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The Derawan Islands: Turtles, lakes of jellyfish and big rays.

Day 1

Catastrophically hungover. Pulled ourselves out of the hotel bed in Tarakan about 11 and wandered downstairs to find we had missed breakfast. Memories of last night meandering back… drinking the local beer with the last few stragglers from uni before following the sound of guitars to the restaurant across the road. Belting out Country Road with the locals, throwing up in the squat toilet, blurry lights and out of tune singing until we eventually crumbled into bed during the early hours.


Lots of Bintang.

One crucial memory was that we had spoken to Ricky (one of the main organisers of the trip on the Indonesian side) about our keenness to fill the last few days of our trip, made free by wanting to wait for the cheapest flights. We had planned to just relax in Tarakan but when Ricky mentioned the possibility of heading to an archipelago of desert islands a few hours off the coast, we jumped at the chance.

When we met Ricky in the foyer, however, he was very unsure whether there would be any space on the boat because we had left it so late. But there was a tiny sliver of hope and so we piled our kit into his car and headed to the harbour.

The sun was at its hottest today and was doing us no favours as we sat, hungry and feeling sorry for ourselves at the harbour while Ricky went to find out whether there was any space. Amazingly, after about an hour of sitting in the car thinking everything was too bright, Ricky returned saying there was a place on a boat! Saying a heartfelt thanks to Ricky we staggered onto the boat and sat heavily on the wooden benches. The trip was three hours over fairly rough seas and most was blocked out of my memory as I tried hard not to be sick. The one bright spark was that an Indonesian family also making the trip gave us our first food of the day which was greatly appreciated. Eventually the Derawan archipelago rose over the horizon and our excitement grew.


Hungover trip to Derawan.

A small group of five islands, two inhabited, make up the archipelago along with numerous tiny islets and partially submerged reefs. Our little boat was aiming for Derawan Island where we would be staying. It was about 5pm by the time we got to our little ‘sunrise cottage’ at the end of a wooden jetty. Hauling ourselves up the ladder to the walkway we were met with the keys and shown inside. Dumping our bags as we were not at all interested with indoors, we headed out to see what we could see in the water. It wasn’t long at all until we saw something very exciting. Spotted in unison as its hard nose broke the surface and let out a sigh of air, the green turtle became our 60th herpetile (reptile and amphibian) species of the trip. Grinning excitedly at eachother it wasn’t long until we spotted another, then another until we realised the little harbour was full of the ancient animals! We saw at least 25 by the end of the evening.


Derawan island.

Wanting to maximise our chances of seeing as much as possible (and forgetting our growling stomachs for a moment) we set off into the bustling village. Derawan island seemed to have so much happening in terms of wildlife, it is somewhat of a shame that there are so many people concentrated where we were staying. Our direction was dictated by seeing a large monitor lizard’s tracks on the beach and following them in the hope we would see the owner. Many small white ghost crabs fairly hovered off the sand at our feet, darting into their holes if they felt we got too close. Primarily we were looking for a place to hire some snorkels so we could get closer to everything in the water and eventually we came across a little shop that gave us everything and told us to return them in a couple of days.

Our hunger was still pushed aside by excitement so we ran back to our little house, stripped to shorts, pulled face mask on and dived in. Light was failing and so chasing turtles proved too difficult but a largeish moray eel peering out of its hole on the sea bed made the dip worthwhile. When I pulled myself out the water, however, I had a large red mark across my chest from a jellyfish tentacle I had blissfully ignored in the lukewarm sea. This worrying about whether we should be a little more vigilant in the water as we weren’t entirely sure how far away box jellyfish season was brought back our hunger in a torrent. We had been given very sparse instructions as to what would happen: ‘Go and have fun, all meals and trips are paid for and organised’ but we had no clue where we should go to get tea. A couple of slightly-too-desperate WhatsApp messages to Ricky revealed that we should go to a restaurant called Avril Resto.


Moray eel and Sunrise cottage.

These instructions were questioned somewhat as we had already walked past the ‘Avril Resto’ a couple of times and each time it had looked decidedly deserted. Eventually we sat down on one of the tables outside and wondered what to do. Luckily (as tempers were beginning to fray) a woman suddenly emerged from the restaurant with trays piled high with fresh seafood. Although far too much for just two normal people, we had only eaten a small pastry all day and were still a bit hungover so it all disappeared quickly.


