WE ARE IN CENDERAWASIH BAY in Papua Province, eastern Indonesia. Cenderawasih is a new dive destination, and little to nothing is known about what secrets this vast area holds for divers to discover.
When we received the invitation from Papua Eco Tourism to investigate this area, we didnt have to think twice about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The tales of abundant whale sharks that would stay with divers for hours on end in clear blue water was enough to spark our imaginations.
Our home for the next two weeks was to be Ahe, a tiny and beautiful island that is part of the Harlem Islands. These are named after the Dutch merchant vessel the Haarlem, which first sailed these waters in the 17th century.
We stay at the Ahe Dive Resort, community-owned and with modest traditional bungalows and diving facilities. The scenery looks as if it comes straight out of a diving novel, with a World War Two plane wreck on the beach, cobalt blue waters, dolphins playing and freshly filled dive tanks waiting as ammunition for our researches.
It is heart-warming to see the Papuans giving it their best shot. A year ago most of them were still fisherman, and now, with help from our Scubasigns Foundation (see last page), they are learning how to cater for dive tourists.
They are very excited about their first visitors, and with a dictionary in one hand and drawings in the sand we try to exchange as much information as we can, and learn from their experiences with marine life.
We see how they convert two large trees into a 13m perahu that we will use for our expeditions in the bay. In only two days a beautiful traditional boat emerges from their labours, and after a local ceremony it is ready to take us into the heart of whale shark territory.
The whale sharks roam about 30 nautical miles off Ahe, and they seem to have special interest in the soft-net fishing boats that hunt at night in this area. Our plan is to stay overnight with the fishermen, and try to gather more information.
The soft-net fishing boat is about 20m square, and is run by five young fishermen from Sulawesi. For months on end they stay on these boats, attracting fish at night with their lights.
They turn these off one by one to concentrate the fish in the centre of the boat before bringing up their catch.
It turns out that the whale sharks are after a fish the fishermen call ikan puri, a fish that has a lot in common with the anchovy. The ikan puri catch varies from day to day, and peaks in the months of December and January.
To the whale sharks, ikan puri makea tasty snack. They like them so much that they even attempt to suck them out of the nets.
The fishermen see the whale sharks as their big friends. They dont catch them, but feed them dead ikan puri, which they suck up from the water.
Sometimes the fishermen swim with the whale sharks, feeding them ikan puri by hand. If a whale shark happens to come into their net, they release it.
They have no idea of the numbers of whale shark in the area, but they see lots of them every day; sometimes at night, and always in the morning when ikan puri concentrate under the boat.
Only just before and after full moon will the whale sharks fail to appear, because at those times the fishermen cannot fish using their lights.
Tonight we take turns to await the arrival of our quarry. Diving with whale sharks at night - the thought is too good to be true!
The scenery is beautiful. The fishermen are busy with their work. The lights of dozens of other soft-net fishing boats surround us, and the Papuan mountains loom in the background.
The thrill of what is about to come makes us forget the discomforts of this liveaboard easily enough.
Its 4am when we get the call. The crew of a boat nearby have seen whale sharks. We jump into our boat, don our gear and rush to the scene.
As we slowly enter the water, all is pitch black. We wait at a depth of around 9m, still not knowing whether the whale sharks are actually there.
Then, out of the darkness, a giant suddenly appears. First we see the small fish in front of its mouth, then
its head, and then it reveals itself to us in its full glory.
It is by no means scared of the torch, and swims as close as a metre in front of us before gently changing direction.
And then theres another one! Our heart rates climb, and if ever there was a perfect-high five minutes, this is it.

FOR THE NEXT TWO HOURS we dive with the biggest fish in the sea, and together with them we see the water changing from black into a deep blue as the sun rises.
The whale sharks keep circling the fishing boats. Now and then they get what they came for, as a fisherman throws in a handful of ikan puri. They also check the nets every now and then for any signs of the appetising fish, and with some disappointment they turn their heads away as they realise that it was a small catch today.
The whale sharks keep coming close to us, as if they want to check whether we might have some candy with which to spoil them. We have to lean back when they slowly swim by, to avoid a swoop from the giant tail.
Sometimes contact cannot be avoided, when they literally bump against us. They even seem to like swimming over us to enjoy the bubbles coming out of our regulators. We surface cheering. This has to be one of the most incredible dives out there.
Over the following days, we dive the surrounding reefs of Ahe. Ornate ghost pipefish, bumphead parrotfish, turtles, dolphins, wobbegong, cockatoo waspfish and many more magnificent organisms are on the programme.
We enjoy the beauty of the island, meet the resident cuscus (a cross between a koala bear and a monkey), check out the Japanese WW2 plane wreck, and enjoy beautiful sunsets as we sip on coconuts and see hundreds of frigate birds returning to the island.
But there is really only one thing on our minds - to see more whale sharks.
We go back on several day trips, and again and again we meet them. By now we are getting truly spoiled. We even joke about changing location when we see only one in the water.
On one occasion we swim with them around a boat that has caught a lot of ikan puri. We see the fishermen feed the whale shark by hand, and a 7m whale shark standing vertically in the water as it sucks up its favourite snack, just centimetres in front of us. Not once, but again and again.
For hours on end we swim with these fish, parting only because we want to get home before dark.
Cenderawasih Bay holds much beside the whale sharks. Undiscovered WW2 wrecks, dugong, leatherback turtles, thousands of undived reefs - and we even hear stories about sperm-whale encounters and an underwater whale cemetery. As we leave this unique area, we meet researchers from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme who have come to help the people at Ahe Dive Resort learn more about the whale sharks, and set up sustainable whale shark-watching for their guests.
We had the privilege to be part of something very special, and we cant wait to come back to sample again this unique dive discovery.

SCUBASIGNS FOUNDATION
Scubasigns helps communities in coastal regions to achieve an alternative source of income by implementing eco-dive tourism.
Like Scubasigns, the people of the Harlem Islands believe that eco-dive tourism will generate a more sustainable income from their living treasure than practices such as shark-finning and dynamite fishing.
Everyone who visits Ahe as a diver will prove them right. Scubasigns has trained a group of local dive guides and assists Ahe Dive Resort in mapping the area, increasing service levels, improving facilities, marketing
& dive policy, scubasigns.wordpress.co
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK to Jakarta in Indonesia. Ahe can be reached by travelling on to Nabire with Lion Air, or to Biak with Garuda Air, and on to Nabire with Susi Air. From Nabire it takes about 90 minutes to reach Ahe by car and boat.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Ahe Dive Resort. Ahe is not yet a destination for travellers seeking high levels of comfort and service. There is electricity for light and charging batteries, but no such things as air conditioning or TV. Bathing is done with the traditional mandi and solar showers. There are no dive training facilities either, so at this stage Ahe is suitable only for the more experienced and adventurous diver, www.ahediveresort.com
MONEY: Indonesian rupiah
HEALTH: All usual inoculations plus anti-malarials
WHEN TO GO: Any time, but its likely to be wettest May-September
PRICES: Ahe Dive Resort offers an all-inclusive package for 875 euros a week, including transfers, accommodation, food and three guided dives per day. Day trips to see the whale sharks cost 70 euros per day, per person. Ahe also caters for expeditions to both sea and jungle areas.