Kakaban Island, A Paradise For The Divers

Indonesia is a fascinating country in every sense of the word. Rich in culture, natural beauty and biodiversity. Home to the weird, the wacky and the wonderful. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, think again.

Kakaban island is a large coral atoll in the Derawan Archipelago in the district of Berau, off the east coast of East Kalimantan, covering 774 hectares of uninhabited terrain. It’s most distinctive feature is a huge land-locked lake, which makes up almost two thirds of the island. This brackish lake is alive with several species of endemic marine life, including millions of stingless jellyfish that only exist in one other place on the planet. The island is shrouded in a tangle of dense mangrove forests, right down to where the water meets the earth. There are very few sections of beach, as most of the Kakaban’s circumference ends in a rocky wall of sheer limestone cliffs, some sections dropping hundreds of feet to the choppy waves below.

Kakaban island, East Kalimantan
Kakaban island, East Kalimantan (Source : youtube.com)

Kakaban Island is one of 31 islands belonging to the Derawan archipelago, which include Sangalaki, Maratua, and Derawan. Kakaban was elevated through years of geological pressure, which eventually sealed off what was once a lagoon, creating the Kakaban Lake. “Kakaban” comes from a word in the local dialect meaning “hug,” because of the way the 9-shaped island “hugs” the lake in the center. Kakaban lake has been declared a government nature reserve, and has been nominated as a World Heritage Zone.

Map of Kakaban island, East Kalimantan
Map of Kakaban island, East Kalimantan (Source : sangalakidiveresort.com)

The ecosystem of the lake is very similar to that of the open sea, but with a twist! The trapped sea-water diluted with rain water and ground water creates a unique habitat that has caused the creatures trapped inside to evolve! The lake has warm, brackish water of 11 to 17 meters in depth, and is carpeted in marine green algae. Four species of jellyfish criss-cross the waters of Kakaban lake, but unlike their counterparts beyond the coral wall, the lake-jellies have no natural predators, resulting in the evolution of the species to no longer need their venom as self-defence.

Other evolutionary processes have also taken place in this lake: The box jellyfish, normally one of the deadliest creatures in the world, in addition to losing its sting, has shrunk to barely a third its normal size. The Spotted Jellyfish is no longer spotted, and the Cassiopeia swims upside down, with its tentacles to the surface. This is so the sun may shine on its algae-covered tentacles, creating a photosynthetic reaction and thus producing food! Meanwhile, the white anemone has evolved into a passive jellyfish predator.

Swim with non-stinging jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, Kakaban Island
Swim with non-stinging jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, Kakaban Island (Source : infojakarta.net)

Eight species of fish also dwell in this biological paradise, as well as sea cucumbers, sponges, crabs, tunicates, snakes, and orange purple and yellow clams.

Marine scientists and geologists have long puzzled over the phenomena of the survival of plant and animal life in so isolated an environment, but life will do what life does best. Adapt. “Jellyfish Lake,” on Palau Island in Micronesia, is the only similar environment on Earth, housing two species of stingless jellyfish. This makes Kakaban lake not only the largest, but also the most diverse brackish lake in the world.

ACTIVITIES

Maratua Paradise Resort is the closest resort to Kakaban Island, and is the only accommodation on the island. 8 beach chalets and 8 water villas all come equipped with double or twin beds, hot water, and air-con. Room rates are inclusive of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and coffee and tea throughout the day. Facilities include a restaurant, dive rental equipment and dive courses. Address: Ground Floor, Lot 4, Block A, Taman Fortuna Shop lots, Jalan Penampang.

Derawan Dive Resort, on Derawan Island, has 27 traditional Kalimantan style cottages, each equipped with air-con and hot water. Facilities include a floating restaurant with a superb sea view and a delicious selection of international and local delicacies. The resort’s dive center is located on the beach with reliable dive equipment rental and professional dive guides. 7 boats are available for travel around the archipelago and back to mainland Kalimantan. Balikpapan office: Kompleks Balikpapan Permai Blok G-1 No. 34.

Derawan Homestay is a much cheaper lodging, nestled amongst the palms trees of Derawan’s sandy beaches. Rooms range from Rp 100,000 – Rp 150,000 rupiah per night, while the new bungalows on the sea cost from Rp 200,000 – Rp 250,000 per night. Facilities include a restaurant, and organized fishing trips and diving trips.

Arrival on Kakaban begins with long wooden pier, extending 120 meters into the deep blue sea. This wooden trail continues as a staircase, climbing precariously up the side of the island, and eventually into a pathway cutting through the twisted mangroves, and ending with arrival at the lake.

Obviously, donning your diving or snorkelling gear and jumping in with the harmless jellyfish would be your first move, but the beauty of Kakaban is that its wonderfully peculiar lake is not the only attraction it has to offer. The unique geological structure of the island provides opportunity for a plethora of different types of dives in one day: lake diving, wall diving and cave diving.

Kakaban Lake, East Kalimantan
Kakaban Lake, East Kalimantan (Source : indoindians.com)

The mangrove-fringed Kakaban Lake, is of course the main dive spot on the island, and the one not to be missed. And you don’t have to be a diver to admire this under-water world!

Baracuda Point is a steep wall on the outer rim of the atoll, where strong currents and high cliffs give way to larger predators. White Tip sharks, leopard sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and schools of tuna and barracuda roam the waters beneath the precipitous walls of Kakaban. The walls are hung with soft coral tiers, fans and whips, sheltering the smaller reef creatures such as parrotfish, surgeonfish, butterfly fish, and several species of sea turtles.

Blue Light Cave is one of the most fascinating dive spots in Indonesia. Entrance to the cave is through a small crack 2 meters below the surface. The descent continues down a narrow tunnel to a depth of 20 meters where it opens into a large cavern. The cavern stretches over 100 meters in length and is illuminated in blue, ocean light, giving the cave its name. The main exit is a vertical crack along the cave’s wall at a depth of 45 meters. There are two more exits at 30 and 60 meters, but these are rarely used. Visitors should note that this dive is for advanced divers only and should not be attempted without an experienced dive master.

GET THERE

The closest airport to the Derawan Islands is the Juwutan International Airport, in the city of Tarakan, East Kalimantan. International flights to Tarakan are available on Malaysian Airlines from Kota Kinabalu and Tawau, both located in Sabah, Malaysia. Domestically, Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air fly from Jakarta to Tarakan. From here take an internal flight south by either KalStar or Deraya Airlines (DAS) to Tanjung Redeb in the district of Berau. Boats will take you from here to Kakaban and other Derawan Islands.

Alternatively, Silk Air flies from Singapore and Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Sepinggan International Airport at Balikpapan, capital of East Kalimantan, then connect by internal flight to Tanjung Redeb. Lion Air, Batik Air and Sriwijaya Air fly domestically to Balikpapan from JakartaSurabayaMakassar.

Once in Berau you can hire a speedboat for the 2 hour ride to the Derawan islands. Speed boats generally have a seating capacity of 15 people, and can be rented to take you to several of the Derawan islands in one day. Boats can be chartered direct to Kakaban, but as there are no accommodations there, the usual routes go through its neighbouring islands of Sangalaki, Maratua or Derawan. Kakaban is about 20 minutes from Sangalaki, 30 minutes from Maratua and 45 minutes from Derawan.

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