The sea was glossily calm. I squinted into the distant horizon, to that faint line where the sky meets the sea. Our dive master, Pempeng, had slipped over the side of the boat to test if we should dive, depending on the strength of the current. We were at one of the top dive sites called ‘The Channel’, a narrow, shallow channel in the reef swept by ferocious currents.
Where there are strong currents, there are the magnificent beasts – the sharks, barracudas and other fabulous denizens for which divers converge from all over the world to see, here in the richest marine ecosystem on the planet.
Pempeng briefed us on the strong currents at many dive sites, pointing out that four divers had been lost, in spite of an extensive search. He hauled himself aboard gasping, “The current’s really strong, several knots!” We looked at him expectantly. “Gear up,” he said. “We’re going diving!”
The Derawan archipelago off the east coast of Kalimantan is part of the Coral Triangle, the area with the densest concentration of coral and marine species anywhere in the world.
With bright skies, clear waters and clusters of little-developed islands scattered across the azure waters of the Sulu Sea, it is the embodiment of Paradise, the impossible dream of poster ads and movies, somewhere over the rainbow.
The journey from KL involved three flights, an overnight layover, a two-hour drive in a car, and a 20-minute speedboat ride. From the car, I looked out at acres of newly-planted oil palm plantations as we wended our way on the empty road.
Derawan appeared as a thin, dark ribbon against the horizon as the speedboat jiggled over the uneven surface of the water. It had long been settled, originally by the Bajau, the sea nomads. There were several hundred families on the island, with a well-established supporting infrastructure. Inevitably, there were tourist souvenir stalls, bicycle rentals, laundry services, restaurants, as well as the amenities supporting a community of several thousand permanent inhabitants – a post office, schools, a police station, a cemetery, even a bank with a functioning ATM.
The island could be circumnavigated in an hour or so, along sand-swept roads, with names and road directions. There were motorcycles and plenty of bicycles. Most of the tourist accommodation on Derawan catered to the midrange or budget type. Many villagers offered a taste of genuine village life with homestays.
The diving services were outstanding with a well-organised dive centre just a few feet from the beach where the dive boats anchored. Boathands carried all dive equipment on board, matching each diver’s equipment to his allotted seat on the boat. They changed air tanks between dives and at the end of the day, hauled all the equipment off the boat to be cleaned, ready for the next day’s diving.
The dive boats were large, well-maintained fibreglass crafts with powerful twin outboard motors. There was the luxury of an on-board toilet, cold and hot drinking water and biscuits. The crew packed towels, meals and spare air tanks for the day’s diving, with each dive master responsible for no more than four to five divers.
Each of the three main diving islands – Maratua, Kakaban and Sangalaki – was an hour or more from Derawan, and each was special in its own way. There were other islands besides, at least one with coral beds destroyed from dynamite fishing in the past.
Maratua is a long island with a crook enclosing a large, shallow sandy lagoon. The water clarity was superb, as we rolled over backwards in small groups headed by dive masters. The corals were generally very healthy, with swarms of small fish and relatively few large ones, due to fishing. But there were still small schools of trevallies, a glimpsed Napoleon wrasse, and more than a few Green and Hawksbill turtles with their large, expressive eyes. These islands are the most prolific breeding grounds for sea turtles in Indonesia, and although harvesting and eating turtle eggs is officially frowned upon, it is also a generations-old practice among the islanders.
Some dives were more technical: The Channel demanded a quick descent into roiling current so strong that it required reef hooks, which are steel hooks attached by a cord to the dive jacket, just to stay in place. Clinging onto rock, exhaled bubbles shot out in a straight horizontal line backwards, and a slight turn of my head caused the current to knock the regulator (breathing apparatus) out of my mouth, much to the wide-eyed chagrin of Pempeng. He did a heroic job of muscling us down the current-swept slope, hand over hand, bodies splayed out behind, to an anchor point to watch muscular, shimmering fish swim with apparently no effort against the current.
Kakaban is uninhabited but has a very special feature that exists in only two places in the world. Our dive boat anchored by a wooden jetty and we walked up a walkway to the dense, towering forest, growing on jagged limestone. A short flight of stairs, and a descent through the humid forest, and there it was before us: the shimmer of a vast lake within the island. Remarkably, this brackish lake had once been a part of the sea. Land movement isolated it, and the marine life trapped within adapted.
Most strikingly, jellyfish which are venomous in the open sea, had lost their venom here and in the absence of predators, had bred in the millions. They bobbed and undulated in the slightly murky green water. Only snorkelling without fins was allowed.
Swimming among the swarms of jellyfish – and not recoiling when I bumped into one – was a memorable experience. There were four species of jellyfish, and even the deadly box jellyfish had adapted, not only becoming harmless but shrinking to a quarter of its size in the open sea. Small fish, molluscs and tunicates also thrived in the unique ecosystem of the lake, confounding scientists and researchers on the plasticity and resiliency of life. Just outside this strange ecosystem, Kakaban Island had steep walls that fell sharply to the sea floor, and gentle and beautiful as it was on the surface, strong currents raked the sides of the wall beneath.
One of the best dive sites here, Barracuda Point, was a sure bet for seeing schools of barracuda, their jaws slightly agape to reveal serrated teeth, their steely jackets shimmering against the blue sea, while we divers clung onto nearby rocks, in the Superman position, fully extended by the fierce currents.
Sangalaki has an oversize reputation as the place to see giant Manta rays. We spotted them on the surface on our diving day there, dark flat shapes just below the water surface, with the occasional triangular fin breaking the surface. Seeing them underwater was by no means assured, but we were lucky, spotting several gliding past like unearthly spaceships, creatures of striking grace and beauty. I had a lump in my throat, overwhelmed by awe and elation to see these fabulous rays in their element.
As spectacular as our dives were, it wasn’t all light and beauty, with a sharp reminder on our very last dive of the trip. The water was cloudy and there was a strong current, and it was that dreaded phenomenon, a downdraught current that swept us down into the depths, deeper than we’d planned to go. The dive became a struggle against the current, my air supply depleting rapidly from the sheer effort of finning upwards to gain the shallows.
When we surfaced, it was suddenly calm, with no clue of the drama beneath the water surface. I floated on my back, the vast blue sky above flecked with paint brush strokes of clouds, the water lapping against me, while our dive boat puttered over. Danger and beauty were opposite sides of the coin but I was happy. Just floating there in the wide open sea, on a perfect day, I wouldn’t have traded my place for anywhere else in