Whale sharks of Cenderawasih Bay

By Patricia O'Donnell

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Landing in Nabire, Papua, in 2010, we taxied down the small airstrip past washing lines and simple shacks, dogs running out to chase our plane. Thanks to good contacts we were picked up by a police escort to make sure everything ran smoothly. Nabire itself was a small 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.  


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At 6am the next day we made the 2-hour ride out to the bagans in Cenderawasih Bay. 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 and sold in bulk on the mainland. It had only become known in the last year or so that whale sharks had become resident in the area. Attracted by the smell of the small fish in the nets, the sharks had learnt that by sucking on the bottom of them they are able to extract bits of goo. The fishermen were 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 were, however, still scared of the sharks, not understanding that this is just a gentle giant.

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At the second bagan we approached we were told there were many ‘ikan besar’ (big fish). We jumped in the water and found 7 whale sharks 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. Within half an hour we had over 10 adult sharks with us, big powerful creatures 10-12m in length. With them outnumbering us, and the fishing nets brimming, 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), on the most part managing to keep their enormous tails out of our way. With so many 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 now 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’.


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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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