It would be fair to say that the drive from Nabire to the boat is somewhat death-defying (the roads are actually pretty good…but the drivers…). It is also fair to say that the boat ride out to the bagans is an education in what sounds a boat engine should never make. It is unlikely that any part of this journey will go the least bit how you expect it too, let alone start within an hour or so of when you were told it would start, and there is a fair chance that a constant supply of betel nut will be far more important to your guide than, say, your safety (comfort isn’t on the radar so don’t waste any energy hoping). You might get unexpectedly shook down by drunken “cops” for more money, the guy driving the boat may decide he’d rather go fishing than take you to the bagans (once you are already half way out there), your guide might only communicate with you by sending you collect messages when arranging the trip…AND all of this will cost you a small fortune even by western standards.
But…there is this…
…and then there is this…
Cenderawasih Bay, (translating to Bird Of Paradise Bay), hosts an incredible array of marine biodiversity. The largest marine national park in all of Indonesia exists within the expanse of the bay – Teluk Cenderawasih National Park. The park contains over 150 recorded species of coral, over 200 known species of fish, and extends over an area of 14, 535 square kilometers. And that is not to mention the dugongs and the dolphins…
But lets face it, you’re not here to see the rich collection of life in the park. Your here for one thing…the sharks.
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) reach between 9-12 meters in length and weigh up to 12,500 kg, making them the largest fish in the world. Swimming though blue water next to one of these giants can be one of the most beautiful and humbling experiences of your life.
Since first hearing of the whale sharks that hang around the fishing platforms in Cenderawasih Bay, we have made numerous trips to the area. We have tried many different approaches to find the sharks and through trial by fire found the good, bad, and everything in between that Nabire has to offer. There is frustration, adventure, disappointment, and elation in every trip to find the whale sharks here. That is, after all, part of the adventure of Papua. It is truly unlike any other place on earth. And it’s changing. In the years that we have been coming here, we have seen an enormous change (enormous by Papuan standards). What was once an airport where no one would notice you sitting on the runway waiting for the alarm to sound signaling that a plane was coming, is now a small but modern airport (again by Papuan standards). What was once a town where people would routinely ask you why on earth you would ever come to Nabire, is now a place where anyone who can speak even a little English is quick to ask if you have come to see the sharks. And what was once a little known secret gathering place for young whale sharks, is now firmly on the map.
Despite the increase of visitors, there is still a definite lack of information as to how one can access the area. On our first trip to Nabire, we booked one way tickets and showed up with no place to stay and no idea how to get out to the sharks. We have put a lot of effort into figuring this place out over the years and hope that this information helps others to more easily find the best, most responsible, and most enjoyable experience possible…and hopefully have what can be a life changing experience swimming with whale sharks.
The whale shark footage in our Changing Oceans short film was shot in Cenderawasih Bay…
Nabire is an earthquake prone mining town located at the far southern end of Cenderawasih Bay and located within Nabire Regency. While Nabire is situated in a beautiful and wild stretch of coastline and contains a fascinating collection of local cultures, it can be a frustrating place for travelers expecting infrastructure and comforts that can be found in other parts of Indonesia (or even Papua for those who have explored the Raja Ampat area). Foreign tourism is relatively new in Nabire and the current draw for tourists is soley to swim with whale sharks. Because of this, the town is just beginning the learning curve of a tourist economy. So patience is a must.
Our below description of Nabire is intended to be as upfront and honest as possible and may at times paint Nabire in a ‘less than great’ light. If you go to Nabire expecting that you will be comfortable, always safe, and respected as a guest helping the local economy, you will leave Nabire planning to avoid ever coming back. If you go to Nabire expecting an adventure with every unexpected pleasantry being simply icing on the cake, you will leave Nabire happy, fulfilled, and with a few new friends (and hopefully no betel nut stuck in your teeth…).
There are a handful of places around the world where it is possible to see and swim with whale sharks, the graceful giants of the shark world. These include Mexico, Honduras, the Philippines, Australia, Mozambique, the Seychelles, the Maldives, and Thailand to name a few, but Papua is among a smaller list where you can see them with enough regularity to make a dedicated ‘whale shark’ trip. In Papua, the two major hotspots to swim with whale sharks are in Triton Bay near the town of Kaimana, and in Cendrawasih Bay near the town of Nabire. For more information on the whale sharks of Triton Bay, check out our brief write up.
