Whalesharks of West Papua with #Legends of the Deep

By Wendy Morris and Kerry Lorimer. Photos by Hayley Baillie and Dr Mark Erdmann.

Exploring the wild and remote Birds Head of West Papua is to step into a world that is little changed from the time of Alfred Russell Wallace and his discoveries around this epicentre of tropical biodiversity. Rugged, jungle-clad mountains fall steeply into bays dotted with small high-standing islets of uplifted coral rock. Wide brown rivers bring rich nutrients to the sea, creating an explosion of marine life, from plankton to bait fish, soft corals and bottom dwellers, and from tiny fish to the largest fish in the sea, whale sharks.

On this very first voyage of the Seven Seas to the southern side of West Papua, we were accompanied by true legends of the deep, Dr Mark Erdmann and Dr Gerry Allen. These two have probably more combined experience underwater in this region than anyone on the planet. Mark, Regional Director of Conservation International, has spent over 25 years documenting and working to protect this area that is home to the richest of all marine life. Gerry has described over 600 species of freshwater and marine fish, and is the author of numerous books including most of the identification guides for coral reef fish.

Newly-recruited Cruise Director and cinematographer Alex, from Barcelona, was our team leader. Not only very experienced in reefs, Alex was a constant solver of all problems, particularly camera and light issues!

Our group included some veterans of Seven Seas trips as well as some coming aboard for the first time. From Norway to Australia, our common denominator is our passion for all things coral reef. This time though, we were on a mission to find Whale sharks that had been satellite tagged and monitored in the area around Fak Fak and Triton Bay. While Cenderawasih Bay has become well-known for whale sharks, this southern part of the Birds Head is much less-known, and rarely visited by liveaboards.

Starting in Sorong, usually the jump off point for Raja Ampat exploring, we headed southwest overnight to wake up to perfect skies and the islands of Daram to kick off the serious diving. Walls with Sea Fans and schools of Fusiliers, Anthids, Lined Snapper and Bump Headed Wrasse made for great wide shots, and for the macro photographers, the elusive Pygmy Seahorse, cryptic shrimp on anemones and gobies on Whip Corals ensured there was something for everyone.

Over the next few days we island hopped towards Fak Fak, stopping at Pisang, Eka, Semai and Karas to dive 3-4 times a day. An afternoon dive on Day 6 on the mainland was to follow an exploration of a large limestone cavern that was known to be home to a bat colony. Much of the landscape is uplifted coral with erosion forming caves and caverns. The roof of this one has collapsed but still the boat could easily navigate through the entrance to the back – over 100m across. A very deep blue hole (known to be over 50m deep and locally rumoured to be home to a sea monster) is at the entrance, and large schools of bait fish cluster around the nooks and crannies of the walls, herded by larger fish that occasionally dash in for a meal.

In the damp stillness, the fluttering sound of the bats’ wings deep in the crevices could be heard. Clear and still, the blue-green water was glassy above a rubble and sand bottom. Back on board, Wendy mentioned possibly seeing a shape on the bottom – like a log, but not a log. A logodile? Taking another look before our dive, there was no sign of a log or anything similar, so off we all went to dive the murky wall.

Over sunset drinks Mark flew the drone into the cave, and there in the back of the cave, easily seen on the sand was a 2-3m crocodile! Down drinks, and all into the boat, including Tove with her mask and camera to capture footage underwater. Alas, Mark’s advance spotting with the drone met a wet end – probably as the drone hit one of the stalactites dropping down from the ceiling. Mark admitted he’d also dived to 50m in the blue “monster” hole previously – no doubt there was one or a series of monsters inhabiting the depths.

From the mainland we headed out to seamounts where giant Oceanic Mantas rise from the blue depths to be cleaned at cleaning stations. We had a number of sightings of massive rays swooping around, above and below us – three or four on each dive. Mark declared he’d had a ‘religious experience’ with four circling around him as he sat amid a pretty coral garden. On the subsequent dive he was visited by a baby female whale shark – a particularly rare sighting, since most sighted and documented whale sharks are sub-adult males.

Alongside the mantas, schools of thousands of Bigeye Trevally, Hawksbill Turtles, Barracuda, clouds of colourful fish and giant mounds of coral heads made this a highlight of the trip. The afternoon saw us steam back to Momon waterfall, whose torrential cascade plunges directly from the rainforest into the sea. Wild white water mixed with ocean as we swam under the icy pellets. A cracker day!

The last days took us to Tumbatumba – great diving for all things macro and wide – including Spiky Soft Coral Crab, Emperor Shrimp, Bump Headed Parrotfish, Maori Wrasse and Neon Fusiliers by the thousand.

Down towards Kaimana we’re finally ready for the bucket list day: Whale sharks.

Bagans are scattered across the bay. In Triton Bay these 20m x 20m square fishing platforms are operated by local fisherman (and some from as far away as Sulawesi) and use powerful lights at night to attract huge schools of baitfish into their nets for a dawn harvest. Whale sharks are attracted to an easy feed.

The plan was to find a bagan that had seen a Whale shark, and to catch the fishermen early enough in the morning (4:30am) before they sent their catch to market. Mark would negotiate to buy part of the catch and persuade the fishermen to keep feeding the Whale shark so we could return to snorkel with it in daylight. (A portion of the money goes to the West Papuans, which helps support local education and medical care).

