The Whale Sharks of Cendrawasih Bay

Swimming with whale sharks is something that only the lucky few will do on a regular basis. Simon Pridmore describes how getting in the way of these gentle giants can result in a bruising encounter too.

Sorong, Indonesian Papua, 21 November 2013. Although often described as gentle giants, there is nothing gentle about a 6-metre whale shark when you have managed stupidly to position yourself in such a way as to prevent it wrapping its enormous lips around a baitfish meal. 

 The whale sharks at Cendrawasih are almost tame

The whale sharks at Cendrawasih are almost tame

We had heard that in the bays around Kwatisore, close to the town of Nabire, fishermen on offshore platforms had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a group of resident whale sharks. It sounded unlikely, but the longer you dive the more obvious it becomes that we know shamefully little about the ocean and the animals that inhabit it. 

So we chartered the classy, boutique Damai liveaboarddive boat out of Sorong on the north-western tip of Indonesian Papua and, having spent a few days with the teeming schools of fish and fabulously decorated reefs of Rajah Ampat, we traveled south east, deep into Cendrawasih Bay, following rumours of the whale sharks.

The group I was with had been in the water for most of the morning and, having initially been very cautious about getting near to the whale sharks for fear that we might scare them off, the fact that they had been circling around us unconcerned for a few hours persuaded me that they wouldn’t mind if I took a few close up pictures, with no flash of course! They didn’t mind at all; what they did mind was me getting in the way of their mid-morning snack - I would have bruises to accompany my stories for the next couple of weeks.

I knew how the whale sharks felt. I was starving. Finally I had to break away to get something to eat myself. As I reached the surface I called up to the local fishermen and asked them to make sure the amazing sharks didn’t leave. “Don’t worry,” they said, “they will be around all day!”

Up Close and Personal

We had dropped anchor the previous evening in Cendrawasih Bay, a few hundred metres away from several brightly illuminated platforms. Next morning we were up at dawn.

 The sharks have learned to get a free meal from the nets slung under the floating platforms

The sharks have learned to get a free meal from the nets slung under the floating platforms

The whale sharks were also early risers and, as we approached the closest of the platforms we saw two enormous grey speckled shapes appear beneath us. Never has a group of divers geared up and disappeared beneath the waves so quickly.

We found that the platforms had nets strung beneath them. Powerful spotlights attract baitfish to the platforms and into the nets during the night, and the whale sharks have learned that the bottom of the nets contains a layer of fishy mush that they can suck out through the mesh. The fishermen believe that the whale sharks bring them good fortune, so deliberately keep them around. The sharks sometimes surface close to the platforms and the fishermen will occasionally scoop out handfuls of small fish from the top of the nets and shovel them straight down the whale sharks’ capacious throats; as a result they were always around and we never had to chase them.

They often came within arms length. We snapped away like crazy during the first few minutes, terrified that they would disappear, but their stamina was greater than ours and they were still there when we finally called an end to the day’s diving and retired to soak up the last rays of the sun and discuss an extraordinary day.

Eco-tourism dilemma

Observations suggest that these whale sharks are a population of adolescent fish, mostly males. No giant adult whale sharks have been spotted beneath the platforms. Very little is known about whale shark behaviour anywhere and the presence of what seems to be a static population gives scientists an excellent research opportunity. It is a great chance too for divers to come and take photos that will in turn increase awareness further afield of the marvels that nature can bestow.

Of course, there are other places in the world where people can see and interact with whale sharks. Seasonal aggregations occur in many places from Western Australia to Eastern Mexico. Not all the interactions are benign. In the Philippines whale sharks exhibiting similar behaviour to those in Cendrawasih Bay have unfortunately become the centrepiece of a circus that was the focus of worldwide uproar last year when a video went viral on You Tube of a young girl surfing on the back of a whale shark.

It is unlikely that this sort of mass-market tourism will develop around the Kwatisore whale sharks. West Papua is extraordinarily remote and difficult to get to and divers are by and large considerate, knowledgeable and respectful visitors. The Bay is also a marine park so boats that visit the area have to have a park ranger on board.

 A diver enjoying a moment as a whale shark sandwich

A diver enjoying a moment as a whale shark sandwich

However, the usual eco tourist dilemma exists here as everywhere. No matter how carefully we tread, the simple fact of our presence can change behaviour and upset delicate balances. This is an extremely impoverished region of Indonesia so the income that both villages and fishermen derive from the visiting dive boats must be of some benefit, although it is unlikely to be evenly shared and may exacerbate inequality.

After the whale sharks were “discovered”, a dive resort opened nearby for visitors looking for a budget option instead of liveaboards, but sadly it closed soon afterwards following stories of conflict between villages and appalling reviews.

At the moment it seems the balance at Cendrawasih Bay is about right, at least from this observer’s point of view. The relationship between the fishermen and the whale sharks remains unchanged; a little economic prosperity has been brought to a part of the world that desperately needs it, and well-heeled and well-meaning visitors from overseas can enjoy an astonishing experience.

Getting there

West Papua has a number of airports, including Sorong, Kaimana, Nabire, Biak and Manokwari, served from Jakarta, Denpasar, Manado or Makassar by Express Air, Lion Air, Merpati and Garuda.

Liveaboards that visit Cendrawasih Bay include Dive Damai, MV Seahorse and Dewi Nusantara. Details are on their websites.

Photography by Simon Pridmore. Simon Pridmore is the author of the Bali Diving and Snorkeling Guide with Tim Rock. His latest book, Scuba Confidential – An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver is available on Amazon.