In our opinion, Nabire is the better of the two Papuan locations in which to swim with the sharks (largely due to visibility and shark numbers), though it is admittedly more logistically challenging at present. This is, however, changing rather quickly over the last few years as more and more tourist come to see the sharks.
Whale sharks that frequent southern Cenderawasih Bay are known to hang around offshore fishing platforms known locally as ‘bagans’. Bagans are platforms made of wood and bamboo interlaced with nets, and are anchored to the bottom in areas thought to be abundant in fish. Most of the bagans are anchored in 50-100 meters of water, but are moved around as seasons and fishing conditions change. Fishermen stay for long periods of time on the bagans, lowering drop nets to catch small fish and squid at night. Overtime, whale sharks have developed an association with the bagans due to receiving handouts of fish. As more and more tourists come to the area, fishermen and locals are increasingly feeding whale sharks to entice them to stay at the bagans throughout the day. A few of the bagans have even begun using handheld radios to communicate the location of the sharks with one another.
Whale sharks in the southern reaches of Cenderawasih Bay were surveyed in March-June 2013, by researchers who identified a total of 37 individual sharks in the area and determined that the vast majority of those were juvenile males (36 male, 1 female, with the majority of sharks lacking significant scaring). The researchers concluded that the area may serve as a particularly important habitat for young sharks. (Himawan et al. 2015) If you snap a great photo of a whale shark in Cenderawasih Bay (or anywhere else) consider sending it in to Wildbook for Whale Sharks and help researchers track these fascinating animals!
Learn more about research being done on the whale sharks of Cenderawasih Bay here.
At present, there are a few different ways in which to visit the whale sharks.
Liveaboards are undoubtedly the most expensive way to visit the area, but for those with a big budget this option offers the chance to visit the area without the hassles of travel in and out of Nabire. Liveaboards also allow you to dive in additional areas more challenging to visit from the land. The boats/companies that visit the area vary greatly from year to year (some years there are none), meaning the liveaboard option is not always available. You best bet if you want to visit the sharks via liveaboard is to contact boat companies far in advance (they typically book a year out) to inquire as to whether they have a planned trip to the area.
With most of the liveaboard companies it is possible to charter a private boat to Cenderawasih Bay (quite pricy) but only during certain times of the year. Many of the boats operate out of Raja Ampat from November or December – May, and then relocate their vessels down to Komodo prior to the increasing southern swells which impact the region during July-August and make crossing the Banda Sea rather tricky. Cenderawasih Bay stays protected during this time period, but there are very few liveaboards still in the area making your choices from June-October quite limited.
Currently only Kali Lemon Resort offers scuba diving with any regularity. There have been other options in the past such as Ahe Dive Resort but they are not currently operating. It is possible to book trips though tour services such as Trek Papua, which use Kali Lemon Resort for the whale shark portion of their trips (we have not found anyone who has used Trek Papua so cannot recommend or comment on the quality of their trips) . Alternatively you can book directly with the resort for a slightly lower price (see below description of accommodations for current Kali Lemon prices). Staying at the dive resort is by FAR the most expensive way to visit the whale sharks from Nabire and not feasible for most people on a budget.
*NOTE – There is no dive shop in Nabire so make sure you have what you need to maintain your own gear if you are not renting equipment from Kali Lemon.
Dive Tour Operators
There are no actual dive tour operators in Nabire, however there is one on the island of Biak. We have been told that Biak Dive Resort can arrange diving with the whale sharks near Nabire as part of a larger dive trip. We don’t yet have details on this but will update this section as soon as we do.
Fast Boat From Nabire
This is a relatively new option that we have seen a marked increase in over the past year. The quality of these trips ranges greatly depending on who takes you and who ends up on the boat with you. We have seen high-speed boats (high-speed relative to the typical local long-boat) approach bagans packed full of people and then dump large numbers of people in the water, with people climbing all over and jumping off the bagans directly on top of the sharks as they try to feed. We have also seen fast boats bring a small group of visitors out to calmly snorkel with the sharks. These trips are far cheaper than the liveaboard or dive resort options and can be arranged in Nabire most easily via hotels.
