Sunday, 14 April 2013

Borneo (6) - Pulau Derawan - Turtles and Clownfish Galore

Our pier
It had stopped raining by the time we arrived on the island at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the weather was clearing up nicely.  We started to investigate our new surroundings and wandered up and down the pier gazing into the sea searching for sea life, in particularly the famous turtles.  The first thing we saw was a huge puffer fish just by the pier, lionfish  and soon we were spotting turtles left, right and centre.  Pulau Derawan certainly delivered on the turtle front.

That afternoon, Paul and Boris went for a snorkel off the pier where we were staying.  Léa and I chose to relax on the veranda.  The boys returned with tales of coral, fish and masses of turtles.

One of the stunning sunrises
Pulau Derawan is an island in the Sangalaki Archipelago off the east coast of Kalimantan and a breeding ground for the endangered giant green sea turtles.  We feared that within an hour or so we were in danger of becoming a little blasé about them, we were seeing so many of them however this was never to happen and we could quite happily sit on our veranda or the edge or the pier watching them graze around the sea floor near the pier, and excitedly spotting them as they came up for a gulp of air every so often. 

Rush hour in Derawan
We also swam with them snorkelling or bumped into them further out as they hung around the sea bed having a scratch on a rock or allowing the parasite fish to nibble away the residue they collect during a day’s grazing.  As far as turtles were concerned, Derawan was everything it had promised to be.

There were lots of pretty lionfish by the pier, crocodile needle fish swam in the shallows, and near the end of our little pier there was an artificial coral area where a very small Nemo lived.  He was quite shy and hid in his anemone much of the time so you had to look really carefully but he was there all the same.

Boris, Leah and the two of us
Boris and Léa were lovely and great company.  They were in their fourth month of travelling and had two months to go.  They were much younger than us but we got on really well and in particular Léa and I were alike in that we were (a) terrified of the all the dangers that lurk beneath the surface and (b) likened everything we saw to Finding Nemo.

There were not many tourists staying on the island but everyone seemed to know everyone else and strangely everyone seemed to get on.  It was a bit of a community that we had not really experienced before and most people stayed longer than they originally planned.  One guy, Martin, a Dutchman, had already been on the island for 16 days when we arrived and he ended up staying for nearly 3 weeks before he finally dragged himself away.   It was easy to see why.

Just woken up
That evening we had dinner with Boris, Léa, Martin and a few other people.  Later that night (remember this was our first night on this island) word got around that they were releasing the newly hatched baby turtles on the beach that night.

The deal is that the WWF guy watches for the female turtles as they come up onto the beach to lay their eggs returning to the place where they were hatched years before, much in the way of salmon except that they don’t die afterwards, they just bury the eggs and return to the sea.  The WWF steal the eggs and re-bury them somewhere safe until they are hatched and ready to release.  The reason they do this is because if the locals find them they will dig them up and eat them which really isn’t very good for the turtle population, particularly if you think that the survival rate of 1 in 2000 eggs (apparently, but don’t quote me).

Making a break
for the sea
Anyway, we all finished up our meal and followed the small crowd heading down to the beach past the Dive Centre.  When we arrived, the WWF guy had a bucketful of wriggling baby turtles.  There must have been about a hundred of them and they are all flapping about, looking incredibly cute so everyone gets to take photographs before he releases them onto the beach for them to make their way into the sea.

Once everyone has a photograph, all lights are switched off (they are attracted to the light) and the bucket is emptied rather unceremoniously onto the sand.  We all stood to one side to watch them as they made their way to the water.  Unfortunately, despite being told that any light will distract them some people, in their attempt to take photographs of them shone torches on them, so we ended up with baby turtle confusion and miniature turtles scuttling off in every direction. 

Tiny baby turtle
After a bit of impatient shouting by the WWF rep, everyone eventually turned off their torches and was instructed to stand absolutely still to avoid treading on them (I certainly didn’t want a repeat of the gecko incident).  So there we were, standing there in the pitch dark while the tiny creatures clambered all over our feet heading straight towards the sea. 

