DEPARTMENT STORES have been a feature of our high streets for 300 years, rolling many specialist shops under one roof. Their days had seemed numbered, although I’m told that lately they’re making a bit of a comeback.
The Makassar Strait off East Kalimantan, the region that makes up a large part of Indonesian Borneo, is a department store of marine-life encounters, where the waters surrounding each island showcase individual spectacles that customers might find appealing. Manta rays Head for Sangalaki. Sharks, turtles and wall-to-wall barracuda Alight at Maratua.
Pygmy seahorses, ghost pipefish and a jellyfish lake into the bargain It has to be Kakaban. Derawan should satisfy a hankering for green turtles (nesting if you time it right), cuttlefish and all manner of small and rare marine life.
It’s just a matter of deciding where to dive and what sort of lens to fit.
What binds these “departments” together is a tidal system characterised by strong currents, which are so often the indicator of underwater riches.
I arrived on tiny Derawan without a current hook but after a couple of dives concluded that a week of this would be a strain on me and on anything I might need to hang onto to delay my rapid progress through the water.
Derawan Dive Lodge is an intimate resort consisting of 10 good-sized chalets with verandas facing onto a central sandy compound that leads onto the beach. It’s a newish undertaking, an offshoot of the popular Tasik Ria resort in North Sulawesi, many miles away but sharing the same Sulawesi Sea.
The dive centre is essentially a back office, hidden away behind the compound. It’s well-equipped in terms of rental kit but has no shop as such.
I made the point that a stock of current hooks could only add to the profits, because I wasn’t the only diver under-equipped in that respect. However, unable to buy one, I was grateful to borrow one of these prized items from a kindly guide.
There is still room to refine the DDL operation without compromising the resort’s no-frills appeal. The rooms are clean, the food tasty if unexceptional and there is a pleasant communal atmosphere.
The island covers just 45 hectares, but explore behind the dive centre and you discover a population of more than 1200 people making their living.
Derawan is not easy to reach from the UK. It took 48 hours, two international and two domestic flights, an overnight, a three-hour drive and a final short boat crossing, so factor four travelling days into your holiday equation.
This might well be approached as part of a bigger Asian trip, though one couple who arrived from Sipadan in Malaysia had also spent about two days in transit.
If you can spare the time, you won’t be disappointed; if not, there are many ways to sample the Coral Triangle.

OK, LET’S GO DIVING, starting at the store’s ground floor. A long jetty leads out from the resort, and you can dive off the shore beside it, though with boats coming and going and strong currents at certain times of day the dive staff prefer to guide such dives.
There is a lot to see, not least large cuttlefish that wander among the hard coral unfazed by humans, allowing a close approach with no sign of alarm.
On one long shallow dive I saw several, and some more than once, either in reddish-brown or creamy guise.
At one point some small swimming creature wandered too close to a burgundy-coloured cuttlefish that had been hovering above the reef.
One moment all was tranquillity; the next I saw it flash electric white, extend its body to twice its previous length and strike, grabbing and consuming its prey all in one lightning movement.
It quickly resumed its unruffled drooping-tentacles brown study, as if to say: “Do excuse me, please carry on with your photography.”
The site offers plenty for the macro photographer, too, as do nearby locations such as Long Island, with its variety of nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses, frogfish and mantis shrimps in around 20m. The resort was full of avid photographers, and once a Lembeh seadragon or other miniscule rarity was located they would pile in as if it was the January sales, but there were enough subjects to render queues unnecessary.
Derawan’s Snapper Point seemed to be the perfume counter that lured consumers into 10-15m dives with
high-end critters and a profusion of fish among vivid soft and hard corals.
Over a couple of dives book-ending my trip I saw fingernail-sized pygmy seahorses and robust ghost pipefish and, further up the scale, crocodilefish, tuna, incautious turtles and bumphead wrasse collectives.
Further local action was to be found by drifting fast between two Derawan jetties, stopping intermittently to inspect small creatures, and ending up between pier legs where large batfish hung out.
Horseshoe-shaped Maratua is 50 times bigger than Derawan and the only other inhabited island in the region.
Its wall sites such as Lubang Kun and Parade are not unlike those in Bunaken off Sulawesi, ideal for a gentle drift with residents such as coral crabs and ornate scorpionfish, and regular sightings of passing turtles in the blue.
The party piece came in the afternoon as the current flowed through the channel to the lagoon. We made a negative entry from the boat to make sure we stayed on the wall, because the drift was much faster now.
As we neared the channel entrance at around 25m three grey reef sharks were circling slightly above us, revelling in the flow. Ahead we were confronted by a massive wall of sizeable barracuda facing into the current, stretching from the entrance back to the limits of visibility and towering high above. They seemed to cast a giant shadow.
Hooks snapped in on the corner and we settled down to enjoy the spectacle.
Guide Eli and I moved forward until we were on the very edge of the wall, aware of many hundreds of cold eyes upon us, but nothing would induce those fish to break ranks.
Finally we let go and allowed the current to whip us through the channel before making a gradual ascent.
“I’ve seen bigger barracuda shoals in Raja Ampat!” boasted a diver from Singapore later. There’s always one. But I had been very impressed by those fish contriving to imitate a solid brick wall.

