My heart raced, my face flushed with heat and I physically jumped in the water as I looked back into a piercing eye. It was a long few seconds until I realized I was worrying needlessly. It was a whale shark - harmless unless you are a very small fish. I heard the fishermen above laughing at my obvious shock and I also laughed into my snorkel, my fear turning into exhilaration at such a magnificent animal approaching me so closely.
In Indonesia, whale sharks often hang around ‘Bagans’, large wooden fishing platforms fixed to the sea bed on long posts. A roofed 15 foot square area in the middle is the home of the 4 men who live here for 3 months. Nets hang down below the platform and lights are used to catch fish at night. To stop the whale sharks sucking at their nets to get at the small fish, the men feed the sharks and a few tourists come hoping to see them.
Sandy and I spent about 90 minutes in the water swimming with this graceful giant as he slowly approached the platform for a free meal, then swam off for a few minutes before repeating the process. He wasn’t bothered by us at all. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. My whale shark encounter was one of the highlights of my 6 week /1000km paddling adventure with Sandy Robson through West Papua and Papua in NE Indonesia. We starting by exploring some of Raja Ampat, one of the world’s top diving and snorkeling sites. We then crossed 55km to mainland Indonesia and paddled along several hundred kilometers of dumping surf coast before ducking into the more sheltered Cenderawasih bay. I’d done very little research, relying on Sandy’s expertise as she’d already been paddling in Indonesia for 9 months when I joined her. For the Australian adventurer, this is part of a 5 year paddle from Germany to Australia, retracing the route of a German paddler Oskar Speck, who pioneered the journey in the 1930s.
I leave Indonesia with a new fondness for Papuan people, food, culture and underwater life. I’m still not used to the 40 degree Celsius days but I grew very fond of jumping into the bath-warm sea whenever I got hot or sticky, or just wanted to check out the multicolored smorgasbord of coral along much of the coast. Above the water, the steep hills were plastered with vibrant green trees, clinging to every available space with branches dangling into the sea. It rained almost every day which was often a relief although it was always hot and humid; some of my clothes and sleeping mat are all now dappled in mildew. Food was cheap and fresh - most of the locals in villages gather or catch what they need for that day and sometimes we were treated to seafood that was alive 20 minutes before we ate it.
Sea Kayaking is not well established in Indonesia yet. There are less than 50 locals with sea kayaks in the whole country. You can go kayaking at a few tourist hotspots - notably Raja Ampat / Kayak4conservation where you can hire fibreglass kayaks and a local guide to explore these stunning karst limestone islands which are home to manta rays, whales, turtles and incredible coral reefs.
To follow the rest of Sandy’s journey visit www.sandy-robson.com
Follow Justine’s adventures at www.cackletv.com where she’ll begin her next adventure - a solo circumnavigation of Vancouver Island in May.
"My whale shark encounter was one of the highlights of my 6 week /1000km paddling adventure with Sandy Robson through West Papua and Papua in NE Indonesia."