A lot of food.

Feeling full we wandered slowly back to the house at about ten o’clock, head torches on and in hunting mode. There were a couple of lights shining into the water at the edge of the jetty and some exotic fish had begun to gather. To take advantage of this gathering a few slow-moving predators had arrived. Lionfish cannot swim quickly and so have a trick to catch their small fish prey. When a fish needs to escape from a predator it will more often than not swim headfirst into the current. The lionfish know this and blow jets of water at their prey to disorientate them. This means that when the prey tries to escape it swims directly into the clever lionfish’s gaping mouth.

While this slow, highly tactical, pursuit is happening, long silver trumpet fish are darting through shoals of small fish preferring a more direct method of prey capture.

Attached to a pillar somewhat away from the action was a more diminutive creature. About 10cm long the dwarf scorpionfish is usually found on the bottom hiding within the colourful seaweed until an unsuspecting prey item swims past. At night, however, they must change behaviour and this one was now sat near the shoals of tiny fish, willing them to come closer so it can get a meal.

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Dwarf lionfish by Ted. 

Between the houses on the jetty a net for lobsters had been strung up. Along with some large and stripy but overall standardly shaped lobsters were some very odd slipper lobsters. These not-true-lobsters are completely covered by an enlarged plated exoskeleton giving them a relatively streamlined look. They lack noticeable front claws and their second antennae are massively expanded and flattened to complete their fairly rounded appearance.

Tiredness was catching up on us and the temptation of an ‘islands tour’ tomorrow morning was enough to send us to bed under the brightest stars I think I’ve ever seen.


Slipper lobster.

Day 2

Up early, excited to start the day. A woman came up our jetty and gave us a packed lunch but no sign of breakfast so we wandered into the village. After buying some very sugary battered pastries and some odd soft bread we walked back to our house and waited until a boat came by. First stop after about 40 minutes of boating under overcast skies was the island of Maratua but along the way I saw my very first frigate birds. These are large black birds with an angular, nearly two metre, wingspan and a long forked tail. Frigate birds have the largest wing area to body mass ratio of any bird and are able to soar almost effortlessly across the waves. They are also incredibly light, their entire skeleton with bones full of holes weighs less than all of their feathers!


Lesser Frigate bird.

We reached Maratua without any clue as to what would happen next. Our Indonesian was not up to scratch and there was a niggling doubt in our minds that this ‘Islands tour’ may just be to go to Maratua and have a look about. We stayed near the little restaurant on the end of a jetty and watched the lionfish do their tactical hunting in the shallow sea. Feeling a little disheartened due to the lack of information, we were just about to go and explore the rest of the island when we saw the people on our boat returning to the jetty. Sticking close we jumped back in the boat and made a short trip to the next island. 


Maratua island.

Getting onto shore was a bit more exciting this time as we pulled up on a wave-cut platform before using a rickety wooden ladder to make land. The first thing I saw was a Gasteracantha-type species of spider that I hadn’t seen before which made spirits instantaneously rise. Hunting in the book back home revealed it as not a Gasteracantha species but a very closely related one in Thelacantha brevispina. In fact, it was only moved from the Gasteracantha genus in 1999. Like so many spiders here, relatively very few have been recorded in Indonesia and so, by cross referencing my record with the Indonesian spider checklist ( it seems likely that this spider is new for Indonesia in entirety!


Thelacantha brevispina spider.

Behind the spider was a pretty lagoon which you could wade in but not much else. While the rest of our boat got in the water Ted and I decided just to explore a little more. A beautiful black-naped fruit dove was sat in a tree a few metres away. Each sex looks quite different with the male being a bit more flamboyant. He has a predominantly green body and wings but with a yellow undertail leading to a red point. His head is white with a black nape as his namesake. The female is less stereotypically beautiful but I think I prefer her completely forest-green colouring allowing her to blend into the background.

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Black-naped fruit dove by Ted. 

