Encountering a whale shark under water is the dream of every diver. We were hoping to see one for a long time but have never been lucky enough. There are only a few places in the world where you can swim with these amazing creatures. One of them is in isolated Indonesian Papua close to the township of Nabire where fisherman have developed a close relationship with whale sharks. Read everything about the unique experience of swimming with these gentle giants and how to arrange your trip on a budget.
How to get to Nabire?
Nabire is reachable by direct flights from Jayapura, Ambon and Biak. There is currently no direct flight from Sorong (Raja Ampat) even though both cities are in Papua. To get to Nabire from Sorong, you have to transfer via Jayapura or Ambon. An important note is that the Ambon-Nabire flight only goes every other day. Check the flight schedule on Nusatrip. If you are going to Nabire then consider spending some time in the forgotten paradise Biak or go on a hiking trip to find the “naked people” in Baliem Valley.
Nabire is also reachable by the Pelni cruise ship between Sorong and Jayapura. The Pelni departs every couple of days and takes roughly 24 hours. Check the Pelni website for their schedule.
How to Arrange a Whale Shark Trip From Nabire?
There are not many information online about how to get to the bagans in Cenderawasih Bay. You can mainly find liveaboards and the overpriced Kali Lemon Resort who arranges trips to the bagans. We are talking about IDR 17 million (€ 1.000) for two people. As this amount is far above our budget we just went to Nabire and arranged the trip by ourselves. This is the cheapest option by far and we think it is just as good as going with Kali Lemon and it only cost us IDR 4 million (€236).
Find a Local Guide in Nabire
After arriving in Nabire we hired a local driver/guide who helped us to arrange the whole trip, because we had no idea from where boats to the bagans, a stationary floating fishing station depart. Our guide Sem Yos was really great and arranged everything like food, accommodation and transport. Sem has good recommendations from other travelers and he speaks broken English for the rest of the communication we just used Google translate. Make sure you have the offline version on your phone because you will stay the night somewhere in the jungle with no reception at all.
After confirming all details with Sem we went to the local market to buy food for lunch, dinner and breakfast. We told him that we are vegan and which food we would like to eat and then he bought everything accordingly (food is included in the price). Then we started our car ride to the place from where we could got to the bagans. It took about 3 hours through the jungle to get to Sowa Village. The streets are partly just a dirt road and it is quite a rough ride.
Sowa village is a small homestay with 5 bungalows directly on the beach. It is very famous among local tourists who also go there to enjoy some beach time and see the whale sharks. We stayed in a cute little wood bungalow and spent the rest of the day relaxing and eating. The owners of the homestay prepared the food we brought. Bring a good book and mosquito repellant.
Swimming With Whale Sharks
We could hardly sleep the night before our trip to the bagans of Cenderawasih Bay we were just too excited. As we woke up at 6am the sky was blood-red, the day started with a magical sunrise somewhere in the dense jungle of Papua.
After a quick peanut butter toast breakfast we started our trip to the bagan. During the night the fisherman switch on lights which attract lots of fish, small an big. The small fish fall through the fishnets underneath the boat and serve as a delicious breakfast for the hungry whale sharks. The fisherman believe as long as the whale sharks are around it means good fortune for them, so they started to feed them. Since a long time whale sharks come every morning to feed underneath the bagan. As we arrived the fisherman told as today they are very lucky and have 3 whale sharks around. We couldn’t believe it until we saw a black shadow with white dots gliding by our boat.
Roland immediately jumped in to swim with these amazing creatures. You never know where they are coming from to catch some fish. They don’t mind humans at all and would just swim into you if you are between them and their food. It is just incredible to swim next to these huge creature and hard to describe.
We were on the bagan or in the water for about 5 hours just watching and feeding or swimming with the whale sharks. From time to time there would arrive boats with local tourists. They never stayed longer than 30 mins, so most of the time we had the whale sharks just for us. They didn’t stop circling the bagan until we left around 12 pm. If you are in Papua we highly recommend to visit the bagans. There is no other place in the world where you can swim with whale sharks for hours usually they quickly swim away if they see humans. For us, swimming with the whale sharks was a dream becoming true. A magical experience we will never forget.
If you would like to visit the whale sharks with Sem here is his number +62 81343977979. Just contact him via WhatsApp. He is the one in pink :). We had a little coconut stop at his family’s Place on the way back.
In lonely planet, you can find the contact of Merry Yoweni (but beware the email address is misspelled). She is one of a handful of facilitators in Nabire who can help you arrange the trip. She speaks good English but she will not go on the trip with you. Based on Tripadvisor reviews, she charges 5-6 million IDR and arranges for local fishermen to take you to the bagans by boat from Nabire which takes 1.5+ hour. So if you start 07:30 from Nabire, you may reach the bagans around 09:00, at which point the whale sharks might already have lost interest and left if you are unlucky. This is the reason why we wanted to stay in Sowa village so that we could be on the bagans directly after sunrise.
Arrange the Trip Without a Guide
If you are on a really tight budget, it is also possible to do this trip without a guide. You could buy food in the local supermarket (don’t forget toilet paper) and go by car or scooter to Sowa Village (see map). Scooters and cars can be rented from hotels in Nabire as well as from rental agencies in town. If you go during a weekend or a public holiday, the homestay could be fully booked as locals go there to fish. Camping on the beach is possible if you have your own tent. There is no mobile reception in Sowa village so it is not possible to contact them.
When is the Best Time to Swim With Whale Sharks?
The whale sharks of Cenderawasih are non-migratory and stay there all year. However, the holy month of Ramadan should be avoided because the fishermen go home to celebrate. People in Papua are generally Christian but the fishermen are muslims from Ambon and Sulawesi. The bagans return to harbor two weeks before Idul Fitr and the fishermen are back in business approximately 1 week after Idul Fitr.
The moon phase also affects the probability of encountering whale sharks. You will see most whale sharks around new moon and you should avoid full moon. The reason is very simple. The fishermen on the bagans use strong light to lure fish into their nets during the night and at full moon, this strategy is not so efficient. Less catch at full moon means that the whale sharks are less interested in the bagans.
Reaching the bagans as early as possible in the morning is another tip for success because the whale sharks arrive just after sunrise to inspect the catch. If the fishermen do not continuously feed them ikan puri (small silver fish), they will loose interest and leave. This is why it is important to get there early. Once a tourist is onboard a bagan, the fishermen will continue to feed the whale sharks and as long as the ikan puri keeps coming, the whale sharks will stay.