Diving with the West Papua Whale Sharks

A diver describes his unique opportunity to dive with and get to know the majestic whale sharks of Cendrawasih Bay

by Simon Pridmore

 

 
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Don’t give me all that “gentle giant” stuff! There is nothing gentle about a 6-meter 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 slurpee.

 

 

 

“Don’t give me all that 'gentle giant' stuff!”

 

We had been in the water for most of the morning and, having initially been very cautious about getting near the whale sharks for fear that we might scare them off, the fact that they had been circling around us unconcernedly for a few hours persuaded me that they wouldn’t mind if I took a few close-ups. They didn’t mind at all; what they did mind was me getting in the way of their mid-morning snack, and I would have bruises to accompany my stories for the next couple of weeks.
 
 
 
 
“The experience in a nutshell: one whale shark attacking the slurpee, the other coming straight for me.”
 
 
 
I knew how the whale sharks felt. We were living on a boat where you never want to miss a meal. Despite the fact that there were several whale sharks in the water with us, we had all broken away earlier to grab quick second breakfasts of porridge, buttermilk pancakes and scrambled eggs and bacon, trusting the local fishermen’s assertion that the big fish would be around all day. 
 
Fishermen? Bait fish slurpees? Whale sharks staying around all day? Perhaps I should explain...
 
 

From The Beginning

We chartered the classy, boutique Damai liveaboard 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 Raja Ampat, we traveled southeast, deep into Cendrawasih Bay, following tales of whale sharks.
 
We heard that, close to the town of Nabire, fishermen on offshore platforms had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a group of local 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 came, we saw and, luckily for us, we got our fin socks knocked off!
 
 

Finding the Whale Sharks

We dropped anchor in the early evening a few hundred meters away from several brightly illuminated platforms and the dinner conversation over the rack of lamb and crème brûlée frothed with excitement over what the morning might bring. The pessimists cautioned against high expectations, the optimists worried they might not be able to sleep, although the huge, comfortable Damai beds make insomnia unlikely. 
 
The next morning we were up just after dawn, but not early enough to get the jump on our dive valets who had our gear already loaded in the skiffs. Coffee, tea, juice, and Danish pastries were laid out in the dining room to take the edge off our appetites and give us the energy for our first dive.
 
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 have a group of divers geared up and disappeared beneath the waves so quickly.
 
 
 
 
“Grey speckled shapes”
 
 
 
We found that the platforms have nets strung beneath them. Powerful spotlights attract baitfish to the platforms and into the nets during the night. 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 and deliberately keep them around. They 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. 
 
 
 
 
“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.”
 
 
 
Peculiarly, they seem particularly enchanted when someone on the platform scoops up a bucket of seawater and starts pouring it out slowly back into the ocean. They rise to the surface and perform a kind of tail stand with their mouths open just below the point where the stream of water disturbs the surface.
 
The sharks never stray too far from the platforms, so we never had to chase them around. In fact, 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 on deck and discuss an extraordinary day over a glass or two of pre-prandial wine.
 
The consensus was that we were truly privileged. The luxury of our surroundings on the Damai belied just how far we had come and just how close we were to the outer edge of the diving map. It had all seemed so easy. Very few outsiders had ever explored the water this far south in Cendrawasih Bay, yet here we were, cocooned in air-conditioned luxury, eating five-star cuisine and being taken care of by a group of expert sailors, divers and hospitality staff. Not long ago, such a journey would have been impossible, or at least fraught with serious discomfort.
 
The following day we repeated the experience and the show was once again astonishing. Four sharks circled the platform for hours, giving us unlimited photo opportunities and unforgettable memories. They were not the only big fish attracted by the free baitfish on offer. At one point a marlin appeared fleetingly beneath. 
 
 
 
 
“Unlimited photo opportunities and unforgettable memories”
 
 
 
No doubt, some day the astonishing behavior of the Nabire whale sharks will be subject to scientific examination. Meanwhile, all we mere scuba divers can do is watch, take photographs and marvel. These whale sharks seem to be shattering long-held assumptions. They are not pelagic travelers; apparently they are always there. They are certainly not solitary and they exhibit a previously unimagined level of intelligence.
 
 
For those wanting to experience this extraordinary interaction, the Damai is running a number of Cendrawasih Bay charters out of Sorong, Biak and Nabire during 2012, which will include a couple of days by the fishing platforms. See www.dive-damai.com for details.
 
Bluewater Travel can book your next whale shark trip. Visit Bluewater Travel for expert advice.

 

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