4th Nov 2010 - 7th Nov 2010
Whale sharks of Cenderawasih Bay
Trish: As with most of Indonesia‘s gems, we found ourselves heading to Papua more by luck than forward planning. Gary had been, as always, perusing various ‘save the oceans’ and natural world websites and found some awesome photos of a group of 6 or 7 whale sharks under a traditional fishing platform. We did some research, asked some friends in the know, and before we knew it we were joining our photographer friend Michael Aw (organiser of our September Maldives trip to see the manta rays in Hanifaru bay) on an Ocean Geographic recce to see it for ourselves.
We met up with Michael and some friends of his at Ambon airport and travelled together to Nabire, Papua, where we taxied down the small airstrip past washing lines and simple shacks, with dogs running out to chase our plane. Thanks to one of our company being good friends with the chief of police for the region, we were picked up from the airport by a police escort, who remained with us the entire trip to make sure everything ran smoothly. Nabire itself is a smallish town not yet on the tourist trail, with dirty streets and ugly concrete buildings. We stayed in one of the only hotels, basic and overpriced but with hot water and air conditioning. The hotel was surprisingly full, though we saw maybe only 3 other ‘out of towners’, the rest of our neighbours being Papuan and presumably not paying the same rate as us! We purchased supplies, had a team dinner, then an early night in anticipation of the what we hoped would be a day to remember.
At 6am the next day we were boarding a little yellow boat for the 2 hour ride out to the bagans (fishing platforms) in Cenderawasih Bay. Again we had a police escort, this time in the form of a second boat which accompanied us all day carrying our dive equipment. Nabire is situated on the south shore of this huge u-shaped bay. More like a sea, you cannot see one side from the other. The bagans are floating wooden platforms holding little shacks on which fishermen from Sulawesi live permanently, catching small fish in the big nets suspended below. The fish are then dried out and sold in bulk on the mainland. It has only become known in the last year or so that whale sharks have become resident in the area, seemingly purely because of the existence of the bagans. The sharks are attracted by the smell of the small fish in the nets and have learnt that by sucking on the bottom of them they are able to extract bits of fish and goo. The fishermen are not particularly bothered by this. Whale sharks have no teeth, the risk of a broken net is low, and the amount of fish ’stolen’ by the sharks through the nets insubstantial. They are, however, still scared of the sharks, on the whole not understanding that this is just a gentle giant.
As we approached the first bagan the fishermen told us there was a shark below. We threw on our snorkelling gear and jumped in the water to find our first whale shark of the day, a baby one only 3-4 metres long. It was cruising around looking at the nets and at us, and with 7 of us in the water and only one of him, he left within 10 minutes for quieter waters.
We hopped back in the boat and headed to the next bagan. There, we were told, there were many ‘big fish’. We jumped back in the water and found 7 whale sharks. They were swimming around under the platform, occasionally going up to the bottom of the nets filled with small fish, and sucking on them in the hope of a tasty morsel. They hung vertical in the water as they sucked, completely oblivious to our presence, moving on only when the buffet dried up or another shark came along and bumped them out of the way. At the first bagan there had been just one baby shark, but here, there were also adults. Several 10-12m in length, big powerful creatures, bigger than we had ever seen before. Within half an hour we had over 10 sharks with us. With them outnumbering us, and the fishing nets brimming with juicy titbits, they remained, completely at ease with our company, even curious. Not being predatory creatures, they have tiny eyes for the size of their body, with soft surrounding skin which wrinkled up and closed over the eye as they prepared to feed. They would swim past us so close, turning just before contact (although sometimes a gentle push away by us was required), ever aware of their enormous tails and apart from the odd accidental sideswipe nearly always managing to keep it out of our way! With over 10 of them in the water with us, I can’t count the number of times I would be taking a photo of one shark only to be nudged out of the way by the one I hadn’t seen approach from behind, or returning to the surface from a freedive to be confronted by a ceiling of white flesh as one cruised above.
Having also secured the interest of the bagan fishermen and our police escort, at first thinking us crazy for getting in the water, they too began to grow in confidence. By the end of the day we had the fishermen throwing fish into the water to feed the whale sharks, and the police in the water with us, no longer afraid of the ‘monsters’. The sharks spent a lot of time at the surface around and under the wooden struts of the bagan, and the fishermen could throw the fish directly into their mouths. Hopefully, we changed their previous opinions of the sharks by showing them how friendly they are.
We spent 6 hours in the water under that one bagan, most of our time spent snorkelling, with a couple of hours on scuba tanks. Gary and I hitched a ride with the police boat on the way back, arriving back in Nabire exhausted and thoroughly grateful for the hot shower. Dinner was an excited affair as everyone swapped interaction stories and planned setting changes for their big camera rigs the next day. Myself and Gary at least do not have these decisions to make. As on the manta trip we are the only ones in the water with small compacts in plastic canon housings!
The next day was an amazing repetition. Returning to the same bagan, we found 7 sharks already there, with several more joining as the day went on. It was another indescribably wonderful day, with so many of these beautiful creatures. We left the bagan that afternoon with an intense feeling of sadness that 1) we wouldn’t be returning tomorrow to spend more time with them as this may have been the best wildlife experience we have ever, and will ever have, and 2) nothing is set in place to protect these beautiful animals. With the shark finning industry ever present, we just have to hope that the government and the fishermen see the value in preserving the bay and it’s inhabitants.
We flew out of Nabire the next morning, back to Ambon for a few days to try to procure a visa extension and sort through our photos before deciding where to head next. Whale sharks and conservation dominate our thoughts, and though we feel extremely lucky to have had this fantastic experience, our trip with Ocean Geographic has charged interest around the diving community and we hope we have not opened the floodgates to unregulated tourism in the area. The sharks enjoy a peaceful life in the bay as it stands, I’d like to think it could stay that way.