The Derawan Islands near Borneo are undoubtably a piece of paradise with pristine waters and rich marine life. Swimming in a jellyfish lake, watching wild dolphins or hanging out with huge sea turtles were absolutely incredible experiences. I had the feeling that I should pinch myself, to believe what I am seeing. In this guide to Derawan Islands, I will recommend you how to get there, propose an itinerary which will save you a lot of money and share tips I wish I knew before going to Derawan Islands in Kalimantan.
Guide to Derawan Islands
Darawan Islands in East Kalimantan are still not very touristic and quite challenging to reach. However, coming from Malaysian part of Borneo towards Indonesian Kalimantan, I just couldn’t skip them. Before heading to the islands, I struggled to find all the information I need. Therefore, I decided to create this helpful guide to Derawan Islands to make your trip smooth and easy. After seeing the photos and reading about my experience, I am sure you will forget about any obstacles and just head straight to this piece of paradise. Of course, there are tour packages to visit Derawan Islands with agency and all-inclusive. This guide to Derawan Islands is for those who prefer to organise trips by themselves. Heading to the islands is also expensive, comparing to other paradise destinations in Indonesia. However, I will advice you how to do it in the cheapest way I found.
How to get to Derawan Islands?
Derawan Islands don’t have any airport, being still so pristine. What’s more, public communication in East Kalimantan works really bad. Sometimes public buses simply don’t come, so it started to be common to use shared taxis. Planning your trip to Derawan Islands keep in mind, that everything takes double time then expected and is a real pain in the ass. Roads are in a poor condition and if you have a motion disease, expect having a hard time. I usually don’t have problems with that but in East Kalimantan the crazy taxi ride sometimes reminds roller-coaster, and having people puking on both sides, made me dizzy as hell.
So how to get to Derawan Islands? If you are coming to East Kalimantan by plane, the closest airport is in Berau. Then, you will need to take a shared taxi to Tanjung Selor (100 000 rupiah) and a boat ride to Derawan Island (100 000 rupiah). Farther airports to consider when getting to Derawan Islands, are in Tarakan and Balikpapan.
After taking few flights between the islands of the Philippines, I wanted to decrease my carbon footprint, as cars or boats are more eco-friendly. Therefore, for few months I was going through all Sabah in Malaysia, East Kalimantan and Sulawesi in Indonesia without using any plane. My ass hurt and I spent a lot of time, but that was my pledge for the Earth.
I was coming from Malaysia, and after visiting Semporna Islands and Sea Gypsies, I hitch-hiked to Tawau, which is on the border with Indonesia. I went to the Indonesian Consulate in Tawau and got my 2 months visa in about 2 hours. If you need one month visa, no need to go to the consulate, you will get it on arrival. From Tawau there are ferries to Tarakan, which I recommend taking. The ferry runs few times per week, and I haven’t found any up to date schedule online, so don’t take it for granted. It’s the best to ask directly on the port to be sure when the ferry is leaving. Nobody told you getting to Derawan Islands is easy… 😛
From Tarakan there are direct ferries to Derawan Island only on Friday (350 000 rupiah). The other option will be to take a boat to Tanjung Selor (110 000 rupiah) and a public bus (50 000) to Berau. From Berau there are taxis heading to Tanjung Batu, where you can take a short boat ride to Derawan Island for 100k rupiah. If you start an early morning from Tarakan, you can also hitch hike From Tg. Selor to Tg. Batu. I did my way to the harbour with a palm oil truck…
The closest to the land from Derawan Archipelago is the Derawan Island. Therefore, the easiest to reach. The second inhabited island from the archipelago is Maratua Island. From Derawan and Maratua you can reach the other islands by taking a boat tour.
How to get to Maratua Island?
Is there any flight to Maratua Island? Of course, not. To such a pristine paradise, you get only by boat. Maratua Island is a second one from Derawan Archipelago, which provides accommodation. As it’s easy and relatively cheap to get to Darawan Island, Maratua will be much more expensive. However, it’s undoubtably more beautiful than Derawan. If you want to hire a fisherman in Tanjung Batu or Derawan Island to take you to Maratua, he will probably ask you to pay 1 500 000 for the boat. Traveling in a group will make your trip cheaper as you can share the cost. However, the boat can take 3-4 people max.
