01 March 2015 | Papua, Indonesia
Patrick & Rebecca
Too much for our freezer!
From the safety of our dinghy, we were a leaf on the surface as the fish with the greatest length and bulk we had ever seen glided in the greenish water 3 meters below. Even if they are called "gentle giants" it did not seem wise to risk ticking one off. Their 300 rows of teeth are less penetrating than 200 grit sand paper but the force behind the bite would easily turn an arm or leg to chum. But no worries about becoming a Jonah, the whale shark will only swallow very small fish and plankton. With mask and flippers snuggly in place, we slipped into the nutrient rich water. This would be our third swim with a whale shark. The shark was feeding on a cloud of dead minnows but coughed up a trout size fish. We had paid fishermen on a netting boat to throw their catch back into the water to keep the whale shark circling for an hour.
It took quick leg strokes of our flippers to get out of the path of the circling behemoth. At times, a snorkeler had to retract his legs and turn into a human ball floating at the surface to let the whale shark pass below , untouched. On one circuit, which developed too quickly for my reaction, like a broad shouldered highschooler pushing his intimidation, I was the target for a certain head on collision with the giant shark. The only thing I could try was to place my flat palmed hand on the top of the fishes snout. The slight pressing down was enough to gently guide the amazing agile fish to descend and slide on past leaving me only the dorsal fin to dodge but then there was the swaying tail approaching like a huge fly swatter. To be swished with a fishes aircraft size tail is a humbling water-park like experience.
This all started in an area off the west coast of New Guinea in an area called Triton Bay. We awoke before sunup and divided up the 9 crew from 3 long distance cruising yachts into two dinghies. We had to be at the stationary fish netting boat, called a bagan, just before sunup when they lift their nets for the last time of the night. The whale sharks are there to pick up the spilled scraps. But the more generous the spilled fish the more likely the whale sharks will linger before moving on to another bagan. In Indonesian the word bagan means "skeleton or framework". The name becomes obvious from the top of 2 wood masts, a web of parachute like shrouds spread out to support a large perimeter of small mesh nets with a wood hulled boat at the center. Throughout the night, fish are attracted by a perimeter of bright white lights. Several times a night the nets are raised and the catch scraped into containers before the nets are lowered again.
What started as a cautious approach of a group of cruisers, soon turned into the most amazing fish story any of us had ever experienced. All fear disappeared from humans and shark. We tried not to come in contact with the shark as it is possible to scrape away the protective slime on the scales opening the skin to possible infection. In my touch of necessity, the tiny scales of a whale shark felt like any other shark; smooth in one direction, fine sandpaper in the other. While all of us cruisers were having the most exciting fish encounter of our lives, other denizens, like large twisting and spinning dolphin, and jack, were barely within our visual distance of 13 meters picking up fresh dead fish slowly sinking to the depths.
Rebecca adds - I didn't think that snorkeling with a whale shark would be that extraordinary until I was in the water. We had spent 2 pre dawn mornings in a row looking for whale sharks at the bagans, but our only reward was returning to Brick House wet and groggy from waking up too early. But the 3rd, the 4th and the 5th try was very different. We had learned the nuances and how long to stay at each bagan before moving onto the next till a whale shark was spotted.
Our first encounter was with another sailboat who had met us there to show us the beauty of Triton Bay - Dana and Susan on Villa G - It is believed theirs is the first private sailboat to ever cruise this area. Brick House would be the second. This particular morning, we were lucky to join in the efforts of a live-aboard SCUBA dive boat that had brought 18 guests to see the giant fish. The captain paid for many buckets of the fishermens new catch to chum the water once the shark showed up. On that occasion, the shark circled and entertained a crowd of wetsuit clad tourists for nearly two hours. The tourists had been instructed to stay at least one meter away from the 9 meter long fish. The 18 tourists were experienced travelers with a wide range of foreign accents. They were all skilled aquanauts. No one needed SCUBA tanks for this encounter. Most snorkelers held back in a long semicircle around the feeding station but those with cameras actively maneuvered for an incredible run of photos. With so many swimmers in close proximity, it was inevitable to be occasionally bumped or kicked with a swim fin. Instantly though, there would be a facemask staring back with large apologetic eyes and a questioning "okay?" signal from the offender. It wasn't only other swimmers and the one large shark to be aware of. Tied behind the bagan were long wooden fishing boats owned by local villagers. Their deep hanging hand lines were bringing up their days food. The chummed up waters were making a good day for everyone.
We had a beautiful experience, and a lot of laughs as everyone tried to move away from the path of the creatures huge jaws! This shark didn't mind people at all, and somehow gracefully glided between at least 22 human obstacles. He only rarely scraped with anyone...his only objective was to fill those large jaws with little fish...not with people. On one pass, Patrick was on one side of the behemoth and I was on the other, I could see the bulging Ping-Pong ball size eye popped out from its head, rotating in all directions 2 feet from me. It kept a close watch on me while on the other side the other eye tracked Patrick. When at the surface feeding, the eyes retract into its head. There were many remoras attached to the belly of this whale shark, dolphin in the distance and the occasional jack fish darting in for some food. According to the captain of the live-aboard boat, if one were too strap on a SCUBA tank and descend to 33 meters, there would be tiger sharks. But in this environment, the tigers are shy and have never been known to annoy anyone.
After fastening the fisheye lens to the SeaLife D1400 camera, Patrick was able to get more of the fish into a single frame. But eventually the food ran out and the whale shark took longer and longer to circle back from the depths of murky water. As I made my way to the dinghy, the friendly fish came up again and swam right up to surprise me! I said, aloud, goodbye again, and even though I was already wet, my eyes cried a tear. He disappeared again down in to the deep. Continuing to the dinghy, he came up once more. I told him that I would miss him, and to have a good life here...and thank you for spending time with me and the other snorkelers today. He winked, and made his final dive, slowly so that the image could engrave itself deeply in to my memory forever.
More photos are in the Whale Shark folder in the Photo Gallery at the top right, not the Photo Albums, to the right. Whoever owns this blog site will have to explain that hickup.