The “sea gypsies” who live with whale sharks

Although there are no regulations in Indonesia as to how close you can approach a whale shark (unlike other countries), we were mindful of giving whale sharks the space and respect they need.

As we descended, we realized that nothing had quite prepared us for the size of the creatures. A huge buck emerged from the depths, gliding gently past us and rising to the surface, sucking the succulent sardines from the net’s tiny openings into his cavernous mouth. Dwarfs, we cautiously approached to take a picture.

Suddenly a second huge male emerged from below, gently nudging us with his pectoral fin as he passed. We photographed its left pectoral fin, as the unique pinpoint patterns there and behind the gills are the best way to identify it. After sending our photo to Konservasi Indonesia as a contribution to their whale shark monitoring program, we learned that it was first sighted on December 16, 2021 and went by the nickname WP-RT- 0209.

Then a third, slightly smaller male appeared. He curiously approached us from the front, with his huge fleshy mouth wide open. Looking inside to see rows of hundreds of tiny teeth, we held on, wondering if a collision was imminent. But he passed gracefully, looking deep into our eyes as he passed. Below, a large pod of dolphins kept their distance, feeding on the strange sardine drifting from the nets.

The importance of being around three of the biggest but most docile fish on the planet was hard to fathom. After three hours, with camera memory cards full and batteries drained, we were immensely grateful to the Bugis for sharing the opportunity to sit at the table to eat the biggest fish in the sea.

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