The cheapest way I have found is known only for locals, obviously because of money. There is a boat that goes to Maratua from Berau directly. It’s the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to get to Maratua Island. The ride takes 3 hours and should costs 250 000 rupiah but of course they may want to charge you per skin color 500 per person or more. There is no schedule for that boat, because it leaves when it’s full, so it’s good to come to the river early morning around 7 am and just wait. Ask locals in Berau for the exact place of the boat to Maratua departure.
Is it worth to stay on Derawan Island?
Before coming to Derawan Islands, I read that Derawan should be threated as a transfer to Maratua, that it’s dirty and not worth to stay at all. I disagree. Indeed, Derawan is overpopulated due to the location and easy access to sweet water and less attractive then Maratua. However, I didn’t find it dirty and not worth a stay, surely it depends on what are you interested in. It’s completely different then Maratua, which is a pristine paradise Island. Derawan Island is like a big Indonesian village. It was quite interesting to hang out with locals and experience the lazy island life. Would you be curious to experience that?
Derawan is a little island, I could walk around in maximum one hour and found many little beaches to enjoy the crystal clear waters, and snorkel. I stayed in Cucun Cottages on the water, and huge sea turtles were coming every single day to eat sea grass just under my room and I could swim with them. That was truly incredible! The water is transparent, so I could watch these amazing creatures also from the dock.
After enjoying sunset from my cottage dock, I went to walk along the beach. I met people which work for turtle conservation and seek for turtles laying eggs. We found one fresh footprint which lead us to the turtle. Sadly, the turtle nested in between tons of plastic bottles and trash. How heartbreaking. We waited until he finished his job (which took around 1,5 hours) and collected 108 eggs! It was amazing to witness all this with my eyes! Turtles conservation collects eggs everyday after the sunset, in order to increase their birth rate.
Where to stay on Derawan Islands?
A guide to Derawan Islands cannot come without tips on where to stay as places are limited. Accommodation on Derawan Islands is mostly on Derawan but also on Maratua which is much bigger and incomparably more beautiful than Darawan. It’s also more difficult to get there and expensive, but worth the effort. On Derawan, there are plenty of accommodations. Derawan homestay price starts from 100k per night and rises to 300k or more for on water cottage. On Maratua Islands accommodation choices are limited, therefore the prices are much higher. Per night will be around 500 k rupiah for a cottage or higher. The cheapest way to stay on both Islands will be simple homestay which you can probably find after arrival as not all are listed on booking.com.
Snorkeling tours from Derawan and Maratua
Derawan Islands are famous for incredibly rich marine life and one of the best places for snorkeling or diving in the world. During snorkeling I saw tons of colorful fishes, corals and huge sea turtles. I also saw the whole herd of dolphins wild and free. After seeing all these animals in their natural environment, it’s hard to imagine going for a trained dolphins show or a huge aquarium. It just doesn’t feel good to me anymore.
As only Derawan and Maratua Island provide accommodation, to see the other islands of an archipelago such as Kakaban Island or Sangalaki Island, you need to choose some of the numerous snorkeling tours in Derawan Islands. The choices are numerous, from a few hours snorkeling near 1 island to full day island hopping tour to 3 islands.
The most popular tour is visiting Maratua Island, Kakaban Island with stingless jellyfish lake, Sangalaki Island with huge mantas swimming nearby and a turtle sanctuary. I chose this tour so in this guide to Derawan Island I will describe it in details.
What’s more, sometimes there is an offer of one day tour to Labuan Cermin – blue lake with incredible color a few hours away from Derawan Islands. This day tour also includes snorkeling with whale sharks. If you are interested in seeing the whale sharks, you can also take a separate tour just for these, but you need to know that they feed them to attract in one spot so that tourists can snorkel and make selfies. As I am trying to improve as responsible traveler, I tend to skip this kind of attractions and see animals in their natural environment, without cheating.
How to get on a snorkeling tour around Derawan Islands?
Snorkeling tours don’t have a schedule, because it depends of the amount of the visitors. Basically, many fishermen from Derawan or Maratua can take you on the boat for a snorkeling tour around. They usually charge 1 500 000 rupiah for the whole day, 3 islands tour and can take 3-4 people. There are also bigger boats for organised tour packages, which you can join if they have free place. They will charge 500 000 rupiah per person, so it’s the best deal you can find as long as you don’t mind being with 10-20 other people.
