Just meters below the surface a behemoth awaits. The other anxious divers, all new friends and fellow boarders booked on the Sea Safari’s eight-day, seven-night liveaboard, float in awe as the largest fish in the sea cuts silently through the water above. The whale shark, the size of a bus, swims effortlessly past leaving a swath of current born of a tail so strong it could kill a man. This is the best of Indonesia. This is Papua’s Cenderawasih Bay.
Located on the Bird’s Head of Indonesia’s easternmost province, Cenderawasih Bay, one of the most coveted dive spots in the world and home to some 600 species of coral, 955 species of fish and one of the only locations in the world that almost guarantees whale sharks all year round.
“It was amazing. I have only seen a whale shark once before, and it was alone,” says Sophie Lejeune, a dive instructor based in Bali, out exploring Papua on accrued vacation. “We saw three whale sharks together on the first dive and on the second dive there were two very large whale sharks and a smaller adolescent.”
To find these gargantuan filter-feeders of plankton, take an eight-day Sea Safari adventure on a traditional Phinisi boat, a vessel native to South Sulawesi. The ship is powered by a modern motor but is still equipped with beautiful white sails. At the trip’s end, the captain raises them up for a unique photo opportunity.
Beginning on the first dive, hard and soft corals appear in a multitude of different shapes and sizes, from vast fields of bright, grassy coral waving with the current, to the small nooks and crannies filled with anemones, which play home to a family of orange and white striped clownfish and the occasional psychedelic-looking Mandarinfish.
And even though divers usually make the five-hour trek from Jakarta to Cenderawasih to bathe in biodiversity, Cenderawasih has sunken man-made treasures as well. Between Sorong and Manokwari lie a handful of sunken World War II relics, castoffs from the US and Japanese fleets, either too old or too beat up to make the long journey home.
On day one, experience “the Junkyard.” What were once major players in the Pacific Theater have become aquatic neighborhoods, ancient and overgrown, reclaimed by the sea. Armored crabs now patrol the narrow torpedo tubes, as lionfish stroll like sentries along silt-covered galleys and seahorses scurry down the hulls of patrol boats.
After the tour of the sunken ships, the next day is the descent of a steep, shear slope. Looking down into the magnificent blue abyss, leatherback sea turtles dive and disappear, only to re-emerge throughout the coral branches that grow skyward along the towering slope. Swim with the reef sharks and octopuses of the underwater mountain, and the day after you’ll be in the middle of the bay where the bottom is 100 meters below.
Here the whale sharks stay near fishing boats, routinely diving deep before coming back up to inquisitively poke around the boat again. Lejeune’s friend, Sarah Meslin, a scuba pro who recently relocated to Bali for work, spelled out one of the reasons tourists travel here to swim with the sharks rather than the Philippines, Kenya or Mexico.
“I have seen whale sharks twice before, but this was so good. In Mexico we could only snorkel with them, and they don’t stay in the same spot so we had to swim or go back on the boat to catch up with them,” she said.
On day six, in the shallows, a vast coral jungle extends as far as the eye can see. Vivid, flamboyantly colorful nudibranchs, a type of soft-bodied marine mollusk, relax on the coral next to pink pygmy seahorses that are as small as a fingernail. From nearly a kilometer out and finishing at the shoreline, countless fish of a thousand different colors dart back and forth through the forest. Yellow, green, magenta and orange blurs, some every color of the rainbow, an underwater photographer’s dream come true.
That evening, a night dive is a scene reminiscent of a moon landing. No light except your flashlight and that of your buddy’s, and yet the sea is still abundant with life and movement. Brightly lit fluorescent squid bob up and down in the blackness. Divers must be careful not to get to close to the ocean floor, for blue-spotted stingrays will suddenly awaken, kicking up clouds of sand. Moving through this alien environment is a very strange experience. Everything is tranquil in the quiet and darkness, but one feels a rush of excitement and adrenaline while swimming deeper into the unknown.
During the last two days, one realizes that a week on a boat is far removed from a week at a resort. Sea Safari is for diving fanatics, not the beach bums. With an average of three dives a day, who has time for the beach anyway?
A vacation on the liveaboard means more time among the sponges and crustaceans. Cenderawasih Bay attracts scuba enthusiasts from all over the world, with different levels of diving experience. There is everyone from experts with up to 1,000 dives under their belts to beginners with only 10. And if diving isn’t for you, the snorkeling is just as phenomenal. One does not need to go deeper than 10 meters to experience the bay’s full potential.
The excitement and adventure offer a unique escape from the sluggishness of city life and the typical Jakarta routine. As the ship glides by the gentle rolling mountains of north Papua and the sun goes down over an endless blue sea, the thought of returning to Jakarta can become almost unbearable.
By far the best way to experience this natural wonder is on one of Sea Safari’s liveaboard boats. The boats fit up to 30 passengers, with old-fashioned cabins located in the hull and on the bow. The cool ocean breeze is a welcome sensation, so far removed from the still heat of the city. Sun chairs lie at the uppermost level of the ship, where sunbathers can listlessly soak up the warm equator air. It is a reminder that many of us in the city don’t get enough vitamin D.
And not only are the reefs of Cenderawasih Bay picturesque and exciting, they are environmentally very important. The strong currents wash coral larvae throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans, replenishing weak and dying coral around the world. Andy Chan, a professional underwater photographer and PADI master dive instructor from Bali, said “the abundance of marine life and coral here is much better than in parts of western Indonesia.”
“The problem,” he said, “becomes how to protect the area. The local government has been very good, but if they don’t get the money from Jakarta it becomes very difficult. The government in Jakarta is never interested.”
Jakarta should be interested, and more Jakartans would be wise to save up and make the journey. Not only is the area protected by the local government from overfishing and pollution, it is also one of the world’s few designated shark sanctuaries. And as sustainability becomes an ever-increasing goal for a healthy Indonesian economy, the viability of sustainable ecotourism will be even more important in the future.
Cenderawasih Bay is a great example of ecotourism done right. Sadly, though, it is also a rare one. Coastal regions are often the first to feel the negative effects of irresponsible tourist activities, and more regulation is required to keep the majority of Indonesia’s coastal communities healthy and thriving. Cenderawasih has become a great example of how ecotourism should be managed, with deep commitment and initiative from the community and promises kept and a respected rule of law enforced by the local government.
“It’s a good example of how the mind-set of a community, not just investment and infrastructure, is the best vehicle for ecological preservation,” says Riyanni Djankarou, editor in chief of Divemag Indonesia. “You can build an airport and a road, but the mind-set is what is key. Everyone here is connected, from the government to NGOs to the local people.”