Sangalaki, Indonesia - The Next Frontier

The year was 1993, and I had never been to Indonesia. And it's not every day that a diver has the opportunity to visit a virgin dive site in advance of even Stan Waterman, there to drift with the current along a wall that has never before seen another diver. So, although I couldn't pronounce it, when Ron Holland of Borneo Divers invited me to join him on an expedition to investigate the diving on an unexplored island called Sangalaki, he didn't have to ask twice.

Even since their discovery of the unparalled diving at Sipadan and the subsequent development of Sipadan Diving Lodge, Ron and his partners at Borneo Divers have been searching for a similar untouched diving paradise to cultivate. When they came upon the group of seven islands centering around Sangalakki, 40 miles off the eastern shore of the state of Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, they were pretty sure they'd found what they were looking for. My assignment was to serve as an impartial observer, to help determine if the diving was really as good as they thought it was.

Ron and I were joined by Graham and Donna Taylor, well travelled divers and photographers from Darwin, Australia and veterans of Sipadan diving since the tenting days of 1980's. As our native long boat approached Sangalakki and our anticipation grew, we crossed a shallow coral garden where we could clearly view the reef from the surface. Graham began to call off the fish he could identify from his perch on the bow, "triggerfish, pair of butterfly, big parrot, sting ray, turtle, moorish idols..." It certainly sounded promising. As we neared landfall, Donna pointed out the uncanny similarity in appearance of Sangalaki with our beloved Sipadan. Crossing our fingers for luck, we jumped ashore and began to make camp, suppressing a powerful yearning to immediately get into the water.

While waiting for tanks to fill, Graham, Donna and I started our reef survey on snorkel. At low tide, we had quite a hike through the shallows before we could begin to swim, but even before donning my mask I saw a beautiful banded eel. It paddled right past my foot, then popped its head into a hole in the sand and in seconds completely disappeared. After donning mask, fins, and snorkel we came upon a family of clown fish in a purple carpet anenome, flourishing in just one foot of water. This was quickly followed by two big hawksbill turtles swimming along the edge of the drop-off, a brown and white banded shrimp gobi attended by a bright yellow shrimp, a small sand shark, and a beautiful lunar-tail unicorn fish. Schools of moorish idols, butterfly fish, banner fish, and azure blue surgeons swirled about, populating an alluring submarine garden of hard and soft corals in pristine condition. That night, we drifted off to sleep under a blanket of shimmering stars, with technicolor dreams of schooling fishes and the diving to come swimming in our heads.

Sunrise over Sangalaki is accompanied by the gentle sounds of the jungle. Doves coo in the treetops as rare megapod birds strut through the underbrush. To seaward, stately white egrets stalk the shallows and iridescent kingfishers resume the perpetual task of defining their oceanfront territories. Overhead, a pair of sea eagles wheel and glide, casting a penetrating eye upon unwary fishes. A short trek along the beach will reveal the tracks of a great female turtle leading to her nest and clutch of eggs, painstakingly deposited during the night while we slept. Civilization only intruded upon nature's timeless reverie when our boatman turned on a tape of Indonesian music to accompany our native breakfast. Then, as the equatorial sun began to shine in earnest, the waiting was over, it was time to go diving. That which follows is excerpted from the log of my first scuba dives in Indonesian Borneo. The dive sites of Sangalakki have yet to be formally named.

Sangalaki North, 38 feet max. for 63 minutes - Saw a large manta ray almost immediately upon entering the water, at least eight feet across the wing. Then a smaller one, satin black with striking white accents. This graceful "Black Beauty" came so close I could have touched it. Later, photographing a pair of banded clown fish in a ringed anenome, I looked up to find that I was being scrutinized by a large cuttlefish. Obviously wondering what strange manner of bubbling, bumbling sea creature I might be, this inquisitive cousin to the octopus proceeded to indulge our mutual curiosity. At least 20 inches long and almost as big around, it put on an amazing show as it circled me, manipulating its tentacles, rapidly changing the texture of its skin, and passing undulating waves of color along the length of its body. In an attempt at communication, I waved my hand and fingers in imitation of the movements of its tentacles, a technique I've since dubbed "cuttlefish hand jive." It continued its curious but cautious approach, moving forward by fluttering fins along its sides, then back by jetting water through its siphon. Carefully I began to photograph, starting with f8 at a distance of three feet and working all the way through to f22 at just inches. I had long since exhausted my roll of film before the obliging fellow swam off down the wall.

