times). It was going to be a long trip, but the prospect of diving with mantas and sharks, made flying all the way from London for just a week sound like a reasonable idea. Once I had everything organised and booked, Mike asked to join, setting a precedent for the years to come. Now we ‘jointly’ decide on the location – I propose and he agrees.

Like all good Indonesian trips, it takes two flights, a car and a boat to get to Nabucco Island Resort, close to the island of Maratua, one of the 31 islands that make up the Derawan archipelago. First we fly to Kalimantan, stopping in Balikpapan (from either Singapore or Jakarta), and onwards to Berau. In Berau a car takes us to the port and finally we take a boat for another 4 hours to the resort. This is if everything goes to plan. Which it doesn’t. Mike’s flight to Balikpapan is delayed, and Indonesian airlines are so nice that our plane waits for him. By the time we get to Berau, it’s too late to take the boat, so we have to spend the night there. Turns out one of our friends from INSEAD, Antonius, is there too, so we spend a lovely evening in the rooftop of the Hotel Palmy Exclusive drinking Bintang beer.

In the morning we take the boat to our island resort, where we are welcomed by Tarkan and Kathrin, the managers. We will be staying there for 6 days, diving non-stop, and we are lucky because for the first days we will be alone in the island. It is quite a small islet, covered in lush, green vegetation. It has a few wooden cabins built on stilts above the water, a common area and a dive centre. We are offered to start diving straight away and we readily accept. 

Mike has brought a special treat for all of us.  A very light wetsuit that used to belong to his father, in yellow and purple colours. It is quite comical and distracts me from looking at the fish. The Indonesian dive guides are too polite to say anything, but now I am glad there are no other tourists in the island. Years later, it is with great delight that I hear the news that the wetsuit has been finally put aside. Unfortunately, Mike recently acquired yet another strange-looking wetsuit that will stay in the memories of all the diving centres in South East Asia.

We have heard there is an amazing dive site, appropriately named ‘Big Fish Country’, where you regularly see sharks and other pelagics, and we want to try it straight away. Tarkan, very sensibly, advises to go once we have done a few easy dives and our ears are accustomed to the depth again, as it is quite a challenging dive, with lots of current and negative entry. The next days we develop a very relaxing routine. We dive, eat, nap and play cards. I am a terrible player but Mike seems to not get bored of it, so we play evening after evening. The dives are nice, although visibility is quite limited. We see lots of turtles, eagle rays, lion fish and many beautiful nudibranchs. 

We go on a couple of day trips, to Sangalaki, to see the mantas (unfortunately we don’t see any) and to Kakaban Island, a large coral atoll, home to one of the only stingless jellyfish lakes that exist in the world. This phenomenon happens due to the lack of predators, as the jellyfish are able to multiply and no longer need their venom as self-defence.

Swimming in the lake is like entering a magical world. You submerge yourself (this is snorkelling, no air tank needed), slightly apprehensive as you cannot fully believe these jellyfish are really not dangerous, and suddenly you are surrounded by thousands and thousands of them. The water is green, and the jellyfish are pinkish. They come in all sizes, floating around in all directions, placidly, like they are part of a massive, uncoordinated dance spectacle. We unhurriedly swim around, with slow movements, as the jellyfish are so delicate that you need to be careful not to hurt them. It’s amazing. We both agree this is one of the most unique, magical experiences in our lives. When you are underwater, not hearing any noise, surrounded by thousands of these beautiful, gentle creatures, the rest of the world feels like another lifetime. 

Nature has yet another big surprise planned for us. After a few nice dives, including seeing a few sharks but nothing too crazy, we want to go again to Big Fish Country. Today the current is quite strong and it’s carrying lots of plankton, so it already looks like a promising dive. The dive guide helps us hold our hooks to a rock, so we are not pushed away, and we stay a few metres away from the main current, just waiting for things to happen, like spectators waiting for a show to start. And then it gets crazy. First we see a big black tip shark, almost 3 metres. It stays in front of us, swimming against the current, and we are mesmerized. Then another big shark shows up, this time a grey reef one, one of the biggest sharks we have ever seen (Mike will admit later he was ‘terrified’). And another one. And another black tip. Soon we lose track of how many sharks we have seen. We think some are the same ones, coming back to the same spot, but others are definitely different. We just look at the current and the magic happens. Dozens and dozens of sharks. The current is incredibly strong, but we hold the hooks and let the current shake us, our bodies hanging almost upside down. We almost forget to breathe. After a while, our dive guide sensibly reminds us that we need to start ascending, and we cannot believe how amazing the dive has been. In our top 3 best dives for sure. We excitedly talk about the sharks, and its size, and its number. We are almost jumping with excitement.

Unfortunately, these epic dives are becoming more and more rare. The number of sharks in our oceans keeps decreasing every year, due to shark finning, bycatch (sharks getting trapped in fishing nets) and a reduction of their potential food due to overfishing. This in turn has a huge negative impact on the ecosystem, as sharks play an important role in the food chain, not just as predators but also scavengers. Every year we have to go to more and more remote areas to be able to dive with sharks.

This time we are just thankful for our luck, and we celebrate with another round of cards. I lose big time, just for Mike’s benefit, and we pack to leave the following morning. It will be yet another journey full of lovely surprises. The wind becomes so strong that the boat ride back to Berau takes over 6 hours instead of 4. Anywhere else we might get stressed, but not in Indonesia. From the boat they warn the car driver, who in turn calls the airport. They say they will wait for us, and we make it just in time. If something I have learnt after living/ travelling around Indonesia, is that when things go wrong, it’s better not to worry too much as most likely they will work out. One way or the other.

Arranging the trip:

  • Flying: We flew to Balikpapan and then Berau, the departing point for the boats to Derawan. Balikpapan is well connected with Jakarta and Singapore. For bookings with non-Indonesian credit cards, unless it’s with Garuda Indonesia, I recommend using Traveloka
  • Accommodation: Nabucco Island Resort can be contacted through their website 
  • Getting to the resort: Nabucco Island Resort organised the airport pick-up in Berau, the overnight stay and the boat


  • Books to read
    • Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the improbable nation, Elizabeth Pisani
    • Beauty is a wound, Eka Kurniawan
  • Films to watch
    • Jago: A life underwater, James Reed, James Morgan (available on Netflix)
    • The act of killing, Joshua Oppenheimer
    • The look of silence, Joshua Oppenheimer
    • Kartini, Hanung Bramantyo


  • Women travellers
    • I would have been completely comfortable doing this trip by myself
  • Weather
    • We went there during rainy season (which goes from December to March), and had very good weather every day (except on our journey back to Berau, the sea was quite rough)
    • Visibility was not great, it is meant to be better during dry season
  • Other considerations 
    • Ramadan: Some activities/ restaurants in mainland Kalimantan might be closed during Ramadan month

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