In Search of Whale Sharks

The Sumbawa Government, in the last year, has discovered 50 semi-permanent whale sharks befriending fisherman in Saleh Bay. Local squid boats, which look more like giant daddy-longlegs spiders than trawlers, attract the sharks by their bulging halls.   

Nestle between Bali and Flores, Sumbawa Island is that forgotten weatherboard house on a street of flashy mansions. The whale shark tour, organized by a village tourism initiative, is a test to identify how westerners can be safely introduced to the whale sharks of Saleh Bay. Since the fishermen drag in their halls in at sunrise, and the wide-mouthed sharks swarm soon after, the trip is an overnighter at a small fishing village nestled on the southern edge of the bay. 

I climb onto a Fluro green bus with 16 other sailors who all want one thing; to swim with whale sharks. We’re told the animals haven’t been in contact with tourists and warned there’ll be no swimming without a diver’s license. Since I did the course when I was 17 and haven’t dived for ten years, my ticket is in a box somewhere snuggled up with soccer trophies and the 3rd-grade certificate for best coloring in. Photoshop works wonders for faux dive tickets.

With a snorkel, mask and fins stowed under the vinyl seats, the bus rumbles to life, and our guide/translator/conservationist gives us a rough play-by-play of the next 24 hours. First, a two-hour drive then a short tour of Labuhan Jambu Village followed by dinner, five hours sleep at our homestay, and a 2 am wake up so we can board a boat that will take us to the whale sharks.  

Photo taken by Alex Dutton

Driving through rural Sumbawa is a tourist attraction in itself. Dried Fish farms checker the mud plains. When the rainy season comes, floods will fill the farms with fish which the farmers will fatten over the coming months.  Rice paddies blanket the valleys. Cone hatted women work the fields. Five people on a single moped zoom past, the kids hugging their parents while a baby is clutched in its mothers’ arms.  Clusters of cement houses hug the road. Most have a small shop in their front yard. Some sell packets of chips and home essentials, while others sell petrol in glass bottles.   Mountains soar on our right while the ocean peaks through gaps in houses, mosques and sloping paddies. 

We arrive in Labuhan Jambu mid-afternoon.  Like most Indonesian fishing villages, there’s a mosque at each end of town, cement houses with corrugated rooves lining the only street, chickens and goats crossing the road without a thought for the mopeds zooming past, and fish and legumes drying on the pavement.  We stop outside a blue cement house with a banner of a whale shark strung above the entrance. I brush crumbs off my shirt and stretch out the muscles that have been squished into Indonesian sized seating for three hours. Inside, hundreds of drawings of whale sharks hang on the walls. In most pictures, the sharks dwarf the fishing boats they swim alongside. There are smiling sharks, angry sharks, and sad sharks, but in every drawing, the mouth looks like it can swallow the bus we arrived on.  A poster from Conservation International written in Tarzan English spans the back wall. 

The organizer, Maya gives a rundown on whale shark facts and the behaviors of the 49 semi-permanent residents of the bay. She warns that there will be no swimming however we are also told that in 20 years, locals report no severe injuries and that if we are to swim it will be at our own risk. 

“So, you are saying we can swim?” I ask. 

“No, I am telling you that you shouldn’t, but if you do swim, you can’t go within four meters of them and that it is at your own risk. Also, no bikinis.” 

I sign a waiver and then head to the homestay which is at the end of a narrow alley.  I glance behind, in front, and clutch my bag. When the whole town could do with a paint job, dark alleys are uneasy.  At the end, however, is a white house with carved wooden window-shades and a welcome mat on the tiled stoop. I drape a sarong over my shoulders and cover my legs with a towel and knock. Two women poke their heads out of the crack, then open it wide, waving us in. Inside, the house is spotless. 

I’m directed to the bedroom where a double bed is looked over by a wall of photographs of college graduations, wedding pictures, and family photos.  Stern men are bound in sarongs and women politely gaze to the cameraman, their laced dresses lost beside their husband’s garb.  

I plug the fan in to check and am sprayed with dust. There is a knock on the door, and I’m ushered to the living room floor for tea and rice cookies.  We communicate through smiles broken translations.  