It was amazing.  As only a fraction of them survive because they are tasty snacks for many larger predators in the sea by protecting them as eggs and then releasing them at night (protecting them from airborne predators such as gulls) the likelihood of maintaining the population is increased.  It is thought to be quite successful in Derawan although it will actually be decades before it is known whether it is making any real difference.  Watching them flapping about and being washed out to sea you certainly hope that at least some of them will survive to adulthood.

Paul with one of his catches
This all happened on our first day and by the end of it we had the distinct impression we were going to like this place.

The village itself was very sleepy, quite literally as the locals could be found snoozing at any time of the day.  There were no cars, a couple of scooter, a few little shops, a few places to eat, and although obtaining alcohol was possible it was expensive (and frowned upon by some of the older residents) but for the moment we were happy without it.
The view back down our pier
The view from (and through) our pier was amazing and on the odd occasion when others came to sit on the edge in front of our veranda we were a bit miffed.  We considered it “our” pier.  You could see the sea between the cracks in the floorboards of the room and to be surrounded by water so alive with sea life was magical.  We never tired of it.

Paul was woken up most mornings by the call to prayer just before 5.00am and usually got up to do a spot of fishing as the sun came up (the best time apparently).  It was worth getting up just for the sunrise which was spectacular.  Usually I slept a little longer but a few times I dragged myself out of my pit to operate the camera to capture the amazing colours as the sun peeked over the horizon.

Another of Paul's catches
Hours were wiled away just watching the turtles in the shallow waters as they came up for air every so often.  You could see them feeding on the sea floor holding their breath for up to 20 minutes before surfacing for air and heading back down again.

We also spent a lot of time snorkelling between our pier, the next pier and, sometimes, the pier after that (where the posh Dive Centre was).  We would drift along with the current and get out and walk down one of the other piers and come back through the village to avoid swimming back against the current which was altogether much too much like hard work.  Sometimes we went the other way but as there was no other way back you either had to swim out or back against the current.  It wasn’t too strong but it was preferable if you didn’t have to exert yourself too much!

Paul swimming with turtles
I loved using the underwater camera.  It took my mind of being eaten by some sea monster and I was able to really enjoy the snorkelling.  It was a different world with so many different species of fish, all shapes and sizes, and all the colours of the rainbow.  And of course, there were turtles everywhere.

The coral reef had suffered from dynamite and cyanide fishing in the past but was beginning to grow back and the diverse species of coral fish was incredible.

We had all this literally on our doorstep and never tired of snorkelling.  Paul went out every day and I only gave it a miss the day it rained. It was a proper tropical torrential downpour and didn’t stop all day.  We didn’t actually mind it too much as it was much cooler that day and normally as soon as the sun inched its way over the horizon the heat was relentless and we often had to shelter inside our rooms until the sun passed over the veranda and we could sit in the shade.

Time passed slowly on the island, but at the same time the week we spent there passed in a flash.

One day we hired a boat between 6 of us to visit Kakaban and Sangalaki Islands.  The 4 of us were joined by a guy from Singapore called Wai, and a Thai guy named Rath.  Paul, Boris and Wai went off diving, and Léa and I went snorkelling with Rath.

A stripey fish
Léa and I were well suited to snorkel together because we understood each other’s terror of the water.  We loved what we could see but if we felt the current was too strong, or that a fish looked a bit scary we wanted to get back to shore as quickly as possible.  We stuck together and looked out for each other and as a result we had a fantastic time.

Lots of fish
The first stop was Kakaban, famous for its inland lake of stingless jellyfish.  We were to dive and snorkel first near the coast before heading inland to snorkel in the lake.  Léa, Rath and I were dropped off at the pier on Kakaban and the boat headed off to take the divers to deeper waters.  I quickly realised I was missing some fundamental equipment and that I had left my snorkel and mask on board the dive boat which was heading off into the distant.
Luckily, an Indonesian man who just happened to be moored up by the pier with a speedboat immediately realised my predicament, motioned me inside the boat and we sped off to catch up with the boat and picked up the essential equipment.  Paul threw me 20,000 rupiah to give to the speedboat driver and when he deposited me back I had to force it upon him because he wouldn’t take it at first.  I would have been very disappointed had I not been able to snorkel and he had saved the day for me.  And when I say it was fortuitous he was there, I cannot emphasis how lucky I was – there was no-one else on the island apart from us and him.  A boat full of Germans turned up later but other than that the place was deserted.  He saved the day for me!
A big fish
The snorkelling was simply awesome and I do not use that word lightly.  Although on one side of the pier it was clear that the coral had been badly damaged by dynamite, on the other side and just a short way out, the coral was stunning, as were the fish.  As we swam further out we reached the wall and I was completely unprepared for this.  Most people will know this is the ocean drop off into deep waters but I simply wasn’t expecting it.  Having nothing else to compare it with, for me it was just like in the film “Finding Nemo” and it quite literally took my breath away. 

