Our Diary

Sangalaki Island - A Natural Paradise

21 November 2017

On our 2 hour flight from Jakarta to Balikpapan, I was excitedly reading about the island we were about to visit. Sangalaki Island, is a small, densely forested 11.5 hectare island (about 60 km off the east coast of Berau, Indonesia) on the island of Borneo. Looking at a map, it seemed ideally placed inside the impressively large 1.27 million hectare Sangalaki Marine Heritage Park. Located in one of the most biologically rich marine areas on Earth the region has 460 species of coral (world’s second-highest level of hard coral diversity) and over 700 species of fish. Reading that it was also home to Southeast Asia’s largest nesting grounds for endangered Green Turtles, I began to get excited. Sangalaki Island, as a result, was beginning to tick a lot of our pre-travel boxes, but we were curious to experience this for ourselves!

After a short flight from Balikpapan to Berau and a 90 minute boat ride, my tired eyes quickly lightened up as I stepped onto the beautiful white sands of Sangalaki Island. We had  arrived on that perfect tropical island that teases you on gift shop postcard displays. The surrounding coral reefs, shallow lagoons, and white sandy beaches, slowly surrendered to the thick and green island jungle. The beach bungalows of Sangalaki Resort were shaded quietly under the tree-line. For obvious reasons we were pretty happy that this would be our new home for the next six days!  A short walk up to the beach and I understood why Sangalaki Resort was so well positioned. Gazing westwards from the northern tip of the island you could see Samama Island, an important bird sanctuary. To the east you could see Kakaban Island, where a single lake is home to four endemic species of stingless jellyfish. Then laying just a short distance behind was Maratua Island, one of the few places in the world where you can witness huge schools of circling barracuda. 

One of the highlights of Sangalaki for us (although there were many) were the large Green Turtles. We would see the females leaving the water every night, looking for nesting places on the beach. She would dig out a nest with her flippers, laying eggs just a stone’s throw away from our bungalows. Slowly covering the eggs with sand, the Green Turtle would finally return to the water and vanish into the dark night. About six weeks after, the baby turtles would hatch, using their special egg tooth to exit from the egg. Because there are so many turtles continually nesting on the beaches of Sangalaki, we would see baby turtles everywhere.  As part of a Turtle Conservation Program, the amount of eggs and hatchings would be recorded and the baby turtles would be released into the ocean.  As a result the beautiful beaches are covered, not with human footprints but turtle tracks.

Another highlight was Lake Kakaban, a short boat ride away. This is the world’s largest and most diverse jellyfish lake, located on the uninhabited Kakaban Island. The lake was originally a coral atoll lagoon, but over milllions of years the coral reef moved above sea level, trapping ocean water and creating a landlocked marine lake! Snorkelling carefully around the lake's fringing mangrove trees we found the most beautiful, and strangely enchanting. sponge gardens, with sponges of all colours, shapes and sizes, something that none of the guidebooks mentioned. And the jelly fish, well, there were lots of them!

Now for the diving! Sangalaki and surrounding Islands are a scuba diving gold mine. Manta Rays and Whale Sharks are very much at home in these waters, so expect to see them. We dived with Whale Sharks near the Bagans (traditional fishing platforms) and we saw Manta Rays regularly at the many fish cleaning stations surrounding Sangalaki Island on our daily dives. Also we witnessed schooling barracuda off Maratua Atoll. The first dive I admit freaked me out a little, as the location of the site is not only visually stunning but (how can I put this) slightly overwhelming with currents. But as usual, Michael and Polly talked me into a second dive. It was on this second dive that I witnessed the most incredible display of fish teamwork. Hundreds of barracuda swam in one towering circling formation, with a deep ocean backdrop that was absolutely stunning.  

What particularly impressed us (outside of the island's stunning beauty) was the eagerness of the management at Sanagalaki Resort to reach sustainabilty on the island. Since 2015, new ownership of the Sangalaki Resort, resulted in many postive changes on the island. For example, rainfall harvesting is already being ultilized very effectively. Rain is captured on bungalow rooftops and stored in a large underground cistern. Passing through a well-maintained carbon filtration system, it is used for showers and tapwater. The reduction of plastic is also being addressed and the managent are very proactive when supporting sustainable projects, particulary those invoving renewable energy, waste management and preserving the island's natural beauty.

I really have more to write about Sangalaki Island but I feel I must stop soon! However, as a diver, you will surely be happy with your Big Fish experiences; as a snorkeler you will be happy with your Whale Shark, Manta and Jellyfish Lake encounters and as a nature lover, you will love the island’s jungle, with its unique bird life, large lizards, larger coconut crabs and beautiful flowers and surrounding coral gardens. Without diving, snorkelling or nature loving, you will surely be happy swimming in the beautiful beaches, particularly sitting in the lagoon waters as you watch the evening sun sinking into the Celebes Sea. As all of the above, you will surely return! 


MORE PHOTOS OF OUR TRIP                                                                                                 

Manta Rays in the crystal waters surrounding Sangalaki Island, taken from the air.

The air-conditioned beach bungalows of Sangalaki Resort sitting just under the tree-line. 

Polly capturing a moment with a whale shark near a Bagan fishing platform not far from Sangalaki Island.

Our boat sitting next to a sand bank near Maratua Atoll where we had a swim between dives.

A Whale Shark cruises past us on our morning dive near a Bagan, an Indonesian fishing platform.

Michael taking photos of schooling Barracudas with his compact camera in the channel near Maratua Atoll.

Sangalaki's neighbouring Kakaban Island with its jellyfish lake. Make sure you snorkel around the fringing mangrove trees to see the beautiful sponge forests.

Snorkelling in the unique Jelly Fish Lake on Kakaban, the world’s largest and most diverse jellyfish lake, and a short boat ride from Sangalaki Island.

The mangrove tree line bordering Lake Kakaban was a buffet of colourful sponges.

Shiho showing how snorkeling is also a good option for getting up close with the peaceful Whale Sharks.  

Shiho and Polly quietly watching a female Green Turtle laying eggs on Sangalaki Isand in the night time.

Sangalaki Island at high tide with its crystal clear waters and thick, green jungle. At low tide you can easily explore reef and walk around the island (about 1.4 km).

Another beautiful dive sight at Kakaban Island situated next to Sangalaki Island, where you can finish off with a snorkel in Lake Kakaban.

Green Turtle tracks are a common sight on remote Sangalaki Island as the female turtles will lay eggs on the beaches all year round.

Happy but sad guests at on our last day in November 2017, including Johny and his wife Elicia (Far Right) from Sangalaki Resort.

 Mchael took this photo with a drone while we lay on the old pier  on Sangalaki Island, on one of our many perfect days. From Left to Right: Paul, Shiho, Polly and Michael. 

Currently the best way to conserve islands with rich marine environments like Sangalaki, Kakaban and Maratua is to utilise their natural resources in a way that will ensure a bright future. This includes not only protecting their breathtaking nature but also the livelihoods of the many local people that depend on these regions for food and income. In this way tourism has become an important source of employment and income for the local population. This proves that Sangalaki and its surrounding islands can become more valuable (rather than the other option of becoming overfished and degraded) while marine life and coral reefs remain plentiful. By supporting sustainable tourism on islands like Sangalaki, you are not only supporting the protection of these rare ecosystems, but also investing in an unforgettable learning experience!


©My Reef's Diary 2017