'Pearls of Borneo' May/June 2010; 11 nights liveaboard cruise.

Author: Rachel Horsfield

It was high time for another adventure, and this 24 year old was about to embark on her most remote solo voyage to date. Destination: Tarakan, a small bustling port on the north east coast of Kalimantan, Indonesia’s Bornean territory. Brief: check out new liveaboard and diving. Departing from Manchester on a faultless flight with the superb Singapore Airlines was a lovely way to begin the trip. Two Singapore Slings with lunch and a few hours sleep meant that I arrived at Changi Airport, Singapore, relatively refreshed. My final destination with Singapore Airlines was Balikpapan, on Kalimantan’s southern coast so I had a day and a night to kill in Singapore, such an easy pleasure! The delightful Marina Mandarin hotel is always my chosen hotel in Singapore and again I was not disappointed. The staff are starting to recognise me now and yes, my usual order is…you guessed it, a Singapore Sling! The next day a very early start was necessary to catch the plane to Balikpapan where I made the connection with the flight to Tarakan with no difficulty. In Tarakan we were greeted by some of the ship’s crew who handily transported our small group (a British dive journalist now resident in Thailand and three Germans) to Tarakan port where a waiting speed boat whisked us to the liveaboard. The crew were ready with cool towels and fresh juices, very welcome in the heat of Indonesia! Once we had port clearance, off we sailed on the 15 hour crossing to Maratua. Afternoon gave way to dusk and the sun drifted from view, leaving warm pastel shades in its wake that eventually gave way to the clear, starry night. It is possible to stand or sit on the very front of the boat, right over the waves and gaze up into the heavens whilst spiriting across the seas; a lovely way to end each diving day!

On our first morning we were woken by the dive guides (no need for alarm clocks for two weeks!) to a snack of toast, fresh fruit, juice, tea and coffee. Our first dive was to be at ‘Lighthouse’, a wall dive on the northern tip of Maratua. What a joy it was to be back among the anthias and anemones, the shrimps and the sharks, the turtles and the table corals! The next three days were spent diving around Maratua. Dives here are mostly characterised by walls heading to around 30 meters, all busy with reef fish and tremendous soft coral in bloom. It was not un-common to see Sting Rays glide by and turtles are almost always somewhere on the reef. Maratua’s most famous dive is ‘Big Fish Country’, which sits on the southern most tip of Maratua, washed with currents that bring with them Grey Reef Sharks, White-tip Reef Sharks and Black-tip Reef Sharks. There resides here a sizeable battery of barracuda, often heckled by tuna but willing to take a closer look at divers after several minutes of inspecting us with those wary barracuda eyes. Reef hooks were a must. It was easy to find a convenient space to lurk to watch it all go by, and several spots also offer lovely views of the calmer reef top. One or two sections of wall on ‘Lumang Tang’ had clearly been bombed, but soft coral growth was promising and it was here I saw my first ever Leopard Shark who was unusually swimming about, perhaps disturbed by our presence and seeking some crevice in which to shelter.

During the trip briefing we had been told that we would visit a Jellyfish Lake on Kakaban. However, one afternoon we returned from the dive to find a local fisherman and his daughter on board who had told the dive crew about a Jellyfish Lake on Maratua. So the next morning we took the speed boats towards Maratua Lagoon where he pointed us to a shallow inlet. The boats got as close as possible before we jumped out and waded towards the 10 year old remains of a shattered jetty heading into the mangroves. The water began ankle deep and cunningly I had suggested that one of my companions walk ahead of me. Going was slow as I had my camera and fins in one hand so that with the other I could grab wildly at branches and vines to stay upright. The water was a brackish brown and there was distinct whiff of methane (or something ‘organic’) as we made our way through what became a swamp, complete with thick, brown, gloopy mud. Suddenly my friend in front plunged up to his waist in this stuff and sure enough, my next steps saw me waist deep in brown water, flailing at mangroves so that the rest of me didn’t go under (I am just over 5 ft 10!). The fisherman guide strode forth, and we duly followed him, giggling and lurching our way towards what I hoped was dry land! My sense of adventure and excitement was building. Surely I was the first Englishwoman to venture down this path? I was making history! Either way, it was the first and last time that I plan on hiking in a wetsuit.

We then ascended a rocky slope into the jungle before making our way down again to the lake itself, accessible only by a very old, very rickety plank to a spot where we could put on our fins and enter the water easily. Eventually I was in there, slowly making my way to the centre of the small lake. It wasn’t long before the jellyfish began to appear and soon in vast numbers, easily thousands of them! I was very careful in twitching my ankles ever so slightly to move, acutely aware that my fins to them were like an electric blender to us humans. I spent around 45 minutes taking photographs, observing and sometimes stroking these bizarre creatures, before it was time for the trek back to the inlet and the waiting speed boat. It had been quite a job getting to the lake but it was certainly worth it to witness such a spectacle.

After three days diving around Maratua, we moved on to an un-known, un-named reef, not accessed by the two resorts on Maratua. The reef was divided into three sections; Karang Lintang, Karang Gosungan and Karang Muaras, Karang meaning ‘reef’ in Bahasa. This was unknown territory, and the sense of excitement with which we explored these new sites was enormous. On two dives out of eight there was some evidence of fishing but the untouched dive sites were really stunning. ‘Half and Half’ was the richest reef in terms of fish life I had ever seen. There were more fish in one place than I believed possible; Batfish, Schooling Bannerfish and Moorish Idols streamed about in great trains. The clear blue water coupled with the dappling and dancing rays of sun that were ever present turned the anthias into a veritable kaleidoscope of underwater wonder. Numerous hard and soft corals left no room on the reef and provided a delightful backdrop to all the action. I found a red anemone and some of the largest nudibranchs I have witnessed to date. As well as White-tip Reef Sharks, this region allowed for some good macro life too. ‘Fiona’s Palace’ was home to Orangutan Crab, numerous shrimps and the ever-intriguing jawfish. Like Maratua, this region was also home to various reef sharks as well as Spotted Eagle Rays and stingrays who are clearly not used to the presence of divers!

