26Aug2010

Turtle Island, Indonesia

Sea turtle grazing amid coral. Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

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.

If you can call this a main street, that is.
The "main street" of Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

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.
back garden of losmen danakan, pulau derawan, with bicycles and flowers.

Room on stilt pier over jade green sea. Losmen Danakan, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

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.

The bright blue frilled lips of a living giant clam protrude from spires of coral. Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

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?

clutch of turtle eggs, pulau derawan

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.

Z holding a week old baby turtle, Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

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.

Little sunburnt hands releasing baby sea turtles off Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.

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.

17 Comments

  1. jessiev says:

    OH! this is my VERY favorite article of yours yet. THIS is why we travel, and why we love being in new places – the beauty, the friendliness, the gorgeousness, the water (of course), and helping others. i LOVE THIS! YAY YOU! we need to head there, ourselves.

  2. Kathy says:

    What an amazing place! We’ve now added Pulau Derawan to our (ever-growing) “must visit” list. Do the sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs only in specific months?

  3. Caroline says:

    Wee Zac and wee Fred, setting out in the world. Swim lil fellas, swim! xx

  4. Love this story and your photos. But please please please stop finding amazing places to visit. My list of things to see before leaving Asia is getting to long as it is. We’ve never going to make it to S. America at this point!

    Off to add Pulau Derawan to ‘the list’

    • MummyT says:

      This is how I feel, too! Indonesia, in itself, is so vast we’re not even going to scratch the surface.

      btw, found a good workaround for Indo visa challenges. Get a 60-day in advance from (eg) Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia (takes 2 hours, costs not much).

      Then loads of city guesthouses can arrange sponsors for you to extend by a month each time…

  5. Alice says:

    Wonderful share!
    You can get a beautiful view like this,just by snorkeling?
    These is a piece of paradise.

  6. Ryan says:

    I really enjoyed your blog!

    I have a bit of a strange question, but I’m wondering if you could tell me if the Reza & Dira Homestay, which is directly beside Losmen Danakan, looked any good? Perhaps you were able to see these rooms?

    Your help is greatly appreciated!

    • MummyT says:

      If it’s the one to the left, facing the beach, yes, I saw the rooms. They are cheaper than Losmen Danakan, slightly less pretty, but still very good value (they tend to be onshore rather than over the water): we met some people who were staying there. They also have a restaurant, which is quite good. We weren’t there at high season, but there is a hell of a lot of accommodation on the island (homestays all down main street, apart from anything else), so if you’re not time sensitive, I’d take a look at the various options rather than booking in advance.

      • Ryan says:

        Thanks! It’s actually the one on the right of danakan when you’re facing the beach. You didn’t happen to see those did you?

        Normally I wouldn’t book anything however we arrive on december 31 so I’d rather not take any chances.

        Thanks again!

        • MummyT says:

          Yes! That was the one to the right (I have problems with my left and right). It seemed like good value, though the restaurant is (relatively!) expensive, so I wouldn’t necessarily take your meals there. From memory, it was around 100,000 rupiah for a room against 150,000 at Danakan. But clean, nice people, good location…

  7. Katie says:

    love this island!

  8. Mack Reynolds says:

    really nice post. i love sea turtles. z is very fortunate to have experienced this, and even name and set baby turtles on their course. i’m sure he’ll look back and feel reverent for the experiences you’re providing him. i loved the pics you took, and all the rice and fish you could eat sounds really good. i’d like very much to visit this place to snorkel and just hang out. it looks like a pretty sweet place to be.

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