Dive Damai is about the begin our last scheduled season in Cenderawasih Bay and the experience of up close and personal encounters with the whalesharks is still the main draw. The grace of these large fish as they move through the water is beautiful to observe and their shere size takes your breath away.
As Damai I pulls into the bay we see the fishing platforms that use lights at night to attract fish into their nets. These are called bagan and its what happens under them that holds our interest. Our aim is to find one which has plenty of baitfish as well as multiple whalesharks hanging around. The whalesharks are attracted by the baitfish in the nets and the promise of an easy meal. Once we find the right bagan our goal is to keep the whalesharks happily fed for the rest of the day and we have come up with many formulas over the years!
Once we have secured the bagan then it’s time for our guests to get in the water. This first encounter is always a highly charged affair. For some guests this is their first time with a whaleshark and it can be emotional. Even for those that have seen them before, three or four whalesharks interacting is a wonder to watch. Each one will swim towards the bagan and feed for a while before breaking away and gliding through the water in a big arc. Some will stay close to the surface and others will dive deeper but they always return for a free meal.
One reason why Cenderawasih Bay is so much more special than other places is that you are allowed to SCUBA as well as snorkel with the whalesharks. This vastly broadens the experience because you can witness the whalesharks swimming at depth. This is a good opportunity to check out the remoras and pilotfish which accompany their host looking for food. Some of these whalesharks are laden with remoras so large that they look like aircraft loaded with missiles!
Scuba also means that the group can spread out in the water contributing to the feeling of an exclusive encounter not experienced in crowded destinations. This is especially beneficial for the photographers who are looking for the shot without other divers.
The beauty of snorkeling is that you can spend time with the whalesharks on the surface in the feeding area close to the bagan. You can approach and watch them gulping in the mouthfuls of water and baitfish time after time before giving way to another one who is intent on taking its place. The interaction between the whalesharks depends on the individuals involved. Some of them are happy to share the fish and you can have as many as four feeding at the same time. Some of the older males can become quite aggressive and use their size to push the smaller ones out of the way.
For those guests feeling nimble you are always invited by the fishermen to join them on the top of the bagan. This will give you a cultural insight into the lives of these men who spend weeks at a time in the bay. Watch out though because it definitely doesn’t conform to health and safety standards and most of the bamboo you walk along isn’t attached! We witnessed a rather large American gentleman climb up one day only to have all the crew and fishermen rush to the other side of the platform to balance it out! But the climb is definitely worth it! The view from above gives you a completely different perspective and it’s not every day that you can say you have hand-fed a whaleshark.
Now you are probably questioning the impact on behavior that the feeding has on the whalesharks. Something to bear in mind is that the whalesharks and bagans had their relationship years before any tourists arrived to the area. The relationship was first witnessed by visiting scientists in 2006 but is thought to be much older than that. Some fishermen believe it brings ‘good luck’ but a more tangible reason is that by feeding them they stop sucking on the nets. Whalesharks have over 300 small teeth called raspers which can easily tear the nets.
The other telling sign that the whalesharks are continuing with normal behavior is that the resident population are all sub-adult and the majority are male. Once they reach adulthood they leave the bay. This continues despite the feeding and there are no recorded adults in the bay.
We once had a small female who had extensive propeller damage all across the front of her mouth. They were open wounds and she could hardly open her mouth when we first met her. She continued to feed with us often during the season and as it gradually got easier for her to feed she would eat more and more so that we nicknamed her Miss Piggy. I don’t know the rate of normal healing but by the end of 2 months she was in really good shape and I like to think that the easy access to food made her immune system stronger.
As well as the whalesharks you have other opportunistic species feeding and its unpredictable what you may see. In the shallow water there are often half-beaks, squid and juvenile fish hanging around the nets and the lines. The benefit of scuba is the ability to go deep and see what creatures are getting a free meal below. There are schools of trevally and fusiliers with barracuda, mackeral or small tuna swimming but once in a while you will see something large. We have spotted dolphins and black tip sharks, not the reef variety, and once even a sail fish. It’s definitely worth going down to take a look.
The water is warm and blue, the whalesharks are plenty and the photo opps are endless. With an open dive deck you can spend as much time in the water as there is daylight. What better place to experience whalesharks than in Cenderawasih Bay on Damai I!
For more information on activities in the bay please read the first four parts of our Introduction to Cenderawasih Bay:
Please visit our Cenderawasih Bay gallery.