Sangalaki & Kakaban – The ECO Islands
AN EXCLUSIVE FEATURE By Bob Whorton ©
The Far East has a lot going for visiting divers and none more than Borneo, which has some of the worlds premiere diving sites in both Malaysian Sabah and Indonesian Kalimantan provinces. This report focuses on Borneo’s two Indonesian gems - Sangalaki & Kakaban Islands…and believe me it is difficult to pack it all into one article!
In the beginning, this trip began as just me accepting an invitation from Borneo Divers to write a report on their operations all over Borneo. However, by the time it came around I had eleven friends joining me for the major part of the trip. There was a certain amount of trepidation (understandably) due to the amount of transfers involved in order to get from place to place, but everything slowly fell into place augmented by the professional and personal attention of the Borneo diver’s staff, and especially the organisational skills of Ursula.
Just over two hours later, there it was, a luscious picture postcard island surrounded by clear blue water – Sangalaki, and what a nice welcoming too involving all of the staff and a round of drinks. We felt revitalised fast!
Sangalaki Lodge is set amongst palms and shrubbery with chalets to the left and right of the main community buildings, all built on stilts above the natural white sandy ground. The resort has been kept as low-key as possible in keeping with its surroundings and its natural residents, giving a nice laid back feel…and it works.
The island takes about 25 minutes to circumnavigate by way of the beach, but only allowed during daylight hours to limit turtle confrontations, that might dissuade them from laying… Wildlife has priority!
Following the formal briefing, we were introduced to the guides; Bahrun (the centre manager) and Andreas the ‘Sea-Pigmy’. With the first dive planned within the hour on the reef just outside the shallow lagoon in front of the centre. Bahrun also informed us of a group of three Americans joining us the next day en route from Sipadan.
TIME TO DIVE
The island is surrounded by a relatively shallow fringing reef system of varying topography dropping from a shallow expanse of enveloping lagoon down to a maximum depth of around 25m where it flattens off into a broad sandy shelf. There are eight officially designated diving sites around the perimeter, which are remarkably dissimilar in both structure and marine life. Two, twin-outboard fibreglass boats would drop us at any of the sites within ten minutes. The lodge has a large changing facility that lost the 12 of us, with excellent equipment and camera washing tanks outside. All assembled dive equipment was transported to the dive boat and back by the staff which we appreciated no-end, especially on a low tide trek to the boats…An impressive operation, and here is just a taster of what Sangalaki had to offer below the water line.
Lighthouse reef was just a two-minute ride in the boat… A lighthouse marks the edge of the reef above the site but an old collapsed structure lies underwater and has become a nice feature on its own merit. The structure is now covered in marine growths, coral and assorted anemonae – occupied by Eastern Clownfish, Pink and Celebes anemone fish. A broad sandy shelf separates the inside reef wall from the outer reef, which slips gently down to around 20m. Numerous coral outcrops were dotted across the sandy shelf that provided very rewarding observations of the smaller reef dwelling fish… One area in particular, covered in a rich layer of hard, soft & fan coral was literally heaving with small fish. At each end of the outcrop two lionfish stalked the small-guy’s, periodically making a calculated lunge into the masses. On the extremes of this outcrop were large carpet anemonae and a beautiful example of heteractis magnifica; the purple tipped anemone. Again, the variety of occupants was astounding – four different types of anemone fish in an area of just ten square meters, things were looking good! Wesley and I were looking for one type of anemone fish in particular, in fact we had almost given up until I spotted it between two growths of Stag horn coral - Premnas Biaculeatus - the spine cheeked anemone fish. This deep red beauty had creamy-yellow bands and represented the largest growing species of all anemone fish. It gets its name from the sharp spines on the gill covers which are very similar to those of the Sabre Squirrelfish.
A reef with a similar topography was ‘Sandy Ridge’ on the opposite side of the lagoon entrance, the only difference being the coral outcrops were smaller but higher and a whole caboodle of different marine life. The pristine hard corals were complemented with small sea-fans and small but pretty soft corals, each outcrop gave protection for literally thousands of sweepers, damsels and cardinal fish. The reefs main predator as you may expect, was the ever-hungry lionfish, several examples roamed the fringing sand.
The most rewarding part of the dive was happening across a group of adult cuttlefish, which at first we thought were hunting chromids hiding inside the porites heads. On closer inspection we found that they were actually laying mucus covered eggs, carefully placing each one deep inside the coral.
The cuttlefish were very accommodating too, swimming right up to the front of my 12 mm lens… I guess we spent a good 30 minutes observing the ritual and the ever-changing colouration that varied around position and task. All the time allowing me to continue photographing without any concern on their part, maybe because I wasn’t using a strobe.
