Pulau Derawan, Indonesia

AWESOMENESS!Our relative measure of how cool this place is. COST$ = cheap $$$$$ = resort TRAVEL TIMEEstimate of how long a round trip here from California would take TRAVEL DIFFICULTYHow much effort to get here? "Low" is hop on a plane and the resort picks you up. "High" is hitchiking in a foreign language DIVINGIf there is diving here, how good is it?
great $$ 4 day moderate GREAT!

The tiny island of Pulau ('pulau' means 'island') Derawan and its largely uninhabited neighbor islands of Pulau Sangalaki, Pulau Kakaban and Maratua/Nabucco make up a great dive and island getaway vacation. The islands are totally remote, absolutely beautiful and not exposed to mass tourism at all. And there's some good diving to be had. Manta rays (including the stunning all-black variety) are very common. We also saw a leopard shark and a good variety of macro life. Sea turtles are everywhere and you can help dig up and release freshly hatched babies at the conservation center on Sangalakki if your timing is lucky.
A Derawan vacation is a mix of diving and a bit of island exploring. Without diving, it wouldn't be worth the effort of coming out here. There are beaches and you can get some sun, but this isn't really where you go for sunbathing. The beaches are useable, but most of it is either a bit jungly or in someone's back yard. Stunning and great to explore, but with a bit of clothing on.


Pulau Derawan

Derawan is the main island in the areas with accomodations, food and not a whole lot to do. The island only takes about an hour to walk completely around. People are friendly, if not a bit shy to tourist presence still. There are a couple hundred primarily fishing families living on the island and you can probably find a volleyball game to join in. There's not much going on at night besides walking the beaching hoping to find a turtles laying eggs in the sand. There is some good diving right around the resort piers (frogfish, jawfish, etc, turtles) as well as just off the island. There is a huge sand bar that extends several hundred yards off the island at low tide.

Getting Around

From Pulau Derawan, the other islands are reached either by speedboat ($200+/day) or local fishing boat (~$40/day). With a little luck, you may be able to join a speedboat-based dive with the resort for free if there's room with a group of the package tourists. There was every time we asked. It takes a bit of negotiating through the language barrier and all, but the resort staff was pretty helpful in making it happen. Otherwise, the other dive shop or your hotel can help organize a fishing boat to take you around. A speedboat takes about an hour to get to Sangalakki or Kakaban and dive both islands in the same day. A fishing boat takes 2-3 hours to reach the other islands and would be hard pressed to see more than one in a day. But it's a beautiful day on sea.

Pulau Sangalakki

A tiny tiny island with an abandoned resort and an active sea turtle conservatory. Be sure to go on land between dives and meet the researches. If timing is good, they may let you help dig up and set free freshly hatched turtles! Also keep an eye out for the very large monitor lizards that live in the jungle and prey on the any unprotected turtle eggs. The planned manta dives are all around Sangalakki, so you should have plenty of time to head ashore on a long surface interval. We saw mantas here, including a couple all-blacks, on 2 out of 3 dives.

Pulau Kakaban

Kakaban is an uninhabited jungle of an island with a giant freshwater lake in the center that is home to millions of stingless jellyfish. It's an amazing snorkeling experience. Definitely snorkel without a wetsuit for the full, creepy effect of all the jellies bouncing off you.

Pulau Maratua / Pulau Nabucco

There is a Maratua called 'Big Fish Country' with very high currents that attract ...well...big fish and schooling barracuda. Diving it requires good weather and timing of the moon and tides, so it's not a guarantee: we missed it. The Nabucco Dive Resort is out here.

Practical Matters

Getting There

Pulau Derawan is just off the east coast of Indonesian Borneo (aka Kalimantan). The first step is to get to the city of Balikpapan in Kalimantan. From the US, that is most likely done via a flight to Bali or possibly Singapore follwed by an Indonesian airline to Balikpapan. Flight timing will probably require a night in either Bali/Singapore or Balikpapan. The next step is to take a 1 hour flight or an ~8hr bus along the coast to Berau. Once in Berau, you'll ask around for a shared taxi to Tajung Batu. The whole-taxi fare is about $20. In Tanung Batu, the driver will help you find a speedboat (~$20, ~20minutes) to Pulau Derawan. It's definitely a bit of effort in unknown territory with very little English spoken, but people will understand where you're trying to go and they are very helpful. If you opt for one of the resort packages at Derawan or Nabucco, you'll be assisted through all this - but you will pay dearly for it.

Staying There

Short of booking a room ahead with the dive resort, you really need to show up and hope the hoards haven't found out about Derawan yet. There were three places open when were visited in July 2007: Derawan Dive Resort, Derawan Cafe (seems to have a few names), and Donaken Guest House / dive shop. We showed up and like the sparkly new Derawan Cafe.

Nearby Attractions

Pulau Sipidan, Malaysia

Combining Derawan with a visit to nearby Pulau Sipidan is relatively convenient. Start with a bus from Berau to Tajun Selor followed by a ferry to Tarakan. A ferry here crosses the border to Tawau in Malaysia and then you can bus or taxi to Semporna where your resort will shuttle you out to Sipidan. The connection takes 1 night (Tarakan or Tawau); although you might move faster if there are flights in operation between Berau to Tarakan. The resorts only run a couple daily speedboats between Semporna and Sipidan at their convenience, so there's also a chance of having to stay a night in Semporna.

Lembeh and Bunaken

These two spots on the neighbor island of Sulawesi provide some amazing diving and are only a short flight away from Balikpapan.

The Rest of Indonesia!

Of course, all of Indonesia is also at your fingertips if you're this deep in. It would be sinful to pass up a couple days in Bali on your way through.


  • We stayed at the new Derawan Cafe. It's clean, air-conditioned, on the beach and the only hotel on the island.
  • The Derawan Dive Resort is a dated, but still nice bungalo-style resort. Dive and lodging rates are ok; it's the inclusive deals with the speedboat that rocket their pricing. Generally poor rental gear.
  • Nabucco Dive ResortThe other resort in the area, but its even more remote location dictates package tour
  • Donaken Dive ShopThe only dive shop on the island. Limited selection, but good rental gear. The owner/divemaster spoke really good English and was very helpful. Donaken also runs a guesthouse on stilts over the water.