going with the flow at a new resort
Dear Fellow Diver,
Indonesia is well known among divers for its amazing underwater critter life. An impromptu five-day dive trip tacked on to a business trip to Borneo found me scuba diving off Kalimantan, the Indonesian western side of Borneo, without a needed powerful magnifying glass. I squinted at stuff while my buddy had her camera equipped for macro photography.
Our dive guide, Kepri, was knowledgeable, and while he searched among fronds of gorgonia for elusive pigmy seahorses (aren’t they sweet?) I had to content myself with close encounters with magnificent thresher sharks that passed by, despite their massively long tails, unnoticed by the minutia hunters.
It was the same story with hairy frogfish. While the others ambushed and surrounded one on the sand, a whale shark slipped past them; I was cursing that I had no camera to reveal the evidence of their bad luck during the post-dive chat. Including the guide, mostly only four of us were on each dive. We rarely went deeper than 75 feet and usually a lot shallower.
The visibility was a little disappointing at times. Hoping for gin-clear water, we often had difficulty keeping in touch with each other in the green murk that defied the sun’s penetration, making dives gloomy.
Maratua is a horseshoe-shaped island off the southern coast of East Kalimantan, in the Derawan archipelago, near Sangalaki Island, somewhere with more of a diving reputation.
The Maratua Lodge and dive business was set up initially by its Balinese owner in the fall of 2019 and soon closed due to a lack of customers, thanks to the pandemic. It reopened only recently, so the resort was still a work in progress in early August this year, with things like internal doors still being fitted. Theirs boats were away being renovated after the long lay-up, but we were told the boat they’d got in temporarily was exactly the same in style. My two travel companions and I were the only guests, so we had the place to ourselves until our last day when some Chinese divers arrived.
Our first dive of the second diving day was at Capri on the north of the island, which we reached by car. We went off the jetty from the fourth of four villages in the dive boat from the Sienna Resort. A visiting South Korean diver joined us.
I don’t think I’ve seen such large, hard corals anywhere. There was elephant ear coral, lettuce coral, different types of Acropora, and enough staghorn coral to make any Caribbean diver as green as the Kalimantan water with envy. Hawkfish squatted on top of bush-like structures, while clouds of little blue fish retreated into hiding in finger coral if we got too close.
Our next dive was at “Big Fish Country,” and I needed my reef hook in the channel. Similar to other parts of Indonesia, the currents can be irresistible at some sites, so spinning along with the scenery rolling past can be very relaxing. When I saw a giant cuttlefish about two feet long, I put the brakes on by sticking my reef hook in convenient substrate, only to quickly lose sight of my small group.
I distinguished the shapes of a few sharks in the murk and later passed through a crowd of large barracuda. It was easy diving, provided I went with the flow.
I had to be alert to what appeared out of the mist on some dives. Not only would crashing unwittingly into a table coral be a no-no environmentally, but also it could be very painful when wearing only a 3mm wetsuit. I wore gloves to protect me from stinging hydroids, but I still managed to get home with evidence of their ability to find a way past such protection.
I saw plenty of turtles, almost an infestation — green turtles roosting on large coral heads and hawksbill turtles feeding on the occasional soft corals and sponges. I counted more than 40 on a single dive.
Their speedboat had a narrow hull that, with the aid of two outboards, allowed it to cut through the water quickly. It had plenty of shade, but the freeboard was such that a normal back-roll was initially something to be done with trepidation. I soon mastered it, but for my buddy, encumbered with a big camera rig and strobes, it remained a challenge. Given the hull’s narrowness, it was difficult to climb its ladder fully kitted because the boat tilted. Taking off your tank and B.C. required the aid of the next diver still in the water before the boatman could haul it aboard. He was careful to hold the tanks properly and was considerate with where he stowed the camera despite no rinse tank aboard.
In the middle of nearby Kakabaan (Samama) island is the vast jellyfish lake (much bigger than the more famous one in Palau) filled with jellies that have evolved over millennia and lost their sting. We paid a fee of 50,000 Indonesian rupiah (around a dollar each) for three of us to visit it, and after climbing 80 or so steps up through the rainforest, we climbed down a wooden path to its shore. The water was gin-clear, and the jellyfish were fun to snorkel with.
Our dives at Kakabaan island, a 20-minute boat ride away, afforded us much better visibility than before, although still a little murky. I counted four thresher sharks close enough to witness their big black eyes while the others were engrossed with macro subjects.