As we waited for everyone else to finish in the lagoon a few blue banded Lasioglossum-type bees were foraging on the flowers. I asked one of the boat workers about our chances of seeing some big marine animals and he said ‘yes, two stops time!’. This ‘Islands tour’ was looking more and more promising and we fairly bounded back into the boat, ready to be off.

With more of an idea as to what was happening we sat on the boat until we reached the coast of Kakaban island. We slowed about 300m from the jetty and were told to get off and snorkel the rest of the distance.

We were right on the edge of an ocean shelf, swimming with a coral reef on our left and a fathomless deep blue on the right. I spent the whole of the swim diving down and getting as close to as many fish as possible. No real clue what any of the species were but the electric blue parrot fish, striped angelfish and some relaxed pufferfish were the highlights of what I had a vague idea of what they were.


Snorkeling off Kakaban island.

Climbing onto the jetty for lunch we looked over the side and saw an octopus swimming about. It was being harassed by some fish and kept changing colour and shape to blend in with its background. Here is a short clip of it trying to fit in with beautiful violet arms and shaking like a bit of seaweed, or a ‘plant’ as I insightfully comment in the video.

A moray eel was poking out of its lair and, moments later, it emerged fully! It snaked towards and under the pier before stopping. Suddenly another moray poked its head out of its hole. The second moray must have been a friend or a potential but uncooperative mate as after a few seconds the first moray swam back to its hole.

We were now told to walk inland towards ‘ubur ubur’ lake. We passed a few signs containing jellyfish and had a half memory that ‘ubur ubur’ meant jellyfish in Indonesian. Not having much of an idea as to what to expect (I had never heard of lake jellyfish) we wandered up through a short band of forest, the trees all growing on and between ancient coral. Another sign explained a little bit about the lake. Millions of years ago this reef had been forced upwards by tectonic activity and what used to be a lagoon in the centre had been completely cut off from the sea. Four jellyfish species had been trapped in the lake in this event and have been isolated for the whole time, diverging from their ocean relatives. Curiously, no predators were trapped in the lake when it was cut off and so, without risk, the jellyfish here have completely lost their stings!


Ubur-ubur lake.

Arriving at the jetty we could see a few of the jellies floating about and we started to see if we could see all four species. We had our facemasks around our necks and looked hopeful enough that our guides said that we could go in and snorkel about. Splashing in, our quest to find all four jellyfish was quickly forgotten as we swam a few metres away from the jetty. The density of jellyfish around the shore was in no way representative of the whole lake. We had swum into an absolute mass of jellyfish, around 15 per square metre in some places. The poor jellyfish were not especially keen on our water movements and were often spiralled out of control by the currents created. The density truly was incredible, if you dived beneath the jellyfish they would almost blot out the sun! It was interesting that the jellyfish were not found next to the shore and this could be explained by a finding from another jellyfish pool elsewhere in Indonesia.


So many jellyfish!

These other jellyfish have been shown to migrate from one lake side to the other each day. The migration occurs between ~6am-6pm, the hours of daylight in the tropics. The migration is from West to East in the morning before swapping at 12 noon and the jellyfish return to the West in the evening. The jellyfish move towards the rising sun in the morning because they obtain food from zooxanthellae (photosynthetic organisms) that live inside their cells and require sunlight to produce energy. However, to maximise time spent in the sun, the jellyfish should migrate from West to East and stay on the Eastern edge rather than migrating from West to East and then back to the West in a single day. This return migration at midday has a reason, however, and that is predator avoidance. While not a big predator that would merit the use of their stings this lake is known to contain an anemone called Entacmaea medusivora that would eat the jellies if they strayed too close. The anemone lives near the bank in the shallower waters and so, to avoid predation, the jellyfish will use visual cues to avoid the bank. By migrating in a West/East/West fashion, the bank the jellyfish are moving towards is perpetually in shadow from the overhanging trees and so the jellyfish use this shadow to halt their movement to avoid being eaten. Maybe this also happens in our lake here?

As we sat on the jetty, absolutely amazed by what we had just seen, a huge, huge sea eagle flew over followed by more angular lesser frigate birds!

Back in the boat and next stop Sangalaki island. As we neared the island the boat suddenly slowed about 300m out and stopped over a deep reef drop-off. The reason for the stop was an excited shout from a spotter on top of the boat. A tiny dark fin had broken the water about 20 metres in front. Barely daring to hope, Ted and I pulled our masks over our heads and sat looking expectantly at the glimpses of fins and wing-tips, grey in the water.