As the sunset call to pray spreads through the village, I walk along the narrow main street to the jetty where the morning’s hall is strewn, drying under the waning sun. The rot follows me to the half-built boats at the jetty’s entrance.  The incomplete hulls rest on tracks and are shaded by clusters of dried palm fronds. Men hammer sawdust into the hull’s cracks or pound wooden rivets into planks of teak.  The sun disappears behind mudflats, and I head back to the main street in search of the restaurant. 

In case dinner is stewed beef and nasi gorang, I buy a bag of chips at one of the patio shops and stow it in my backpack.  The only sign of the restaurant is a cluster of white people standing outside a house that has one long plastic table and a portable stove on the front porch.  Whole fish, resembling those from the jetty, stare at me from a foil-lined tray. Rice, chicken stew, banana fritters, banana leaf parcels, and boiled vegetables round out the meal. The oily-sweet food is still better than a bag of MSG dusted chips. A mound plat of frosted donuts is brought out for dessert. How donuts found their way to an isolated village in one of the most impoverished islands in Indonesia is a testament to the globalism of diabetes.  We are called from the table by one of the volunteers and lead to a down the street to the performance. 

The stage is set up in an empty block between two stilted houses.   The backdrop,  a green tarp suspended from scaffolding, cascades to the ground and extends out to become the stage. We are escorted to a row of plastic chairs, and once seated, the speeches start. We are thanked by the Bupati for coming and implored to tell others about Labuahan Jambu Village. I always assumed bupatis wore traditional garb, that bellies bare to the sun, the chiefs sit on thrones watching over their village and ensuring offerings are made to the many gods they believe in. This man, however, wears a button-down ikat shirt and long pants and has impeccable English.   

Photo captured by Alex Dutton

A woman sneaks across the front row and stops at me. “Are you Miss. Macy,” she asks. “You do speech,” 

“No, she couldn’t make it,” I say, referring to one of the sailors from the rally. 

The woman looks scared like the whole night is about to fall apart. 

“Well, will you do speech?” she asks, eyes wide. 

For the second time in a month, I’m asked to represent a hoard of sailors and give my thanks to a community. The thank you comes easy. Indonesia has been home for the past two months, and there is something to be thankful for at every pothole in the road. Countless villages have welcomed us with traditional music and dance, local gifts, food, and guided tours around the islands. In local kitchens, I’ve learned how to cook fish soup and Kue Pelita and build bamboo leave cupcakes. I’ve been deep into the mountains and met a Bupati who did resemble my imaginations of an Indonesian war chief.   In this village, a home has taken me in for the night so that I can tick off the bucket list item, to swim with whale sharks. The hank you comes easy. It’s the standing up in front of a hundred or so people and making coherent sentences that have been a life-long struggle. It’s spine judderingly uncomfortable that me, an Australian in her twenties, represent western civilization for this village.  My high bun looks like an ant mound in the desert, my tie-dye dress barely covers my knees, a towel shields my arms and my feet look I tried to clean a chimney with them. But, the woman’s eyes are getting wider. 

“Ok,” I say. “Sure.” 

“Thank you.” She grabs my hand. “Now.” 

Here I thought I would at least have a few minutes to muster some choice words and add a couple of my favorite Sumbawa-anecdotes, but no, I’m now walking onstage and shaking hands with the Bupati. 

“This is Miss. Macy,” he says. “Miss Macy will give a speech now.” At least if my speech is terrible, Miss. Macy will be blamed. 

He hands me the microphone and walks off stage. 

I stare out over an expectant crowd as the woman at my hip nods like great words are about to be spoken. 

“Terimakasi,” I say. 

People are crammed together. Parents lift up their kids, old ladies peer from in between necks and the youth gaggle at the back. They stare as if I’m hiding a guitar behind my back and am about to bellow out a pitch-perfect acoustic cover of Bohemian Rhapsody. The microphone squeal and I want to throw it into the crowd. 

Get yourself together, Renae, this island has taught you more than four years of an Occupational Therapy Degree. 

 I thank the crowd for welcoming us into their homes and town. A few people nod, but most stare at me blankly. The realization that 90 percent of villagers can’t understand me spurs me on. After two or ten minutes (time flies when you’re empowered by a microphone and a deaf crowd), a baby cries, pulling me from my track to tyranny. I thank the audience like a jazz pianist who just nailed their set and hand the mic back to the smiling woman. She translates my words, hopefully adding some local eloquence to my speech. 

