North Kalimantan (Indonesian: Kalimantan Utara) Province is located on the northernmost of Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. North Kalimantan borders the Malaysian states of Sabah to the north and Sarawak to the west, and by the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan to the south. Tanjung Selor serves as the capital of the province, while Tarakan is the largest city and the financial centre.

North Kalimantan (Kalimantan Utara) Province covers 71,176.72, square kilometers. Its population grew from 473,424 in 2005 to 524,526 in 2010 to 639,639 in 2015. The population density (people per square kilometer) is 8.5. The provincial capital is Tanjung Selor and the largest city is Tarakan. Dayaks and Javanese are the predominant ethnic groups , with significant populations of Tidung, Bulungan, Suluk, Banjarese, Murut, Lun Bawang and Lun Dayeh.

Tanjung Redep is also known Berau. When it was village it was an inspiration for the village in Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” Among the things that one can see are the old sultan’s palaces with some possessions that belonged to the sultan. North Kalimantan used to be a territory of the Hindu Kingdom of Kutai. It was later subjugated by waves of Islamic invasions, during when the Brunei and Kutai were battling for hegemony over Borneo.

Derawan Islands

Derawan Island (three or hour boat ride into the sea from Tanjung Redep or Tarakan) is the home of many rare sea animals, including turtles and dugongs. It is also a location of pearl diving and a good place for diving and snorkeling. Large schools of tuna live in the water and birds dive into the sea to feed on the same small fish they feed on. There are no cars on the island. Electricity comes from generators a few hours a night. A total of 28 dive points identified here. The Derawan Island are in East Kalimantan but are easiest to access from North Kalimantan.

Located I the Coral Triangle, a roughly triangular area of the tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste that contain at least 500 species of reef-building corals, Derawan Islands was nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005: According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Stretching over 100 miles along the coast of East Kalimantan, the Derawan island chain is one of the most biologically rich areas in all of Indonesia. Here, water from the Berau river mixing with the Sulawesi Sea created a unique seascape characterized by a broad river delta leading to a scattered groupings of patch reefs, fringing reefs, and atolls.” [Source: Ministry of Environment, Indonesia]

The Derawan islands have soft white sand beaches fringed with waving palm trees and pristine seas that change color from green to deep blue. Sea life includes dolphins, manta rays, barracudas, pygmy seahorses, stingless jellyfish and sometimes, whales The Derawan archipelago comprises 31 islands, most well known among these are the islands of Derawan, Maratua, Sangalaki and Kakaban. Indonesia’s largest nesting site of green turtles and hawksbill turtles is located here. The entire marine conservancy region covers 1.27 million hectares.

The Derawan Archipelago is home to 460 different species of corals, ranking second behind to the Raja Ampat Islands as the most biodiverse place in Indonesia. The Nature Conservancy and a team of international experts have found more than 870 species of fish here.. Massive coconut crabs are found near the islands of Kakaban and Maratua, while whales and dolphins are seen in particular months around Semama, Sangalaki, Kakaban and Maratua. Dugongs swim around Pulau Panjang and Semama, and manta rays are found around Sangalaki with pygmy seahorses around Semama and Derawan. Groups of up to 50 manta rays have been seen feeding together in Derawan’s waters, says the Conservancy. On Kakaban, you can find the world's largest and most diverse jellyfish lake, with four unique species of stingless jellyfish one of which can swim upside down.

Accommodation on the Derawan Islands

The Derawan resort provides transportation and diving equipments. For accomodation, the resort offers Kalimantan-style cottages facing the sea. There are also simpler accommodation and restaurant facilities available on Derawan and cottages on other islands. You can also book liveaboards (boats designed for people living aboard them, usually for long journeys) to Derawan from Bali.

Derawan Dive Resort, on Derawan Island, has 27 traditional Kalimantan style cottages, each equipped with air-con and hot water. Facilities include a floating restaurant with a superb sea view and a delicious selection of international and local delicacies. The resort’s dive center is located on the beach with reliable dive equipment rental and professional dive guides. Seven boats are available for travel around the archipelago and back to mainland Kalimantan. Derawan Dive Resort, Balikpapan office: Kompleks Balikpapan Permaim Blok G-1 No. 34, Balikpapan Tel: +62 542 7072615 / 7072617, E mail:,, Website:

Derawan Homestay is a much cheaper lodging, nestled amongst the palms trees of Derawan’s sandy beaches. Rooms range from 100,000-150,000 rupiah per night, while the new bungalows on the sea cost from 200,000-250,000 per night. Facilities include a restaurant, and organized fishing trips and diving trips. Derawan Homestay Tel: +62 813 4795 5950, Website:

Maratua Paradise Resort has eight beach chalets and eight water villas, and is the only accommodation on Maratua Island . All rooms come equipped with double or twin beds, hot water, and air-con. Room rates are inclusive of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and coffee and tea throughout the day. Facilities include a restaurant, dive rental equipment and dive courses. From here, boats can also be rented to take you to any of the other Derawan islands. Maratua Paradise Resort, Ground Floor, Lot 4, Block A, Taman Fortuna Shoplots, JalanPenampang, E mail:, Tel: +60-88-248331, 224918, Website:

Getting to the Derawan Islands

The closest airport to the Derawan Islands is the Juwutan International Airport in the city of Tarakan, East Kalimantan. International flights to Tarakan are available on Malaysian Airlines from Kota Kinabalu and Tawau, both located in Sabah, Malaysia.

