Snorkelling along the edge of the reef, Maratua’s sheer wall of coral disappears into the blue, a swirling mass of tropical fish dazzling me at every turn.
Suddenly the turtles sense my presence and peel off the wall in synchronised succession, one, two, three….I count eight ahead of me, drifting alongside as the current carries us south.
It’s said that on this blissful Indonesian atoll in Kalimantan, Borneo, there are so many turtles you soon tire of looking at them. But that’s not true for me. I follow in their wake, arms outstretched, awestruck and aimless in all this turtle traffic.
For adventurers and solitude seekers, Maratua Island is a glorious find, just far enough off Kalimantan’s less populated east coast to deter the onslaught of tourism that would surely fray its magnificent coral fringe.
So far there are only a handful of low-key resorts – think stilted cabanas stretched scenically out over the sea – catering to intrepid travellers and divers inspired by Maratua’s unique anomalies: snorkelling in a lagoon full of stingless jellyfish on neighbouring Kakaban Island, pin diving into deep, limestone sea caves and drifting in the current with enormous manta rays as they feed.
What’s missing on Maratura is what makes it worth visiting: there’s no bustling backpacker scene, no beach bars and no bikini-clad beauties warming the sand, just authentic Indonesian villages, affordable beachfront accommodation, and just enough bitumen to ride a scooter and explore.
Blissfully for weary foreign travellers, there are no touts, making this destination about as far away from Bali as you could ever hope to get.
Life on Maratua is divinely simple and it’s all about the sea, and that’s precisely why you’d endure the convoluted travel connections and spine-compressing speedboat rides that deter most travellers from tackling the journey.
Maratua’s Turtle Traffic
Escaping into the sea one lazy afternoon, I wade through water as gin-clear and blue as a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Soon, tiny, iridescent staghorn corals appear and I slide into the water and lift my fins, kicking gently towards the drop-off where the sand gives away to blooming coral gardens.
The edge of the atoll appears suddenly, plunging into a deep, dark abyss that disappears far, far below me. Out here I’m a tiny speck in the ocean, far from shore, hovering close to the edge of the reef and daring myself down to where sleepy green sea turtles rest in sandy pockets amongst the coral.
They eyeball me briefly and wish me away, and as the current pushes me on, these big, old turtles return to their slumber. Keeping pace are smaller, younger green and hawksbill turtles, skittish creatures that shoot past at a frantic speed and race away into the deep.
I drift south along the edge of the reef towards a favourite turtle feeding zone where currents converge in the channel between Maratua and neighbouring Kakaban Island.
I pull out before the current pushes me offshore and swim back through the shallows to tackle another lap. This circuit occupies me for days until the lure of spotting manta rays on distant Sangalaki Island broadens the horizon. We charter a speedboat, load up our gear and brave the swell to the southwest.
Sangalaki Manta Rays
Home to a small resort and one of Southeast Asia’s largest nesting populations of endangered green sea turtles, Sangalaki Island is a rare gem, located just south of, and within clear view of the far more touristy Derawan Island.
Beyond the forested tuft of greenery at its centre, bleached white sand beaches slide into the sea where bewitching coral gardens and seagrass beds harbour the turtles that lumber ashore under the cover of darkness from May until September.
What captivates most visitors to Sangalaki however are the sandy trenches to the island’s north where manta rays congregate year-round to feed in plankton-rich currents. Their overwhelming size is tempered by a gentle demeanour and watching them hover above a cleaning station as wrasse get to work, or swimming open-mouthed as the current sends a feed of plankton their way, provides one of the most thrilling experiences you can have in the sea.
Gliding with remarkable grace they ‘fly’ across the sea bed with each languid flap of their two metre-wide wings, dwarfing snorkellers as they soar overhead and swoop suddenly into close view. When a manta ray catches your eye, it leaves you forever spellbound.
Only when you eventually tire of finning in the swift-flowing currents do you even contemplate getting back in the boat, and if it’s manta rays you want to see, a daytrip from Maratua to Sangalaki is your best bet.
From the sky, Maratua is a heavenly sight: girthed by rich coral reefs and opalescent seas that intensify from powder blue to turquoise to aqua the further you venture towards the island’s sudden drop into the abyss. But on land, this bedrock of limestone heaped with white sand beaches harbours a lush, forested interior that few paths penetrate.
