We continued sailing south, pausing at the friendly Napenyaur Village where we were welcomed by the elders, loaded up with bananas and introduced to the production of the popular sago dish.
At first light the following morning we were tied up to a nearby bagan enquiring about whale sharks in between being welcomed aboard, shown around and loaded down with cumi cumi (squid) by the very friendly crew of the bagan ‘Putra Merdeka 03’.
Bagan - a large fishing platform constructed with a central long boat and timber beams floated with bamboo. They are fitted with drop nets, rigging and lighting and crew can stay on these for up to 3 months at a time with a fish buyer coming and collecting the catch daily. They fish at night using the lights to attract their catch. We have seen this style of fishing mostly in Borneo and Indonesia. The Hui Bintang (Whale Shark) is thought to bring good luck to the fisherman, who throw out bait fish to keep them close by.
While there was no whale sharks at our first bagan we enjoyed the visit and departed with big smiles and waves as our new friends took turns at sipping from our gift of arak (rice wine). It took 4 more bagans using my little Bahasa Indonesia and sign language before we hit pay dirt. No sooner had the fisherman said, “yes, besar ikan” (big fish) and pointed below, before we were jumping in the water.
It was amazing! Not waiting for the ladder, I dived off the side only to have one whale shark gently come right up to my face. At first we were nervous as maybe we could be on the menu, but after a while we realized how gentle these giant fish were.
At one point Simon almost collided with one coming around the side of the bagan net, but it slowly stopped and waited for Simon to move before it continued on it’s path.
Jean was still a little nervous and hung back for a while before we could finally snap a photo of her. She was even more nervous when the Jayapura constabulary pulled up fully armed with machine guns and knives. Turned out they only wanted to swim with the sharks too!
The whale sharks were like babies, coming up to bagan waiting to be fed. They were covered in remoras and had a school of small fish that swum permanently in front of their mouths. It was an amazing experience to be able to spend so much time swimming with these gentle giants. Unforgettable!
With increased popularity and awareness of the Birds Head Seascape more people are visiting the bagans due to the good chance of swimming with whale sharks. While there are no strict regulations in the area that we could see, we respected both the whale sharks and the bagan fisherman. It will not be long before more and more tourists come… With time to reflect in the peace of our surroundings we hope that it can remain an unspoiled paradise in the remotest corner of the world.
The following morning we say one last farewell to whale sharks and fisherman and set sail with the first rays, headed for the east coast of Cenderwasih Bay on our way to Jayapura.