A whale of a sharky time

Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia

October 2022

Today I woke thinking “today is going to be a good day”.  There was a beautiful sunrise, and it was the first day we actually had a number of different activities planned which meant more than just 2-3 hours off the ship! 

Our first outing was to be the most exciting, swimming with Whale Sharks in Cenderawasih Bay.  Whale Sharks are slow moving filter feeds and are the largest fish species, growing up to 18m in length!  They are incredibly mobile and can be found throughout the world in warm tropical waters. 

Cenderawasih Bay is in north-eastern Indonesia and around half of the bay is in the Cenderawasih Bay National Marine Park.  Locals in the area have reported seeing Whale Sharks in the area since the 1940s and today they are attracted by the Bagan’s, or local lift-net fishing platforms which have been used since the early 2000s.  Fisherman use the platforms to cast their nets and, in the area where we were visiting, they were in water around 60-70m deep, but they can be in water 1000’s of metres deep – apparently still tethered to the ocean floor.  The fisherman have a love/hate relationship with the whale sharks as they do sometimes make holes in the fishing nets and suck all the fish out! 

The fact that whale sharks often hang around the bagans, has meant that this area has become popular with tourists as you have a near-certain chance of encountering whale sharks (mostly juvenile males) and having a lengthy encounter with them.  They are also here all year round which is unique to this area as in most other places popular for whale shark encounters e.g. Ningaloo in Western Australia) they are highly seasonal.

Sometimes they do get caught in the net and they are normally released without harm, but this has presented opportunities for the sharks to be tagged with fin-mounted tags so their journeys can be tracked.  Some of these have long life batteries which should last up to two years, transmitting data around every 3-4 days (when they sharks are on the surface). The sharks from this area tend to not travel far (hence why there are always whale sharks to see in the area), but some have been tracked travelling down the coast of Western Papua and into Papua New Guinean waters near the Sepik River (exactly the same route we are travelling).  The tracker also tracked horizontal movements which has shown some of the sharks diving to a depth of more than 1000m!!  It is thought this behaviour is food related and the hunt for deeper plankton.

In his talk on a previous day, our local guide Abraham, had talked to us about some of these conservation efforts he was involved in with the Whale Sharks in Indonesia and it was great to hear his first hand experiences.

The day really started off well as for the first day ever, they had enough zodiacs in the water so everyone could be out on the water at once.   On a negative note, it meant everyone was out at once lol – the fisherman on the bagan were basically feeding the whale (by dropping fish into the water) and around 20-25 people were in the water at one time crowding around it as it hung, vertically in the water feeding.  It was all a bit too much of a circus show for me. 

Thankfully, on our second turn in the water the shark was moving around a bit so I managed to get so better views of it’s natural behaviour … and then a second one turned up, smaller than the first but it was amazing to see. They are truly such beautiful animals, who appeared to be unbothered by our presence in the water with them, either hanging out eating the fish been dropped in the water, or swimming around under our feet. By the time of our last swim, the water was pretty murky with all the fish bits that had been dropped in (now that sounds gross! lol).

Abraham used photos taken to check the whale shark database and identify the individual sharks we were swimming with. 

All in all, we had 3 turns in the water with the sharks, in between which we sat on the zodiacs watching dozens of Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds fly around us, diving in to catch the fish missed by the whale sharks.  It was a wonderful morning.

Back on the ship and it all turned to custard. I had had a little bit of a cough overnight and as I had rigorously told someone off the day before that they were being responsible by having Covid symptoms and not getting tested … you know where this is going … I decided to take a test just so I could say I had … and guess what, it was positive 🤦🏻‍♀️🤦🏻‍♀️ 

Firstly, I was really annoyed as I clearly got it on the ship, and it is so irresponsible of them not to tell people it is on the ship!!! I probably caught it from the irresponsible person I had berated the day before lol!!  Secondly, what the f*** do I do now🤔🤔

After no interest from the expedition crew, my roommate finally tracked down the ship’s doctor who came and took another test – oddly, but thankfully, this was negative (though it was the least invasive test I have had) and I decided to relax for the day and avoid people before resuming activities the following day.  I was also grateful that my roommate had had covid just a few weeks before we came away, so she was negative all along thank goodness.

And so, instead of all the activities, the rest of the day was spent on the deck reading while everyone else was off the ship and in the room when people were back!!  Oh what fun lol!

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