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  • When the current picks up, Mantas appear, mouths wide open to feed on the plankton. Left: Cuttlefish are commonly encountered off Sangalaki, and they're not in the least bit shy.

    It felt like the proverbial Chinese fire drill. Drifting with the surface current while snorkeling, I glanced back at the boat as the guides on board pointed the way to go. Kicking rapidly in the direction indicated, I scanned just below the surface for any sign of a Manta: the white of its wings or cephalic fins, a tell-tale ripple on the surface. It wasn’t easy because the combination of plankton rich water and quickly fading daylight was cutting visibility by the moment.

    The Blue Ribbon Eel—an image of medieval myth come to life.
    Upstream, a videographer was frantically chasing every Manta he saw, getting them agitated before they got to me. Any time one materialized out of the gloom I freedived beneath it, trying to silhouette it against the surface. Invariably it would descend and sharply pirouette away. Realizing I’d have to change my strategy, I swam up current until the other diver had drifted far behind. Finally, I was dealing with undisturbed Mantas, and now they swam toward me in a virtual parade, mouths wide open, cephalic fins curled in the scoop position they use for feeding. I just hung out on the surface and let them come, seizing the moment and delighting in the encounter with these magnificent creatures.

    Mantas were only one of the reasons I had come to Sangalaki, a tiny island off the Indonesian coast of Borneo. There was also the promise of a nearby jellyfish lake and encountering exotic critters I’d never photographed before: cuttlefish, Blue Ribbon Eels, ghost pipefish and the elusive Mandarin Goby. Above all, it was the chance to be among the first to dive an emerging destination.

    Sangalaki is Borneo Divers’ (they introduced Sipadan to the dive world) latest find, a trip in time as well as distance. It lives up to all your fantasies of an idyllic jungle island in the middle of nowhere—the exclusive province of you and a few friends; accommodations are comfortable native-style huts, with all the amenities you’ll need during your stay.

    A sponge and coral crowded reef provides sanctuary for a sweetlips.
    But, getting there is an experience in itself. The trip requires three days, the first of which involves crossing the international dateline and overnighting in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The next day’s flight is to Tawau, a small town near the border of Indonesia’s region of Borneo, in the state of Kalimantan. Here you’ll board the People’s Ferry for the three-hour ride to Tarakan, Indonesia. This is the most vexing part of the journey, but Borneo Divers’ staff members are there at every port to help you through baggage handling, customs and immigration. Early the next morning you’ll board a high-powered resort boat for the three-hour trip to Sangalaki, just in time for a pair of afternoon dives.

    Throughout the ennui of the journey, I was wondering whether Sangalaki would be worth it. The first look beneath the surface wasn’t inspiring—a sandy bottom with scattered patch reefs. But 30 minutes into that first dive, my qualms were laid to rest. The cast of critters included a rich menagerie of sponges, hard and soft corals, tunicates and even a few fish that were new to me, including some angels, triggers and butterflies. Divemaster Kadek Wirawan pointed out a juvenile Blue Ribbon Eel, a Leaf Scorpionfish and a beautiful Porcelain Crab hanging out in an anemone. Another strange little critter, a Razorfish, was hovering over the sand. When I moved within its personal space, it quickly dived into the sand and disappeared.

    Hovering over a soft coral formation was a cuttlefish, either laying eggs or guarding its nest. Males usually guard the nest, and experts have problems telling the sexes apart unless they witness the actual egg laying. They aren’t even sure if the female dies shortly after laying eggs (like octopi and squid) or just loses interest and takes off. Aside from flashing different shades of brown in waves over its body, this cuttlefish didn’t seem to mind my close approach or the bursts of light from my strobes. On other occasions, its comrades didn’t show this sort of tolerance of humans, displaying a more gaudy repertoire of colors and beating a hasty retreat.

    Cuttlefish are extraordinarily approachable off Sangalaki.
    My favorite dive site on the island was the Cleaning Station, a shallow reef area where batfish and sweetlips come to be cleaned of parasites by the ubiquitous juvenile wrasses. I spent a half-hour in one spot, within touching distance of fish that normally would require far more personal space. Even Garden Eels were mellower than usual, allowing a much closer approach than in most places.

