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Whale sharks are easily one of the most recognizable fish in the ocean. Not only are they the largest species of shark in the ocean measuring up to sixty feet in length, but they are covered in giant white polka dots and only eat plankton and tiny fish! What more could you ask for, a giant shark you can swim with that is completely adorable with it’s spots and is also completely harmless. Now, the only thing is where to find them. Whale sharks inhabit just about every tropical and temperate ocean on the planet, but they tend to be live quite nomadic lives and can travel large distances making them somewhat difficult to find. They can of course turn up at any point during a snorkel, but a lot of times this is a quick pass by lasting just a few seconds to a couple minutes at most. However, there are a handful of places where whale sharks do congregate, and we as snorkelers have as close to a guarantee as you can get in the natural world for being able to snorkel with them for an extended period of time. As I said there are a few of these places where whale sharks hang out in larger groups, but one place that offers solid chances of snorkeling with several whale sharks at a time but also fantastic reefs is in Triton Bay, just south of Raja Ampat.
Whale sharks are dispersed all over Indonesia, but the reason they congregate here in this large bay is because for years and years local fishermen have been fishing in a way that has ultimately evolved into a symbiotic relationship between the fishermen and the large sharks. Silversides are a type of very small fish, very much like an anchovy, and are fished throughout the island nation using a bagan, or a large bamboo platform with giant nets that are raised and lowered from the bagan. At night the fishermen on the bagans lower the nets beneath the platform and then use a set of very bright lights to lure in large shoals of these tiny fish. Just before the sun rises the fishermen bring in the nets along with the fish. What they found over the years was that whale sharks were routinely following the nets up to the surface, and even sucking on the nets as these small fish are part of the whale sharks diet. Because these fishing platforms attract the small fish, the whale sharks are then attracted to the smell of small fish and come to suck on the nets and hoover up the left over scraps. The local fishermen appreciate the whale sharks presence as it they typically though of as a good omen for their catch. Along with that, now that this relationship has been discovered, tourism has brought an influx of money to the local communities, as well as well as conservation efforts to reinforce protection for the large sharks.
For us snorkelers, this is an excellent and very unique opportunity to get in the water and swim with one or more of these whale sharks at at a time as they suck up the the tiny fish that have managed to escape the net. As I said earlier whale shark encounters are normally quite fleeting, so to be able to locate them, but also float next to one or more for extended periods of time is a very unique experience. Not only that, but being able to witness this relationship between the local fishermen and the sharks, where both are benefitting is the icing on the cake.