Suddenly we were given the signal, we could go in! Falling off the boat we quickly swam to where the people were pointing, casting about eagerly. As time passed in the water, disappointment crept but we were so happy to get a glimpse of these creatures even just from the boat. Climbing back aboard, we begrudgingly replied ‘no’ to all of the ‘did you see one?’ questions and we continued on our way to the island. We kept our fins on though, just in case.

Armin, our boat guide, suddenly tapped me on the shoulder: ‘We go, we go!’ and we both somersaulted backwards into the water. Following Armin, we swam around the propeller and into the ocean. After a couple of minutes of intense swimming a huge dark shape loomed and the creature we had been hoping for materialised in front of me. A manta ray! I sped after it, fins kicking, as it fed in the plankton rich waters. It must have had a two metre wingspan at least. Pulling up my little waterproof Olympus camera I switch it to video and had a dreaded notification ‘Battery critical – video disabled’. Luckily I could still take photos!


Manta ray!

We followed this manta ray for the best part of ten minutes before leaving it to feed. Surfacing, we turned to each other absolutely dumbfounded. We never expected to see anything like this!

Ducking back under, another manta glided past, there were lots! We spent the next half an hour chasing these incredible, gentle giants through the nutrient rich water, ignoring the burning pinpricks of fire coral, stinging plankton or jellyfish tentacles. After a while we were split up, each following our own manta rays! Some were huge with a wingspan getting on to four metres. On two occasions a big ray loomed out of the plankton in front of me, distracted by feeding and almost crashing into the human that had wandered into its habitat.


Manta ray looming!

My fins that allowed me to keep up with these big fish made me slightly overzealous. Kicking hard I caught up with one and lightly stroked its wing. It really didn’t like that. With its powerful muscles it turned away, swiping me with its long thin tail as it went – leaving me a little dazed and with a momentary worry that this animal may not have evolved far enough away from stingrays to keep its tail spines. Luckily all seemed well and I continued to swim about after the rays, although at a more respectable distance.


Ted and a manta ray!

Eventually we were called back to the boat. Hauling ourselves back on, exhausted, we were genuinely speechless. Never ever expected to swim with manta rays and for so long and with so many! Must have seen about 25 in total. Even Ted looked a little emotional.


Manta ray!

Slowly, we continued to the desert island of Sangalaki. With palm trees waving, white sand and turquoise sea, it was the perfect desert island stereotype. Ivory ghost crabs glided over the sand as we arrived.

Wandering through the forest we washed off the fire coral and stinging plankton with water from a water-butt before going off to explore why there was a house on the island. A washing up bowl out front contained a live hawksbill turtle! The house was the base for a turtle conservation project aimed at inspiring locals to care for their ancient ocean neighbours. The hawksbill had been caught the night before and was there to show the tourists just how amazing these animals were. In contrast to the ‘hands-off’ mentality towards nature that many western countries and organisations have, this place was all about hands-on to inspire people.


Hawksbill turtle in bowl.

To exemplify this there was a fairly large swimming pool nearby completely full of baby turtle hatchlings caught the night before, all swimming about! Tourists were encouraged to touch and pick these animals up to get to know them, even racing them down the beach before putting them back in the pool! Now, I worked on a turtle project in Greece one summer during A levels and so seeing this utilisation of turtles made me a little uncomfortable. These tiny animals only have a 1 in 1000 chance of making it to adulthood anyway and so these little ones cannot be getting the best start in life. However, looking around me, I began to see the joy and amazement in the tourist’s faces. They had never been this close to these creatures before and were utterly enthralled!


Green turtle hatchlings in swimming pool.

Although this treatment of turtles may not be smiled upon by many western organisations, the overall pure ideals of saving the turtles Is exactly the same. Despite the fact that all the turtles are released each evening, this method may be too hands-on as the little turtles really do need to be left alone to start their lives, but I am sure that everyone that saw these animals will now be more conscious of the effect their lives have on the oceans and the life they contain.