Once back on my brittle plastic chair, the drums start, and women cloaked in green drift onto the stage. The men follow, prancing about, gripping the machete holster at their waist. The women kneel, hands in their lap.  The shark, symbolized by a woman in a crown, white makeup and a pink gown, coils in the center of the stage.   

Photo taken by Alex Dutton

The dance tells the story of shark and fisherman, the shared bay, and the mysticism of the spotty giants. Nets are released into the water then heaved in. The fish are sorted and brought to shore. The women receive the catch and bring it to their kitchens, hands stirring, slicing, thanking the men. 

The poachers enter the bay at night. The music quickens. A shark surfaces, mouth wide, open to the fisherman’s giving hands.  The women resume kneeling, waiting for their husbands to return home.

A poacher pulls out a knife and saws off the shark’s fins. The local men unsheathe their machetes. The shark sinks to the bottom of the bay. The poachers raise their guns. The women continue to kneel, hands threading the air. The guns kickback. The fishermen fall. The poachers leave. The women weep then rise.  The women fish. The women cook. 

The poachers return. The women fuse as one; a weapon. Palms raised, they step towards the line of guns. The poachers step back, the women step forward, seizing the guns and turning them on the men who killed their husbands. The dance ends with women as the victors and the crowd cheers. For twenty minutes, every person in  

When the dance finished, the Bupati returns to the stage and brings with him the choreographer, a middle age man, who leads with his chest and has a crisp sense of fashion that would draw compliments in the West Village. Tears in his eyes, he thanks his dancers and the crowd. The man has talent. To be able to convey the relationships between whale sharks, fisherman, poachers in an isolated coastal without words or props is a feat. 

 “It’s now time to announce the winner of the drawing contest,” says the Bupati. 

It is already 9:30, and in four hours I’ll be waking to head out into the bay on a fishing boat. Let’s hope it’s not an “everyone who drew a picture gets a prize,” situation. 

I hear the sailors around me groan as the crowd behind leans forward. The winners are mostly girls aged from 4-8. Some are dressed in fancy hijabs while others wear pajamas. Each gets a gold trophy which they hug like a favorite teddy bear. Proud parents snap pictures on prehistoric phones, and once the table of trophies has been emptied, the Bupati asks, if it’s not too late, would the visitors like to see another dance performance that has been in rehearsal for months. Our faces must scream, No!

“Yes, you do need to get up early,” he says.  “Anyone who wants to stay for the second dance can.”

Every sailor stands before being trapped to chairs by a fresh wave of music. We squeeze through the crowd who have no intentions of leaving until the last gong has banged. 

Back at the homestay, I switch on the fan and dusty, hot air swirls around the room.  There is a hole in the gable of the walls, that assumingly helps circulate air, but also lets in a stampede of mosquitos. Hopefully, there is an army of geckos waiting on the sill, their tongues caked in wings. I take a bottle of water to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face.   The mustard tiles, fuschia walls, squat toilet, water bucket for flushing and small sink stop me at the door. The mix of colors and patterns is the type wrapped around a homeless person happy to have something to wear.  The kitchen is egg yolk and stocked with silver pots that could be used to store a coiled garden hose. A quad-burner stove shoulders a silver oven just big enough to cook a quail and a few potatoes. There is no sink or refrigerator, just a dark-wood family sized table. 

The hallway leading to the living room has a machete hanging on the wall. Pink string winds around the wooden sheath advertising that this is not art, but a weapon readied for some unlucky intruder.  In my room, the pink sheets are pulled tight across a double bed. Two fluffed pillows invite my head, and since it’s a crisp 34 degrees, there’s no need to snuggle under covers except for extra mosquito repellant. A homebrew of citronella and basil is already soaked deep into my pores, so I jump onto the bed and pray that by lunchtime tomorrow, I will have ticked off the childhood dream to swim with a whale shark. 

The next thing I hear is the bells of my phone and a dog barking somewhere close but not close enough to bite me. It’s whale shark time!

