WHALE SHARKS CONGREGATE in various parts of the world. Christmas Island, the Red Sea, Galapagos, Belize, the Seychelles, Western Australia’s Ningaloo reefs and Donsol in the Philippines stand out among them. But at each of these locations the sharks are resident only for a 1-3-month period before moving away.
So there is nowhere on Earth that compares to the recent discovery of the massive congregation of whale sharks around fishing platforms, or bagans, in the southern part of Cenderawasih Bay Marine Park.
Documented by science and local fishermen, the whale sharks in Cenderawasih hang out near the bagans year-round, almost 24/7.
The legendary shark lady, film-maker and conservationist Valerie Taylor has referred to this phenomenon as the new natural wonder of our planet.
LOCATED IN THE EASTERN FRINGE of the Indonesian archipelago, Cenderawasih Bay is about as remote as it gets.
The bay holds substantial clues to the geological history and tectonic evolution of the region. Research has established that until recent times it was geologically isolated from the flow of Pacific tides.
This isolation has consecrated Cenderawasih as an ancient sea, and it has a high percentage of endemic fish and coral species found nowhere else in the world.
Icthyologist Dr Gerald Allen has hailed the bay as “the Galapagos of the East”, basing this claim on documented findings of an “evolutionary cauldron” of new and unique coral, shrimp and fish species. Extensive surveys documented 995 species of fish and more than 500 species of coral.
However, as with most divers who go there, it was our passion for sharks that lured us to this remote outpost.
The 560sq mile Cendrawasih Bay Marine Park was established in 1993. Access is by sea from Manokwari and Nabire, which lie 60 and 24 miles north and east, respectively.
There is something exciting about hopping from a ginormous Singapore Airlines double-decker Airbus 380 jet to an Express Air 18-seater turboprop and spending three days passing through five airports to arrive in Nabire. This is one of the two gateways to Kwatisore, where the whale sharks congregate. I have now made the journey twice.
My first trip was in November 2010, when I started in London and flew via Singapore to Nabire. It was like going back in time, from super-sophisticated airport terminals to a short airstrip decorated with washing lines, and dogs running out of dilapidated shacks to greet our aircraft on landing.
At the break of dawn the next day, our two small glass-fibre boats, laden with tons of camera equipment and dive gear, sped across the calm water of the bay in search of the bagans.
About 23 of these semi-mobile platforms are located in the vicinity of Kwatisore village. At dusk, massive nets are lowered beneath them to about 18m.
Floodlights illuminate the water from the surface to attract millions of the 7cm baitfish called ikan puri, and in the morning the nets are raised along with tons of these fish.
Some are collected for use as bait for bonito, but the excess catches are left in the net, hung just beneath the platform.
The whale sharks in the bay have learnt to home in and suck these small fish from the net. And, whether for fun or out of companionship one day, the fishermen decided to feed bucketloads of ikan puri to them.
The first time we approached a bagan, the fishermen told us that there was a shark below.
In a flash, we donned masks and fins and dived straight in to find a 3m juvenile. But we were greedy; one small shark wasn’t good enough!
We bounced back into the boat and headed to the next bagan. There, we were told, were many “big fish”.
We rolled off to find seven whale sharks. They were swimming under the platform, occasionally rising to mouth the bottom of the nets filled with small fish. They hung vertical in the water as they sucked, moving on only for a breather, or after being bumped by another shark.
The seven animals ranged in length from 3-12m. They were big, powerful and much more gregarious than any other whale sharks I had seen before.
I knew immediately that this location was very special.
Within an hour or so we had more than 12 whale sharks with us. With sharks outnumbering humans, and the fishing nets brimming with juicy titbits, they hung around, completely at ease in our company, and even showing some curiosity about us.
Not being predatory animals, relative to their body size their eyes are tiny, with soft surrounding skin that wrinkles up and closes over the eye as they eat.
They would swim past us, mostly avoiding contact, although sometimes there would be a gentle push to get us out of the way of their feast.
They seemed aware of our presence and, apart from the odd gentle sideswipe, managed to keep their enormous tails from hitting us.
After the three-day recce, we could confirm that whale sharks are opportunistic feeders that can associate human companions with food.
Cenderawasih Bay is the first location to bear witness to such behaviour.
MY SECOND TRIP came last September, and this time we stayed for four days and documented 20 animals beneath five bagans. We would start in the early morning, and seldom finish until dusk.
Prime feeding times were in the morning and just before sunset. At 7am we usually had two or three juveniles placidly feeding from the net, but by 10 o’clock 10 animals, ranging from 2-12m long, would congregate to feed off the net or receive handouts from the fishermen on the platform.
Noon was the lull period, with only a couple of juveniles still hanging around for hand-outs. At about 4pm, when crepuscular rays would radiate through the water like dinner gongs, the sharks seemed to shed all table manners and would rush in frantically with mouths agape. They would climb on top of one another to swallow, taking in as much food as possible before nightfall.
Throughout the four days, everyone on our expedition was able to get close to the sharks and make eye contact, both on snorkel and scuba. Once again, they were gentle and seemed unconcerned by our presence, some actually rising vertically to pose alongside their clumsy bubble-blowing friends.
At one point I was composing a shot of three sharks confronting fishermen on top of the bagan for more food when two bigger sharks approached the bagan from behind, unseen by me.
I felt a push, and the next moment I was like bacon between slices of bread, sandwiched between five animals each weighing about 15 tons! It was a sloppy and undignified moment, with those fleshy, colossal mouths all around me.
I managed to escape from beneath the gentle sharks, flabbergasted but with a grin as wide as the sharks! It was a whale tale I shall relate for the rest of my life.
WE KNOW THAT WHALE SHARKS rise to the surface of the sea to feed on plankton and small fish. We also know that they breathe through gills like fish, are cold-blooded and the biggest fish in the ocean. Other than that, very little is known about Rhincodon typus.
To further understand them, in December 2011 Mark Erdmann PhD led a Conservation International expedition and successfully tagged five. They’re out there somewhere, actively collecting data about their behaviour.
Once attached the pop-up archival satellite-linked tags should remain in place for 200 days or so.
At the programmed release date, the tag detaches from the anchored tether and floats to the surface. At this point it starts transmitting all the recorded data to Earth-orbiting satellites. This includes frequent measurements of depth, water temperature and roaming range.
The sharks were given names – an elegant female called Rachel; a large male, Javas; and three younger males, Ren, Stimpy and Cumulus.
This is a significant effort to unravel how whale sharks mate, how they spend their early years and other mysteries.
Whatever the research reveals, our primary concern should be to protect their well-being and habitat.
Whale sharks are already listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and the Cendrawasih population faces imminent danger. Whale-shark fins are highly valued, especially in Hong Kong.
We don’t know if this population is actually local, but we do know that if the ruthless Chinese shark-fin merchants move in, all the animals in the bay could be harvested in a couple of weeks.
Our observations confirmed that sharks would get unintentionally tangled or accidentally caught in the fishing nets astonishingly frequently.
For now the fishermen release the animals voluntarily, but long-term protection needs to be put in place.
Find more on Michael AW’s research and photographic expedition to Cenderawasih Bay at www.ogsociety.org