Triton Bay, West Papua, Indonesia: Swimming with whale sharks on a luxury cruise

There's no need to go searching for whale sharks in West Papua's Triton Bay. The gentle, speckled giants that inhabit the nutrient-rich, indigo waters off the coastal town of Kaimana have developed a remarkable symbiotic relationship with local fishermen, feeding off bait fish in the nets of bagans, or traditional fishing platforms.

As the full nets are raised after nocturnal spotlighting sessions, the whale sharks simply hang around in the early hours of the morning, sucking on the nets and taking advantage of a free feed.

For the few tourists that venture to this remote, incredibly beautiful corner of the world, it's equally opportunistic, allowing them the rare privilege of several hours interacting and swimming with the largest fish in the world.

After paying respect to elders in the nearby village of Lobo, the crew from our luxurious floating hotel, Kudanil Explorer, go on a scouting mission, approaching bagan fishermen in Namatote Bay to see if they'll allow us to visit their oversized, filter-feeding companions.

They return with news that a nearby bagan has at least two whale sharks hovering, with the fishermen prepared to sacrifice a portion of their overnight catch (negotiated at above-market rates), ostensibly feeding the sharks to encourage them to stick around.

As our dinghy docks at the bagan – one of half-a-dozen rustic structures in the bay inhabited by Bugis, or sea gypsies, from the far-flung Indonesian province of South Sulawesi – we immediately spy the table-sized head of Rhincodon typus emerging from the depths as the fishermen pour buckets of sardines into its cavernous, gummy jaws.

Half our group of 12 are snorkelling, the others diving; and as the divers prepare their gear, I'm one of the first to enter the water with my mask, snorkel and fins, feeling more than a little apprehensive as I approach the feasting monster.

It must be noted that here in Indonesia, there are no regulations regarding how close you can be to whale sharks, but I am conscious of environmental standards, and am determined not to broach an acceptable distance.

The whale sharks, however, seem unaware of this rule, and as I swim cautiously towards the gorging shark, I'm suddenly aware of another behemoth approaching, silently cutting through the berley haze, directly in my path.

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I yelp, swearing into my snorkel and changing direction in panic just as the dappled beauty – at least seven metres in length – swishes by, its mouth a gaping vortex that could quite easily vacuum me, Jonah-like, into its belly.

Instead, it eyeballs me as it passes, its beady, cold-blooded peeper revealing no fear, no aggression, no acknowledgement that I'm anything more significant than a remora, part of the very healthy eco-system attached to its sizeable white belly.

Encouraged by its docility, I relax into the moment, taking the time to admire these somehow ethereal creatures, cumbersome yet so graceful, their smooth grey skin a join-the-dots stamp of individuality as they circle the bagan, giving both snorkellers and divers a majestic underwater show.

Meanwhile, fishermen on the platform seem bemused by our enthusiasm for what they disparagingly refer to as ikan bodoh, or "stupid fish", due to the whale sharks' passive nature.

For these itinerant workers, this one-off experience is an opportunity to make some cash on the side. Unlike in more developed countries, whale shark encounters in West Papua are yet to become a commercial enterprise.

Blessedly remote and difficult to access, the western peninsula of New Guinea is still a frontier undiscovered by mass tourism. At this level, catering to perhaps one or two dive boats a week, the whale shark watching experience remains sustainable, without placing undue stress on the animals.

As word spreads of Triton Bay's incredible beauty and marine treasures, however, that is likely to change.

TRIP NOTES

Julie Miller was a guest of Kudanil Explorer.

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traveller.com.au/indonesia

FLY

Garuda Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Sorong in West Papua, via Jakarta. Our return flight was from Tual in the Lei Islands, via Ambon and Jakarta. See garuda-indonesia.com

CRUISE

The Kudanil Explorer is available for exclusive charter (for up to 16 people) for $US13,500 a night (+10 per cent VAT). Rates include full board, diving and activities. Select dates are also available to individuals at $US1000 a person a night, based on twin/double cabin. See kudanil.com

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