IF MARATUA IS THE HARDWARE department, Kakaban island is soft toys and furnishings with a twist. A one-hour boat-ride from Derawan, the first dive there was pleasant enough, a colourful scorpionfish providing the best photo opportunity on a mid-paced drift, but it was Barracuda Point that provided the excitement.
“There won’t be much current,” Eli had said when I asked earlier. “There is some current,” he conceded as he jumped in.
He wasn’t kidding. I followed and saw the boat recede rapidly into the distance. We dropped and were whipped along at a furious rate. This was before I was armed with a current hook, and when Eli hooked in a couple of times to wait for the rest of the group I shared his line, as did another flying diver. It was hard work just hanging on.
When I was able to lift my face without risk of losing my mask I saw some lone barracuda at the point and glimpsed an eagle ray. Then, the group reunited, we let go and flew for many minutes before veering off slightly across the current to avoid being swept down the slope to deeper water.
We ended up in the calm waters off a shallow wall, which proved to be pretty, with quite a bit to see for our efforts.
One woman had been parted from her camera in the rush, but there had been no going back.

AFTER THAT FAIRGROUND RIDE, it was relaxing after lunch to snorkel in Kakaban’s jellyfish lake. The celebrated Palau version is a bit of a trek, I gather, but this bigger one takes mere minutes to reach via a walkway.
The jellyfish have no predators and so no sting. Swim out a little way from the platform and it’s a real jelly broth. Four species of varying sizes live in the brackish water, and one swims inverted.
It’s fun to experience, and I could have wished for longer to explore the lake’s mangrove fringes.
Another 20m wall dive before leaving Kakaban resumed the leisurely pace of the first dive, shy pygmy seahorses, feisty anemonefish and all.
In Sangalaki’s marine park you gamble on the wildlife playing along, but this is the department where you get good odds on spending time with manta rays.
The tide was high when we arrived off the tiny island so the water was calm, but the current soon picked up.
We were interested only in the wide-angle scene today, so it was a case of getting down to the sand at 20m and drifting between strategic coral outcrops where we might hope to view the action.
These weren’t cleaning stations – the rays were busy chewing plankton. Little happened for a while, and it was two large leopard sharks that grabbed our attention first, resting on the seabed.
They didn’t stay for long, but soon after their departure a trio of mantas started making passes overhead.
One couple in our group had aborted the dive due to ear problems and returned to the boat. Good call: when they noticed mantas feasting on the plankton stirred up by the propellers they were able to drop in with their snorkels and spend quality time with the rays at the surface.
When we dived again, the current was flowing faster than ever, and we kept moving in search of mantas. We were rewarded, too, and on occasions when we hooked in the graceful rays, mostly in the 3-4m range, came in quite close overhead.
Later we worked across the current to get back to the shallower area, which was a little tiring after the previous free rides but revealed titan triggerfish, big batfish and emperors on route.
do you ever get those out-of-nowhere moments that linger in your memory On my penultimate dive in the Makassar Strait, another frantic but satisfying race between Derawan jetties, I surfaced alongside my companions. It was mid-day, the boat was still far away and the sun was kissing my head.
Five silent, motionless divers, listening to a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer as his amplified voice drifted far out across the mirror-calm water.
Sometimes you know that everyone is feeling the same thing – a quiet sense of well-being. Not something I usually associate with department stores.

GETTING THERE: Steve flew with Emirates via Dubai to overnight in Djakarta, with a two-hour flight to Balikpapan and a one-hour flight to Berau on Borneo’s east coast. Then it’s a three-hour car transfer to Tanjung Batu for a short speedboat crossing. A 30-day visa costs US $25.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Tasik Divers at Derawan Dive Lodge,
WHEN TO GO: Any time.
MONEY: Indonesian rupiah, US dollars.
HEALTH: Nearest hyperbaric chamber is at Balikpapan.
PRICES: Regaldive can arrange a seven-night diver package at Derawan Dive Lodge from £1999pp including all flights, full-board accommodation (two sharing) and up to three guided dives daily, Nitrox is available but costs extra. To take in Derawan as part of a wider trip, DDL has a four-night diver package for US$750.