Private Trip With Local Driver & Boat
This can either be arranged via your hotel, drivers you meet, or recommendations from others. We have had somewhat mixed experience with this but after a bit of trial and error over the years, we have figured out how it works and greatly prefer this approach. The key is to find someone you trust to arrange the trip for you so that the agreed upon cost is indeed the cost you end up paying (extra charges for fuel, food, water, bribes, ect. have a way of sneaking in). Done correctly, this is by far the cheapest option (by far) and can lead to spending an entire day in the water, just you and the whale sharks. While there are a few points at which to start the boat journey, we have found that it is best to arrange for your trip to leave by boat from Nabire OR drive toward the villages of Sowa & Kwatisore but launch by boat from the closer of the two main launching points (roughly a 45 mile drive to the west of Nabire). There is a launching point that is closer to the heart of Kwatisore village (and about 15-20 miles further to the west – labeled boat launch 2 on the map below), but we have experienced drunken local ‘law enforcement’ demanding bribes to be paid on the beach prior to getting onto the boat at this launching point. While that can certainly happen anywhere, we recommend avoiding the hassle if at all possible.
If you choose to use a combination of car and boat to reach the sharks the main downfall is that the drive tends to be rather harrowing (again, mostly because of the driving rather than the roads). If you choose to launch by boat directly from Nabire the ride on the water is considerably more pleasant (though it may not offer any sun protection), but you will have more limited fuel by the time you reach the bagans and may not be able to travel to the more distant fishing platforms to search for sharks.
Negotiate with your driver for a rate that includes everything (car, boat, fuel for both, and driver/guide). Make sure to clarify that you want the price to include fish at the bagans. It is important to make sure that the fishermen are properly compensated for any of their catch that they throw back for the whale sharks, but you may be told that you must pay IDR 600,000 ($45 USD) for a very small bucket of bait fish or something outrageous like that if you do not negotiate an included price for fish up front (in Nabire the first price you are given for most things is typically absurd so try not to be put off by that). The price you negotiate should be for the whole trip (NOT per/person), and it is very realistic to get a price of IDR 3.000.000 ($225 USD) for the group and often even less (still a lot of money but understandable given the fuel and logistics). This can work out to be a much better deal for small groups on a budget. Don’t expect great service based on the fact that the trip costs so much, remember tourism is still new here and this is an adventure right?
Bringing snacks and extra water to share can go along way with local drivers, guides, and the fishermen on the bagans. An unbrella or two is a good idea for shade cover on the boat. And it never hurts to bring a little betel nut for your guide so that you don’t have to stop 5 times on the drive…
* Please email us if you would like contact information and recommendations of drivers that we have used to arrange trips.
The answer to this questions depends on both your budget and comfort level in the water. We are avid scuba divers, but strongly prefer to freedive with the whale sharks, as the lack of bubbles is preferable for our photography and video (just our personal preference). Since the sharks are receiving fish from the bagans, they are attracted to the surface and most of the time hang out in the top 5-10 meters of water.
Below is a break down of some of the pro’s and con’s of each option:
There is an official entrance fee to enter Cenderawasih Bay National Park (IDR 1.000.000 per person for 2 days in the park – $75 USD). Whether or not you can find anyone official to pay that fee too is another story. Kali Lemon and other official operators/boats can help with this process. If you are going with your own driver and boat you will need to head to the park office in Nabire and register there (in our experience it can be quite challenging to find someone legitimate to pay the entrance fee too)
*NOTE – There is no official park office out near the bagans. You may be asked to pay a IDR 300.000 ($22 USD) village fee depending where you launch on a boat from, but all park fees should be paid to the park office.
Like most places in West Papua, Nabire is not currently connected to other large towns by road. Although this may change in coming years (there is mention of this in the news but don’t hold your breath), it is only possible to reach Nabire via air and sea at the moment.
At present this is easy…but we have seen that fluctuate depending on airlines and local politics. It is always a good idea to keep an eye on Nabire in the news before your trip incase the local regent bans a particular airline or something like that (we have seen that happen recently but it doesn’t always affect much).