Wandering along and feeling a bit like Man Friday Ted and I decided to have a couple of hermit crab races down the sand before leaving on the boat back to Derawan. I won convincingly.


Ted on Sangalaki island.

Sitting back on our jetty reflecting on what was one of the best days we’d ever had loads of green turtles suddenly arrived! Jumping in quickly with a camera that had been charged for about two minutes, I dived down to a huge male turtle feeding on the bottom. Amazing to see it so close and it was almost as long as me! The Derawan islands are an excellent spot for nesting turtles despite the seemingly reckless human activities on this island. Hopefully with the increased efforts of the local turtle conservation group and increased global media awareness, these turtle populations can be here for millennia to come.


Green turtle!

The rest of the evening passed with eating another mountain of food, meeting an English guy who spoke about the potential of whale sharks here, walking into the middle of a wedding, spotting a ladyboy and seeing slugs that looked almost too much like dog poo.


Dog poo slugs.

Heading to bed, still bouncing after seeing all the amazing wildlife spectacles today, I promised to get up before 5am just in case there were whale sharks feeding around a jetty (but was quite sceptical about this).


Sure enough, when I woke up at half 5 and wandered sleepily to the jetty there were no fishermen or whale sharks feeding (in fact, when we asked Ricky later he said that you have to take quite a long boat trip to see these massive animals… Maybe next time). I did, however, see an Indonesian house shrew which was quite big running along the sand which was quite exciting. And then I noticed that there were loads of black crabs running about. Closer inspection revealed that these were all ghost crabs. Amazingly, they were the same ones that we were seeing during the day but a completely different colour! With a bit of thought I realised that these crabs were capable of changing colour at night to avoid predation as their white colour which hides them against the sand in the day would make them far too obvious at night!


Back for a couple of hours’ nap before spending the last few moments on the Derawan isles snorkelling about. This was a good idea as we found some exciting things. The best thing was a large stonefish which lays claim to being the most venomous fish in the world. Each of their 13 spines is packed with venom that could definitely kill a human if we stepped on one. They don’t use their venom for catching their prey however, they prefer to just use it as a successful scare tactic. To catch food, they rely on excellent camouflage and an upwards facing mouth full of teeth. They wait for their small fish prey to swim overhead before rapidly darting and snaffling up the unsuspecting fish. A worrying moment almost occurred when I was just about to grab onto a jetty strut to pull myself closer to this amazing but dangerous fish. A quick glance at the strut saved me as my hand was arrowing towards two lionfish which were resting there. Although not as potent venom wise as the stonefish it definitely would not have been comfortable.



Getting out of the water Ted had spotted a mantis shrimp on the bottom. I, however, was very unsure about this and eventually when we had commandeered a large plank from a nearby house to prod at it, the shrimp turned out to be a rock.

Still poking fun at Ted’s ID abilities, the small boat chugged around the corner to take us back to the city. The return journey seemed much faster than the hungover epic that was the outward leg and we arrived back in Tarakan in the mid afternoon. Meeting and thanking Ricky for organising everything for us (the entire trip including everything was under £60), we wandered around the city buying very cheap fake football shirts before crashing asleep in our hotel.


Sunrise cottage.

Final few hours in Borneo passed in a blur. Dropped off at Tarakan airport, hopped on a plane to Balikpapan again, bought a shirt then on to Jakarta. Jakarta was very hot and humid and the trip had somewhat caught up with me and I felt quite ill. Leaving Jakarta just hours before a large earthquake hit which grounded planes we made it out of Indonesia and into Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia. Eating some airport food to line our stomachs before attempting to nap in the early hours before boarding the long plane to Abu Dhabi airport eight hours away. Flying on a cold is awful. Throughout the Abu Dhabi airport I couldn’t hear anything and so when we left and finally made it to Heathrow I was quite pleased for the cold late January air to clear sinuses. Saying goodbye to Ted (both secretly relieved after a whole month of not being more than 10 metres apart) I got my coach back up to Birmingham, sleeping the whole way and miraculously awakening seconds before my stop. Next was a couple of trains to my home station of Chirk, picked up by mum (who I was very pleased to see) and finally back home, engulfed by dogs, 44 hours after leaving the hotel in Borneo.


Ted, Oona and Renn.

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