Too excited to let Mark go alone, a tender-load of us sped off in the 4.30am darkness. At the first bagan, the fishermen reported seeing a shark several days previously. At the second, they’d seen one the previous night. With the anticipation just about killing us, we tried a third bagan. Mark spoke to the fishermen in Bahasa and one of them casually pointed at the water behind us. We turned to see white spots loom out of the black water and morph into an enormous head, right beside the boat!

With a deal struck, we returned to the Seven Seas and were back at the bagan by 7.00.

The following five hours were slightly surreal as we interacted with the seven-metre behemoth which seemed not to care that he was surrounded by a dozen snap-happy swimmers. The sub-adult male (who we nicknamed ‘Lipstick’ in honour of Beth) would leisurely emerge from the depths to tail stand beneath the fisherman tipping bucket-loads of baitfish into his broad mouth. He’d suck in great gulps of water and fish, his whole upper body and gills convulsing, the powerful suction created churning the surface of the water. After a minute or two, he’d turn effortlessly and swim a lazy, fluid loop before returning for another feed.

This pattern repeated itself throughout the morning, as we swam around, alongside, underneath and above him, even peering straight down his throat as he gulped baitfish. Lipstick’s fame was confirmed as we snapped endless photos – it’s hard to beat a selfie with a whale shark, right?

Mid-morning, the Seven Seas crew joined us and it was great to see them as excited as the rest of us: none of us will forget Yofin’s squeals of terror and delight as she came face to face with a whale shark for the first time!

Mark says that, while he loves whale sharks, they’re not the smartest fish in the sea, but still it was impossible not to feel a kind of communion with this massive animal – and an overwhelming sense of awe.

With the baitfish supply exhausted, Lipstick executed one last lazy loop and slowly disappeared into the blue. Exhausted swimmers returned for a late breakfast, leaving Hayley and Kerry in the water. As the tender sped away, not one, but two whale sharks emerged barely a metre beneath us – one sporting a barnacle-encrusted satellite tag in its dorsal fin, and the other bearing the four marks of a previously removed tag. We spent another incredible hour with them, taking ID photos and enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime, up-close-and-personal experience.

Back on the Seven Seas, Mark was able to identify the duo as Hula and Spock, two young males that he’d tagged in Kaimana in 2018. Since then, Hula had travelled through the Arafura and Banda Seas to Timor L’Este, through the Timor Gap to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back north to Timor, tracing the arc of the Banda Sea to return to Triton Bay. En route, he dived to over 1800m at least 40 times. Spock’s transmitter had been removed in November 2017 by Mark’s research team, while Hula’s had stopped transmitting, so it was particularly exciting to reconnect with the pair and witness their return to Triton Bay.

The following day, further west in Triton Bay, we became addicted to Pulau Boronusu. Swift currents – perfect for soft corals and incredible fish life including a huge Goliath Grouper – give this little island the nickname (thanks Gerry) of ‘Little Komodo’. We clocked three dives here, relishing spotting some of the biggest fish we’d seen on the trip lurking among forests of black coral and in various coral-encrusted caves and swim-throughs. We could easily have stayed for more. Just fabulous.

Our last day saw us back at the bagans (Return to Blue Bagoon!) for another Whale Shark encounter. This time we found Hula and Spock waiting for us and spent another unforgettable morning with them, as they swam around us and each other in graceful sashaying loops.

As liveaboard ‘pioneers’ of sorts in this remote area, it was an incredible privilege to have such an intimate experience with these magnificent animals, and to stay and play with them as long as we liked: it was a life-time highlight for many of us. A huge thank you to Mark for guiding us for such an exceptional experience – and for exhaustively art directing the underwater ‘money shots’ of each of us swimming with a whale shark!

As a finale, we took a cruise in the tenders through the uplifted, forest-clad landscape of Triton Bay, where dozens of undercut karst islands are strewn across the bay. We spotted rock art reminiscent of the Kimberley high up on the cliff walls, watched Hornbills highlighted against a backdrop of lush jungle and drank vodka tonics as we drifted on our own private emerald-green lagoon amid the maze of islets. We even (thanks again, Gerry) managed to stay quiet for two full minutes to listen to the chorus of birds.

From a scientific perspective, Gerry and Mark discovered at least three new species (a Fanged blennie, a Garden eel and a gobie) and possibly several more that are yet to be confirmed. Our last dive was to try to find a species of Flasher Wrasse that Gerry and Mark had discovered but not properly photographed on a previous trip. They found fields of the spectacular tiny fish and returned with high quality photos to confirm the new species. Our whale shark encounter helped to shed light on the sharks’ feeding habits (noting they are not solely plankton feeders) and migratory patterns. And from a conservation and tourism perspective, the whale sharks’ presence here lends weight to the argument for establishing MPAs in the area.

All in all, this inaugural trip was nothing short of stunning. The water isn’t as clear as further west or up in Banda, but the sheer beauty and adventure of the place (on our entire trip, we saw only one other live-aboard) makes this itinerary one for anyone who thinks they’ve seen it all.

A huge thank you to Alex and crew, and Mark and Gerry for their knowledge and unfailing willingness to help with absolutely anything. And what an awesome group of people we had on board. Thanks to all you #Legends of the Deep.

Wendy Morris and Kerry Lorimer
March 2019

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