Off The Beat: Swimming with giant manta rays in the Sulawesi Sea

You don’t have to dive to see manta ray at Sangalaki as they swim up to the surface of the crystal-clear waters.

Swimming with gigantic whale sharks in the Derawan archipelago in East Kalimantan, Indonesia – just a short distance away from Tawau, Sabah – isn’t the only sea adventure in that underwater paradise.

Mere hours after checking off an item on my bucket list with my close encounter of the spotted kind in the middle of Sulawesi Sea, off Maratua island, I was on a boat heading towards the nearby Sangalaki island in search of giant manta rays which thrive there.

The Derawan islands, where all these amazing sea creatures are found, is largely alien to the outside world. The well-heeled, those who probably only know the Maldives, could never endure the logistics of reaching this Indonesian end.

Travelling is still difficult, and mostly by utilitarian speed boats, and the hotels are barely three stars, even if they claim such ratings. Food is simple but delicious, especially after an entire day spent under the sun and sea. Most travellers hit the hay by 9pm since our sea adventures begin by 5am, or earlier, but that’s what we like best.

Gnawing at my senses though, is the thought of the Indonesian capital potentially being moved to Kalimantan. Sangalaki has the reputation for being one of the most remote, uncrowded and untouched spots visited by manta rays, and it would be a travesty if that changed.

There are many manta rays to be found at diving spots near Sangalaki island.

The last thing we need is the thronging of tourists, though the continued proliferation of manta rays will always be a welcome sight. And with Sangalaki still not having accommodation, that dream could just be retained.

On my first trip to the isolated island with my wife last September, we were the only human beings walking on its soft sandy beach! I remember telling her that I felt like Robinson Crusoe, the character in a story of a man who was shipwrecked and became a castaway on a remote tropical island for 28 years. It was eerily quiet, yet we never felt so at peace with ourselves.

Tarakan, the Indonesian island city of North Kalimantan, is only a 40-minute flight away from Tawau. It’s the gateway to the Derawan Islands, located in the province of East Kalimantan. Together, the provinces comprise 31 islands, but the best known are Derawan, Maratua, Sangalaki and Kakaban, though most people would still struggle to place them on a map.

Come to think of it though, I would be in the same boat had I not learnt of them.

Not many dive locations in the world can boast the abundance of these manta rays like Sangalaki, and these otherworldly animals appear through most of the year. In fact, one doesn’t even need to scuba dive to see them since they swim up to the surface of the crystal-clear waters. A life jacket and goggles will do to snorkel and watch these gentle giants glide pass you gracefully in a squadron.

You don’t have to dive to see manta ray at Sangalaki as they swim up to the surface of the crystal-clear waters.

While it’s easier to swim close to whale sharks, I found it more difficult to get up close and personal with these glistening black mantas, because they move fast and swiftly dive deep down to the ocean floors, where they feast on a rich supply of plankton.

They are harmless and even friendly, seeming to enjoy interacting with people in the water.

But the rule, as with all wild animals, is not to touch, but observe and admire them.

The manta alfredi or pari hantu (ghost ray fish), as the local fishermen call them, only exists in Derawan islands, and despite their huge numbers, are regarded very rare animals. Although they’re shaped like stingrays, a variety of differences separate them, including mantas’ whiskers working as wings.

The reef manta ray is a species of ray from the Mobulidae family, one of the largest rays in the world. Among generally recognised species, it’s the second-largest species of ray, only surpassed by the giant oceanic manta ray. It’s easy to spot these unique animals at Sangalaki as they use the island’s surrounding reefs as their cleaning and breeding ground.

But I failed to secure those super Instagram shots of me swimming next to them – unlike the better pictures I had with the whale sharks.

It didn’t help that I was swept away by the strong underwater currents as I tried to chase after these elegant animals. In my excitement, I didn’t realise that I had drifted away from the boat, until I surfaced to catch my bearings.

