Turtle Island, Indonesia
***Researching? For more up-to-date information on Pulau Derawan and the Derawan islands, including Maratua, head on over to pulaus.com, which also has current info on how to get there.*** Reading about my life? Pray continue!
Pulau Derawan, a tiny palm and sand island off the coast of Indonesian Borneo, is famous for sea turtles.
Now, in general, when it comes to sea turtles, it’s wise to keep your expectations low. Maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a glimpse of a reptile or two sculling in the blue yonder, when you’re diving. Maybe, just maybe, over a long enough night, one will lay her eggs on shore.
The first words we heard in our guesthouse on Pulau Derawan? “Can you see the turtle?”
Over the course of four, very leisurely days, we’ve watched females laying their eggs by night. Helped store the eggs in the hatchery. Released new hatchlings into the great wide ocean. Sat on the dock watching turtles grazing, hunting, surfacing for air.
Oh, and swum with manta rays, too.
These amazing creatures soar and swoop through the waters around Sangalaki Island serene, graceful and unafraid, like opera cloaks possessed by the spirit of the sea.
Were we diving? No.
Just snorkelling. Because when you can swim with turtles and manta rays, and you’re travelling long term anyway, why spend the extra bucks on scuba?
Even if you never snorkel, you’ll love Pulau Derawan. It’s a beautifully serene place, with no electricity during daylight hours, the calm shattered only by the children letting off Ramadan firecrackers in the main street.
We stayed with Arish and Mama Riina at Losmen Danakan. For $22 a day, the pair of us, including doughnuts for breakfast, endless coffee and tea, countless variations of fresh fish, rice and veggies for lunch and dinner, and the turtles swimming below us.
Now, to be honest, the reef off Derawan is a little patchy, still recovering from decades of dynamite and cyanide fishing. It’s the sea grass which draws the turtles, from as far away as Australia and Thailand.
Like eels, turtles will always return, when their laying time comes, to the distant place where they were hatched, long decades ago, but feed wherever necessity takes them in the meantime.
Here are some, one big male almost two metres long, grazing like marine cows and snapping at jellyfish, surprisingly agile, almost delicate as they move.
Just off the dock, also, are more classically beautiful sights. Giant clams, rich blue lips pulsing like a Georgia O’Keeffe underwater flower.
Predatory, poisonous lionfish lurk by stripy swarms of fish, and blue sea stars progress slowly across damaged coral.
And at the night high tide, particularly around the full moon, these same turtles, so gracious and fluid in the water, lumber up on land, leaving tank tracks behind them, power through the sand, protrude a tube and lay a hundred eggs or more.
One of the most wonderful things about Pulau Derawan? You don’t need to arrange your chance to view the turtles. You don’t need to pay guides, or stay up all night. You simply wander down main street, cut across the volleyball court, and see if any turtles have swum in on the tide.
It’s harder work than just laying, though. Wouldn’t it always be?
We watched a turtle, maybe eighty years old, maybe more, dig her nest, lay her eggs, and power backwards with her front flippers to cover them completely in sand. By the end of her labour she was alternating between sighs and deep, gasping breaths.
My heart bled. At least until the guys from the conservation project dug a hole to remove the eggs while the turtle, her evolutionary work done, lay oblivious on the sands then lumbered back to the sea. All anthropomorphism replaced with a strange awe at nature and her complex works.
Or, as Z put it, “She’s just going to ABANDON those eggs, is she? Poor baby turtles…”
Z, who isn’t (as we say in the UK) “backward about coming forward”, “volunteered” to take the, erm, orphaned eggs from their cool sand tunnel to the hatchery and stash them away from predators.
Now, he’d met some week-old turtles earlier in our stay, with his new friend Pablo.
But, this time, he got to name the new hatchlings. And send them scooting into the wild, their endless, almost ludicrous limbs flailing in search of the sea.
And swimming, fluently, once they gained it. These little fellas’ names? Zac. And Fred.
If they were girls, they’d be back to lay their eggs in fifty years from now. But they’re guys. Z checked.
And so we’ll never know whether they survived the sharks, the cormorants and the eagles, which kill more than one in a thousand baby turtles in the wild, and lived to tell the tale.
But we do know that these are some of the most amazing creatures on the planet.
How to Get to Pulau Derawan
Pulau Derawan is accessible by a short speedboat ride from Tanjung Batu on the coast of Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo: boats cost from 100,000 rupiah one-way, depending on your negotiation skills. The nearest city to Tanjung Batu is Berau — the ride in a kijang (shared 4WD taxi) takes around 2.5 hours and costs from 50,000 rupiah per person. Sriwijaya, Trigana and Batavia fly to Berau, with most flights from Balikpapan. If you’ve crossed from Malaysian Borneo, there are regular boats from Tarakan to Berau.