Why you should care
Something for the bucket list: hanging out underwater with a whale shark for an hour.
Travelers do crazy things to swim with whale sharks. Off Australia’s west coast, travel companies chase the mysterious creatures in spotter planes, then send tourist-laden speedboats just to get a passing moment with them. In the Philippines, locals have netted off dozens of the sizable sea critters for gawking purposes.
But there’s a less touristy option off the beaten path. Near the gold-mine town of Nabire in the Papua province of Indonesia, a host of indigenous fishing platforms called bagans attract whale sharks like bees to honey. And best of all? It’s the only place where the often-migratory creatures — which can grow to more than 40 feet and 20 tons — are known to settle year-round.
We dance in this clear, tropical water for an hour. And I’m left stunned, but ecstatic.
However it won’t be easy getting there. Only budget airline Lion Air offers regular flights to Nabire (lasting five to seven hours) from Jakarta, Indonesia’s smog-filled capital. Accommodations here are plentiful and cheap, but you’ll want to head to the Mona Lisa hotel. That’s where owner Kristovel Mara and his wife, Merry Yoweni, offer trips to see the whale sharks in nearby Cenderawasih Bay. They get a few visitors a week — “mostly Japanese, Germans, some Dutch,” Mara says as we bounce through rocky roads and drying riverbeds. From the beach, we load into engine-strapped canoes and head for the bagans. Here, fishermen reel in millions of baitfish and the leftovers go to the whale sharks. Sometimes there are “eight or nine” around lunchtime, Mara says. We’re a little late, but one juvenile has stuck around
The experience is unbelievable. The whale shark swims toward me, its mouth agape in a wide, bristly grin that would be cute if not for its sheer size. Still, the filter-feeder passes harmlessly, only a few feet below the surface, its aquamarine spots, baby blue and white, are traceable with an outstretched finger. We dance in this clear, tropical water for an hour until the whale shark leaves, its curiosity sated. And I’m left stunned, but ecstatic.
A drawback: The locals will yell and whoop to attract the shark — and then jump on it. “I’d be horrified to think that would ever be allowed,” said Peter McKissock, whose Ningaloo Blue whale shark expedition follows Australia’s strict guidelines against touching marine life. And some environmentalists think casual operations like those in Cenderawasih Bay can disrupt whale sharks’ migratory patterns or disturb the gentle beasts. “You don’t touch a whale shark,” Perth shark expert Brad Norman said. “You don’t get in its way.”
Still, Indonesia’s laid-back approach wins praise from those who favor nature over captivity. The price helps, too. Mara charges about $446 per boat. That’s $223 each for a couple, or $111.50 split by four, compared with around $300 per person for most Australian expeditions. Comfort seekers might balk at this off-road path. But the more adventurous will appreciate a personal moment with the ocean’s gentle giants — without having to worry about 20 other camera-wielding, scuba-toting sojourners.