There were, in fact, a lot of references to the film “Finding Nemo” throughout our week long stay on Derawan.  Léa and I in particular referred to fish by their name in the film and I became slightly obsessed by clownfish, to the point where every time someone found a clownfish (a frequent occurrence), I was summoned to take a picture.  I never did tire of them.
The coral drop off
When the divers returned we all then walked the path inland to the jellyfish lake where we all snorkelled among the 4 species of jellyfish all of which have lost their sting.  There are a few places in the world where this phenomenon has occurred and although the waters were a bit murky it was fun swimming among the jellyfish.  I didn’t have the nerve to touch one but a lot of people handled them and being jellyfish they didn’t seem to mind.  There were also lots of fish but visibility wasn’t great for anything except the jellyfish which are obviously the big draw.

After a stop for lunch (fish again) we headed off to the second stop which was Sangalaki.  Once again, the snorkelling was amazing and there was another wall but Leah and I just bobbed around looking to see what we could see in the coral.  Rath found the current a bit strong so headed back to the boat but Léa and I were fine as long as we could see each other, and the boat was drifting with the current so was never far away.
A lot of fish
In fact we were disappointed when the captain motioned to us it was time to get out of the water and pick up the divers.  We could have stayed in the water for hours.  It had been a great day for snorkelling.
Paul however found the diving a little disappointing.  Derawan is recommended as being one of the 10 best diving areas in the world and although he can only compare it to Cambodia which he thought was fantastic.  In fact Cambodia does not have a particularly good reputation for diving but he said he saw more there than he did in Derawan.  There was much less destruction by dynamite and cyanide of the coral in Cambodia and the sea life was more impressive.  He was expecting more at Derawan.   

Derawan is also one of the few places that you are almost guaranteed to see a manta ray (massive rays up to 8 metres wide) but none materialised which was a disappointment but apparently it was not the season for them.

Another fish
However, Paul did agree that the snorkelling was fantastic although for him the diving was a bit of a waste of money in a place like Derawan where you could see as much with a snorkel and mask.  He didn’t bother going on any more dives and instead, amused himself fishing and snorkelling.

After about 3 days and no alcohol the 4 of us finally cracked.  We saw one of our fellow pier dwellers happily supping a bottle of Bintang and we just couldn’t resist temptation any longer.  However, at 50,000 rupiah a bottle ($5) it was an expensive luxury so consumption was curbed.  Obviously it wasn’t expensive by UK standards but certainly by south east Asian standards. 

Léa and I were duly dispatched to go in search of beer which turned out to be a bit of a mission.
Another stripey fish
We headed out just as evening prayer was starting and I have to say it felt a bit wrong to be searching for alcohol while there was all that wailing going on at the mosque.  When we asked in one shop, the smile that we were greeted with instantly turned into a frown of disapproval from the elderly shopkeeper.  We did eventually find a shop with a small stock of beer and quickly made our way back to our pier where we could indulge without fear of recrimination.

Once we cracked we got into the habit of having an “aperitif” as Léa called it at sundown followed by one or two with dinner.  Very restrained but then at those prices, we had to be.
Jellyfish - visibility was poor
We also met a French couple, Julien and Emily, and obviously they were able to speak freely in French to Boris and Léa which gave them a break from conversing in English all the time for our benefit, so they spent a lot of time together chatting away on their balcony but we always ate supper with them and sometimes lunch if we were hungry.  Léa amused us all by gnawing at all the chicken bones once everyone had finished with them.  She wouldn't finish until the last scrap of meat had been chewed off.  It was a bit of a competition between her and Paul as to who could snaffle the chicken bones first.
Paul’s fishing was, I have to say, rather impressive.  He caught 3 big fish, one which he threw back, one which swallowed the hook so he gave it to the people who ran the cottages where we stayed (they were very happy), and one which nearly swam away with his fishing rod.   

