The Coral Triangle, home to more than three-quarters of the world’s coral species and more than a thousand species of fish, is the underwater equivalent of the Amazon rainforest in terms of biodiversity. It encompasses an area half the size of the United States, and its warm, nutrient-rich waters harbor more marine species than anywhere else on the planet.
At the Triangle’s southeastern corner, off the Province of Papua and West Papua, is Cenderawasih Bay. Covering slightly more than 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles), this is Indonesia’s largest national park—and the location of one of the world’s most spectacular aggregations of whale sharks.
Here, in this ancient sea, an extraordinary relationship has developed between local fishermen and a population of curious and opportunistic whale sharks.
Left, a young fisherman, without mask, snorkel, or flippers jumps in with a whale shark as the behemoth passes by his bagan—a floating platform.
These photos originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine featuring beautiful and surprising stories about nature and sustainability. To learn more about these gentle giants, read Pete Oxford and Sophie Stafford's full story,
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish with confirmed measurements of more than 12 meters (40 feet) long and more than 18 metric tons. They are indeed the largest, non-whale, species on the planet.
Traditionally, local fishermen have regarded the species with great respect. They believe these gentle giants bring good luck, and so, for decades, they have tossed the sharks fish scraps in the hope of keeping the behemoths—and the good luck they bring—close by.
Left, a whale shark opens its mouth under the stream of fishy water that spills over the side of the fishermen’s bagan.
In Cenderawasih Bay, the whale sharks’ reliable year-round presence makes them the focus of a small but growing tourism industry. Dives among groups of whale sharks feeding around the bagans offer adventurous eco-tourists an unforgettable experience, while providing vital and sustainable income to local people. Both the fishermen and their communities benefit from fees dive operators pay to keep the whale sharks here and accessible to their clients.
A young male whale shark feeds on small pieces of fish that escape through the mesh of the fishermen’s nets.
In some parts of the bay, the whale sharks are also beginning to test the strength of their partnership with local fishermen. Increasingly, overly excited individuals, not content to wait outside the nets for a free meal, are swimming right into them as the fishermen lift the nets from the water. While there are typically plenty of volunteer rescuers around to free the animals in these instances, this behavior puts both the sharks and the fishermen at risk, and threatens to sour the relationship between the two.
A pair of whale sharks gulp huge mouthfuls of fishy water streaming off the bagan.
A juvenile male whale shark gulps a mouthful of water under a fishing platform in Cenderawasih Bay.
Golden trevallies (Gnathanodon speciosus) swim at the base of a whale shark’s dorsal fin.
Where do whale sharks mate? Where do they give birth? To begin to answer these questions, researchers from Conservation International and the Georgia Aquarium have placed satellite tags on whale sharks in various locations around the world, including Cenderawasih Bay.
Based on data collected from these tags, the scientists have concluded that most whale sharks spend the majority of their time in deep waters. Even the young males that gather at seasonal feeding locations, where they attract hordes of snorkelling tourists, spend most of their time below 60 meters (200 feet), and frequently more than a thousand meters (3,280 feet).
A scientist runs a portable tag reader along the side of a whale shark in search of a PIT tag. These tags, placed under the skin of the sharks, enable researchers to track the movements of individuals over the course of their lifetimes.
A whale shark cruises just under the surface of Cenderawasih Bay.
The Coral Triangle is a priority for international conservation, but pressures on the area are intense. A host of problems, including overfishing, practices such as cyanide and dynamite fishing that cause long-term reef damage, coastal development, and climate change are all taking their toll on the ecosystem and its biodiversity.
Sharks face yet another threat that has the potential to wipe out entire species, including whale sharks: shark finning. Shark fins are one of the most highly valued marine products in the world. They are sold to the restaurant trade and exported to Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China, where they are consumed as shark fin soup at important events. Indonesia is arguably the number-one supplier of shark fins around the world.
The whale shark’s massive fins, skin and liver oil are highly prized. But whale sharks cannot replenish their numbers under heavy fishing pressure because of the species’ long life span, slow reproductive rate, naturally low abundance, and highly migratory nature.
A whale shark cruises beneath the surface, its outline bathed in refracted light.
The global population of whale sharks is believed to have declined by more than 50 percent over the past 75 years. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature now lists the species as Endangered.
In 2013, the Indonesian Government declared the whale shark a fully protected species, due to its economic value for tourism. However, with some 17,000 Indonesian islands and a vast coastline, enforcement is a significant challenge that will require an ongoing investment of resources. Income from a growing ecotourism industry could help to fund this work.