We could not have asked for a more action packed start of our liveabord trip between Triton Bay and Raja Ampat in Indonesia. We were surrounded by massive whale sharks for three scuba dives in a row. It was a breathtaking experience!
Stationary whale sharks
In east Indonesia, there are two areas which are famous for their whale shark population; Triton Bay and Cenderawasih bay. The whale sharks are present here all time of the year. This is different to most of the popular whale shark destinations around the world, where they only gather seasonally to feast on for example a plankton bloom.
A fishing tradition in Indonesia is the use of a “bagan”. This is a lift net fishing platform. A large net is deployed under the platform during the night. Strong floodlights are directed into the sea. This attracts plankton, which again attracts large shoals of fish which is captured when the net is lifted in the early morning.
The whale sharks are drawn towards this to get an easy meal. They literally suck the fish out from the net. To avoid their nets from being damaged, the fishermen feed the sharks with small bait fish. When this symbiotic relationship became known, the tourists started to show up. A snorkel trip or scuba dive with the largest fish on the planet is a dream for many.
Although the fishermen believe that the whale sharks bring them good luck, many are still killed for their fins and a quick profit. Indonesia has been the largest fishery for sharks for the past 30 years. The whale shark is now listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list. The fishermen in Triton Bay and Cenderawasih bay are now payed by the dive operators. The Indonesian government also fully protected the whale sharks in 2013 when they realized its enormous tourist potential.
Feeding of wild animals – an ethical dilemma
Feeding of wild animals to show them off to tourists is normally not an ethical approach. In this case however, the whale sharks are obviously not bothered by the many divers as they stay around the “bagan” for a long time. The many tourists bring more money to the local communities. The message is that a living shark is a more sustainable income in the long run. This will strengthen the protection of the remaining sharks. We believe that the symbiotic relationship between the whale sharks, fishermen and tourists are for the good. An encounter with the whale shark is a fantastic experience, and it is hard to not fall in love with these gentle giants. The more people which gets the opportunity to experience this, the more people will care for the sharks.