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I’ve already swum with Whale Sharks around Donsol in the Philippines and outside Dhigurah Island in The Maldives, but none of them even get close to the experience of swimming with the whale sharks around Cenderawasih Bay, outside Nabire in Papua Indonesia.
While both Donsol and Dhigurah were extremely crowded with other tourists, so were Nabire the opposite, I was swimming along with the whale sharks here on my own for hours.But unfortunately or luckily? So are reaching Nabire time consuming and an adventure on its own, and while Nabire Town is just the starting point to where the whale sharks are located, while you have to travel for another two hours to get to the place where you can swim with the whale sharks.
The real starting point for your adventure is the small settlement of Sowa, a 4-hour drive along a dirt track or a two-hour speed boat ride from Nabire town.
The road is only possible to travel during the dry season.
During my visit here in mid-July was the road to Sowa undrivable due to monsoon rain, so I had no other option than taking a speedboat which you should have pre-arranged before your arrival.
Sowa itself is no more than three small huts, a broken pier, a hammock and a few kilometres of deserted beaches. While the place is amazing, do they have a bit of a garbage problem.
You won´t get any phone signal or wifi in this part of the world.
But there´s a bit of construction going on in Sowa right now, more toilets, showers and guesthouses being constructed, so if you do visit here in the future will it probably look pretty different then it did during my visit. And more people will bring my garbage, and the locals don´t seem to have a system to gather the trash.
Cenderawasih Bay locally meaning Bird Of Paradise Bay, is the largest marine national park in all of Indonesia.
The park wich full name is Teluk Cenderawasih National Park was established back in 1993, and are now home to 150 recorded species of coral. And over 200 known species of fish, dugongs, dolphins (I saw a few during the boat trip from Nabire to Sowa), blue whales have also been seen here.
And no more than four different types of turtles enjoy the marine park: The hawksbill Turtle, Green Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle, and The Leatherback Turtle largest of all living Turtle spices.
But the main reason tourists comes here is to swim with Whale Sharks. The national park is home to 135 whale sharks, according to WWF Indonesia, the majority being males with only four females.
Click here to see real-time tracking of the whale sharks around Indonesia.
According to local tourist board was the tourist numbers here in 2016, 4083 tourists, and in 2018 had the numbers reached 8000. Which I did find extremely hard to believe since during my 4days in Nabire and Sowa didn´t see any other tourists, not even any local tourists.
And my guide said I was only the 2nd tourists he had seen during July and I arrived on the 19th of July. So the official tourism numbers are hard to believe.
How To See The Whale Sharks In Nabire.
To see whale sharks in Nabire is very easy compared to other places in the world, here in Nabire, they often hang around hang local fishing boats called Bagans locally, which are anchored up for months at the time, just offshore, only a short 10-20minutes boat ride from Sowa.
Bagans are big fishing boats/platforms with their fishing nets hanging underneath them to catch small fish and squids at night.
Local fisherman believes that the whale sharks bring luck, so the fishermen often give them a small portion of their daily catch, to keep them around.
In July where the 12 Bagans anchored up around Cenderawasih Bay. While there was no communication equipment between the Bagans and Sowa, so will your boatman will have to drive the boat from one Bagans to the next Bagans two you find the whale sharks.
Best Time To Visit Nabire.
The Whale Sharks around Cenderawasih Bay are the only known non-migratory whale sharks in the world. Due to the fisherman onboard the Bagans feeding them, to keeping them around.
So do to this can Whale Sharks bee seen all year around Cenderawasih Bay.
The monsoon season which is twice a year on this part of Papua: July/August and November/December do tend to make visibility worse. But during my visit in July and the monsoon season was the visibility amazing with 30m+.
The only no go season is during the Holy month of Ramadan when the fisherman goes home to Celebrate Idul Fitri (Festival of Breaking the Fast) with their families. Most of the fisherman are from other provinces like Ambon and Sulawesi, so travelling back and forward for them will take time, so for around 3weeks are the Bagans anchored up on shore.
The best time of the day to see Whale Sharks are by early morning or late afternoon. The late afternoon trip to the Bagans is only possible if staying in Sowa.
If you are staying in Nabire town will you often have to leave around 4 AM, since the boat ride can take from 2-3hours, depending on wheater conditions and the boat.
But if staying in Sowa will you leave around 6-7 AM. Be in mind that like in the rest of Papua, will things take time.
While staying in Sowa was the plan to leave for the Bagans at 6 AM every day, but we never left before 7 am do, problems with fuel, the boat engine, the boatman have to finish his cigarette.
The earlier you get to the Bagans in the morning, the better, since the Whale Sharks often lose interest after some time and disappears into the depths.
There´s always something making delays in this part of the world.
Diving Or Snorkeling To See Whale Sharks.
There is only one dive center around Cenderwasih Bay, the Kali Lemon Dive Resort which has very mixed reviews online. During my visit was the dive center closed, if it was only temporary or permanent will time show.
So for me was the no other option than Snorkelling, which was no problem since the visibility was amazing and the whale sharks were just a few meters under the surface anyway.
The water temperature was a good 29°C/84F.