We hire a scooter to explore what little bitumen has been laid, cruising south from Tanjung Harapan to the waterfront fishing villages of Payung-Payung and Bohesilian and into the island’s jungly interior in search of hidden sea caves and pin-diving fun. There is little traffic to contend with which is good news for the lazy monitor lizards we discover warming themselves on the road and forcing our detours.
Troops of black macaques lounge roadside too, swaggering along the verge nibbling green mangoes and grooming each other. A cacophony of birdsong rings out through the forest and we stop to watch flying foxes roosting restlessly in the coconut palms.
As the tide ebbs away in Maratua’s mangrove-fringed lagoon, a microcosm of marine life is brought into close, clear view and we hang over a timber bridge following schools of fish and eels hunting in the shallows. All these brilliant discoveries distract us en route to Goa Halo Tabung, a water-filled cavern accessible only through a slender opening in the earth.
Hidden Sea Caves
We park our scooter roadside and set out on foot, following a rocky path in the tranquilising midday heat with nothing but a few sketchy directions guiding our way. Eventually the ground beneath our feet opens up and we find ourselves on the jagged edge of a narrow limestone chasm, debating the depth of the see-through water below and braving ourselves to take the plunge.
When the bravest of us stops procrastinating and plummets into the abyss we all take flight, pin diving into this water-filled chasm that’s far too deep to fathom. Filled by the sea, the water is impossibly clear and while I have no hope of reaching it, I can see right to the sandy floor far below. We explore every crevice, duck diving and climbing to more exhilarating heights just so we can dive deeper and deeper, again and again.
A small swim-through brings us into a tiny dark cave and we eventually exit here to tackle the hike back out. Another cave at Bohesilian provides similar fun, and we find our way by chance, to the shores of Maratua’s own inland lake where small numbers of stingless jellyfish are found.
When the road runs out we return to the sea and swim back out to join the turtles. Watching the sun go down, swaying in a hammock and sipping thick, sweet coffee (the elixir of choice on Muslim Maratua), I marvel at all the amazing adventures to be had from this one rather small but beautiful patch of paradise.
For determined adventurers keen to escape the pack in Indonesia, remote Maratua Island is proof that the path less travelled still exists. The possibilities for adventure on this authentic Indonesian atoll are not limited to diving, although many will come purely to do just that.
Maratua’s snorkelling is first rate and encounters with the region’s most appealing marine creatures – manta rays, sharks, turtles and stingless jellyfish – take place in the shallows.
For all that it offers Maratua should be a far more bustling destination and the airport that opened to charter flights in 2017 will accelerate progress. For now though, this faraway isle is a blissful find.
When to go: Temperatures vary little year-round in Kalimantan but from June to September you can expect clearer skies and good underwater visibility.
Getting there: Flights from Singapore, Jakarta or Denpasar will get you to Balikpapan. Fly on to Berau, take a taxi to Tanjung Batu and charter a speedboat for the two-hour ride to Maratua (1,000,000Rp – 1,200,000Rp) or use your Behasa Indonesia to board the local boat from Berau Coal Port in Tanjung Redeb to the island (200,000Rp if your bargaining powers are good).
A dive operation on neighbouring Nabucco and Nunukan Islands (www.extradivers-worldwide.com) charters a weekly Garuda flight from Berau to Maratua Island and spare seats are sometimes available to non-guests.
Staying there: Over-the-water cabanas are a romantic choice, and the friendly, family-run Nouri Cottages can be recommended for the affordable beachfront rooms (from USD$30, just 6 steps from the sea), speedboat charters, fresh seafood dinners and scooter rental (email Rivi at email@example.com or phone +62 812 5304 6781). Maratua Guesthouse is a popular choice too. If you need to overnight in Berau, Hotel Mitra (in Tanjung Redeb) has helpful, English-speaking staff.
Getting around: On Maratua, motos rent for around 150,000Rp a day and full-day speedboat tours to Kakaban and Sangalaki Islands cost around 1,200,000Rp.
BYO: Fins, mask and snorkel, underwater camera, sunscreen (difficult to find on Maratua) and plenty of cash as there are no ATMs or money changers on the island.