The best way to find about the tours or organise it by yourself is asking around. First of all, ask at your guest house, they will call their friends and surely provide you with solutions. You can also walk around and ask by yourself or find some other tourists to join them for a snorkeling tour. The islands are small and everyone knows each other. I travelled alone, so it was quite a challenge to find the tour, but I finally did it and will share few tips below on how to visit Derawan Islands on budget.
3 islands snorkeling tour itinerary
For me the tour started on Derawan at 8 am and we went straight to Maratua Island. We arrived to one of the resorts and had one hour to chill there or walk around. Later we went to one island which I didn’t know was in the schedule. We entered a cave with a stream of water going through and it was lots of fun to go against the water to until the end of the tunnel. On the other side of the cave opened to a turquoise lagoon surrounded by the forest. I was speechless!
Later, we reached what I was longing for – Kakaban Island with a stingless jellyfish lake. This was my absolute highlight! There are only few places in the world where you can swim with stingless jellyfish. The most known are in Togean Islands in Sulawesi, Raja Ampat in Papua and Koror in Palau, Micronesia. I am so glad I learnt how to swim last year and defeat my aquaphobia, because snorkeling in jellyfish lake was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. We could snorkel for over an hour and float with the mesmerising jellyfish. It felt like swimming with aliens in a slow motion movie.
After that, we had lunch at the dock which was a box of rice, chicken and tempe. When we were done eating, we could jump to the water and snorkel near the dock as the coral reef near Kakaban Island is one of the best I have seen.
The next stop was Sangalaki Island. On the way we saw the spectable of the dolphins swimming near our boat. We also seek the big mantas, but were not lucky to see them. On Sangalaki Island we had some time to enjoy the beach and meet the baby sea turtles in the conservation center. We came back to Derawan around 4 30 pm.
Why the jellyfish on Kakaban Island are stingless?
Kakaban lake is a mixture of salty and fresh water, which became an ideal environment for the jellyfish. Due to geological changes part of the sea was blocked inside the island and separated. Most of the species died, but jellyfish seems to like the environment. The lake has no predators for jellyfish so with time and next generations, jellyfish didn’t need to use the poison to protect themselves. They evaluated and lost the ability to sting.
You can spot 4 types of the jellyfish in Kakaban Lake:
- the spotted jellyfish, is everywhere around you as their population is the largest;
- the upside down jellyfish, are weird plates sitting on the grass on the bottom of the lake;
- the Moon jellyfish is big but completely transparent and looks like made out of glass;
- the box jellyfish is hard to spot as it’s very tiny. It looks like a tiny weave thread. What’s interesting, it’s the most deadly species in the world and most venomous marine animal ever which can kill human in a few seconds. However, in Kakaban Lake, those dangerous creatures also lost the ability to sting.
Itinerary for visiting Derawan Islands on budget
I know that this guide to Derawan Islands is a bunch of practicals and might make going to Derawan Islands seem challenging. But I have to say this, I wish I knew before going to Derawan Islands about all these options I am aware of now. My trip would be much better, cheaper and smoother. But it was full of challenges to organise everything by myself and get the information in a place where nobody speaks in english. To make your life easier I will share the Derawan Islands itinerary which I would take if I had a chance to visit there again. It includes staying on Maratua Island, Derawan Island and snorkeling tour to Kakaban Island and Sangalaki. This is the cheapest way I know for visiting Derawan Islands on budget.
Take a ferry from Berau to Maratua – 250 000 rupiah on early morning. In Maratua stay cheaper in a homestay, which you can find after arrival. Stay in Maratua for 2 nights minimum, depending on your budget. While you are there, ask the stuff about the snorkeling tour from Darawan for the day you want to check out. Why from Darawan? Because their first stop will be Maratua, so you can join the tour when they pick you up and in the end of the day come to Derawan after the tour for free. That’s the trick on visiting Derawan Islands on budget! Normally, if you want to move from Maratua to Darawan, you have to pay 1 500 000 for the boat, shared 500 000 per person.
In Derawan there are plenty of homestays where you can stay cheap. Food is cheap as well. To come back to Berau take a boat to Tanjung Batu for 100 000 and then hitch hike or take a taxi back to Berau.
If you decide to visit Derawan Islands the other way around, starting from Derawan, later Maratua, you will spend 1-3 million rupiah more, depending with how many people you manage to share the costs. Joining the tour in Derawan can be also an option to come to Maratua in the end of the tour to stay there. Price just for the boat from Derawan to Maratua is the same as taking the snorkeling tour and ask the fishermen to leave you on desired island in the end. There is no logic. It’s how it works at the moment.
