Our Living Seas

Cenderawasih Bay

INDONESIA

Cenderawasih Bay means “Bird of Paradise Bay” in the Indonesian language. Located in the northern Province of West Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Cenderawasih Bay is the largest Marine National Park in Indonesia, and part of the Bird’s Head Seascape. It harbors the world’s largest fish- the largest shark: the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).

Since at least the 1940’s, but only discovered by Western scientists in 2006, a unique interaction has been occurring between whale sharks and local fisherman operating from floating platforms called “bagans.” After the sun sets, the fisherman lower large nets under the platforms and then turn on strong lights focused into the water. Baitfishes attracted by the lights congregate under the platform just above the nets. When the nets are lifted, the fish are trapped inside. Initially, whale sharks (mostly juveniles) were attracted to the dead fish often thrown overboard by the fisherman. Later, they learned to suck the fish from the nets, stealing part of the catch. In order to dissuade the whale sharks from this behavior, the fisherman began to feed the whale sharks, which they regarded as a sign of good luck.

As a result of this interaction between the whale sharks and the fishermen in Cenderawasih Bay, it is now possible for snorkelers and SCUBA divers to spend hours with these magnificent creatures. And while there are many other places in the world where whale sharks occasionally congregate in large numbers, including Holbox and Isla Mujeres in Mexico; the Maldives; and Darwin Island in Galapagos, those areas only experience whale sharks a few months out of each year. Cenderawasih Bay, on the other hand, has whale sharks year round.

Whale Sharks are both the largest fish and the biggest shark in the sea, reaching lengths of over 40 feet and weighing up to 15 tons. Age estimates are as high as 60 years, but no one really knows how long this species lives. Like other sharks, females are larger than males. They eat enormous amounts of plankton, krill and small fish. Even though they are filter feeders, they still have several thousand tiny teeth that are of little use. They can filter over 1500 gallons of seawater each hour, not by ramjet fashion but by sucking in large amounts of water and expelling it past their gill arches, which have filtering screens. While not much is known about these harmless giants, scientists have learned that they do not become sexually mature until they are approximately 30 years of age and 25 feet in length. They have never been observed mating or giving birth, and it was not until 1995 that scientists finally discovered that they are ovoviviparous, which means that the egg cases hatch in the mother’s uteri, and the female gives birth to live young. They learned this when a female whale shark was harpooned off Taiwan, and 300 fetal specimens of varying lengths and ages were found in her two uteri.

Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Convention on Migratory Species. Whale shark fins still command very high prices in Asian markets, especially Hong Kong. They are also taken for food in Taiwan and the Philippines. I am shocked by the ruthless and senseless slaughter of these majestic creatures.