Our second dive was at “Barracuda Point,” and it lived up to its name. It was a drift dive, and I came face to face with a vast school of large, toothy barracuda and spotted two blacktip sharks in a cave. As our small group turned a corner, it went very dark. Thankfully, I had a powerful underwater flashlight, or I would not have been able to see much.
This area of Maratua Island is very tidal, so the jetty is long to account for the rise and fall of the water. The tidal difference is also why the currents can be so strong. The compressor, tanks, and other diving equipment are positioned in a hut at the ocean end of the jetty. Because it’s virtually a new business, their tanks and rental equipment appeared brand-new. I rented a BCD and other kit. They have yet to install a rinse tank for cameras and kit on the jetty, nor were there any showers, but it was a short walk back to our cabins.
The Maratua Island Lodge was conveniently close. The cabins were basic yet comfortable, and what more did I need than a bed, a shower, and a toilet? There are eight cabins, and more are being constructed. The staff had not yet acclimatized to the tourism business — they didn’t clean the room all week — but if I asked for anything, such as an extra towel, it arrived immediately.The meals were simple and probably the same as those eaten by the locals, on dishes at the table from which we helped ourselves.
Indonesian food is quite spicy. Breakfast was always with noodles, dried fish, peanuts, and fruit. Packed lunches were served on a tray with white rice, fried fish, and vegetables such as green beans. Dinners were simple but always appetizing, with white rice, grilled fish, fried chicken, and green vegetables like pak choi and beans, served with curried sauces based on peanuts. Fruit was usually watermelon. There was an unlimited supply of water, tea, and coffee but no alcoholic drinks since it is a Muslim country.
The island is a three-hour speedboat ride from Berau. We did our check-out dive on the pretty house reef when we first arrived that evening. It could be a good place to go snorkeling but the visibility was appalling. It’s a site for those equipped with a magnifying glass.
The dive center manager asked us about our certifications and insurance but took what we told him on trust rather than checking C-cards or logbooks. The nearest recompression chamber is in Berau, three hours away, but it had no staff. Another at Balikpapan was out of action. An injured diver would have to be airlifted to somewhere like Surabaya, and I doubt it would be timely.
The diving day usually finished around 3.00 p.m., so we visited some flooded caves at Haji Mangku, where you could swim if you paid the 50,000 IR (US$3) entrance fee. Our evenings were spent sitting around chatting and drinking tea.
On our third full day of diving, we made a 45-minute boat ride to Sangalaki. We were joined by a couple of Italian snorkelers and a Chinese schoolteacher. We visited the Turtle Conservation Area during high tide and watched 30 or so baby turtles emerge from a hatching hole. I helped put them in a bucket for transfer to a pool before their final release later.
Our first dive was at a manta cleaning station, and I was disappointed there were no mantas, but it was a fast drift, and the coral was beautiful. I forgot my disappointment on our second dive as several mantas, including a totally black one, glided around our heads.
Our third dive was 30 feet deep, and it was aptly named ‘Manta Run.’ The current was incredibly strong, the visibility was perfect, the coral pristine, and mantas lined up one behind the other like so many airliners approaching a busy airport. Fantastic!
Our last day of diving was around Maratua Island. The first site was called “Hanging Garden,” where we saw eagle rays, turtles, and two different schools of barracuda. “Fusilier Paradise” had lovely coral, many sleeping turtles, and the usual fast current. The third dive was similar close to the up-market Paradise resort.
Our accommodations made it more of an adventure.
Our Undercover Diver’s Bio: A mother of two, I’ve been diving since 1979, but after a hiatus, I became enthusiastic in the mid-’90s, visiting cold-water sites such as Scapa Flow and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, Iceland, and Vancouver Island, as well as the Caribbean, the Galapagos, Egypt, Yemen, and Chuuk. Nowadays, I travel with friends, leaving my long-suffering husband at home, tending the garden.
Diver’s Compass: Fly from Jakarta-Balikpapan-Berau with Lionair. There is an airport at Bandara Maratua, but it was closed . . . . Five nights full board and diving at Maratua Dive Center & Lodge cost US$1400 (Debit or Credit Card) booked through Borneo Eco Tour www.borneoecotour.com. . . .Full set of diving equipment for four days — US$50 . . . . Water temperature was consistently 82°F. There was yet to be any WiFi or Internet connection at the resort . . . . Use Malarone to avoid malaria . . . . At 2°N, use protection from the sun . . . . For more comfort, Paradise Resort www.maratua.com/en, Sienna Resort siennaresort.co.id/ or SeaView Resort https://maratuaseaviewresort.com
Diving (experienced) 4
Diving (beginner) strong currents
Attitude (dive center) 5
Attitude (Lodge) 3
Value for Money 5