We are met at the dock by the three conservationists and three deckhands. We are to split up into three fishing boats that will supposedly take us out into the bay. Seven of us clamber in with one conservationist, one deckhand, a boat captain, five lifejackets,  and a box of packet-Mie Goreng. I sit up the front on wooden beams, and when the engine grumbles, I can hear the hairs in my ear dying. We head off into darkness reserved for deep space and under the kitchen sink. Fish prance in the torchlight scattered by the man sitting on the boat’s bow.  He scans for crab pots and driftwood until we get to deep water then clicks off the light and Phosphorescence come to life, their blue twinkles erupting in the boat’s wake. I dip my hand in the water, and when I pull it out, it is radioactive. The sky is a mirror of the ocean. A shooting star sweeps across what seems like the start or end of our galaxy. The milky way is thick, touchable. Sure, my ears have suffered industrial deafness, but if hearing loss and a splintered backside is the price paid for a glowing ocean, shooting stars and the promise of whale sharks, then bring on the cochlear implant and tweezers.

After an hour, a soft glow grows from the darkness. The only thing living that could cause such luminosity is a giant squid fighting a sperm whale both lathered in phosphorescence or a small city.   I check my map looking for any land, but we are in the middle of Saleh Bay.  There is no land for 30 miles ahead of us.  Maybe, not all of the 18,000 Indonesian islands are on google maps. Or there’s a school of jellyfish ahead. Or perhaps there is an oil spill that’s aflame. Whatever the culprit, we are like mosquitos to flesh. There is a stray firefly just ahead that turns out to be a Bagan (squid boat), lit up like a crime scene. The trimaran is steadied by a spiderweb of wires that are fastened with belled light bulbs that heat up the water to draw fish to the surface. The Bagan is tilted to the left, the full nets threatening to drag it under.  We pass two more boats and finally realize that the city ahead is hundreds of bagans scattered across the bay with bulbs ablaze, turning night to day.  The spotter stands and peers ahead like a captain searching deep fog. He points toward a cluster of light. The captain swerves in that direction.  We stop in front of one of the biggest of the boats and our spotter yells out to the men onboard.  They point behind us, and we head off at full speed in that direction. 

  It seems we are lost. But because I’m at the front and the conservationist, the only English-speaking person on the boat other than the sailors, is at the back, any communication is swallowed by the engine. After stopping at another boat and getting pointed in another direction, the idea that we’re lost and looking for a particular boat amongst hundreds sinks in. On the catamaran, there is a radar system telling you the boat’s name, type, size, location, direction, and safety status. Here, you look through the darkness at the size of the Bagan and the paint detail on the nose. A splash of green, a line of blue, or some mixture of the two work as a name. 

The spotter has his hand on his head, feeling the pressure of seven sailors all now doubting his ability to find us a whale shark. We head off, bumping along, ears now accustomed to the roaring engine. Ten minutes later, we stop at another vessel and ask for more directions.  The sun sneaks up on us, creeping over the horizon then souring to light the hundreds of boats that were minutes ago, constellations in the darkness. 

Everywhere around us, catches are hauled in. I spot another of the conservationist boat in the distance motoring around in circles and feel a little less agitated. If ours were the only group not to see sharks, the three-hour bus-ride home with sailors comparing shark sizes, and “how close did you get?,” would be excruciating.  Our starts bouncing on his tippy toes, points, yelling, at a boat with a blue swipe of paint on the bow. It seems we found our Bagan.  

The whole trip cost 750 Rupia and my signature on a waiver.  The how and the where wasn’t explained. But here, tied to a squid boat, ears ringing like a pack of cicadas have nested in them, and a spine that’s aged 20 years in 3 hours, I wonder if I’m on the right tour. 

 I search the water for sharks. 

“They won’t arrive until around 7,” says the conservationist. 

Since it took an hour to actually find our boat, and nothing starts on time in Indonesia, the chances that the sharks will be punctual is slim.  I clamber onto the tentacles of the Bagan and tiptoe along a plank of wood to the center hull where a group of men is cheering at the Santa sack of fish spilling onto the deck. It’s 6:05 a.m. and the sun is blazing. I climb down to the deck and stand ankle deep in fish. The men laugh and jest for me to help separate the catch into four buckets.  I hang my backpack over a beam and dig in, sorting the fish into small round silver, medium round silver, translucent, and miscellaneous. The squid is tossed onto a little pile on the deck. 

The fishermen pull out cameras and take pictures of me, their phones flaked with scales. 55 minutes, and the sharks will be here. If I don’t dive elbow deep into the haul, I will be staring at my watch and searching the waters like a junkie looking for a fix. 