Emily, Lea and Boris relaxing
on the veranda
He got into the habit of leaving his rod on the pier with the baited line in the water and assured me that it was safe and wouldn’t get dragged in if he got a nibble.  How wrong he was!  We were sitting around one morning and suddenly his rod went flying into the water and we saw it disappearing across towards the next pier but luckily Emily saved the day.  She had been in the water waiting for a turtle to surface so she could take a picture.  Emily had been waiting very patiently in the same position for about 10 minutes when everyone called out to her to swim after the rod which to her credit she did, she managed to grab hold of it and hand it to Paul who by this time had jumped into the water.  The poor fish was still attached so Paul reeled it in while heading to the ladder at the end of the pier.  Léa caught all this on video and sent it to us later.

Orange fish
Meanwhile, the turtle Emily had been stalking chose that precise moment to surface briefly for a gulp of air so Emily missed her shot.  All in a good cause!

Julien and Emily taught us how to play Cubo which is a card game played all over South America and which they learned while they travelled around there earlier in their trip.  Paul didn’t play but I had a go and it was fun, largely reliant on memory so I was rubbish but it was something else to do when we weren’t watching turtles.

On our last evening we finally walked around the island.  Estimates of how long this is supposed to take varies from 20 minutes to 45 minutes.  The reality was that if you walked at a fast pace and ignored everyone and everything along the way you could probably do it in 15 minutes.  Paul, Boris, Léa and I headed around to catch the sunset on the other side and sat on the pier there while we watched the sun set over the sea as all the little boats headed home before dark.  We then headed back to the main village stopping off for essentials along the way at different little shops.
Moorish idols
The shops seemed to be open all day from early until late but getting served was another matter entirely.  We were used to the nap culture in Vietnam and Cambodia where everything halts just before lunchtime for a few hours, understandably so in the oppressive midday heat.  Indonesian life seems to revolve around constant napping at any opportunity. 

On one occasion we were on our way back to our pier after dinner and we needed cigarettes.  It wasn’t late, probably about 8.00pm.  All the shops were lit up, goods on display outside and the doors apparently open for business but at the first place we stopped at there was no sign of life anywhere and I’m sure we could have helped ourselves were we that way inclined but we gave up and moved on to the next shop. 

A clownfish hiding in his
At the second place we called through to the back where we spotted the husband giving his wife a neck massage but they were in no hurry to finish what they were doing to serve pesky customers so off we went.  At the third shop we called through again and saw the shopkeeper stretched out fast asleep on the tiles at the back of the shop and no amount of yelling could rouse the women from her slumber. 

We were getting desperate as we were just about to run out of cigarettes but luckily at the fourth shop the man was both awake and ready to do business so a minor disaster was narrowly averted.  The two of us without cigarettes for any length of time would not be pretty.

More clownfish
We were lucky enough to see a second batch of baby turtles released into the sea.  This time an Indonesian film crew turned up and interviewed a few people.  They arranged to interview Léa and Emily later that night (Emily had told them she was a Parisian actress!).

The film crew didn’t turn up that evening and were leaving early the next morning and somehow mistook me for Emily (it was very dark the night before).  They asked if they could do the interview that morning so I ended up being interviewed by a TV station in Jakarta who were doing a production about Derawan, turtles and mantas.  I doubt it will ever be broadcast because I knew absolutely nothing and was only able to answer a fraction of their questions but it was strange being interviewed in the searing heat by two women fully covered up from top to toe wearing headscarves while I was in shorts and a strappy T-shirt.
More batfish
We loved Derawan and the time spent there.  It currently remains a sleepy little island with traditional charm and although it is so tiny, much building is going on and we have no doubt that within a year or so it will be overrun with resorts so we were glad we were able to visit while it was still relatively quiet.


Colourful fish everywhere

Moorish idol
Beautiful parrot fish

Blue starfish and clam

A turtle's close and upside
down encounter with
a Wooky

Beautiful brilliant blue fish

More clownfish
Sea urchins and black and white
One last one of Nemo

More colourful fish

Tiny iridescent blue fish

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