The seventh day of the cruise saw us head out to Kakaban for the currents and ‘big stuff.’ We spent a day here, with three dives around the island. The first dive was ‘Kakaban Jetty’, a shallow, sheltered reef teeming with anthias of every hue and covered in hard and soft coral. One photographer on our boat spent the whole day there and took some lovely shots of dappled light playing on the top reef as well as the hard and soft coral formations. However, the real purpose of visiting Kakaban is to dive ‘Barracuda Point’, an exhilarating current dive requiring impeccable reef hooking skills and rope acrobatics! Upon descent a negative entry to around 30 meters is required to find the sharks, who themselves seem to have a hard time battling the current. It made a peculiar change to see them sheltering against the reef! Hundreds of barracuda hang in the blue, the twitching of their muscular bodies keeping them stationary against the current, just like a strange piece of modern art mounted in an underwater gallery. Some enterprising soul from the now-closed local resort had hung a rope on the reef so that when divers un-hook and catapult off into the wild blue yonder, they have something to aim for and a way to get back to the reef! The rope was a welcome sight at 20 meters after I shot off over the sand bank, bashed some barracuda out of the way and righted myself after several somersaults (who said diving was at all elegant?!). Holding on to that rope in the raging sea was a thrill-and-a-half, it’s just a shame that air consumption is slightly higher than usual on such dives because it was soon time to retreat to the shallows and return my pulse to resting pace. Not for photographers. Not for the faint hearted!

The penultimate stage of the trip was our encounter with the Manta Rays of Sangalaki. There is no reef to speak of, rather some scattered patch reefs which are worth spending 20 minutes or so at the end of each dive poking around, but the real draw is the Manta Rays who visit the pinnacles around the island to clean and feed. We dived three times on Sangalaki and had extended manta encounters on two dives. The best encounters were at the surface or between 0 and 5 meters. We were fortunate enough to see the mantas from the speed boat so could drop in nearby and wait for them to swoop silently towards us, their mouths constantly open to drain the ocean of its precious plankton. They came close enough to touch and wheeled and banked all around us, sometimes blocking out the sun for a second with their black bodies and always willing to take several passes for photographers! The rays are resident year round and so divers can realistically expect to meet them on most dives done off Sangalaki.

The final part of the trip took place in the waters off Derawan, once something of a draw in this region, but it has to be said this area has seen and hopefully will see again, some better times. This is a place to take your magnifying glass and torch and was the only section of this itinerary requiring the macro lens. There is a pygmy seahorse to be found just off the shore, who, when I saw him, was pregnant. I will never know how local guides find these creatures. Derawan offers good opportunities for fish portraiture as well as lots of macro subjects. Some of the coral bommies serve as nurseries and I had fun playing hide and seek with a juvenile Batfish before getting my face and mouth cleaned by three cleaner wrasse. Apparently my lips offered some especially tasty treats! Ribbon eels can also be found here. ‘Shipwreck’ is replete with life, including several turtles, tiger eels and crocodilefish as well as Yellobarred Jawfish.

I was lucky enough to witness the hatching off some Yellowbarred Jawfish eggs which occurs each month on a full moon at around 0530. Only the dive geeks amongst us decided to get up at 0430 to be in the water for 0500! On ‘Shipwreck’, local guides have marked with chopsticks the spots where the jawfish reside. The male jawfish incubates the eggs in his mouth for a week before the hatching process. You know the eggs are going to hatch imminently when they turn from pale yellow to completely translucent, allowing you to see the eyes of the new fish through the membrane. This particular male was in fact 3 minutes late with his ‘hatching’ (nothing new there then…)! After half an hour checking two sites simultaneously, Jawfish Number Two began convulsing, his large head and mouth, jerking back and forth, spewing the eggs into the sea as if choking on a tough piece of meat; what a way to be born! I had never done a dawn dive before and it was a beautiful moment to surface just as the sun was rising above the horizon and extending its glow across the waves with each minute that I bobbed about on the surface feeling especially gleeful and tremendously calm.

For full details of the liveaboard including a complete list of its itineraries, please get in touch with the Divequest office.

Blue skies and calm seas! (Rachel Horsfield)

Busy reefs of Maratua (Rachel Horsfield)

Soft coral detail (Rachel Horsfield)

Soft coral explosion (Rachel Horsfield)

Anemonefish (Rachel Horsfield)

Jellyfish! (Rachel Horsfield)

More jellyfish! (Rachel Horsfield)

Jellyfish at surface (Rachel Horsfield)

Jellyfish at surface (Rachel Horsfield)

Jellyfish detail (Rachel Horsfield)

Hard coral formation (Rachel Horsfield)

Busy reefs of Kakaban (Rachel Horsfield)

No room foranything other than hard corals! (Rachel Horsfield)

Shallow, calm waters (Rachel Horsfield)

A Manta Ray stops by for some food (Rachel Horsfield)

Anemone detail (Rachel Horsfield)

A Manta Ray sweeps over head (Rachel Horsfield)

Sea fan detail (Rachel Horsfield)

Bubble coral shrimp and bubble coral (Rachel Horsfield)

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