Domestically, Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air fly from Jakarta to Tarakan. From here take an internal flight south by either KalStar or Deraya Airlines (DAS) to Tanjung Redeb in the district of Berau. Boats will take you from here to Kakaban and other Derawan Islands.

Alternatively, SilkAir flies from Singapore and Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Sepinggan International Airport at Balikpapan, capital of East Kalimantan, then connect by internal flight to Tanjung Redeb. Batavia Air, Merpati and Sriwijaya Air fly domestically to Balikpapan from Jakarta, Surabaya, Makassar.

Once in Tanjung Redeb (Berau) you can hire a speedboat for the 2 hour ride to the Derawan islands. Speed boats generally have a seating capacity of 15 people, and can be rented to take you to several of the Derawan islands in one day. Derwan and Maratua Islands are the only two islands with accommodation. Boats can be chartered direct to Kakaban, but as there are no accommodations there, the usual routes go through its neighbouring islands of Sangalaki, Maratua or Derawan. Kakaban is about 20 minutes from Sangalaki, 30 minutes from Maratua and 45 minutes from Derawan.

Pulau Maratua

Maratua Island (in the Derawan Archipelago off the north coast of East Kalimantan) is a large tropical island partially encircling a massive lagoon on one end and fringed with sheer rocky walls and coral reefs along the other end.This giant upside down U-shaped island covers about 384 square kilometers of sandy white beaches and mangrove forests and 3,735 square kilometers of territorial waters which contain the third highest level of marine biodiversity in the world after Raja Ampat and the Solomon Islands.

One of the four most popular islands in the Derawan Archipelago, Maratua is home to one of the world’s only saltwater lakes as well as one of the largest green turtle nesting sites in Indonesia. Over 20 dive spots across the island allow visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves amidst the bountiful treasures. Unlike some of the other Derawan islands which are uninhabited, Maratua has a population of about 3,000 people and is divided into 4 villages, most of which come from the Bajo Tribes.

The Bajo people, or Sea Gypsies as they have often been called, are a landless people that is sustained completely and exclusively by the ocean. But not only do they survive solely on marine resources—they actually live in the ocean as well. Entire villages are built on stilts and connected by wooden bridges over large expanses of coral reefs and rocks in the middle of the open sea. The Bajo tribes maintain an intimate knowledge of the maritime coastal ecosystems, as well as the seasons, winds, currents, tides, lunar cycle, stars and navigation. These mysterious sea people are also distinguished by their exceptional free-diving abilities, and through years of practice have acquired physical adaptations that enable them to see better and dive longer underwater.

Pulau Maratua Dive Sites

As it is located within the Coral Triangle, snorkelling and diving should be on the top of your list of things to do when setting foot on the beautiful island of Maratua. There are several dive centres with available diving and snorkelling equipment for rent to assist you in your exploration of these underwater worlds.

A wide variety of marine life inhabits the waters surrounding Maratua, many of which are visible in just five feet of water. These include cuttlefish, lobsters, ghostpipe fish, blue-ring octopus, nudibranch, pigmy seahorses, ribbon eels and scorpion fish. 21 dive spots have been marked across the island, each offering a different experience, beauty and a varied biodiversity.

Turtle Traffic is one of the most popular dive spots, and true to its name, is filled with Green Sea Turtles. Hundreds of turtles frequent this portion of ocean, gliding gracefully about in search of food. The island is also a nesting ground where the Green Turtles return each year to lay their eggs, hence resulting in Maratua sometimes being referred to as the “Turtle Capital of Indonesia.”

Big Fish Country is located between the islands of Maratua and Nabucco, where the stronger currents bring the big fish in to play. Many pelagic creatures like Manta Rays, Eagle Rays, Tuna and Mackerel roam this channel together with schools of Barracuda, White Tip Sharks, and even the occasional Hammerhead. This dive spot has deep waters and strong currents, and is therefore reserved for advanced divers.

Other dive spots around Maratua include Maratua Reef, Fusilier Paradise, Mid Reef, Batfish Alley, Lumanlang, Divers Delight, Turtle Parade, Small Fish Country, Leo Point, Midnight Run Snapper, Sea Wall Garden, Sea Wall, Second Channel Shark City and more. Once you’ve had your fill exploring the world beneath the waves, complete your Maratua experience with a stroll around solid part of the island. Pay a visit to any of the 4 Bajo villages and take the opportunity to learn about the lives of these mysterious sea people.

