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of deepwater animals in

of deepwater animals in shallow water, the major attraction at Cenderawasih is the congregations of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the southern part of the reserve. While there are a number places in the world where whale sharks congregate, such as the Galápagos, Belize, Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef and Donsol in the Philippines, the sharks are resident in those places for only one to three months before they move away. The fishermen in Cenderawasih say that the bay’s whale sharks visit their fishing platforms throughout the year. My exploration of this enchanting and unspoiled outpost of Indonesia began with navigational charts, a 2010 Rapid Marine Biological Assessment report by Mark Erdmann, Ph.D., and coordinates taken from Diving Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape (Jones and Shimlock, 2011). Over the vastness of the atoll I explored layers upon layers of mighty plate corals in immaculate condition; the reef tops are adorned with some of healthiest hard-coral meadows I have ever seen. The outside reefs comprise dramatic vertical walls rich with sea whips and colorful sponges. We found pockets of severely damaged reef, which might have been casualties of dynamite fishing or coral-bleaching events. Many of these areas were in various stages of recovery, scattered with youthful colonies of staghorn corals. Before we came we were told to expect low fish biomass. Fish density was indeed low at a few sites, but we repeatedly encountered massive schools along ridges, especially where tidal or ocean currents converged. One afternoon, while shooting a panorama of a field of hard corals, I looked up to see damselfishes congregating for an evening spawning session. There must have been a gazillion of them. Spellbound, I stayed until I’d nearly breathed my tank dry. On the days we spent exploring the atoll and fringing reefs, we continued to find healthy coral; most of the sites we documented were populated by intact hard corals that stretched indefinitely along fringing reef slopes. Although we spotted only two sharks, we recorded several species of reef fish, including barracuda, eagle rays and several green and hawksbill turtles. A park ranger was on board telling us about past sightings of dugongs and saltwater crocodiles. I was delighted to capture images of a few endemic species: a Cenderawasih fairy wrasse, Cenderawasih fusiliers and a new species of longnosed butterflyfish. I found the usually deep-water Burgess’ butterflyfish in just 33 feet of water. Burt Jones, principal photographer for Conservation International’s Cenderawasih Bay expedition, told us to not expect colorful soft-coral foliage like that of the Maldives or Raja Ampat, but one afternoon while in search of a site for a night dive near the Napen Peninsula we found a Solomon’s mine of soft corals. It was a submerged ridge complex comprising two tiny islets and three rocky outcrops that barely broke the surface of the sea. Underwater, the terrain was a hodgepodge gallery of estranged artists: Works similar to Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso were on display. We found orange, red and yellow whip corals in hefty bushes, while bright tunicates blossomed like Chinese New Year plants. Lavish soft-coral coverage seemed to defy gravity. It was utterly out of proportion and out of place; the phantasmagoria was a scene straight out of a Lewis Carroll story. I named the site Dr. Seuss Reef. Any exploration of Cenderawasih would not be complete without at least three days of interaction with the resident whale sharks. Only in recent years did we become aware of whale sharks frequenting the local fishing platforms (bagans). The fishermen told us that the sharks have been around their bagans since they began operating in the bay some 25 years ago. About 23 of these semimobile platforms are located around Kwatisore Bay at the southern end of the park. At dusk fishermen lower massive nets beneath the Whale sharks are filter feeders, using suction to pull small fish and krill into their mouths. Below, from left: A hawksbill turtle poses for a picture. Michael Aw holds the fin of a whale shark, a tragic artifact of the shark-fin trade. 78 | WINTER 2016

platforms to about 60 feet deep. Floodlights on the surface illuminate the water to attract millions of ikan puri, three-inch-long baitfish. Fishermen raise the nets in the morning, bringing up tons of the fish, some of which will be collected and used as bait for bonito fishing. The rest of the baitfish remain in the net, hanging just beneath the platform. Whale sharks in the bay have learned to suck these small fishes from the nets. The fishermen feed bucketloads of ikan puri to the sharks, which we now know are opportunistic feeders that can associate humans with food. Cenderawasih Bay is the first location in the world in which such whale-shark behavior has been documented. On our 2015 expedition we encountered 13 individual whale sharks beneath just one of the bagans. We started early each morning and seldom finished before dusk. Typical of sharks, lions and humans, prime feeding times were the in the morning and just before dusk. At 7 a.m. we usually saw two or three juveniles placidly sucking from the net, but by 10 a.m., eight animals, ranging from 7 feet to 40 feet, would congregate to feed from the nets or receive handouts from the fishermen. Noon was a lull period; ALERTDIVER.COM | 79

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