Kakaban Island, North Side, a 25 minute boat ride from Sangalaki, maximum depth 58 feet, dive time 92 minutes - Fabulous dive with visibility well in excess of 100 feet. Drifted along a wall which began in just 2-3 feet and sloped off forever. Beautiful coral formations swarming with all manner of reef fishes, some I'd not seen before, even at Sipadan. I felt at a loss to capture the intensity and diversity of this life on film. Hopefully Ron's video will do it justice. The exceptional visibility was a real treat.

Jellyfish Lake, Kakaban Island. 13' / 30 min. - Bit of a climb. I carried in both camera rigs, then went back for tank and fins, though I could have let "the boys" do it. It was worth the exercise, when we arrived at a very large lake surrounded by dense mangrove. The dive was most interesting, similar to Jellyfish Lake in Palau, Micronesia. Warm, brackish, salt water with zillions of small to medium sized brown jellyfish, dinner plate sized clear jellyfish, plus a tiny, pulsating one that resembled a sea wasp. Thankfully, none of these jellyfish pack a sting. Bright green seaweed, small brown synapted sea cucumbers, large white anenome, various flat worms, and a sprinkling of orange and blue sponges finish the picture, with visibility ranging from five to twenty feet.

Sangalaki Island, East Side, 33' / 62 min. Fabulous dive! Back rolled in and immediately saw a big manta at the bow of the boat. Began to descend and almost landed on a pair of giant turtles, started to go with the 3/4 knot current and stumbled over a five foot leopard shark. The dive was beautiful, flat and shallow with many independent "bommies" covered in soft corals and swarming with tropicals. Saw a large red mantis shrimp clear out in the open. Finished my film photographing a small zebra lion fish at close range, then looked up to find another cuttlefish watching me. Spent ten minutes swimming with him, watching his body's living light show and trying to learn his movements and behavior.

Sangalaki, North, 23' / 68 min. - My favorite dive of the trip. No mantas or sharks, just the most beautiful shallow coral garden I've ever seen, with the afternoon light shimmering upon it. I never came upon the beginning or the end of this reef, just a seemingly endless fantasia of hard and soft corals, giant anenomes, tridachna clams, and fishes of every size and description. Encountered four large cuttlefish during the course of the dive, they're obviously plentiful here. One inked me when I came too close, two others seemed to be sparring with one another, and the last let me watch as he dipped his nimble tentacles into the finger coral, fishing for dinner. I did not want the dive to end.

Well, you get the picture, and Sangalaki certainly received my humble stamp of approval. The location is exceedingly remote, but that's precisely why the diving is so wonderful. If anyone can do the job of building a quality dive resort in such a location, it's Borneo Divers. Most importantly, Borneo Divers' rules for interaction with the reef are quite clear, no collecting of any sort and no harassing of the marine life. As this policy has already proved at Sipadan, remarkable photo opportunities at Sangalaki will abound as the inhabitants of the reef learn that they need not fear the visiting humans. This will truly be one of the world's finest dive sites.

A few weeks after my trip, Stan Waterman visited Sangalaki. His impressions are featured in a film entitled, "The Reefs of Borneo." You may also consult the web links to Steve Fish's excellent photographs of Sangalaki. Or if you like, give me a call. I won't tire of discussing Sangalaki's fabulous diving and the magic of Indonesia for a long time to come.

Copyright © - Ken Knezick