Swimming with Mantas in Sangalaki

Besides an army of sea turtles around Derawan, there’s an even more exciting, albeit less predictable attraction that brings visitors here – reef mantas. If the conditions are right, meaning enough plankton in the water, snorkelers and divers can swim with dozens of manta rays around Sangalaki, an uninhabited island an hour by boat from Derawan. It’s a rare opportunity to see these animals close up and many naturalists make the pilgrimage to isolated Derawan hoping to spot the magnificent creatures. But as with many of nature’s great spectacles, it’s the luck of the draw. As it so happened, we drew wisely.

Arriving in Sangalaki, we leaned over the edge of the boat to look for any movement in the clear water. Absolutely nothing.

“No plankton today,” the boatman exclaimed matter-of-factly suggesting that we should just give up and go home. But we would have none of that and dove rebelliously into the water. Desperate for mantas, we snorkeled in ever-widening circles around the boat. After 45 minutes without any sightings, we swam back tired and disappointed. Just as I was telling everyone that I knew this was going to happen, someone spotted a manta at the surface a hundred meters away. There it was again, my German negativity – followed by a well-deserved and extremely enjoyable proverbial slap in the face.

A couple of minutes later, we were all back in the water. Mantas at last. Bobbing up and down in the wavelets, I turned slowly around staring into blue nothingness through my mask. Suddenly, two massive mantas glided into view, their gaping mouths looked like they just might swallow me whole. Like underwater pterodactyls, their enormous “flapping” wings cut through the water in slow motion momentarily exposing their white underbellies. I popped my head above water and noticed manta dorsal fins breaking the surface all around me. The thrill was indescribable.

Tony and I spent an hour and a half swimming with the amazing giants. One magical moment stands out when I found myself in the middle of a large school of eye-popping blue and yellow fish. For a moment, I was distracted by all the frenzy, but my eye suddenly caught the silvery reflection of a solitary tuna below me. How beautiful, I thought to myself as four reef mantas appeared from nowhere and began circling me and the fish. The graceful animals drew wide circles around me as I watched. Although reef mantas are smaller than oceanic mantas, such as the one we spotted in Malapascua, they still felt impressively large with their 4-meter (12 ft.) wing span. I sat there suspended in the ocean as four monstrous mouths scooped up the plankton around me. It was incredible!

From a distance, the scene above water appeared very different. Tony told me later that with their dorsal fins breaking the surface, it looked like four sharks were circling in on me. But apparently, he was too busy with his own mantas to come save me. 🙂

The reef mantas of Sangalaki are definitely a highlight of our four years on the road. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the sightings are not completely predictable. Although the cost of the $100 boat trip to Sangalaki can be split between travelers, repeated unsuccessful manta safaris can leave visitors feeling blue. One Frenchman we met on Derawan went to Sangalaki three times and never saw a single manta ray – ouch! Luckily, Derawan and its nearby islands have so many natural attractions that a little manta setback shouldn’t kill the mood. If you don’t get to see the mantas at Sangalaki, there’s yet another exciting attraction nearby which can quickly ease the pain (or cause more pain as some have claimed). But more about that in our next blog posting…

4 responses to “Swimming with Mantas in Sangalaki”

  1. Lucky indeed; what a thrill!

  2. avatar przemek says:

    Hi Thomas,

    I just read your report story and my imagination started to work on it. Normally, I do not make any comments in social medias as I simply ignore them, but you wrote it so nicely. Besides, you have mentioned Malapascua Island where we spend our time in 2005 and obviously we are in the process of planning our trip to Derawan Islands this year around Christmas.
    I wonder where you have stayed in Derawan Arch. and what was your impression. Me and my wife Anna do not dive but we travelled a lot in SE Asia enjoing our snorkling talents so we think we can do it also in Derawan.
    We would be grateful for some tips and hints.
    Best regards
    Przemek and Anna
    Warsaw/Poland

    • avatar Thomas says:

      Hi Przemek,

      We actually stayed in Derawan itself. There are many small guesthouses and a couple of larger resort-like places there. There is a high-end resort on a neighboring island which offers scuba diving, but Derawan is a fantastic place for sea turtles. There are so many turtles, it’s unbelievable. Trips can be organized to Sangalaki and Kakaban from Derawan or the resort island. There is one place which offers diving gear on Derawan, but it was VERY disorganized while we were there.

      Be warned, Derawan is pretty, but there are many people on the island and the beaches can be somewhat messy. It is not to be compared with islands in southern Thailand with perfect beaches. Despite that, we found Derawan one of our favorite places in Indonesia because of the turtles, the great atmosphere, the friendly people, good fish dinners, and the excursions to Kakaban and Sangalaki.

      Also, if your primary goal is to swim with mantas, the mantas in Derawan are fantastic if you see them. But they aren’t always there. If you are going to Bali, there’s a great place to see mantas off of Nusa Lembongan. And Komodo can also be good for mantas during fall and winter. You can arrange snorkeling and diving trips in both locations. Here are some of our posts on these areas:

      https://www.contemporarynomad.com/2011/10/celebrating-my-100th-dive-big-time/

      https://www.contemporarynomad.com/2011/12/komodo-divers-paradise/

      Let me know if you have any other questions.

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