November 14, 2017

The giants of
Papua

Like ghosts of the ocean, their lives and migration patterns have always been a mystery.
They show up without warning and disappear just as suddenly. But near an Indonesian village,
the whale sharks live in a daily symbiosis with local fishermen.

»She’s my friend, brings good luck«. The fisherman’s toothless grin is the last thing I see before I let go of the railing. Air bubbles scatter before my foggy scuba mask. Like sleeping creatures, huge baggy nets hang below the fishing boat. Sleeping, but very much alive. Inside, a variety of different catches are swimming around; from the smallest bait fish to larger snappers and tuna – a stream of sun lights up every colour imaginable. I swim towards the surface, blow water out of my snorkel and look down. Small water particles pulsing in freaky forms - echoing behind: the big blue.

A shadow takes shape, I hold my breath. It circles me, seemingly aware of my presence. The eye is round and dead as if made of glass - but miniscule relative to the huge beast. Rays of sunlight play over the white dots of the giant’s back. The world’s largest shark hovers in front of my face and opens its meter-wide mouth. I stare into bottomless darkness.

Going Hunting

A vague rumour of a supposed “whale shark guarantee” has driven me away from Indonesia’s beaten track of tourists and young backpackers. If the world has an end, I’m thinking, it might as well be here. In a small fishing village, one and a half hour of driving north of Nabire in the bottom of Cendrawasih Bay, province of Papua, part of the island New Guinea and the easternmost part of Indonesia, Anton Yoweni sits on a beach, leaning up against a palm tree, coughing out white puffs of smoke below the shade of his cap.

He is my guide and driver on this long jungle drive through rivers and rocky dirt road. A drop of sweat falls from my nose and summons a dark ring in the sand. Only the sound of beaching waves breaks the deafening heat. Soon a boat will come, he says. When, I ask.

»No problem«, Anton Yoweni answers and offers me a sickening kretek, a carnation cigarette. He smiles this mischievous grin I’ve seen so many times travelling this country. Indonesian for ‘all in good time’.

The unique bio-diversity aside, the coast north of Nabire is said to be home of a large group of stationary whale sharks: ‘Hiu paus’, the Indonesians say; ‘gurano bintang’, say the Papuans – Papua’s Giants. There are no other tourists. Nearly no other people what so ever.

»My brothers are out there, they will come«, Anton Yoweni points to the fishing boats, ‘bagans’, out in the peaceful bay. At night, the fishermen light up the sea attracting the plankton, which in turn attracts the small bait fish, ‘ikan puri’, they catch in their big nets. During daytime, the catch is held in nets below water. But while the fishermen are resting in the shadow of the bagan, the bait fish attract a whole other animal.

The Mystery of the Deep

The whale shark is rarely seen. Its colossal but toothless mouth is created to filter out plankton and small organisms on its lonely migrations through the oceans. It is only seen regularly in a handful of places around the world; to see the animal every day all year is unique.

The Cendrawasih Bay is a sort of whale shark retreat. Here, the animals have discovered that by ‘sucking’ through the fishermen’s nets they can get a free ikan puri-meal, the tiny bait fish. The fishermen, on the other hand, believe the large sharks bring luck and therefore sacrifice a bucket of bait fish every now and then to keep them around.

The symbiosis between whale sharks and fishermen was first observed in 2007 by the World Wide Foundation. The discovery created excitement with scientists who could follow the mysterious animal up close - and the presence of the beasts has laid a small but growing foundation for echo-tourism around the city of Nabire. However, on the fifth day of my visit I had not seen any other tourist.

The New Gold

Monalisa Yoweni is sister to Anton Yoweni and owner of the Moon Beach Resort: »At the moment, we have around 8-10 guests a month«. Her younger son hides behind her leg and stares at me with black eyes. Monalisa Yoweni hopes echo-tourism will be the next big thing here in Nabire. »I opened the resort last year when my husband died«, she says and looks down on her son. »Before that I had a gold mine up in the highlands. But mining is tough. Nabire is still very much like the Wild West.«

Still, Monalisa Yoweni hopes the gold mines along with the hot spring and the traditional villages up the river will attract future tourists. But she is aware that the whale sharks will be the primary sight-seeing target and works to preserve the unique nature-experience. »I already started replanting the mangrove forest with economic support from the government«, she says. »Next year the plan is to grow corals out on the dead reefs«.

First Encounter

Anton Yoweni pulls the rope a couple of times before the Yamaha-outboard engine sets off in a black cloud of smoke. The engine finds its idle while I jump on board with my snorkel gear. Anton Yoweni lights a carnation cigarette and turns the cap around; we are ready to go. Finally.

With the beach behind us, we sail towards the bagans sitting on the horizon with some hundred meters between them. The first fishermen wave us away before getting close. No whale shark here. The next bagan is another 500 meters away. No luck either, but then we notice seabirds circling one of the bagans further away. As we approach, the fishermen on board yell and point; a huge, white-dotted head breaks the surface, opens its mouth and sucks as if emptying the ocean to the very last drop.

We tie up our boat to a pontoon made of bamboo. I hurry with my mask and snorkel, make sure to turn on the small GoPro-camera I have in a waterproof housing. A fisherman from the bagan yells to me: »She’s my friend, brings good luck«. I jump in.

The beast is six meters long, longer than any other creature I have ever seen under water. It is scary. Calm movements. It is possibly playful as it circles my body - but mostly disinterested in my presence. As if to show off, the whale shark swings its enormous tail-fin by my face, uncomfortably closer than arms reach.

At the surface, Anton Yoweni has dropped the cigarette and holds on dearly to the bagan. I wave at him, signalling him to join - but he refuses. Then another whale shark shows up. The other fishermen are now laughing at him. Succumbing to peer pressure, he finally jumps in the water.

A Bait Fish Feast

Anton Yoweni borrows a mask and swims remarkably fast despite his dog-like swimming technique. The whale sharks are now so indifferent with us that we must be careful not to touch their skin and risk exposing them to fungus and disease.

Anton Yoweni is now fearless and swims around the whale sharks as they feast on the bait fish. We have been snorkelling solid two hours when a third and even bigger whale shark shows up. The two others swim away to leave room for the new arrival – and so do we.

Back in the boat, tired and full of excitement we immediately go over the length of the animals. 8-9-10 meters? A carnation cigarette is glued to Anton Yoweni’s lip. I tell him to take good care of the whale sharks in the echo-tourist future to come. He nods. I can only hope the best for the Giants of Papua.