3 best sites to snorkel and dive with whale sharks in Indonesia

Do you want to snorkel and dive with whale sharks? If yes, Indonesia is the perfect place. It is possible to encounter these gentle giants in several places throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Although there have been reported sightings of whale sharks around Bali, Komodo, Alor and Raja Ampat, your best chances to snorkel and dive with the largest fish species are; Triton Bay, Cenderawasih Bay, and Saleh Bay in Sumbawa

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Whale Sharks in Indonesia

Indonesia boasts some of the most spectacular settings for encountering whale sharks (Rhincodon typus). Their presence and behavior are influenced by a combination of biological, environmental, and human factors. 

The convergence of several major ocean currents, including the Indonesian Throughflow, brings nutrient-rich deep-sea waters to the surface. These nutrients support abundant plankton growth, which attracts whale sharks that feed on these microscopic organisms. In addition, upwellings, particularly around areas like Sumbawa and Cenderawasih Bay, also increase nutrient availability. Furthermore, the tropical, warm waters of Indonesia (averaging 27-30 °C) provide an ideal thermal habitat for whale sharks, which prefer these conditions for their metabolic processes.

Bangans and Whale Sharks

Local fishermen have historically viewed whale sharks as an omen of good fortune, bringing luck and prosperity. The use of Bagans (traditional fishing platforms) to catch small fish, such as anchovies and scad, led to an increased presence of whale sharks which are drawn to these platforms due to the high concentration of baitfish. The presence of the large fish often means more baitfish and, consequently, better catches. Rather than competing for fish, the gentle giants and fishermen typically end up benefiting mutually. Areas and fishing communities in Triton Bay and Cenderawasih benefit from this symbiotic relationship.

Symbiotic relationship between fisherman and whalesharks in Indonesia

Whale Sharks of Kaimana – Triton Bay

Triton Bay, located in West Papua is a remote and unspoiled region far away from mass tourism. In the past years, however, it has gained a reputation as a pristine diving destination with a very high chance to see whale sharks. The confluence of several major ocean currents, enriching the waters with nutrients, creates an idle environment for marine life. The nutrients support a high density of plankton, which is critical for the diverse marine ecosystem, including the large fish. Furthermore, the area boasts the most incredible and untouched underwater sites against a backdrop of towering karst limestone formations and lush tropical jungle. 

Best Time to Dive with Whale Sharks in Triton Bay

Triton Bay is reachable via Kaimana Airport and the best season to meet the gentle giants is from October to April. During that period, the weather, and ocean conditions are the most favorable for yacht charters and diving expeditions. If you want to increase your chances of spotting whale sharks around the Bagans in Triton Bay, time your dive according to the dark of the moon when the fishing is at its best.

Whaleshark sightings in Triton Bay, West Papua

Whale Sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

Cenderawasih Bay on the northern coast of West Papua is another beautiful region that is known as a hotspot for diving and snorkeling with whalesharks. Due to its remote location, however, it remains off the beaten track and is only accessible via liveaboards or private yacht charters. With nearly 700 kilometers of coastline, tropical rainforest, mangrove, and countless species of sea creatures, Cenderawasih Bay is a bucket list destination for those looking to explore some of the remotest regions on earth.

With 1.5 million hectares of protected marine area, the region ensures pristine conditions and features vibrant flora and fauna, super-healthy coral gardens, and an abundance of marine life. In addition to whale shark encounters, Cenderawasih Bay offers several wreck diving sites. The Bagans, which attract the gentle giants, regularly change location and are spread throughout numerous areas. However, many of them can be found around Kwatisore, also known as whale shark village. 

Best time to Encounter Whale Sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

The best time to encounter whalesharks in Cenderawasih Bay is typically from November to April. During this time, the water is generally calmer, and the visibility is excellent. This makes it easier to spot these magnificent creatures. Cenderawasih Bay is reachable via airports (in Nabire/Biak and Manokwari). Manokwari is the more popular option due to the direct flights from Jakarta.

Swim, snorkel, or dive with the gentle giants at Saleh Bay in Sumbawa

The Whale Sharks of Saleh Bay in Sumbawa

Sumbawa is a lesser-known and only recently discovered hotspot for snorkeling and diving with whale sharks. They can be found in Saleh Bay, the largest Bay of Sumbawa, and feed near the local fishing platforms. From our experience, the encounter rate in Sumbawa is slightly lower compared to the areas in West Papua. On the upside, yacht charters in the area do not require the same time commitment and generally are less hustle in terms of logistics, planning, and costs.

Best Season to See Whale Sharks in Sumbawa

Visiting the whale sharks in Sumbawa is often combined with a yacht charter in Komodo. This adds plenty of highlights, such as a trek to the waterfalls on Moyo Island and diving in Komodo National Park. Whale shark sightings in Sumbawa, occur throughout the year, but the best time to meet them is from June to September when the sea is calm and the visibility is high.

Local Fisherman community photo @dianahimmelspach

The Sustainability of Whale Shark tourism in Indonesia

The feeding of wild animals is a highly controversial subject. Many people argue it changes the feeding behavior as well as migration patterns of marine animals, including whale sharks. Others present the argument, that the regular sightings in remote regions are contributing to the protection and the marine environment in general. Of course, there is a certain monetary incentive, but watching the fisherman and seeing how much respect they show to these remarkable sea creatures and their environment is inspiring. In addition, the relationship between fishermen and whale sharks dates back to times when tourism and the monetization of wild animals were almost nonexistent. 

In 2008, the waters of Kaimana and Triton Bay were granted recognition and the status of a Marine Protected Area. Whale shark sightings certainly contributed to this decision. The government of Indonesia continues to make strides toward protecting its wildlife and the island communities around it. In 2013, the whale shark was set as fully protected through the Decree of the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. Furthermore, the authorities at the Cenderawasih Bay National Park have been consistently monitoring the population of whale sharks since 2011 to identify them. This includes their sex, body structure, and population distribution. As of August 2023, as many as 188 have been identified.

How to behave when you snorkel and dive with whale sharks

No matter if encountering a whale shark at a man-made Bagan or encountering them anywhere in the wild, keep in mind whale sharks are wild animals and should be treated with respect. Therefore, please follow these guidelines for swimming, snorkeling, and diving with whale sharks in Indonesia.

  • Please be aware that under no circumstances should you touch, ride, chase or harass the whale shark
  • Do not swim in front of the whale sharks or block their path. Allow them to swim freely
  • Do not use equipment that could disturb or harm the whale shark, such as an intense photo flash or underwater scooters.
  • Keep a minimum distance of 3m 
  • Be a role model and try your best to ensure that the giant fish is not exposed to too many people at the same time. 

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