Whale Sharks – Giants of the Deep

“Shark! Shark! There are sharks in the water!” For some, hearing this spoken by the Cruise Director on a yacht may evoke visions of fear and dread. It may even send people running to their room! But when you hear it being said on the Samata, it means you should come running! We have spotted whale sharks in the water.

Whale Shark
Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus

The Largest Fish in the Sea

Whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, are the largest fish in the sea. In fact, a fully grown whale shark is often larger than many whale species. They have been measured as long as 60 feet (18 metres) and there are tales of larger. Seeing a 10 meter long shark in the water can be a shock to those who have never encountered one before. People with a fear of sharks are often intimidated when they see a whale shark for the first time. However, there is no reason to be afraid. You see, like the largest of whales, these sharks feed on microscopic food such as plankton. In fact, they don’t have the sharp teeth associated with other sharks. As filter feeders, they have specialized plate like teeth that filter their food such as krill and fish eggs.

These gentle giants are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters. They are frequent visitors to the areas that the Samata cruises. In Indonesia, we mainly see intermediate aged male sharks. These tend to average around 4 or 5 meters in length. Although they are not 10 metre giants, they are still very large animals. These behemoths can show up at any time on any reef. However, in certain areas of Indonesia whale sharks have learned to take advantage of an interesting situation.

Bagan Fishing

bagan fishing whale shark
A Bagan fishing boat

Have you ever heard of a bagan? A bagan is a unique Indonesian fishing boat used by the people of Sulawesi. They migrate all around the country to find the best fishing spots. These boats are large outriggers that utilize nets that they drop below the surface at night. They fish at night using bright lights to attract shrimp and small fish to their nets. Local whale sharks have learned that these lights mean a free buffet and often turn up at the bagans. Thankfully the fishermen don’t target the sharks in this industry. This phenomenon of whale sharks learning about an easy meal has been found throughout Indonesia, wherever these fishing boats are used.

Encountering the Sharks

In Sumbawa, there is a certain bay where we encounter the bagans and if we are lucky, whale sharks. To see these leviathans we need to jump in the tender boats at first light before the fishermen put away their nets. An early start is needed because once the fishermen stop fishing the sharks disappear into the depths. Although this encounter never lasts long, it’s always a memorable one. We can enter the water either on scuba or snorkeling as the whale sharks are only just below the surface. There is nothing in the world like having a personal and close up encounter with a giant yet gentle animal.

whale shark under a bagan
Whale Shark swims under a bagan

There are certain rules to remember when it comes to whale sharks. Although they are large and gentle, they can hurt you by their sheer size and power. Therefore, please don’t touch, ride, or startle these animals as they can move very quickly. The best way to enjoy an encounter with them is to stay relaxed, move slowly, and keep enough distance to keep everyone safe.

Visiting the Whale Sharks

If you are interested in meeting a whale shark please let us know. We offer certain itineraries during the year that visit Sumbawa. This is not something that is offered on our regular Komodo itineraries and must be discussed in advance.

Photographing a whale shark at a bagan
A whale shark at the surface of a bagan
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