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The Allures Of East Kalimantan, Indonesia
Sangalaki & Kakaban Island

Beautiful one day, perfect the next summarizes our week stay at Sangalaki. We did have our doubts when planning the trip. Why? The long travel hours involving overnight stays and all modes of transportation in this age of fast modern travel seemed a novelty. 


However within seconds of our first dive we were spellbound as we watched mantas swim pass. In the end we saw 10 mantas, two leopard sharks lying on the sandy slopes and a great array of marine life from reef fish to eels and turtles. What a great way to start our week on Sangalaki.

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Sangalaki Island is located off the coast of East Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo Island. Most of its 30 acres is populated by dense tropical forest surrounded by white sandy beaches. The tropical forests support a wide array of animals like eagles, sea hawks, iguanas and insects. One can circumnavigate the island leisurely in 25 minutes during low tide.


Unfortunately there is no longer a resort on the island. However the dive sites here are visited by the dive resorts in neighboring areas such as Derawan, Maratua and Nunukan Island. So the opportunity to dive this wonderful island is still available.

Manta Sanctuary


Living in South East Asia I heard about Sangalaki and its resident Mantas. There aren’t many places in the world where Mantas are seen in great numbers daily. It took us a single dive to fulfill our dream but the mantas kept coming right up to the last dive. There are two types of manta coloring here. The white bellied manta and the black manta. The black mantas are huge up to 5 meters in width. A week on Sangalaki and we had seen an average of 12 mantas a day. Much to our amusement the boatman said “this week not so many mantas. Water too clear”.


Photographing them was another story all together. Encounters with them diving were usually during drift dives which meant strong current. Aligning ourselves with the manta’s path of movement gave us the best options. As they came up to us our hearts tripled their pace with the excitement. A quick check to make sure the camera settings were right and we happily clicked away.


Many of our special moments with these graceful animals however came during snorkeling. Mantas can be clearly seen from the boat. Their wing tips break the water surface as they feed. The boat staff would drop us just in front of the mantas and the current would carry us to them. Watching them feed and come to us with their mouths open is a picture that will stay with Adi and me forever.

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Turtle country


The real owners of the island are the sea turtle. There are two species that nest here the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle. These gentle giants heave their heavy bodies onto Sangalaki sandy beaches every night to lay their eggs. An average of twenty turtles visits Sangalaki each night. Each lay about 80-120 eggs. A turtle can lay eggs up seven times in the season.


The turtle conservation center located on the island is in charge of monitoring the turtles and tagging them for further studies. Baby turtles that hatch in the early evening are collected and released at night to avoid predators. Resort guests are always informed when the turtles will be released.


Kakaban – The Jellyfish Lake


Another unique incentive to visit this area is the jellyfish lakes. We had thought they only existed in Palau. There is one on Kakaban island and another on Maratua Island. Kakaban’s saltwater jellyfish lake is huge and inhabited by four different jellyfish that do not sting. As there are no predators in the lake the jellyfish have lost their ability to sting.


Day trips to Kakaban can be arranged from Sangalaki. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the island. After the shallow slopes of Sangalaki exploring the walls of Kakaban that drop down to 200 meters gave us another look into the diversity of East Kalimantan.


At Barracuda Point, Kakaban Island, we flew with the current as black tip and white tip sharks passed us by.  Just before being swept into the blue we caught the safety line and pulled ourselves up the slope to meet a school of barracuda. Thrilling is the best way to describe this dive. It did not end there. We saw a pygmy seahorse and hammerhead nudibranch before heading to the surface. 


During the surface interval we carried our fins, masks and cameras on the 20-minute trek to the jellyfish lake (having a backpack to put things in helps a lot). The pathway has rotten in many places and we had to thread carefully. Only snorkeling is allowed.


As we swam in the lake, I felt I was in another world. As the jellyfish pulsated I bravely swam into them. I felt them gently bouncing off my body. It is a sensation hard to describe. Jellyfish aren’t the only attraction in this vast lake. There are numerous gobies, fish, starfish, crabs, brittle stars, sponges, shrimps and even flatworms and nudibranchs in the lake. This is an experience not to be missed. We made one more dive on the south wall before heading back.


In the week at Sangalaki, we had experienced a lifetime of diving. There is such a variety of dive sites here and on nearby Kakaban. Though it may take some effort to get to Sangalaki we learnt it was worth every step. 

Happy Bubbles Always

More Than Just Bubbles
More Than Just Bubbles
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