Currently (March, 2017) these are the airlines flying to Nabire:
Wings Air – +62 21 632 6038
Garuda Indonesia – +62 21 23519999
Trigana Air – +62 984 21210
While there are currently daily flights in and out of Nabire, airlines typically fly specific routes to and from Nabire a limited number of days per week or month. Traveloka is probably the best search engine within Indonesia (especially for Nabire) but can be difficult to book on if you are using a foreign credit or bank card (we will be posting a blog about how to book with them as a foreigner soon).
*NOTE – If you are traveling with dive gear (or anything that counts as ‘dive gear’…like an underwater camera equipment) fly Garuda. Garuda currently allows 20kg of baggage per person PLUS 23kg of ‘sporting gear’ – free. That’s right, 43kg free. All you have to do is let them know the baggage is sporting equipment. While the initial ticket price with Garuda is typically more expensive than other airlines, the amount saved on baggage fees when traveling with dive gear can be profound. This is particularly true in Papua, where the per/kg baggage fees have a way of increasing at the airport the day you leave. (Side note about Garuda – we have found them to be on time a for the vast majority of our flights, they give you food, and you can collect air miles.)
***ALWAYS fly to Nabire with your exit ticket already purchased and in hand if you are planning a trip during the month of December (unless of course you have a very flexible schedule and lots of time left on your visa). Many locals attempt to leave Nabire and visit family (particularly in Ambon) during the holiday season so you can and probably will get stuck in Nabire if you are trying to stay flexible and don’t already have an onward ticket.
Traveling to and from Nabire by ferry is possible (and highly affordable) but not very reliable. Pelni is the major ferry company and their website can be searched for current schedules.
The Pelni office in Nabire is located at: JL. Frans Kaisepo NO. 14. The office can be reached at: 09 84 228650
The current Pelni route follows:
Whale sharks are present in the lower reaches of the bay throughout the year, making nearly any month worthy of a trip to the area. It is important, however, to know when the monsoon seasons fall when considering what months to find the best visibility. This part of West Papua has two monsoon seasons – November/December & July/August. That being said, Papua can be very rainy at any time of the year, so having a few extra days built into your trip is never a bad idea. Rain tends to affect the top 1-2 meters of water so scuba diving and freediving will usually put you below the worst of it.
Plankton blooms tend to happen from October to April, which may reduce visibility some, but on the other hand the seasonal abundance does filter up the food chain…and you are going to hopefully see members of that food chain…just sayin…
Keep in mind that most of the fishermen working on the bagans are Indonesian rather than Papuan, and many of them travel home during the latter part of Ramadan to celebrate Idul Fitri with their families (most of the fishermen are from Ambon and Sulawesi). This means that the sharks will not be actively visiting the bagans during this time frame as there will be no/few fishermen to handout fish. Idul Fitri typically falls sometime in mid-June so make sure to check the calendar and plan your trip to avoid this time period.
Water temperature ranges from 30°C from November to April, to roughly 27°C during the months of May through October. We have always found that a simple rash guard (for protection from the sun) is more than enough, but do keep in mind that a weight belt and a few kilos of lead will be greatly helpful for getting below the surface layer and keeping pace with the sharks should you choose to wear a thin wetsuit. Bring your own weights as these are near impossible to find in Nabire.
While the exact month that you choose to visit isn’t incredibly important, the timing within that month can be. Whale sharks are common throughout most of each month, but known to disappear from the area a few days before and after the full moon. In our experience, planning your trip near the new moon provides the best chance to see numerous sharks at a single bagan.
When it comes to time of day, you are by far most likely to encounter sharks during the mornings and evenings. Whale sharks will continue to hang around a bagan all day if they are being fed with some regularity, but it is much more difficult to find sharks midday if they have not been enticed to stay at a bagan. Because of this you MUST get an early start. By early, we mean REALLY early. 6 am…5 am…4 am…3 am…as early as your guide will agree too. Regardless of how to choose to get to the sharks, everything will take longer than planned (your ride will show up an hour late, the car will need fuel, there will be multiple stops for more betel nut, there will be much standing around and talking in the village, the boat engine will have to be located from someones house, the boat will have to be pushed into the water by the villagers and yourself, the boat will need more fuel, the boat will be needed to give someone a ride between villages, schools of fish will hit the surface and the boat driver will become distracted fishing…you get the picture). It will take at least 2-3 hours from the time you leave (or think you are leaving) Nabire until you actually reach a bagan (though this may be a touch quicker on a ‘fast boat’, it will still take longer than planned). Take home point – early bird gets the worm.