Guide to Derawan Islands – traveler tips
Visiting Derawan Islands on budget in hard, but not impossible. Coming to Maratua Island you may want to bring your own food and snacks to save costs. On Derawan Island food is not overpriced, you can find plenty of local restaurants with regular prices. Sangalaki and Kakaban Island don’t have food stalls, so make sure to bring your own in case the tour you take doesn’t provide lunch.
The only ATM is on Darawan Island and there is no money exchanges on any of the islands. I recommend preparing all the cash before, as it’s very risky to count on one existing ATM. If you want to rent fins and snorkeling masks, ask your guest house.
I wish I knew before coming to Derawan Islands that it’s so empty and the only time I can surely join some snorkeling tour to share costs is WEEKEND. A lot of locals come to Derawan Islands by themselves or with organised tours. If you want to save money and join the tour on weekend, plan your itinerary accordingly.
I would suggest staying for a day or two on Darawan and 1 – 7 days on Maratua depending of your budget.
You don’t need to book accommodation on Darawan Island in advance. On Maratua there are fewer options. The cheapest homestays you can find after arrival as they don’t appear online, but it’s also a risk than they will be not available (it can happen only during the weekend and Indonesian holidays).
Responsible tourism on Derawan Islands
I cannot write guide to Derawan Islands without mentioning the nature protection. The knowledge about responsible tourism almost doesn’t exist on Derawan Islands. Local citizens and tourists are not aware of their influence on nature.
Derawan Islands have sea turtles conservation program to increase their number. Turtles eggs are rich in protein, so people like to eat them. Moreover laying egg in a sand does not guarantee their survival due to proper temperature and humidity eggs require. From 100 eggs usually only ~18 turtles are born. Nowadays, with decreasing population of sea turtles around the world, this number is just not enough. Putting eggs in the conservation area significantly increases this amount. You can inform conservation officers if you see turtles laying eggs, so they can collect them. The officers walk every evening around the island. If you see any sea turtle carapace souvenirs, you should report it to police.
During the snorkeling tour to Kakaban Island, people were grabbing a bunch of jellyfish to take photos. They definitely didn’t treat jellyfish like a life creature. One Indonesian girl asked me after the tour, if I enjoyed snorkeling. I said jellyfish were amazing! Her comment made me shocked. She said with a complain on her face that jellyfish were so hard to grab… The same happened on Sangalaki Island, where everyone was taking the baby turtles for the photos. Some people dropped the turtles as they were moving. The guide was encouraging taking the turtles for selfies, and the conservation center workers didn’t care either. There were a few of them supposedly protecting the turtles but they were just chilling in the hammock with their mobile phones. Grab – take photo – throw – this can also describe the consumer society nowadays.
While snorkeling it’s important to don’t destroy the corals, so don’t touch anything with your hands, legs and especially fins. Using fins in the jellyfish lake is strictly prohibited as well as sun screen as it harms the creatures and their number keeps decreasing. Getting yourself mosquito repellent or a sun screen choose organic brands, which care about the environment.
A trash problem on Derawan Islands
Derawan Islands does not have good waste management. It’s reasonable to don’t bring too much plastic waste to the islands, because most of them may later end up in the sea or be burned on the beach. It’s better to collect all your waste and bring back to the land when returning. Be responsible and create as less waste as possible. If you need tips, check how to limit plastic waste when traveling.
Remember to don’t put any waste to the toilet. Staying in a house on the land, all these go into the ground, while most of the water cottages don’t have canalisation. When I went out of the cottage I stayed, I saw my shit floating in the ocean…
In general visiting Derawan Islands on budget is also more eco-friendly as you rather stay in homestay than private villas and rather join a tour than having a private charter. Keep in mind that all your travel choices matter when it comes to protecting the environment. Do your best!
Hope this guide to Derawan Islands will be useful for you. Let me know in the comments below for any other tips on visiting Derawan Islands on budget or other ways on how to get to Derawan Islands. Let’s make the experience smoother for everyone!
The Bee is a nature lover and tea addict. Loves the idea of slow life and responsible traveling, constantly trying to improve to bee more eco-friendly. Appreciates old cultures and traditions, loves to immerse with locals, listen to ethnic music as well as taste regional food and drinks. Her favorite spots while traveling are family houses and street markets.