The natural reaction was to swim back to the boat, but my experienced guide signalled to me to stay calm and not swim against the current. He advised me to relax and enjoy the waters, allowing myself to be carried away by the gentle waves on the surface.

While the boat was clearly a distance away, leaving us in the middle of the sea, he assured me that the boat would return to pick us up.

Then he caught us by surprise by suggesting we continue to look out for more manta rays, as he surveyed the waters from the vantage point of the boat.

The island waters are also home to plenty of barracuda, giant squid and sharks of all varieties. According to the White Manta Diving site, at three locations – Manta Run, Manta Parade and Manta Avenue – on the northwest side of the island, one can explore the corals at 28m while manta rays circle overhead. Expect to encounter groups of 20 to 50 of these majestic creatures.

A school of mackerel fish swimming freely in the Sulawesi Sea.

“They are wonderful in small numbers, but seeing them en masse like this is an awesome experience. It is not uncommon while admiring the corals and sponges, and observing the unique nudibranch (a colourful sea slug), Coral Trout, orange-striped triggerfish and barramundi, to see the shadow of a ray hovering overhead.

“At the Manta Cleaning Station, the sandpaper texture of the Manta ray’s skin offers a perfect host for remoras and other parasitic fish. Just off the edge of the reef, the Manta rays queue at the cleaning station where cleaner fish and small wrasse pick off these parasites and other debris from their gills and fins. It is a fascinating site to see these magnificent creatures waiting patiently while the cleaning takes place.”

Sangalaki as a nature paradise doesn’t end there either, with the island also a renowned turtle hatching site, where hundreds of hatchlings can be seen daily, making that desperate-for-survival dash to the ocean from their nests.

The island is home to five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, though green and hawksbill turtles are the most common.

Another charming sight there is seeing turtles laying eggs on the beach.

In fact, if you’re staying in any of these islands at Derawan, it’s common to see many turtles swimming in the shallow waters near the beaches. Derawan is rated one of the most important ecological hotspots in the world. It’s hard not to be addicted to the place, the home to over 500 types of hard and soft coral. The Kakaban Island is another incredible gem where I swam in a lake with millions of stingless jellyfish, one of only five such places in the whole world.

Staying at the nearby Maratua island in September, we had the whole hotel to ourselves. Most of the guests had cancelled their trips after reading about the haze, but we went ahead and were lucky to be greeted by clear skies!

The hotel cook served me the freshest red snapper soup I ever had. After all, it was straight from the sea.

At the spot where we were having our meal, we could see thousands of marine fish swimming underneath the floating restaurant. Barracuda were frequent visitors to the place, too, on both our visit, in fact. But it was the silence of the evenings that moved me first. The millions of stars above me in the night skies, and the huge number of fish and living corals, all literally below me, was an experience to remain etched in my mind.

No television, no WiFi ... simply none of life’s luxuries. No silly traffic jams, either. No hypocrisy nor the need to put on pretentious smiles to people who don’t deserve such civility. No need for inconsequential and irrelevant material items that we never needed in the first place, except to flaunt them.

Certainly, nobody cares about anyone’s designations, sense of self-importance and inflated ego. After all, this is Indonesia, where everyone is addressed as Pak or Ibu, and can feel the respect accorded to older folk.

The Derawan Islands are heavenly and that’s simply because this is indeed a paradise. It’s God’s creations at its best here.

Getting there:

Fly to Tawau and stay overnight. Take the morning flight on MASwings to the Indonesian island of Tarakan, which is an hour away. MASwings flies to Tarakan 3x weekly. From Tarakan, it’s a three-hour boat ride to the Derawan islands.

On the way back from the islands, stay overnight at Tarakan. There are clean and decent hotels, like in Tawau, though they are bare and simple. I’m not sure they deserve two-star ratings, whether in Tawau or Tarakan. The best seafood restaurant in Tarakan is the renowned Warung Teras, which earned its fame through Indonesian president Jokowi’s patronage.

It’s best to use a tour agency from either Sabah or Tarakan for your travel plans, if you want to be assured of convenience and reliability.

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