The steering wheel spins frantically, the engine graunches and the tiny speedboat slews side-on to the swell, centimetres from a mess of floating timber. Luckily our captain, a Bajo “sea gypsy” from the fishing people who first settled Borneo’s Derawan archipelago, is a master of the marine handbrake turn. He grins and guns the engine; the white sands, tall palms and stilt houses of Derawan island come into focus.
My teenage son and I have travelled through the coal mine-scarred landscape beyond Berau, a riverside town in Kalimantan on mainland Indonesian Borneo (and reached via two flights from Singapore), to take a boat out to spend a week exploring a few of the archipelago’s scores of islands. Only two are officially inhabited, though 30-odd others have names and some are home to scientists and sea-dwelling boat people. By the end of this year the islands will be better connected to the mainland, with the completion of a small airport on Maratua island, which will handle short-haul flights.
We’ll be spending the next couple of days at Derawan Dive Lodge, a cluster of elegant wooden cabanas reached by jetty over limpid waters, where green turtles graze on sea grass and algae. At least 15,000 female turtles return to the archipelago every year, often swimming many thousands of kilometres to lay their eggs on the beaches where they had hatched. Now, so many turtles graze off Derawan island, many of them non-local breeders, that their food sources are becoming scarce.
The highest tides, around the full moon and the new moon, are the best time to watch the females drag their heavy bodies up the sand and wheeze and grunt through the ovulation process. “One laid her eggs under the restaurant a couple of weeks ago,” says the lodge’s Indonesian manager. We’ve missed their hatching, sadly.
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