Chasing whale sharks in Papua

Mar 10th 2020

To go or not to go to Triton Bay in Papua was definitely the question at the beginning of March 2020 as we finally admitted to ourselves that we couldn't stay in Raja Ampat forever. Triton Bay is where you go if swimming with whale sharks is your thing, in other words a truly once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the ocean’s gentle giants. Worth a detour?

This shark says yes
But with only a week or two to spare before rushing down to Flores to meet family flying in from Australia, it was a bit of a detour. Still, we decide to make the effort and to quote yet another cliche, it was definitely worth it.

Even without the whale sharks, the Papuan coast feels like the most pristine place on earth. Mountainous jungle rises straight from the sea with swathes of virgin rainforest towering over unspoilt beaches and bays.

Said jungle
Just another cliff anchorage

Our first stop is the ‘waterfall anchorage’ aptly named after a nearby waterfall which simply bursts out of the jungle straight into the ocean.

Some pretty bad weather follows us to Papua and we arrive to rain, strong winds and bad visibility. Thankfully we see that another boat is anchored in a quiet bay and they help us navigate the entrance aka 'reef' via radio. Thanks Storyteller!

The next day, all is calm in the anchorage

When we check out the waterfall on our dinghy the next day, the water is gushing out at incredible speed and volume out of the jungle.

The waterfall

Cruisers who made it here before the big rain speak of crystal clear waters while swimming under the falling stream. As we drive the dingy in as close as possible to the waterfall, the roar of the rushing water is deafening and even the kids are in awe.

Definitely no swimming

Now the whale sharks gather further east in Triton Bay, where the big Indonesian fishing platforms called bagans are also stationed.

A typical bagan
I don’t know if the whale sharks or the bagans got there first, but the combination gives tourists like us a chance to actually jump in the water with the smiling beasts while the fishermen slowly drip-feed buckets of fish to keep everyone interested. It’s a win-win for the tourist and the fishermen who of course charge for the experience. I am not entirely clear on the benefits to the whale shark. On the one hand, it does get fed, presumably compensating for the tonnes of fish lost to the bagan nets daily. On the other, wild animals fed by fishermen for the benefit of swimming tourists is not the ideal wilderness experience but since it is the only experience available, it’s best not to examine the ethics of it too closely.

The whale shark experience starts at dawn, when we divide to conquer with three dinghies heading over to three separate bagans to enquire in our best Indonesian about the ‘big fish’. Zig Zag strike it lucky and radio to the rest of us that their bagan is the lucky one this morning. The excitement is palpable as we jump in the water and the resident pod of dolphins agrees, joining the 6 adults and 7 kids for the whale shark experience.

Dolphins can't believe their luck
The whale shark itself doesn’t seem too bothered, she simply darts in among us to perfectly align her open mouth with the bucket of fish held over the back of the bagan by what looks like the most junior member of the crew. As he patiently rains fish into her mouth, she gobbles it equally as patiently, swimming away every few minutes only to circle back and repeat the process.
Swimming past

Being bumped under the water by this huge creature is painless but surprising and just a little bit scary.

Eye to eye

She could squash (or swallow!) any one of us without too much trouble; instead she darts gracefully between us, the only real contact occasioned by the clumsiness of the tourist trying to snap the perfect shot. With 3 Go Pros in action and 7 kids each armed with flippers, it’s a miracle the whale sharks sticks around.

Jake scores a little pat
And despite my reservations about exploiting the animal in such a way, it is literally impossible not to enjoy the experience of swimming with a whale shark. So there, I loved it, we all did!

Papua turns out to be our last carefree adventure in Indonesia. We spend a week or so exploring dreamy, turquoise bays in the Papuan wilderness with no internet which in hindsight turns out to be a blessing.

A traditional Indonesian liveabord
Dingy touring
Group swim before dinner
Aiming for our fishing lure

We return to Kaimana where corona news from home hits us. Apparently while we were swimming with whale sharks, the world decided to end. Still, with only a few hours of internet and a long list of chores to tick off in town before heading on a four day passage west, we don’t have too much time to dwell on cruise ship drama in Sydney or whether Scomo (Australian PM for the non Aussies) is for or against going to the footy on the weekend.

The town of Kaimana itself seems fairly carefree and healthy with not much changed from our stop here just over a week ago. We shop at markets with locals as friendly as ever and no one appears bothered by our presence in town.

School run in a rickshaw
The local mosque
Only a day after we leave, we hear that an arriving boat is boarded by quarantine for corona checks. This is where things get tricky.