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Whale Sharks Are Good for Tourism in Cenderawasih Bay

Date Published
April 28, 2020

A satellite tag is attached to the dorsal fin of a whale shark. Photo by Cenderawasih Bay National Park Management Authority.

Conservationists at Indonesia’s largest marine park work with the Papuan community to protect the endangered species and promote ecotourism.


The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the biggest fish in the world. It can grow to more than 12 meters long and weigh 20 tons.

Whale sharks are known as a highly migratory species. Yet, they have been seen in Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia’s largest marine park, all year round.

The whale shark is currently listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is also listed as “endangered to extinction” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List due to its specific biological characteristics, such as slow growth cycle and low fecundity; and to the ongoing decline of its population in the world, according to the comprehensive assessment in 2017. Sharks are vulnerable to exploitation as they are hunted for their flesh, fins, and liver oil.

Since 2013, the whale shark has been a protected species in Indonesia. The country also recognizes the high economic potential that could be provided to the community through tourism. By protecting the species, the government is securing future economic value from development of whale shark-based tourism.

A Magnet for Tourists

Several shark species are tourist attractions in Cenderawasih Bay, which is located between northern Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia. However it is the whale shark that is now becoming the star attraction in several areas in the country, not just in Cenderawasih Bay. Whale sharks are harmless, graceful, and awe-inspiring, and provide high value to the burgeoning tourism industry. These species are a magnet for both domestic and international tourists, and if managed wisely, could provide a sustainable economy for the local community. Since the discovery of the whale shark population in 2006, the number of visitors to Cenderawasih Bay has steadily increased.

Since 2006, in the Bird’s Head Seascape of West Papua, stakeholders have worked hand in hand with Conservation International Indonesia, the local government of Raja Ampat and Kaimana, Cenderawasih Bay National Park Authority (BBTNTC), the technical implementation unit of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MOEF), Universitas Papua, village and customary leaders, and the local community to build and effectively manage a network of marine protected areas. In 2013, the shark and ray conservation program was started in recognition of their critical role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem.

The Role of Science and Technology

To ensure the survival of the species, the behavior patterns of whale sharks must be studied in order to optimize management, enforcement and outreach efforts to protect them. Scientific data and technology can aid decision making and planning for conservation and sustainable tourism.

However, scientists struggle to deploy electronic tags on white sharks to track them for a long period of time. The conventional tagging used by scientists elsewhere in the world does not work in Cenderawasih, where sharks have high interaction with bagan (lift nets) on a daily basis. There is a high chance of tag entanglement with the net and fishing line. As a result, it takes only 1 to 2 weeks before the tag is prematurely detached from the shark. This is too short to document important behavior of the whale shark.

In 2015, the Cenderawasih Bay National Park Authority started a comprehensive whale shark satellite tagging program with Conservation International Indonesia. The program benefited from information provided by the bagan fishermen. They reported that whale sharks were often accidentally caught in the nets during the pre-dawn hours as they fed on fish bait. Once caught, the sharks are docile. With this information, the team realized that they had enough time to get inside the nets and deploy a custom-made, fin-mounted satellite tag that could track the shark for up to 2 years.

Some 33 whale sharks have been tagged in Cenderawasih Bay. The satellite tags are attached to the dorsal fin using a novel tagging method first used in the bay, which takes advantage of the unique interaction between the whale shark and bagan fishing platform in the area.

Since 2015, the team has gathered new biological and behavioral information. One documentation is of several whale sharks undertaking an annual migration to the same area. This information is critical to designing the management of whale shark tourism in the bay.

Tracking the movement of whale sharks also confirmed that Cenderawasih Bay is one of the few places on Earth where there are sightings throughout the year. This rare phenomenon has prompted the national park to launch the Whale Shark Center project. The center will focus on advancing whale shark-based tourism in the region through the combination of conservation, science, technology, innovation, and the local wisdom of the Papuan community.

Best Practices

Cenderawasih Bay offers the following lessons and best practices from its whale shark tourism model.

  1. Place conservation at the core of operations. For any nature-based livelihood, conservation and sustainability should be the priorities. Whale sharks need a healthy habitat.

    One conservation measure is to create effectively managed marine protected areas, which could provide the spatial blueprint for tourism activities. These could help identify needed actions from stakeholders and tie up how diverse activities should interact with each other to maintain a healthy ocean.

  2. Apply science and technology. A better understanding of the whale shark in Cenderawasih Bay, particularly the information derived from the satellite tagging program, proved critical to the design of whale shark tourism management in the area. It has influenced decisions on sustainable whale shark tourism and protection.

  3. Ensure economic viability. Making whale shark tourism economically viable helped get buy-in from the local community. From the conservation perspective, tourism provides legal, sustainable, and profitable livelihoods to the community in place of poaching and other illegal activities.

    The business model should provide not only sufficient income to the community but also generate funds, possibly through taxation or ticketing, to support conservation efforts in the area. It is important to ensure transparency and smooth disbursements for ongoing conservation work.

  4. Involve the community. All successful conservation projects and programs in Indonesia have one thing in common: active involvement of the community from planning to implementation. This ensures that the conservation project or program is tailored to the specific needs of the community and is accepted by the people.

    As the community’s partner, the government and/or nongovernmental organizations should build the capacity of the community to make this tourism model work effectively.

  5. Form partnerships. Heavy work is lighter when shared. For this whale shark tourism model, it was essential to map all the stakeholders, which include the national government (technical ministries, such as Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Ministry of Tourism); local government (provincial, regency, village government bodies); tourism operators (resorts, liveaboards, homestays, other tourism operators); adat or traditional customary bodies (adat council, adat leaders); and the local community. Each stakeholder supported the initiatives within their respective capacity and duties. A key aspect of this partnership is to first realize each other’s strengths and limitations, then ensure good communication and coordination between the parties.

  6. Set a code of conduct. Nature-based tourism, especially those that involve endangered species, should be treated with great care. A whale shark tourism code of conduct will ensure that all tourism activities will not pose any threat toward the whale sharks’ well-being and minimize environmental impacts.

    Essential aspects that should be managed strictly include:

    • setting a maximum number of tourists for each interaction,

    • allowing only one operator on each bagan if the interaction is to be done in the bagan,

    • limiting interactions with the sharks (no touching, keep safe distances, etc.), and  

    • instituting procedures for tourists and operators (permits, interaction payments, etc.).

  7. Raise public awareness and enforce the rules. At the end of the day, no matter how well the code of conduct is designed, it is up to the tourists or operators to respect the regulations. This could be ensured through regular patrols and aggressive and unbiased enforcement by the tourism management body or other relevant officials.

    All the rules at Cenderawasih Bay were designed so that tourism activities could provide as much benefit to the community, while ensuring that they do not pose any threat to the whale sharks and the environment. To maintain the sustainability of this model, it is crucial to raise the awareness of tourists and operators on the importance of adhering to the code of conduct, both for the well-being of the sharks and for supporting sustainability of local economic activities

This article is adapted from the case study prepared by the Cenderawasih Bay National Park Management Authority, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Conservation International Indonesia, Directorate General of Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation, Directorate of Marine Biodiversity Conservation, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, and local governments and communities.