The squid boats earn 600 rupias a tub, and today, the vessels gross income totals 2.4 million (165 USD), split between the captain, five workers and the delivery boat which waits on standby to motor the boxed fish straight to the local markets.

 The washdown starts and, if I’m to believe the conservationists, the fishy scum is what attracts the sharks.  

After twenty minutes of staring at the water trying to spot the spots amongst the scraps and jellyfish, our spotter’s phone rings and he starts chatting at a rabbit-rate. The conservationist smiles at him and then waves us back to the upper level.  

 “There are no sharks here, but a boat over there,” she says, pointing to the distant mountains, “has sharks.” 

I grab my dry bag and slip on squid tentacles on my run back to the boat. 

Sitting up front with half my ass hanging over the side of the boat, feet latched onto a beam, and fingers in my ears, I scan ahead to the three squid boats at the base of the mountain. 

I look back and the conservationist, phone to her ear, holds up four fingers and smiles. There are only three fishing boats, so the four must be a shark count. We slow in front of what feels like the tenth Bagan today, but this time, I lean over the side and a shark, as big as the boat, gives me side-eye. 

“Over here,” says the conservationist on the other side, pointing at the tail of the shark that’s still gazing up at me. 

“How soon can I Jump in?” I ask. 

“Just wait a moment. They need to know we are here,” she says. “About half an hour.” 

It seems like this shark knows we are here. They are swimming on their sides, surveying us with inky eyes.  

A second shark glides past us and heads under beams of the squid boat.  I grab my snorkel and squeeze my foot into a fin. 

“You are the first tourists to ever swim in this bay. We don’t know how the sharks will react,” she says. 

I know that in 20 years, there have been zero fatalities. Sure, most fishermen fear the dotty monsters, but the daring have dived in and always returned.  

“Can I go in?” 

She peers into the water then glances at my feet, which are already dangling over the side of the boat. She nods and I slide into the murkey water.  A faint shadow glides underneath me; the outline of a monster. I chew my snorkel and stay close to the boat, scanning the water. On the left, a shark, mouth open, glides towards me. I kick away from our boat towards the Bagan. I’m here to swim with sharks, not cling to the side of a boat and watch them like some skittish tourists who can’t swim. 

Now under the Bagan’s web, I wrap my arms behind me, suck in, and a shark passes below, its dorsal fin a centimeter from grazing my stomach. The tail, a slow swinging pendulum bigger than me isn’t so forgiving. I roll onto my side, kick backward and am pushed back by the turbulence of its tail. Knowing that the shark has a throat size of a Ping-Pong ball doesn’t stop my heart from pounding. I’m still the only person in the water that’s thick with jellies, plastic wrappers and fish scum. I swim towards the man pouring fish waste into the bay. If an unfriendly shark with razor teeth and eyes that blink black arrives, red-headed human will be on the menu. Water conducts fear. I close my eyes and try to slow my heart. 

The conservationist’s three-meter rule is impossible to follow when the sharks seek you out, their eight-ball eye scheming a game of nudge the tourist. It is the kind of eye that knows you, not just the tangled hair, freckles, and wide blue eyes, but your dreams, what your future holds, and every moment that came before this one. 

An inquisitive, 5-meter baby arrives and after three loops of judging with more side-eye than a high school cheerleader, it nuzzles in, asking for a tickle under the chin. Since the conservationist is looking down from the squid boat, I just float, hands loose at my side, and the shark ripples past me. Finally, another sailor hops in and kicks up a storm of bubbles. The sharks follow the trail and chase the man up onto the beams and out of the water. Turbulence attracts the animals as much as serenity. 

Success for the conservation department and the Sumbawan Government is untarnished sharks and smiling tourists. After an hour in the water, I climb out and sit on the beams of the boat, coffee in hand, watching a man pour buckets of tiny fish overboard and the sharks swim up from the depths, mouth open, to scoop up breakfast.  Again, I have the urge to pat them, but the offense will get you a prison sentence. If only the plastic bottles bobbing past and the glitter embedded in my skin was an imprisonable offense. 

So much of Sumbawa is untouched by western influence, but has been sullied by local excretions. Tourism won’t flourish until resources exist that cater to the squeamish, socially minded folk who refuse plastic bags and plan vacation destinations based on the whiteness of sand, happy hour cocktails and the presence of flush toilets. 

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