Derawan Island: Turtle Sanctuary off the Eastern Coast of Borneo

By Dian Hasan | July 9, 2009

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Photo: Cipto Aji Gunawan

As the world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia has long been on any diving aficionado’s must-do list. Home to some of the most amazing dive sites in the world, with a rich marine life to match. And considered by many to be the best place to see turtles, and experience your own personal close encounter with this sea creature that carries its dwelling with them wherever they go. Here’s a look at the prime turtle watching spot in Derawan Island, off the coast of eastern Kalimantan (Borneo).


In Berau Regency, on the eastern side of the island of Kalimantan, is a unique cluster of islands, comprising Pulau Derawan, Pulau Kakaban, Pulau Maratua and Pulau Sangalaki. This island chain lies to the east of Tanjung Redeb, the chief city of Berau Regency, and can be reached by traveling around two hours down the Berau River.

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Swimming with the majestic turtle. Photo: Cipto Aji Gunawan

Pulau Derawan first became known to the outside world in the early 1990s. It has a resort that accommodates divers who are eager for adventure. Great numbers of green turtles live around Derawan, both in the shallow coastal waters and in greater depths of up to 30 meters. In the evening, you can see over 30 turtles digging nests and laying eggs on the islands’ beaches. But Derawan still faces a rough future in developing its maritime tourism. Market demand for turtle eggs remains high, and many local people have started gathering the eggs.

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A plethora of fascinating underwater lifeforms await. Photo: Cipto Aji Gunawan

In fact, turtle egg hunting has expanded to nearly all the coastal waters of East Kalimantan.

Brown river water and dense mangrove forests along both sides escort us as we cruise down the Berau River. On the horizon, we see Pulau Derawan. As we approach the island, we see semi-permanent structures stretching out from the coastline – some of the bungalows that have sprouted up like mushrooms on Pulau Derawan in the past few years.

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Derawan Island, Southeast Borneo. Photo: Off The Road Traveller

A walk along Derawan’s dock and beach can be a unique experience. Now and then you see a beak poking to the surface – these are the beaks of the turtles that swarm in the shallow waters off Pulau Derawan. It’s easier to see the turtles swimming underwater when you observe them from the pier. The turtles are seeking food among the sea grass that grows near the pier.

Derawan island sunset. Photo: Off The Road Traveller

Derawan island sunset. Photo: Off The Road Traveller

Diving at Derawan is fairly easy, because the waters are reasonable calm, and the gently sloping seabed makes it easier for divers to descend. With correct buoyancy regulation, even a tyro diver can enjoy a relaxed dive. Many unusual fish species can be seen here, including the crocodile fish, which does indeed resemble a crocodile; fortunately, they don’t attack, and prefer to camouflage themselves among the reefs to avoid detection by predators. In the reefs you also find many types of nudibranch – snails without shells. These nudibranchs have soft bodies with beautiful colors. They move slowly and are generally less than 5 cm long.
Nudibranchs are the sea creatures most often sought by underwater photographers.

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Turtle venturing to the ocean floor. Photo: John Eltin

You can also see several rare species of “squat lobsters”, which are only 2 to 3 centimeters across and inedible, with hairy bodies; they, too, are very skilled at hiding in the reefs.

The next day we headed over to Pulau Kakaban, 45 minutes southeast of Derawan. Our diving site was Danau (Lake) Purba, in the middle of the island. We docked at the pier on the south end of Pulau Kakaban, the gateway to the lake.

Source: Cipto Aji Gunawan | Garuda Inflight Magazine | June 2009

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Filed under Adventure Travel, Indonesia

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