The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) – or iri ombo for people in villages around the Bitcari Strait, Kaimana – are the largest fish in the world, believed by researchers can grow to a length of 18 meters and weighing more than 20 tons. Whale shark is one of the endangered species by IUCN. In 2013, the Government of Indonesia has granted the full protection status by Ministerial Decree (KEPMEN-KP No.13/2013), taking into consideration the enormous economic potential that this shark can give if its survival is sustained as a marine tourism asset, rather than when it is killed and all parts of his body is sold.
Whale shark-based tourism has been widely developed around the world and has had a direct impact on the local economy. For example, in a small town in Philippines called Donsol, fishermen were used to catch sharks for their fins, now they keep the whale sharks sustained for tourism. This activity has rapidly improved the life of the economy, where the progress can be seen from tourist visits, in 1999 there were 200 people and in 2009 recorded up to 20,000 tourists. Maldives showed that tourists spend nearly US$ 10 million annually or 100 billion rupiahs (Jan, 2018) for the privilege of swimming with whale sharks. Other countries like Belize, Seychelles and Australia similarly nurture the whale-shark tourism industries, which often based on only 6- to 12-weeks, when the whale sharks are present.
Since it was found around 2012, the whale shark at Kaimana has begun to attract tourists to swim with the whale sharks at Kaimana. The whale shark at Kaimana is first encountered swimming around bagan – a traditional fishing platform from South Sulawesi – to eat anchovy (teri) targeted by fishermen. Floating bagan use lights to attract the hordes of small fish at night, then after the amount of fish is felt enough, the fishermen lift the net that had been lowered to a certain depth. The interaction of whale sharks with this bagan, also found elsewhere in Indonesia, and has become one of the whale shark tourism platforms. However, there is still a lot of information that researchers haven’t know yet about the biology, behavior, and the movements of whale sharks. Whale sharks are believed to be migratory species, and the information about their movements will be essential to support the development of whale shark-based tourism.
Since December 2016 until now, 6 individual whale sharks have been tagged with finmount satellite receivers in Kaimana. Some of the whale sharks that have been tagged with these satellites indicate that they are moving far enough out of the sea of Kaimana. Some of them came out to the Arafura Sea, the Seram Sea, and the Banda Sea, but the interesting part is that some of the individuals went back to the sea of Kaimana. This shows that although they migrate, the waters of Kaimana are still an important habitat for these whale sharks.
This information on whale sharks’ movement is very useful for Kaimana Local Government. The potential of whale sharks as an ecotourism object needs to be considered in establishing the direction of Kaimana Regency development, given the fact that tourism cannot stand alone. Obviously, it needs the readiness of other aspects, such as infrastructure, not only physically but also in the form of systems and participation of various elements. Perhaps one of them is how to make local communities becoming the main “host” of this whale shark-based ecotourism activity, assessing their readiness, and making sure they can optimize this opportunity for their own economy. The movement of the whale sharks also highlights the importance of keeping the waters of Kaimana sustained, ensuring these tourism assets remain comfortable swimming in the waters of Kaimana.
Author: Abraham Sianipar/Conservation International Indonesia