But be sure to wear a wetsuit are a rash guard, not only to protect you from the sun but also to protect to from the jellyfishes that were around the Bagans, which was itching quite a bit every time I got stung, which was all the time.
You will have to bring your personal snorkelling gear! This is very important!
How To Find A Guide In Nabire.
First, all the contact information for local guides in the Lonely Planet Indonesia is non-working and incorrect.
When arriving at Nabire Airport will you probably get approached by a few guides which speak decent English. You might want to talk to one of them since I didn’t see any travel agency around town, but your guesthouse should be able to arrange everything, but they will use the same guides as you meet at the airport, but for a higher price.
I didn´t see any travel agency in Nabire town itself, but my hotel in Nabire could arrange a guide and boatman. If you prefer to arrange a guide in advance is Sem ( nr+62 81343977979 on WhatsApp), a good option (I used him). He can arrange everything, but be in mind that internet connection in Nabire is horrible and it´s no connection at all in Sowa, so it will sometimes take days before he replies.
He doesn’t speak any English at all so you will have to communicate with him through Google Translate, which you have to download before arrival together with the Indonesian language pack.
What´s The Price To See The Whale Sharks?
I used Sem, and I paid 140USD/ 2 Million Indonesian rupees for The boat trip from Nabire return to Sowa, visiting Bagans 3 times, 2nights in Sowa and all meals.
The hotels in Nabire charged 450usd for a day trip from Nabire, this would be for a boat with space for six people, so If you are more people would this be a lot cheaper, but you would only have one visit to the Bagans compared to the three trips I had.
In dry season will you be able to visit the Bagans a lot cheaper, if you rent a scooter and drive to Sowa yourself and negotiate with the boatmen to take you out to the Bagans. During the monsoon season is this not possible.
How To Get To Nabire.
Nabire was my third stop on my trip through Papua province in Indonesia, after Raja Ampat and Baliem Valley before I flew Nabire – Timika – Bali – Malang.
It´s essential that you stay in Nabire town the night before your flight, all flights from Nabire airport leave early in the morning, and there´s no way you will get from Sowa to the airport in time for your flight.
Reaching Nabire is only possible with domestic flight or by Pelni ship.
Nabire Airport is also known as Douw Ature International Airport. There are no international flights here.
Only small propeller flights fly here. Airlines flying to Nabire are:
Garuda Indonesia (SkyTeam): Biak, Jayapura, Timika.
Susi Air: Biak.
Express Air: Jayapura.
Wings Air: Ambon, Jayapura.
The best option is Garuda which has connections through Timika and Jayapura to all over Indonesia.
Pelni Ship stops by Nabire twice a week, normally on Thursday and Sunday (this can change) on the route Soring (Raja Ampat) – Manokwari – Nabire – Serui – Jayapura, before the ship turn around and travel the same route back.
There´s currently a massive project going on in Papua.
The construction of the Trans-Papua Highway a 4,325km/2688mile long road from Sorong (Raja Ampat) all the way to Merauke in far south-east Papua Province on the border with Papua New Guinea.
Nabire will be one of the cities which will be connected to the new highway.
Permit for Nabire and Teluk Cenderawasih National Park Entrance Fee.
There is no Surat Jalan (Letter Permit) needed for Nabire, a permit you will need for other parts of Papua, etc. Baliem Valley and the highlands. But when arriving at Nabire airport will a local police officer check and take photos of your passport and Indonesian visa.
Officaly is there an entrance fee to enter Cenderawasih Bay and Teluk Cenderawasih National Park which is 1.000.000 (70USD) for two days in the park. I asked in my hotel and with Sem were to pay the park fee it, but both claimed nobody checks it.
Money In Nabire.
Everything in Nabire is paid by cash, no card payment around here.
There´s an ATM just outside arrival at the airport and two more around town which accepts foreign bank cards. There no money exchangers around here.
What To Pack For Nabire.
Absolutely everything you will need for your trip, while Nabire has 1big supermarket, and a few smaller ones which were very well stocked with international good. So are there nowhere to buy snorkelling gear or electronics here if you forget some.
There two small pharmacies in town, there are no shops in Sowa, so if you want snacks, soft drinks or alcohol will you have to bring it to Sowa from Nabire.
Alcohol is easily available around Nabire, a few small shops plus the main supermarket in town sells beer and vodka.
Here are something you should not leave without:
Extra Battery/PowerBank, there´s no electricity in Sowa.
Download Google Translate with the Indonesian language pack before arriving. I had to use it to communicate with both the guide and the boatmen.
HeadLamp, There´s no light after dark.
Mosquito repellent, there are tons of mosquitos around.
A silk sleeping bag, the guesthouse in Sowa had tons of bedbugs.
Snacks and drinks for Sowa, there is NO shop in Sowa.
Where to stay in Nabire.
Nabire has a fair share of hostels and guesthouses, but only Kamusioh Guest House offer online booking through booking.com.
Hotel Anggrek: Cheap hotel less than five min walk from the Airport, very convenient if having an early morning flight. I stayed here do to the location.
Grand Papua Hotel Nabire: The best hotel in town but also the most expensive, flatscreen tv, aircon, hot showers. [email protected]
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