West Papua Expedition

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

We anchored near the village of Kwatisore and close to several bagans, fishing platforms built around a boat. Fishermen live on the platforms and fish for about six weeks at a stretch. Because there is no refrigeration, they keep the captured fish alive in nets under the bagan while locals in boats come by and to purchase some of the catch every day. The fish in the nets attract whale sharks and to keep their nets from getting torn up the fishermen feed the whale sharks with fish scraps from the back end of the bagan.

A local bagan used for fishing.

I’ve always wanted to scuba and snorkel with whale sharks and have never managed to arrange it until today. These are the biggest fish on the planet, growing to over 60 feet in length, but eating nothing larger than sardines.

Photo courtesy of EYOS Expeditions

I went out in the morning and spent over an hour diving with three whale sharks at one of the bagans.  These were all juvenile males and the biggest one was only 25 feet long or so. They don’t really notice you when they are feeding and will just bump you out of the way if you are in their paths. We generally tried to stay several yards away but with multiple whale sharks all circling around in a small area you would occasionally get bumped aside. This was one of the highlights of all the dives I’ve ever done.

These were just juveniles but the largest was still about 25 feet long.

In the afternoon I went snorkeling at another bagan. We didn’t see anything for the first 15 minutes. Then as we were beginning to get disappointed two whale sharks showed up and spent the next hour with us. I managed to swim with one almost all the way around the bagan and got several minutes of good continuous video.

They are so big that even when they are moving leisurely you have to swim hard to keep up with them. I also got close enough to get a good look at the community of remoras and other scavenger fish that follow each whale shark. When it goes vertical to feed you can see them all outlined against its white underbelly. It was an awesome day. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and the experience was as good as I thought it would be.

Each whale shark supports a whole village of fish living off the food scraps.

Posted by Michael F.
February 26, 2020