Set off the eastern coast of Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, the Derawan islands boast some of Indonesia’s best diving outside the world of liveaboards, as well as lovely, white sand islands with Bajo (sea gypsy) heritage. There are two separate tourist centres, Pulau Derawan and Pulau Maratua: for details on how to get to the Derawan islands, click here.
Just 30 minutes from the mainland, Pulau Derawan, a pretty island that’s small enough to walk around in under an hour, has been on the backpacker radar for many years. Uncontrolled bungalow building has reduced its villagey charm but is now on hold.
Turtles still graze in the seagrass offshore, Bajo (sea gypsy) families still live in stilt houses, and, as the easiest island to access affordably and with a wide range of accommodation, Derawan thoroughly merits a visit.
Pulau Maratua, a much larger island shaped like a horseshoe, is home to four distinct villages and plenty of adventure potential. Due to the 90 minute journey time from the mainland, it is currently much less visited, although that may change when the airport opens. If diving and snorkelling is on your agenda (as it should be), Maratua is where you want to be, though, unlike Derawan, you’ll want a motorbike or banana boat to get around.Accommodation on Maratua ranges from basic homestays to an overwater resort via overpriced beach bungalows.
Off two different ends of Maratua are Nunukan and Nabucco islands, two dazzling and very distinctive private island dive resorts, as well as Bakungan, home to a new dive and spa resort named Virgin Cocoa.
Kakaban island is uninhabited, but home to a marine lake where jellyfish have evolved to lose their sting: you can snorkel with these crazy critters here at a fraction of the price on Palau. Sangalaki is not only a turtle hatching mecca, but an absolutely world class manta dive site, with its own resort. (See Diving Derawan for more.)
Pulau Panjang (Long Island) is theoretically uninhabited but home to a family of boat people; WWF Indonesia runs a sea-turtle research and conservation project on Pulau Bilang-Bilangan.
There are many other named islands in the Derawan archipelago, which is also known as the Sangalaki Archipelago, but these are currently the most significant. The Derawans are some of our favourite Indonesian islands, and well reward the effort spent getting there.
Last updated February 2016.