There’s A Place in…Derawan, East Kalimantan

This week’s post comes from Natalia who along with her boyfriend Jonathan blogs over at Always Trekking. I first met Natalia in university where we were both studying German. Fast forward a few years later and we both found ourselves in Korea with plans to travel throughout SE Asia. Today she’s going to share about a little known island off of Borneo that has some incredible diving!

During our tour of Borneo, Jonathan and I went to the little island village of Derawan in Indonesia. We heard great things about it, that it was remote, clean and had great diving. It took about 2 days to get there from our previous destination of Sipadan in Malaysia. Sipadan is another good destination for diving in Borneo, while you’re there you stay on an island called Mabul.

Scuba diving in Indonesia

A lot of our travels revolve around good dive sites and Derawan really stood out while we were researching before the trip. It seemed like a really out of the way destination and we heard really nice things from other people and Lonely Planet.

What happens in Derawan…

We hopped from one diving destination to the next so we were really not expecting to be amazed. Also, we were just arriving from another dive island known as Mabul, which is the jump off point for some of the best diving in the world and that’s it. The diving there was great but the island was the dirtiest, most congested and disgusting place I’ve been to. Derawan is completely the opposite; it is incredibly beautiful and so quaint. In comparison to Sipadan, Derawan has half the dive shops and locals genuinely care about keeping the place nice.

Accommodations in East Kalimantan Indonesia

As soon as you get to Derawan your life takes a different turn, especially since it is such a whirlwind to get there. If you go by land, you take a car to Tawau, cross over on a ferry to Tarakan, take another ferry to the mainland, then a car to a drop off point and then 1 hour speedboat ride to Derawan.

Also, before I got there diving only once a day seemed unthinkable, I need my days to be packed! But we ended up diving for a bit and then snorkeling (maybe) or sitting on the jetty and watching turtles come up to breathe. It was an incredibly relaxing and beautiful place; I wish I stayed there for a week.

Jonathan in Indonesia

What to do in Derawan

The island is a just a jump off destination to great diving. Although the island is nice and relaxing, there isn’t much to do on it. Unless you like to watch lightning storms from a jetty and do nothing during the day there’s no reason for you to go to Derawan. You can walk around the island in about 10 minutes. The snorkeling is pretty spectacular and the right price, free.

So what exactly can you do in Derawan?

1.     Macro diving

If you don’t venture far from the island there’s some really good macro life under water. Our dive master was very patient and took time showing us the smallest of the creatures. This is a great place for some macro photography.

Macro shot of sea life

2.     Diving with Mantas

Take a 2 hour speedboat ride and you can either snorkel or dive with Manta rays. They come around to that particular point because the current is good and it sends lots of plankton their way. The current can be quite strong, so you will end up just planting yourself at the bottom and watching the mantas feast.

giant manta ray

3.     Visit Jellyfish Lake

There is an island near Manta Point that has a lake in the middle, it is a salt water lake filled with 4 kinds of jelly fish. They all have lost their stings so you can snorkel and bump heads with them. There are so many of them, it really does feel like jellyfish heaven.

Scuba diving in Derawan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

4.     Snorkeling around the island

Put on your mask and fins and get in the water! There is a coral reef party just 5 meters away from your door and below your bed. You will see so many turtles that you will get bored of them. If underwater beauty is not what you’re after you can at least practice your skin diving.

5.     Watch a lightning storm

If you stay here for a few days you will probably see a lightning storm. Just sitting on a jetty and listening to the rain hit the tin roof is pure pleasure on its own. Jonathan stayed out for a couple of hours just taking lightning pictures.

Tropical lighting storm

6.     Meet and drink with other divers

Not too many people visit the island at the same time so it becomes a close knit community of divers. All visitors become part of a small family. By the time you leave all the divers will come out to wave goodbye to you. Going out for dinner and talking to people from all around the world is an excellent way to spend your post diving evening.

Natalia-in-East-Kalimantan-Indonesia

Why is Derawan special?

The most amazing thing about the island is the quality of the dive sites compared to the sophistication of the dive shops. Our dive boat was a speedboat and though it was quite a rocky 2 hour adventure to get to the dive sites, it was so fun. At one point all my nausea went away when I saw a dolphin race our speedboat.

The beach in Derawan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

Don’t put off going here if you get a chance. This is the place to visit now; it will not stay this way much longer. One of the islands nearby is getting an airport soon.

Derawan is like Koh Tao in 1999, which Jonathan was lucky enough to visit. At the time they only had electricity during the day and just a handful of dive shops. At the moment, the island is out of the way enough that it isn’t congested with tourists, dive shops and garbage. Already divers that has visited it a few years say that the island is taking a turn for the worse. Go there! Now!

You can also follow Natalia and Jonathan’s adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

Have you been to Indonesia?

33 Comments

  • Morgan says:

    This post brought back so many great memories! We spent a week in Derawan in November 2011 as part of our travels in Indonesia and Malaysia. I definitely agree that Derawan is one of those places that if you get the chance you should visit now.