Probably the finest reef I have seen in recent years for sheer quality of hard coral and number of species was on a site called Eel Ridge, about five minutes ride from the lagoon entrance. The reef profile was a steady drop from 5m down to a flat sandy expanse at 17m, stepped in ledges like a hill side rice paddy, but the crop was much, much richer. This was a sight for sore eyes, untouched and pristine like the Maldives of twenty years ago. Although the similarity I immediately drew was to Menai Island on Cosmoledo Atoll where I was the month before, due mainly to the amount of barrel sponges dotted around the edges of the reef and the large Porites structures standing proud of the main outline.
On the seabed, 3-4m from the reef stood a single, large sea pen maybe 25 cm high, something I certainly see too few of now a days and well worth a couple of pictures. The American lads (who had joined our boat) were as interested as I in the sighting, it was photographed, video’d, digitally enhanced and uploaded to the Internet on the spot! During the briefing, one of the things Bahrun had told us was to look out for giant clams; well it wasn’t too long before we came across an example spanning 70 cm – that was a serious clam!
What made the site especially aesthetic was the absolutely pristine and colourful gorgonian species adorning almost every raised coral head with large crinoids adding further decorative qualities. Large ridge corals (pochyseris sp.) grew profusely, many with an iridescent blue growing edge that was very eye-catching. Plenty of red and black coral bushes softened the edges of vertical extremes, and everything enveloped in small fish. The open sandy ledges had some surprises too in the shape of tiny ribbon eels and a brooding jaw fish with a mouth full of eggs. One surprising sighting was a beautiful black-tipped shark that appeared from nowhere and swam straight between the group of us.
Apart from beautiful coral, Sangalaki is renowned for its apparently resident group of Manta Rays that frequent the islands northerly extremes. There are three manta observation points called – cleaning station, manta avenue and manta run. The most fruitful and productive on this occasion was undoubtedly “Cleaning Station”. The cleaning station itself is an area of coral measuring 10m x 4m x 3m high, standing on a flat sandy bed at a around 15m. The three times I dived this spot it wasn’t long before the manta arrived either individually or in pairs. Not the most cooperative of manta photographically, but I guess they were intimidated by a group of aliens such as us! Visually they were enchanting, appearing silently from nowhere and hanging in the noticeable current over the top of the station, their slow purposeful movements contrasting with the frantic pace of the cleaners. Those were magic moments, everyone clearly moved by the experience, but during our second dive here, something amazing took place that was even more moving and was clearly a gesture for help.
“Houston we have a problem...”
We arrived at the site just as a large black manta was moving away, assuming we had arrived too late for the cleaning spectacle we began observing other residents of the site. However, within a couple of minutes I noticed a small manta of about 2.5m span heading straight for me. Signalling the group we settled into a passive stance and the manta came straight up within a few cm’s, turning its left mandible towards me. We could see straight away that it was deeply cut by a length of nylon net which was still attached towed behind it. The manta swam in front of us as if showing us the problem, then turned and came straight back again. I think Bahrun and I had the same thoughts simultaneously as I reached for my knife he took one from Sue, So I carefully held on to the net whilst he cut the line. As soon as the manta felt the relief it was off, swimming free and breathing a sigh of relief no doubt. Hopefully the wound would heal quickly and the story gets a very happy ending.
The outcrop is a congregational point too for batfish, sweetlips and surgeonfish and in the low swimthro’ below the station dozed a whitetip shark. The site also enveloped many ‘islands’ of coral with a selection of pretty anemonae and fish. Below one particular growth of coral Bahrun pointed out something special…two cute ‘leaf fish’, one purple and one white. These cute fish (resembling a flattened frog fish), sway from side to side to mimic the movements of more inanimate objects affected by the currents, although “purple” seemed a bit too obvious!
Several more manta were observed whilst drifting from the station along ‘Manta Run’, the manta giving us a ‘fly-by’ enroute to the cleaning station.
Just 30-40 minutes east of Sangalaki is the larger, stranger Island of Kakaban, offering a complete contrast to the classic reef profile… “Walls!” However, some of its attributes, though not unique, but still pretty remarkable are hidden from the sea. Kakaban Island is, almost triangular in shape with steep limestone walls rising from the sea, covered it seems in lush vegetation… but a trek inland was to reveal something special… Its very own ‘Jellyfish Lake’. The land locked lakes in Palau have become famous over the past 10 years but this one at Kakaban knocks the spots off them being 3 times the size with many times more Jellyfish too. From the air the island looks like a malformed ‘Polo’ mint, as the majority of the interior is lake.
Kakaban started life thousands of years ago as a simple coral atoll, but during the Holocene transgression 21,000 years ago the whole area was lifted skywards trapping 5 sq km’s of water inside its impermeable limestone.