    A good guide is invaluable in macro territory. Kadek and his partner, Bahrun Lamadlauw, pointed out creatures such as Mantis Shrimps, camouflaged cowries on soft corals and the shy ghost pipefish. Looking like a straightened-out seahorse designed by Picasso, the Ornate Ghostpipefish is adorned with spikes and protuberances all over its tiny body.

    The prettiest dive on Sangalaki is Coral Garden, a vast shallow area of delicate Lettuce and Antler Corals of huge sizes and complex shapes. Once again, I felt like a blind man dependent on Kadek. He found a juvenile sweetlips that looked like it was dressed in a clown suit, thrashing around as if just learning how to swim. I wondered how something so uncoordinated could ever escape predators. The rich coral environment that covered nearly every square inch of bottom stood in sharp contrast to other sites around the island, where sand predominates.

    My favorite dive site...was the Cleaning Station... where batfish and sweetlips come to be cleaned...[by] juvenile wrasses.
    Although most diving is done off Sangalaki itself, two other islands are just 10 and 20 minutes away: Samama and Kakaban. A third, Maratua, is a one-hour-and-twenty-minute boat ride away. The most dramatic is Kakaban, a volcanic crater with a wall dropping off into deep water, and a marine lake in the center that’s home to four species of jellyfish. Like its renowned counterpart in Palau, Kakaban’s lake is reached by climbing over a rocky, muddy path through the jungle. Surrounded by mangroves, it radiates a primeval aura. Unlike the Palau lake, which has an anaerobic layer of water, this has a hard sand bottom at about 20 feet deep, and most of the jellies hang out near the surface. So snorkels will suffice for all but the most short-winded divers. And that’s good, because lugging a tank on the trek in would be a major drag.

    Free from predators for eons, these Mastigius jellyfish have lost their ability to sting, so we swam among them undisturbed. Mastigius are peach-colored jellies, about fist-sized, with a commensal algae in their tissues. They rotate in the sunlight, allowing the algae to photosynthesize. Interspersed among them are clear Aurelia jellies, and on the bottom are the upside-down Cassiopeia jellies. There is a fourth type, tiny and transparent with long tentacles, for which I couldn’t find identification.

    Another Kakaban site on the ocean side is Blue Light Cave. The entrance is at six feet, and the exit on the wall is at 100, but the cave itself drops even deeper, like a very long crack. After swimming through, we ascended along the wall, accompanied by a school of barracudas drifting with the current. As we turned the corner, it was like a different dive, a leisurely swim along the drop-off that turned into a long safety stop while combing the shelves and crevices for reef fishes and nudibranchs.

    False Clown Anemonefish nestle safely in their host anemone.
    Samama’s prime dive site is the Chandel Channel, one of the best spots in the area for macro photography. Nudibranchs, gobies, ghost pipefish and frogfishes inhabit the channel along a gradual slope to 60 feet. The current can be hefty, so there is no diving during the full and new moon.

    The channel on Maratua Island also offers a drift dive where you may encounter schools of Eagle Rays or barracudas, Gray Reef and Whitetip Sharks, Napoleon Wrasses or Dogtooth Tuna. During the winter when the water is colder, Scalloped Hammerheads may appear and on rare occasions, Whale Sharks. Coconut Wall features more Eagle Rays, sharks and, occasionally, sea snakes.

    Kadek has been guiding in this area for eight years, the last two at Sangalaki. He discovered many of the sites we dived that day. “I like the peace here,” he said. “It’s safe, shallow diving with interesting small things and sometimes hundreds of Mantas. All four islands are different, with a combination of many things to see.” Like others before him, he has fallen under the spell of Sangalaki. It’s a throwback to an earlier time, a quiet, uncrowded tropical paradise that you can dive now before everybody else puts it on their must-see list.

    Time Travel in Sangalaki | Images of Lembeh Straits | Siamese Seas
    Bali's Deer Island | Diving Across Malaysia | Southeast Asia: Getting There | Index