A speckled fin, three feet long, flicked out of the water as Al Dove surfaced in a morass of fish guts and foam. Behind him, a nightmarish cartilage slit of mouth gasped above the waterline, then lowered back into the spray.
As the sun sank over Cenderawasih Bay, the wind sent swells the color of spilled ink surging through a tangle of fishing nets, which Dove was sharing with a whale shark. It was a juvenile male, but still a powerful, seven-meter creature with skin like sandpaper.
Swimming with whale sharks as they circle in open water—bulked-out versions of the familiar, menacing shark silhouette—is a potent experience. Being in the net with them is an order of magnitude more intense. “You do feel a little insignificant,” Dove says. “That’s good. I think we all need to be reminded that we’re insignificant from time to time.”
Dove, a garrulous, heavyset Australian, is the vice president of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and one of the world’s leading whale-shark experts. Along with colleagues, he spent nine days at sea in July and August in this remote bay on the northern side of West Papua. The expedition crew hope that the data they gathered will help answer just a few of the many questions that remain about the world’s biggest fish, a vulnerable species that is still barely understood by science.
Because of their size, weight, and speed, and the difficulties of performing meaningful examinations on animals at sea, most of what is known about whale sharks comes from tests in aquariums or observations of their seasonal feedings around the world. The dozen or so experts on the species have to try to piece together an understanding of the animals’ life cycle from a patchwork of details that has glaring omissions.