We have stayed at a few different places in Nabire town proper, stayed in one place a little out of town, and checked out in person some of the spots out closer to the bagans. For us, having as much consistent electricity as possible each night is somewhat critical for charging all of our camera gear (solar is great but can be somewhat limiting if you are busy swimming with sharks all day). That pretty much narrows the list down to a couple of options in the heart of Nabire.
*NOTE – Keep in mind that phone service connection is poor in Nabire and internet is spotty at best, so it may take some time to get a reply if inquiring about accommodation (if you get one at all). Worse case scenario, just show up with names of places and address written down and find a driver at the airport who can take you to a few places. You will find something.
*NOTE – The Moon Beach Resort is where you will currently end up if you go looking for Merry Yoweni (as recommended by Lonely Planet). While she does speak good English and can helpfully set up a trip to see the whale sharks for you, we’ve found the price tends to be roughly IDR 1.000.000-2.000.000 ($75-$150 USD) higher per day than if you arrange directly with a driver.
*As of 2017 there is a new homestay was being built near Kwatisore village, in a close location for launching on a boat directly to the bagans. We will update with more information as soon as possible. (*NOTE – this homestay is located on the same beach we recomend avoiding due to bribes being solicited)
Other accommodation options in Nabire:
*NOTE – There are additional places listed on the internet that sound like good options but were indefinitely closed at the time of writing this, such as Ahe Dive Resort.
There are plenty of restaurants, warungs, and bakso carts in Nabire and eating out is almost always a better bet than eating at your hotel. Here are a couple that we recommend:
There are a handful of banks and ATMs around Nabire, but keep in mind these are all located in town so you must get any cash you need before heading out of town toward the whale sharks. Changing foreign currency is not very easy in Nabire, so either bring all the IDR you need or let your bank know you will be using ATMs in Papua.
*NOTE – The vast majority of hotels, restaurants, and just about everything else only accept cash (even if they say they take credit cards we’ve found this to almost never works as the phone/internet connection is so poor in this region).
There are a few scattered travel agents around Nabire, but it is easiest to go directly to the airport if you need to book a flight. Just outside the airport are offices to the major airlines and they can help you to book a flight out if you get stuck.
While you can find a few people who speak pretty decent English in Nabire, they are few and far between. If you can speak Bahasa Indonesia you pretty much good to go (there are a mixed bag of Austronesian languages found in Papua, but Indonesian works best in the town of Nabire). If not, download an ‘offline’ translator app on your phone (don’t use one that must be connected to the internet to work) or have a good translation book to make your travels and negotiations smoother.
Best Internet In Town
There is an extremely wide variety of management practices in place in areas where tourism has grown around swimming with whale sharks. This can vary from rules that specify the distance you must keep at all times from the sharks and mandatory life vest wearing (forget any kind of diving), to complete free-for-alls which encourage very little education and respect for the whale sharks.
Papua is still in its infancy with this. There are no local rules for interaction at the moment, and even if there were, there is no real infrastructure to enforce that right now. The future of this place and it’s sharks depends greatly on how responsibly ecotourism is developed in the region as the numbers of visitors continue to increase.
It is unrealistic to expect that we can get in the water to observe these animals and never interact with them. They are wild animals who are constantly interacting with their environment and by getting into the water you are entering that equation. On our first visit to the bagans of Nabire, we were immediately surrounded by sharks who swam right into us, rubbing against us as they swam by and circled the bagans. We have had other experiences where it has been clear that the sharks were as disinterested in us as they could possibly be. The key thing is to let any interaction, if it happens, be on the terms of the shark. Let them come to you and behave respectfully of these wild animals. Remember, this area may be an important habitat to young whale sharks and our short-term actions in the area can have very long-term impacts for these animals.
Whale sharks are wild animals, they are unpredictable. You may or may not see them. If you are lucky enough to swim with whale sharks, they may keep their distance or they may swim. right up to you. The whole experience is unpredictable…and wild. Enjoy it.
We encourage those of you who have recently visited Nabire and/or the whale sharks to leave any travel tips and personal experiences you would like to share in the comments of this page so that they may help inform the next traveler. Thanks!!!
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