    P.S. If you do get the chance to go, one of the locals, DarJohn, who works at Lozmen Reza runs a WWF turtle conservation project. John and his assistants patrol the beaches nightly in order to protect turtles and their eggs from poachers. He also encourages travellers to take part in releasing the newly hatched turtles into the sea. It was without a doubt one of the most incredible things we’ve experienced on our travels!

  • We did see on the island that there was a turtle hatchery, but it wasn’t in use anymore. We were there just in September it looked pretty abandoned sadly. 🙁

    There were a lot of little trails left on the beach by the turtles, so I’m sure they come around. Regardless, the amount of turtles swimming around was unreal so that project did a lot of good while it lasted.
    Natalia | Always Trekking recently posted..The Korean Experience – That BackpackerMy Profile

  • Shalu Sharma says:

    Great photos of Derawan, I have never been there but seems like a lot of fun. Diving is something that scares me. But would like to try it some day.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Potato cutlet as a starterMy Profile

  • Nothing scary about diving! It’s the easiest thing that you can do in the water. The objective is to move as little as possible. Now is that really so scary? 🙂
    Natalia | Always Trekking recently posted..Ski the 2nd Highest Vertical in the World – Zermatt, SwitzerlandMy Profile

  • Agness says:

    That would be my dream travel destination, honestly! Beautiful place. Weren’t you scared of diving with jellyfish and mantas? I did some diving in Egypt and I was freaking out under the water. You are such brave people. Good luck!
    Agness recently posted..Podróże a FinanseMy Profile

  • Not at all, Agnes. The jellyfish lost their stings a long time ago, they really cannot hurt you.

    Mantas are very docile and we were not coming in close to threaten them. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to snorkel with them. 🙁
    Natalia | Always Trekking recently posted..Ski the 2nd Highest Vertical in the World – Zermatt, SwitzerlandMy Profile

  • TammyOnTheMove says:

    That manta ray would have completely freaked me out! It looks massive! I am a big fan of swimming, but am scared of oceans. Watching Jaws at the tender age of 4 traumatised me too much I guess. 🙂
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Flashback Friday: That time I knocked back coke with a Brazilian druglordMy Profile

  • Gita Listya says:

    Very pleased you enjoy the trip in Indonesia. Just come back to Indonesia, and find other beautiful places that you should visit and stay. Maybe http://www.jakpost.travel could be a good recommendation for you to find another interesting destinations in Indonesia 🙂

  • Aaaah I miss Derawan Islands!!! a great post 😉

  • Jasmin says:

    Hi,

    Great website and great post about Derawan. I am wondering if you could give me an idea in terms of money, is it more expensive than the rest of Indonesia (how much did you spend)? – Do you need to change money before you go? – And last but not least, did you sort out your visas for Indonesia prior to entering Indonesia (I heard that you cannot get a visa on arrival if entering through Malaysia on Borneo)?

    Thanks

    • Woah, I’ve been bad! I should have replied long ago. It is comparable to the rest of Indonesia. It is just a little bit more expensive but still dirt cheap. The diving is incredible cheap. There is no place to exchange money on the island, definitely bring all the cash you will use. They will probably accept crisp USD bills.
      You cannot get visa on arrival when crossing, but you can get it in one day at Tawau, Malaysia.
      Natalia | Always Trekking recently posted..Welcome to China – First Week in ShanghaiMy Profile

  • Treasured Odyssey says:

    I’m going there next month, thanks for sharing 🙂 by any chance do you have any recommendations for a place to stay?
    Treasured Odyssey recently posted..Tips To Have a Comfortable Coach Bus Services in MalaysiaMy Profile

  • Duan says:

    Hy, nice to know you love to visit derawan island. I am a local citizen, not in the island, its about 100km from derawan. if you want to ask something about dewawan, don’t hesitate to ask 😉
    soon there will be a festival in derawan, there will be game fishing tournament and diving tournament.

    • Helena Wildenberg says:

      Hello
      i live in australia and would love to visit.
      please tell me if i can get a flight from sandakan to tarakan city.
      i then get a speadboat to derawan?
      I can then get another speadboat to kakaban island for day trip?
      Appreciate all help, thanks

    • Made Surya Putra says:

      Hi Duan.

      I have heard that WHALE SHARKS visit Derawan at a certain time of the year,
      apparently on their way to the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), when the corals spawn. – Big sea animals are always migratory, so this information appears somewhat plausible …

      Now, could you confirm that this information is correct, and, if indeed true,
      at what time of the year do those Whale Sharks show up at Derawan ??

      Thanks, and best regards,
      Made.
      PS : this is a very good website.

  • Alyse says:

    Hi there! Great site!
    I’m wondering if you can help us out, heading to Borneo right away and looking at diving in Sipadan. Trouble is that permits need to be arranged well in advance and diving looks pretty darn expensive. We’re heading to Indonesia after, so I’m wondering how you thought Sipadan ranked in your experience? Worth the money or do you think we would be fine to focus on Indonesia?
    Much thanks!!

