Kaimana

Suddenly, the shape of a second whale shark appears out of the blue – swimming near enough for me to glimpse a cluster of tiny golden trevally hiding within the safety of its gigantic pectoral fins. The experience of being in the water with such beautiful creatures is pure magic – beyond any diver’s wildest dreams.

We’re exploring Triton Bay in Kaimana Regency on board Sequoia, a beautiful ironwood and teak yacht built by Kevin Corcoran and Yessi Maya Sari using  state-of-the-art technology and in accordance with strict United States  Coast Guard specifications.

Waking up every day to a new panorama  of remote Papua’s stunning natural and cultural beauty, the benefits of travelling  on a ‘floating hotel’ like Sequoia are obvious.  “We wanted to give our guests all the comforts and safety of home, while  travelling to some of the most difficult-to-reach places on the planet,” observes Yessi.

She’s not exaggerating: four days into a five-day cruise, we’ve seen only local fishermen in search of their daily catch – not another liveaboard boat in sight. We’ve kayaked to deserted beaches framed by dramatic karst limestone cliffs – reminiscent of the better known Raja Ampat archipelago to the northwest, but without the crowds. Below the surface, we’ve explored a dive site known as ‘Little Komodo’, named for its resemblance to the coral reefs of the eponymous national park.

But it’s the chance to see the world’s largest fish that has everyone on Sequoia buzzing with excitement.

Whale sharks, which can reach a mind-boggling 18m in length, have been observed by fishermen in Papua for centuries, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that their tourism potential was realised.

During a series of exploratory expeditions conducted by Conservation International (CI) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia, interviews were conducted with lift net fishermen in Kaimana (known locally as bagan). The scientists discovered that the fishermen were having almost daily interactions with whale sharks as they fed on the small baitfish or anchovies that the men were targeting.

“Some bagan fishers said they did this because the sharks represented ancestors and brought good luck; others more pragmatically explained that, if the whale sharks congregate around their bagans in the morning, they are more likely to also attract skipjack tuna, Spanish mackerel and sailfish,” observes Abraham Sianipar, Elasmobranch Conservation Management Specialist from CI.

From talking to the fishermen, scientists understood that the presence of bagan lift net boats had created one of the most reliable places across the archipelago to have an unforgettable encounter with whale sharks.

Sequoia captain Ms Suriani has planned  for us to arrive near the bagan boats of Triton Bay just before sunrise. As the first light of dawn glows in the east, dive master Yohardik Lumettu briefs us on the plan for the morning: “We will ask the fishermen if they’ve seen a whale shark in the early hours – if we’re able to find one feeding at the bagan, we can get in the water with them.”

It sounds simple enough, but the anticipation in the great room of Sequoia is electric,  as everyone checks and double checks their gear as they anticipate this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these gentle giants of the sea.

The cobalt-coloured waters of Triton Bay are glassy calm as we venture out in the tender boat, the horizon line blending with the golden light of the morning sky like a mirror. Arriving at one of the bagan fishing boats,  we find Akbar, a 22-year-old fisherman, tending to an enormous lift net. He and  his fellow fishermen are trying to catch thousands of ikan puri – tiny silverside minnows that are then dried or sold as  bait for larger species. Sequoia dive master Yohardik has arranged to buy some  ikan puri from Akbar, which will be  used to hand feed the sharks.

“This morning, we already have two  whale sharks here,” says Akbar, perching  on the wood and bamboo frame of the  net. Behind him, we hear a sound like an enormous bathtub draining – the whale sharks are at the surface and feeding.

Pinneng, my dive buddy and fellow underwater photographer, has a glint of excitement in his eye as he does a final  prep on his scuba tank. One by one,  six of us take the plunge, jumping in the water for an encounter with one of the  most amazing animals on the planet.

Diving below the surface, I’m greeted  by the enormous sickle tail of a seven-metre whale shark sweeping past, its refrigerator-sized mouth taking in gulps of sparkling silver ikan puri dropped from above by  Akbar and his friends. Even after more  than 10 years of swimming with these  huge fish, my heart rate never fails to  go into overdrive when I’m in the water  with them.

Underneath the bagan, Triton Bay is absolutely alive with activity. Divers and snorkellers are viewing the action from  the surface, while a pod of dolphins has appeared below to pick up the morsels  of fish missed by the sharks.

Joining Pinneng and shipmate Tania  at seven metres, I can hear the eerie  dolphin song as these beloved marine mammals dance and glide playfully past. With my camera memory card filling  up fast, it’s almost impossible to take  in everything that’s happening here.

We’ll spend nearly two hours diving and snorkelling around the bagan – eventually, the dolphins are replaced by a marauding school of giant trevally. It’s incredible to think that we’ve seen more before breakfast than many scuba divers can hope to see  in a lifetime.

And although Triton Bay may not be as recognised as nearby Cenderawasih Bay for whale shark encounters, scientists believe there is a year-round population of gentle giants present throughout the Bird’s Head Seascape. “We’ve identified 28 sharks in Triton Bay and around 120 animals in Cenderawasih, all but five of them sub-adult males,” says CI’s Abraham Sianipar. “Just a few weeks ago, we satellite-tagged our first female whale shark from Kaimana, which we named in honour of the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti. Citizen scientists can now track ‘Susi’ along with other sharks using the CI Whale Shark Tracker App,” adds Sianipar.

Data from another tagged whale shark from Cenderawasih tracked the animal making quite a journey. “One of our whale sharks, Kodo, a four-metre male, travelled all the way to the east coast of the Philippines before coming back to Raja Ampat, then  Kaimana, making a quick visit to the Gulf  of Carpentaria in Australia, and finally ending up in Merauke [in Papua], where the tag ran out of battery,” Sianipar explains.

Since tracking began in 2015, CI scientists have gained new insights. “We’ve found that, while some animals have migrated for long distances, most of them actually stay put in their respective territories for most or all  of the year,” says Sianipar. This valuable information is being used by the Kaimana Regency Government to design a responsible whale shark-based ecotourism programme.

With other whale shark hotspots around  the world becoming popular for ecotourism – Time magazine once named Donsolin the Philippines as ‘The Best Animal Encounter in Asia’ – conservationists and local communities across the Bird’s Head Seascape are hoping that the protection of these iconic animals will lead to the development of new sustainable tourism destinations in Indonesia.

Judging by our amazing cruise across Kaimana and Triton Bay, it won’t be long before this incredible ecosystem is as well-known as its neighbours to the north.

5 Senses – Scent THE AIR OF KITI KITI WATERFALL

Plunging from within an emerald expanse of Papuan rainforest, the crystal-clear waters of the Kiti Kiti waterfall thunder into the sea. This rare combination of churning salt and spring water creates a bracing blast of chilly mist – and a refreshingly fragrant breeze for swimmers and snorkellers exploring the hidden cave behind the waterfall or the lagoon surrounding it.