Hunters to heroes

In Indonesia, fishermen are turning the tide on whale shark conservation.

Words & photographs by Fyn Caudery

Indonesia is a country blessed with rich marine ecosystems. Its crystal clear waters are one of the few places in the world where you can find whale sharks swimming beneath the waves year-round. These gentle giants of the sea are the largest species of fish in the world, with adults generally growing to about 30 feet in length. However, the very largest can grow up to a whopping 60 feet.

Being such a colossal size has unfortunately placed a target on their back in the past, hunted for their meat and fins, causing their population to decline rapidly around the islands of Indonesia. Today, thanks to the efforts of local communities and conservationists, the story of Indonesia’s whale sharks has become one of conservation success.

“Different cultures across Indonesia call them by different names. Here in Flores, they refer to it as the god’s fish, while some other islands call it the starry shark,” Lectured Iki, our tour guide. “Many believe the sharks bring good luck with fishing, and there are stories of them rescuing fishermen from the sea.” I wondered why the local whale shark population had experienced a significant decline, even when so many Indonesian cultures revered them. “Fishermen would hunt the sharks to sell,” explained Iki, “parts of the body, like the fins, can be sold for a lot of money. When a fisherman is desperate, he will go to extreme lengths to provide for himself and his family.”

Despite many indigenous cultures regarding whale sharks as sacred animals, historically, they have been targeted for food and trophy fishing. During the last 75 years, their numbers have decreased by more than 50%, with the IUCN designating the species as vulnerable in 1999 due to the significant drop in population. Eventually, the Indonesian government realised the gravity of the situation and declared whale sharks a protected species, outlawing all fishing and trade.

The decision to ban the hunting of whale sharks forced many communities that once relied on the now-illegal practice’s income to find alternative ways of making a living. Fishermen from local villages were introduced to ecotourism, becoming tour guides for visitors who want to swim with whale sharks in their natural habitat. No longer reliant on hunting, these fishermen became protectors of the gentle giants, educating tourists on the importance of preserving these magnificent creatures and their habitats.

Today, whale shark tourism is a vital source of income for many local communities in Indonesia. The fishermen have recognised that a larger and healthier population of whale sharks generates a higher income for themselves and their families. And through this ‘hunter to hero’ transformation, visitors have been able to witness first-hand the wonder and beauty of swimming alongside these creatures, inspiring a greater appreciation for the natural world.

Recently I was able to experience first-hand the inspiring relationship the Indonesian fishermen have with these benevolent behemoths of the sea. We arrived at our destination just as the sun was rising. In the distance, I could see some commotion, the fiery sky littered with squabbling seabirds. As we drew closer, dark shapes became noticeable, ever so slightly breaching the silky surface. It couldn’t be anything else. I had been eagerly anticipating this moment for so long, and after living aboard the ship for two days, we had finally made it. Enormous silhouettes dotted the depths, the occasional gaping mouth breaking the water’s surface.

After making anchor next to a bagan (an Indonesian fishing platform), a creature of the deep silently emerged from the blue abyss, awe-inspiring in both size and appearance. Its massive form, spanning about thirty feet in length, was decorated with an enchanting pattern of spots that seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. The fluidity of its movements was hypnotic, as it navigated through the water with effortless finesse. I plunged in, immersing myself in their world. In my excitement, I was initially distracted by the whale sharks, and rightfully so, but eventually, the fishermen aboard the bagan caught my attention. They poured buckets brimming with bait into the water, made with a mixture of small fish and other tiny marine organisms.

Grinning from ear to ear, excitement etched onto their faces, they fed the oceanic giants. A heartwarming feeling came over me, seeing the harmonious rapport between the fishermen and their aquatic counterparts. I looked around. There must have been 10 or 15 sharks in the water – all congregated here thanks to the kind gestures of these fishermen.

The safe environment facilitated by these virtuous fishermen has beckoned whale sharks from far-flung corners of the world to seek out Indonesian waters, bolstering their population. Moreover, it has been a great asset for researchers. Studying these gentle giants has become increasingly more accessible, thanks to the whales’ proximity and comfort around the bagans.

Despite the efforts to protect whale sharks in Indonesia, illegal fishing still occurs. Although the number of cases has significantly decreased over the years, eliminating illegal fishing activities in the region remains a challenge. Still, the Indonesian government and conservation organisations are working hard to enforce laws and regulations to combat illegal fishing and poaching.

The story of Indonesia’s whale sharks is one of conservation triumph. The combined efforts of local communities, conservationists, and government officials have created a sustainable future for these magnificent creatures. The success of whale shark conservation in Indonesia is an inspiration to other communities and nations around the world. It’s a shining example of how wildlife and local communities can benefit through creating new economic opportunities. While the journey towards a thriving future for whale sharks is far from over, the positive developments that have taken place in Indonesia offer a glimmer of hope for what is to come.


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