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AD 2016 Q1

The bay offers reliable,

The bay offers reliable, intimate encounters with whale sharks. From top left: Massive sea fans and gorgonians result from the flow of water along the walls and seamounts. Whale sharks have discovered the bagans (fishing platforms) are reliable sources of food. The fisherman of the bagans are tolerant and even welcoming of the whale sharks that visit them daily. HOW TO DIVE IT GETTING THERE Established in 1993 by the Republic of Indonesia, the Cenderawasih Bay National Park covers 5,612 square miles in the southwest quarter of Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua. It can be accessed by sea from the towns of Manokwari and Nabire, which lie 60 miles north and 25 miles northeast, respectively. Flights are available to Manokwari, Biak and Nabire. Malaysia Indonesia Australia Cenderwasih Bay Papua New Guinea CONDITIONS The weather is commonly rainy and stormy from February through May; the best time to dive is July through November. Whale sharks are resident year round. Air and water temperatures are commonly in the mid-80s°F, and most dives are between 80 and 130 feet. Tidal currents can be encountered on atoll and reef sites, but conditions are reliably mild where the whale sharks are found. HYPERBARIC CHAMBER The nearest hyperbaric facilities that treat divers are in Raja Ampat (West Papua, Indonesia), Manado (North Sulawesi, Indonesia) and Darwin, Australia. For more information, contact the park’s office at btnc@manokwari.wasantara.net.id. 80 | WINTER 2016

only a couple of juveniles would still be hanging around for more handouts. At about 4 p.m. the crepuscular rays radiating through the water acted as a dinner bell. The sharks disregarded all table manners, frantically rushing in with mouths agape, climbing atop one another with great urgency, taking in as much food as possible before nightfall. Throughout the four days we spent with these sharks, all members of our expedition were able to approach them closely and make eye contact on both snorkel and scuba. They were gentle and appeared to move their powerful tails so as to avoid hurting divers. Seemingly unopposed to our presence, some actually rose vertically alongside us to pose with the clumsy bubble-blowers. At one point I was photographing three sharks as they confronted fishermen on the bagan for more food. Unbeknownst to me, two bigger sharks approached the bagan from behind me. I felt a push, and in the next moment I was like ham between bread, sandwiched between five animals, each of which weighed around 15 tons. It was a sloppy moment, with colossal fleshy mouths all around me, but the sharks were gentle, and I managed to escape from among them. I was flabbergasted, and my grin was as wide as a whale shark’s mouth. We know that whale sharks rise to the surface to feed on plankton and small fish, but there is much we don’t know about them. The biggest fish in the ocean, they breathe with gills and are ectothermic (cold-blooded), preferring to swim in warm waters. We are unsure if the Cenderawasih population is local, but if the shark-fin merchants were to move in, all the animals in the bay could be harvested in just a couple of weeks. To better understand the migratory patterns of these sharks, Erdmann led Conservation International expeditions to tag some of them. (Learn more at Conservation.org.) The tags revealed that the sharks are not permanent residents of the bay, but some return each year. The tagging exercise is an important effort to learn more about these awesome animals: where and how they mate, how they spend their early years and other mysteries. The tags may or may not provide some answers, but the primary concern is learning how to better protect them and their habitat for future generations. We termed Cenderawasih Bay a global treasure. Ocean conservationist and diving legend Valerie Taylor has an even better description: the eighth natural wonder of our world. Cenderawasih is an embodiment of nature’s beauty that fans our fervor to protect and preserve. AD ALERTDIVER.COM | 81

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