    • Hi there,

      Sipadan is definitely expensive but it is worth going to. It has it’s ups and downs but it is pretty solid diving. However you can see things just as good at Derawan dive sites and the island itself is 100 times nicer than Sipadan. If you are looking for a bit of paradise apres-dive, go to Derawan. It is also much much cheaper and no permit required.

      If you decide to go to Sipadan, grab the permit ahead of time. I think 2-3 weeks ahead of time should be okay now. It gets busier around European vacation times. It is very hard for me to say whether it’s worth the money or not. I was very disappointed with the island itself, it’s very dirty and gross but the diving itself is good. Not spectacular, but good. For AMAZING diving go to Flores and Papua.

      To FINALLY answer you question, if you have to choose between Sipadan and Derawan, go to Derawan. It’s cheaper, much nicer and less frequented by tourists and divers.

  • julia says:

    hai natalia., i’m julia from indonesia..i’m interesting when i see ur web..why u not visit another island? such ; sabang island ( Tsunami aceh), nias island ( the best place for surfing), samosir island ( Lake Toba), raja ampat (papua).. i recomended u for the island.. come again.. #pissbackpaker

  • Rieneke says:

    Hi Natalia,
    Thank you for the interesting post! I’m travelling through Kalimantan this December/January and will definitely visit Derawan for about a week. Do you have any suggestions for accommodation?
    PS. did you happen to be there during the rain season?

  • Alvian Rahardjo says:

    Yeah, Derawan is a beautiful place to visit especially for diver, but Derawan is not the only one. Indonesia has thousand top diving spots such as Raja Ampat (Papua) Komodo (East Nusa Tenggara), Bunaken (North Sulawesi), Wakatobi (South East Sulawesi), Bali (Bali) and many more.

  • Cynthia says:

    Hi Natalia! Thanks so much for your info on diving in Derawan Island. My husband & I are novice/ beginner divers. I was wondering if Derawan & Maratua Island are good islands for all levels. We are planning a trip to Kalimantan & Sarawak … maybe Sabah too in April. We were thinking about diving in Derawan instead of Sipadan. Thanks! 🙂

  • Colin says:

    Hello!

    My fiance and I are in love with your blog, and just stumbled upon Derawan Islands. We desperately want to stay here. Is there any place you would recommend for us to stay at? We’re operating on a backpacker’s budget, and the only place we’ve spotted thus far is $50 USD a night, which seems somewhat steep (although it looks like heaven). It looks like you stayed in the Mirroliz Pelangi, but I can’t find a website for it!

    Thank you!

    –Colin

    • Audrey says:

      Hi Colin,

      My friend Natalia wrote this as a guest post, so I actually don’t have any tips when it comes to choosing accommodations in Derawan. I usually browse Hostelbookers or Agoda for deals on accommodations, that might be a good place to start. I hope you have a great time out there!

      Audrey

  • Mónica says:

    I have never been there but… woow this island seems amazing! I would like have the change to visit this place.
    Mónica recently posted..Los cinco monumentos imprescindibles que visitar en BurgosMy Profile

  • ari padmawangi says:

    A nice describing of Derawan. Now Derawan on my mind. Have you been in East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia? It’s great place for diving after Raja Ampat in West Papua.
    Greetings,
    Ari

  • mauro says:

    HEI! My wife & I are on the way of derawan! See you alla there!
    Hugs

  • mauro says:

    Hey! We are in Maratua! After 3 days in Derawan we run away. It was horrible!
    Garbage all over, our room (nice on the water) discharged our…dejection directly in the sea where we were supposed to swim! The only free beach was stinky and littered all over. It is low season, very few tourists, but so many guest houses ! During the season it should be a real hell!!
    Not even a decent indonesian meal! Only Sangalaki and Kakaban by speed boat were fantastic!
    So just sail directly to Maratua, the real paradise of beaches and jungle!!!!! Our “guest house Maratua”, north of the island, arranges boats and all you need, good food, nice room in the jungle and terrace on a terrific CLEAN beach!
    Derawan is just a stinky crap! By by….

  • Mumun says:

    Ain’r Derawan awesome?! I love it there. It’s so remote yet so much fun to visit. The jellyfishes are what I miss the most. They’re so darn cute!

  • minyak bulus says:

    wow derawan island is beautiful, Im from kalimantan

  • Indra Setiawan says:

    The best place to swim with jelly fish..and Manta too..

  • Mageo says:

    Hi, we are on Derawan just now. I have to say it is “Garbage Island”. I do not speak abot diving but the island itself is big big dissapointment. We came when sea was low and the view was horrible! There is no clean meter of beach. Only waste. Broken bottles everywhere on beaches – you could hurt… But when water will come back it could be five minutes illusion. I saw a lot of more beautiful islands than Derawan! Don’t go where.

  • Jim says:

    Are there a lot of dive shops to choose from? Do you have any that you would recommend? I did some google, and there are only 2 results that turned up (Derawan Dive Lodge and Derawan Dive Resort).

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