Kakaban Island

Kakaban island is a large coral atoll in the Derawan Archipelago, covering 774 hectares of uninhabited terrain. It’s most distinctive feature is a huge land-locked lake, which makes up almost two thirds of the island. This brackish lake is alive with several species of endemic marine life, including millions of stingless jellyfish that only exist in one other place on the planet. The island is shrouded in a tangle of dense mangrove forests, right down to where the water meets the earth. There are very few sections of beach, as most of the Kakaban’scircumference ends in a rocky wall of sheer limestone cliffs, some sections dropping hundreds of feet to the choppy waves below.

The ecosystem of the lake is very similar to that of the open sea, but with a twist! The trapped sea-water diluted with rain water and ground water creates a unique habitat that has caused the creatures trapped inside to evolve! The lake has warm, brackish water of 11 to 17 meters in depth, and is carpeted in marine green algae. Four species of jellyfish criss-cross the waters of Kakaban lake, but unlike their counterparts beyond the coral wall, the lake-jellies have no natural predators, resulting in the evolution of the species to no longer need their venom as self-defence.

Other evolutionary processes have also taken place in this lake: The box jellyfish, normally one of the deadliest creatures in the world, in addition to losing its sting, has shrunk to barely a third its normal size. The Spotted Jellyfish is no longer spotted, and the Cassiopeia swims upside down, with its tentacles to the surface. This is so the sun may shine on its algae-covered tentacles, creating a photosynthetic reaction and thus producing food! Meanwhile, the white anemone has evolved into a passive jellyfish predator.Eight species of fish also dwell in this biological paradise, as well as sea cucumbers, sponges, crabs, tunicates, snakes, and orange purple and yellow clams.

Marine scientists and geologists have long puzzled over the phenomena of the survival of plant and animal life in so isolated an environment, but life will do what life does best. Adapt. “Jellyfish Lake,” on Palau Island in Micronesia, is the only similar environment on Earth, housing two species of stingless jellyfish. This makes Kakaban lake not only the largest, but also the most diverse brackish lake in the world.

Diving Sports and Sights on Kakaban Island

Arrival on Kakaban begins with long wooden pier, extending 120 meters into the deep blue sea. This wooden trail continues as a staircase, climbing precariously up the side of the island, and eventually into a pathway cutting through the twisted mangroves, and ending with arrival at the lake.

Obviously, donning your diving or snorkelling gear and jumping in with the harmless jellyfish would be your first move, but the beauty of Kakaban is that its wonderfully peculiar lake is not the only attraction it has to offer. The unique geological structure of the island provides opportunity for a plethora of different types of dives in one day: lake diving, wall diving and cave diving. The mangrove-fringed KakabanLake, is of course the main dive spot on the island, and the one not to be missed. And you don’t have to be a diver to admire this under-water world!

Baracuda Point is a steep wall on the outer rim of the atoll, where strong currents and high cliffs give way to larger predators. White Tip sharks, leopard sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and schools of tuna and barracuda roam the waters beneath the precipitous walls of Kakaban. The walls are hung with soft coral tiers, fans and whips, sheltering the smaller reef creatures such as parrotfish, surgeonfish, butterfly fish, and several species of sea turtles.

Blue Light Cave is one of the most fascinating dive spots in Indonesia. Entrance to the cave is through a small crack 2 meters below the surface. The descent continues down a narrow tunnel to a depth of 20 meters where it opens into a large cavern. The cavern stretches over 100 meters in length and is illuminated in blue, ocean light, giving the cave its name. The main exit is a vertical crack along the cave’s wall at a depth of 45 meters. There are two more exits at 30 and 60 meters, but these are rarely used. Visitors should note that this dive is for advanced divers only and should not be attempted without an experienced dive master.

Sangalaki Reef

Sangalaki Reef is regarded as one of the best locations for diving and snorkeling in the world, along with Raja Ampat. Manta Alfredi (Pari Hantu) which only exists in Derawan, barracudas, stingrays, large squids, and starfish are among the main draws. Since Manta Alfredi is very rare many tourists come to Sangalaki to see it. This unique ray looks like a stingray, but both its mouth flaps work as wings.

Popular diving points in this area include Channel Entrance, Coral Gardens, Town, Sandy Ridge, Manta Run, Sherwood Forest, Manta Parade, Manta Avenue, Ridge, Lighthouse, and The Rockies among others. Sangalaki is also known as an island where turtles lay eggs. You could see this unique process during breeding season close-up

Unlike other diving locations, the management of Sangalaki Island strictly maintains the natural conservation of this island. It is situated between East Kalimantan and Sulawesi. As an example, at night when you don't need any urgent electricity, the management will shut down the electricity on this island. Thus, this island is very quiet and is a favorite place for those of you who like to get away from busy and noisy cities.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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