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Derawan Islands, Indonesia: A traveller’s guide

By Shenny Fierdha 20 November 2021 | Last Updated 17 January 2023

Header image courtesy of Ria Pratama Istiana

Derawan Islands in Berau Regency, East Kalimantan, is truly a piece of floating heaven on earth. Blessed with scenic beaches and plenty of beautiful marine ecosystems, these petite islands offer a serene sanctuary near the vast Celebes Sea. Tourists can do more than just snorkelling and diving here—one of Derawan’s 31 islets, Sangalaki, allows visitors to directly interact with sea turtles at its conservancy. Meanwhile, Kakaban Island has a lake occupied by a colony of stingless jellyfishes you safely can swim with. Catch a glimpse of manta rays or even whale sharks if you are lucky enough to spot them. So, grab your sunglasses and prepare to get your tan on with our guide to exploring Derawan Islands!

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Photo: Ria Pratama Istiana

Kawasan Konservasi Mangrove dan Bekantan

You can get to Derawan Islands from Berau Regency in East Kalimantan or from Tarakan in North Kalimantan. If you happen to start your journey from Tarakan, then you must visit Kawasan Konservasi Mangrove dan Bekantan (Mangrove and Proboscis Monkey Conservation Area) right in the middle of the city.

This 21-hectare conservation is full of various plants and animals endemic to Borneo Island, including the iconic proboscis monkeys. They can be seen hanging on mangrove branches or jumping from one tree to another, displaying amazing aerial acrobatics. It is a rare chance to gaze at their distinctive long nose up close in their natural environment. Meanwhile, the tall and sturdy mangroves give some cool shade and fresh air.

Photo: Ria Pratama Istiana

Kakaban Lake

This 11-metre-deep lake is like no other, thanks to its population of stingless jellyfishes. In fact, there are only two lakes in the world that have these unique creatures—the other one is in the Republic of Palau, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. Four different species of jellyfish live in Kakaban Lake’s brackish water, namely Mastigias, Cassiopeia, Aurellia, and Tripedalia, all of which went through a long evolution period during which they lost their stings due to the absence of predators for thousands of years.

In order to protect their unique habitat, everyone swimming in Kakaban Lake must obey all the rules with no exception. First, no sunblock or sunscreen is allowed as the chemicals might spoil the lake and poison the jellyfishes. Swimmers are prohibited to wear fins as those could hurt the delicate critters. When you are playing with the jellyfishes, you cannot take them to the surface since this might harm them. Lastly, do not jump into the lake because you can accidentally hit and kill the jellyfishes—just enter the water calmly and try to make minimum splashes.

Photo: Ria Pratama Istiana

Sangalaki Island

After playing with jellyfishes, it is time to have some fun with sea turtles. Blanketed with white sandy beaches and surrounded by tall coconut trees, Sangalaki Island is a safe haven for around 3,700 sea turtles that lay eggs on the island annually. There are no hotels or cottages on 280-hectare island, so the sea turtles can safely breed. Conservation officials keep the eggs away from any potential predators and once they have hatched, the officials will release them back to the sea. Visitors can participate in this activity as well! Take a stroll along the shore and snorkel in the waters of Sangalaki Island—with some luck, you might come across a magnificent manta ray swimming beside you!

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Snorkelling and diving points

The islets of Derawan Islands—Maratua, Derawan, Kakaban, and Sangalaki—have many snorkelling and diving spots with fabulous underwater views. You do not need to go deeper than five metres, as the crystal-clear turquoise waters of Maratua Island allow you to see its rich marine biodiversity very easily. White-tip sharks, hammerhead sharks, lobsters, squids, and seahorses—these are just a few of the sea animals that will greet you.

Meanwhile, Derawan Island offers the Blue Trigger Wall—an 18-metre-long coral reef that lies 10 metres deep on the ocean floor that is home to a school of red-toothed triggerfish—that divers should not miss. In addition, Barracuda Point on Kakaban Island is a perfect place for those who wish to see the fierce barracudas in the wild. Last but not least, witness the elegant manta rays in Sangalaki’s Manta Point to end your day.

Photo: @joseph_lou (via Instagram)

What to eat

Derawan Islands has a signature local dish you will never find anywhere else called tehe-tehe, made with white sticky rice, coconut milk, and salt stuffed inside a sea urchin shell. No need to worry about getting stung—all of the sea urchin’s spines are already removed. Tehe-tehe can be enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee or even with fish and sambal, an Indonesian chilli sauce.

Photo: Ria Pratama Istiana

Where to stay

In terms of accommodation, luxurious hotels are available, On Maratua Island, we recommend Maratua Pratasaba Resort and Noah Maratua Resort. If you are looking for a cheaper option, you can book a room at one of Derawan Island’s many hostels. We recommend Lapauta Derawan Resort & Restaurant or Derawan Dive Resort.

How to get there

You can get to Derawan Islands either from Berau Regency in East Kalimantan or from Tarakan in North Kalimantan. If you are coming from Jakarta, catch a flight to Balikpapan in East Kalimantan. From Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman Sepinggan International Airport in Balikpapan, catch another flight to Berau. From Berau’s Kalimarau Airport, make your way to Tanjung Redeb, which will take about two hours by car. Later, get on a speedboat from Tanjung Batu Port to Derawan Islands, a journey that lasts roughly 30 minutes.

If you opt for the Tarakan route, board a flight from Jakarta to Tarakan. Once you have landed at Juwata International Airport in Tarakan, get a taxi to Tengkayu Port and then hop on a speedboat to Derawan Islands. You might want to get your motion sickness medicine ready as the voyage takes about three hours.

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Shenny Fierdha


Shenny is a freelance writer/journalist/translator who can write both in English and her mother tongue Indonesian. She loves backpacking to lesser-known destinations, especially those with a comfortably cold climate. An avid history fan, she enjoys spending hours at museums while others might yawn and try to find the nearest exit.