Why Diving With Whale Sharks Was One of the Most Rewarding Travel Days of My Life

Whale sharks are some of the largest and most mysterious creatures on earth — and Cenderawasih Bay is one of the rare places you can enjoy a guaranteed swim with them in relative seclusion.

Whaleshark swimming with Pilotfish
Photo: Getty Images

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Twenty feet below the surface of the Indian Ocean, I bobbed up and down gently as I tried to control my breathing. This was the first dive I had been on since earning my scuba certification… just the week before. In the interim, I had taken five flights and traveled nearly 12,000 miles to get here. Gripping my newly purchased GoPro tightly, I scanned the aquascape around me, searching for any sign of the colossal creatures I had come here to see.

Then I noticed my dive guide waving to get my attention and pointing just over my left shoulder. I turned to see an enormous maw coming right toward me. It veered ever so slightly, and instead, an immense, spot-flecked flank glided by, followed by a languid swish from a tail the size of my entire body. The whale sharks had arrived.

During several dives, we saw over a dozen whale sharks ranging from 15-foot juveniles to full-grown adults on what I now consider to be one of the most rewarding days of travel in my life.

Whale Shark and Freediver, Rhincodon typus, Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia
Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Mysteries of the Deep

Whale sharks are some of the largest and most mysterious creatures on earth. These behemoths of the blue typically grow to 40 feet in length and can weigh 20 tons — about the same size and weight as your average school bus. Though they have hundreds of tiny teeth in mouths that can be five feet wide, these gentle giants are filter feeders whose diet consists mainly of plankton and small fish.

Beyond that, little is known about the habits or lives of this endangered species. Mostly solitary, they range thousands of miles through open ocean, appearing seasonally in places like Australia, Belize, Mexico, and the Philippines.

That makes it harder to predict exactly when and where whale sharks will show up. Or to avoid hordes of other wildlife enthusiasts who cram into tourist boats and flop into the water to snorkel alongside one of the gigantic beasts when they do appear.

However, there is one place on earth where you can enjoy a guaranteed swim with these primordial specimens in relative seclusion throughout the year, and even scuba dive with them if you are so inclined: Indonesia’s Cenderawasih Bay.

Where the Wild Things Are

Located along the northern coast of West Papua, about 2,000 miles east of Jakarta, the protected area of Cenderawasih Bay covers some 5,400 square miles and is Indonesia’s largest marine national park. Along with well-known dive destinations like Raja Ampat, it is part of the so-called Coral Triangle, which is thought to contain over three quarters of the coral species on earth and over a thousand different types of fish.

Despite its size, there are only a handful of tiny villages in the region where the locals make their living in traditional ways like farming and fishing.

It is these fishermen, who put out to sea for weeks or even months at a time on traditional floating platforms called bagans, that have formed a symbiotic relationship with the whale sharks. By doing so, they have hit upon a strategy that might just keep commercial fishing at bay in favor of conservation-based tourism.

The whale-shark hotspots tend to be in an area near the village of Kwatisore along a peninsula on the bay’s southwest edge. The fishermen around here have long regarded whale sharks as lucky since they are thought to keep other predators and sharks away from the bagans. In the local language, the name for them is gurano bintang, which means “star shark” thanks to their distinctive spots, which are unique to each beast and can be used to identify them like a fingerprint.

Each night, the fishermen lower enormous nets to catch fish, often reaping a bounty of small baitfish, which they then use to catch larger species. They noticed, however, that the whale sharks were attracted to their nets and would try to suck the baitfish out from them, often becoming tangled and tearing the nets.

In an effort to protect both their catch and their nets, the fishermen started feeding whale sharks buckets of baitfish off the sides of the bagans so they would not go for the fish in the nets. It wasn’t long before both conservation organizations and wildlife travelers took notice and started flocking here to study the sharks.

Lagoon of Ahe Island, Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia
Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Considered Conservation

Now, locals can continue fishing as they have always done, but also earn money from the visitors who come to snorkel and scuba dive with the whale sharks. Lest you think this is a haphazard, touristic free-for-all, though, both Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are very active in the area and have even taken advantage of the regular sightings to study whale sharks in greater detail than ever before. The WWF is also working with the Indonesian government monitor to responsibly develop tourism strategies and a code of conduct for activities involving the whale sharks.

To that point, although visitors can scuba with the sharks — which is not the case in most other places where they are found — divers are extensively briefed on appropriate behavior around these living natural wonders. That includes no touching, no flash photography, maintaining a respectful distance, limiting the number of divers in the water at any given moment, and only spending brief amounts of time in the water with them each day.

Given the Cenderawasih Bay’s remote location, the protected status of its waters, and the measured way the Indonesian government seems to be approaching wildlife sightseeing here, it might well be the country’s new model for sustainable tourism and an alternative to overfishing in the rest of the archipelago nation.

Planning Your Trip

The journey to Cenderawasih Bay requires a series of short flights within Indonesia. Travelers starting in Jakarta, Bali, or Surabaya must first fly to Makassar then on to Biak before taking a small plane to Nabire or Manokwari. Boats to Cenderawasih Bay depart from either.

Most people visit the area for about a week on a live-aboard boat, some of which are specifically for divers, while others cater to all types of travelers. Many stop near Kwatisore to see the whale sharks for one or two days and then continue on to other areas of the bay so guests can snorkel the area’s stunning coral reefs, see sunken planes and shipwrecks, visit vibrant villages, and just take in the natural splendor of the area.

The luxurious five-cabin Alila Purnama offers some of the best itineraries through Cenderawasih Bay. They typically take place March to May each year, but guests can also charter the entire ship at other times. The vessel is a traditional Indonesian phinisi, or wooden schooner. This one has all the modern conveniences, though, including sumptuously decorated cabins, air conditioning, Wi-Fi, made-to-order meals, and complimentary laundry, not to mention dive guides who take care of all the details for scuba excursions throughout the voyage.

Between dives and snorkeling stops, the full crew is always on hand to whip up smoothies and cappuccinos, arrange the deck chairs for sun-soaked afternoon naps, organize relaxing spa treatments, and prepare candlelit beach banquets among the other delights in store for passengers.

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