The trek from the small southern beach has been made easier in the last year with the aid of a partially completed walkway preventing injury from the slippery, razor sharp ‘champion’ rock. A small makeshift jetty allows easy donning of fins, mask & snorkel and allows easy access to the water too. The life inside the lake is amazing and includes the following (although we couldn’t see it all): 4 species of jellyfish, snakes, eels, crabs lobsters, and tunicates as well as five species of goby. Unlike Palau there is no apparent toxic layer and the maximum depth here averages around 5m. The lakebed itself varies from areas of flat sand to plant-rich mounds ascending to within 3m of the surface. The visibility was better than I expected, but varies with temperature and rainfall. The active jellyfish population has a symbiotic partnership with millions of algal cells, in fact very similar to the one had by hard corals... The jellyfish transports the algae into the sunlight allowing it to photosynthesise which rewards the jellyfish with the by-product sugar for food. During times of darkness the jellyfish sink back to the bottom of the lake to conserve energy. The sunnier it is – the more jellyfish active in the water column. “Fascinating stuff!”
Due to its triangular shape, Kakaban has some very definite ‘points’ jutting out into the blue. ‘Barracuda point’ was no exception; two vertical walls meet below a sloping plateau extending from the main reef. Above the plateau we actually saw the school of Chevron barracuda (cynicism), with plenty of jacks and surgeonfish too... The vertical wall brought back that “des jar vous” feeling as it was almost identical to that on Astove in the Seychelles, although the fish differed tremendously. The coral growth is rich due to the abundant food received from the depths on strong currents, most prolific above the 30m mark. Several whitetip sharks and a grey were seen during the first dive plus several enormous stingrays sitting inside one the many large clefts. Periodically schools of snapper and fusiliers hammered in and out of the blue, but we couldn’t see what was worrying them but more than likely the dolphin we had observed on the surface earlier. Plenty of large grouper species around the wall and on top of the reef, but no potato groupers anywhere.
The southern wall proved the most picturesque with layer after layer of hard and soft corals many decorated with royal blue, yellow or green tunicates. Gorgonian were represented too, in shades of Red, pink, orange and white, with secondary growths of vivid soft corals. Large lionfish were prowling the shadows below the ridge on the lookout for an easy meal from one or more of the myriad of small fish. Several of the group observed a solitary leopard shark dozing inside a small cave; Sue spotted a Frogfish but didn’t tell us until after the dive. “Thanks Sue!” Many more anemonae along this section too, at least 6 species with 4 different species of anemone fish. Several large carpet anemone were supporting 4 or 5 porcelain crabs too, visible around the folded skirts.
In all this ½ day trip was great fun, adding extra interest & variety, but more importantly gave a further insight into a radically specialised ecosystem.
Sangalaki Turtle Conservation – Eco-tourism
Nightfall on Sangalaki brought with it a certain “air”... From an hour after darkness until an hour before dawn female green turtles invaded the island to dig nests and lay their eggs. Walking to our chalets at night was like walking across a building site, often ending up covered in excavated sand. The chalets themselves presented little in the way of obstacles for the turtles; they would plough right underneath and dig the nest there. It’s a wonder the buildings have never collapsed!
One of the things that especially interested me about travelling to Sangalaki was the ongoing turtle conservation and research program conducted by the “Turtle Foundation”. During the stay I was lucky enough to meet representatives of this organisation and the whole group were allowed to get involved in observations of nesting, laying and the journeys emerging baby turtles heading to the sea.
However, the turtles on Sangalaki are getting exploited, 80% their eggs are taken by a team of egg collectors due to a government concession that allows turtle eggs to be collected and sold. Until recent efforts by the Federation and a special conservation order from Dr. M Masdjuni, the district chief of Berau - all 100% were taken by the collectors. The concession for the collection of turtle eggs on Sangalaki was once owned by Borneo Divers who obviously left them all to hatch (well those that were not stolen) naturally. Unfortunately their bid for the new concession was beaten by the gentleman who owns ‘Darawan Island resort’ 30 minutes away. He regards the resort as a centre for diving yet puts turtle eggs on his menu’s. Ironically as the diving is so poor around Darawan the dive centre takes its clients to Sangalaki! Unfortunately too, not all divers are conservation minded.
Since this article was written in July 2001 Sangalaki Island has been formally granted "Conservation status". Now 100% of the eggs are protected and allowed to hatch naturally without human intervention. However, the unscrupulous egg poachers still try their luck, and whilst there in October this year I witnessed an arrest and susiquent Police enquiry... Way to go guys - Keep up the good work.
A job well done by the Turtle Federation...
However, the owner of Derawan Island still offers the eggs of endangered species on his menus, together with turtle 'Satai'... What an ass-hole eh!
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