(5 p.m. AEST) -- Swimming (or diving) with whale sharks is one of the world's most incredible wildlife encounters. Here's why you should experience it in West Papua with Australia's True North Adventure Cruises.
1. Whale sharks are guaranteed year-round.Other sites such as Ningaloo Reef have whale sharks visiting seasonally but nothing compares to Cenderawasih Bay on the north coast of West Papua, Indonesia. Local fisherman hand-feed the whale sharks, which means they keep coming back to the same spots for an easy meal. True North spends two full days in this area and gains permission for passengers to swim near the bagans (fishing platforms) twice a day. We never had to wait longer than five minutes before a whale shark appeared and swum right up to our faces! It was an absolute thrill.
2. Diving and snorkelling are offered twice a day.Scuba divers are in luck: there's no extra charge for diving, as opposed to other ships where a fee often applies to each dive. Snorkelling equipment is also provided for non-divers. Every morning and afternoon (and sometimes for a third session), passengers can go out on the tender boats (in small groups of four to eight people) to see an astonishing variety of fish and coral -- not just whale sharks. A wide range of endemic species can be easily spotted, along with the possibility of manta rays and turtles. The water is crystal clear and warm (28 to 30 degrees) to comfortably spend long periods exploring the marine life. Also, there's no bleaching or cyclone damage so West Papua really does offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in the South Pacific, if not the world. Underwater cameras are recommended, but True North has photographers capturing these memories -- and you get to keep the photos on a take-home USB stick. Marine biologists also accompany expeditions and present informative lectures in the ship's lounge.
3. West Papua is unspoilt and unbelievably beautiful.The 36-passenger True North was the only cruise ship in sight for the whole week of our cruise. We did not meet one other tourist. These peaceful islands have no shops, no markets and no hawkers so there is no hard sell. Locals were friendly but relatively shy; they didn't put on cultural shows or re-enact traditional ceremonies. This was simply travelling through authentic communities in untouched territory. Turquoise water surrounded us every day. The beaches were empty, mostly uninhabited, with soft, white sand and palm trees. It's the destination of your dreams.
4. Indonesian sunrises are sensational.If that's too early to get out of bed on your holiday, stay tuned for sunset drinks on the beach for more magical moments.
5. True North is true blue.The company is Australian-owned and Broome-based, the captains and crew are Aussie, and the ship is Australian-registered (so it isn't required by law to veer off course to visit an international port). Owner Craig Howson pioneered expedition cruising in the Kimberley more than 30 years ago and along with his partners has since introduced other local itineraries such as a seafood safari around South Australia, the fishing paradise of Rowley Shoals and another west coast itinerary featuring Ningaloo Reef, the Abrolhos and Monte Bello islands. True North moors spends Christmas on Sydney Harbour and gets in prime position to watch the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and the New Year's Eve fireworks.
6. The ship is small, sociable and casual.With only 18 cabins and high fares, True North feels exclusive but is very inclusive. Everyone dines at communal tables; they mingle in the bar, on the beach and in the water. Passengers tend to be successful professionals or retirees, but there's no pretension. Dress code is barefoot, shorts and t-shirts. While the company's Kimberley cruises attract an international mix, the West Papua itinerary sees mostly Australians with an adventurous streak. The captain and crew also socialise with guests most evenings, including the costume party night (pictured below). For more details, read our ship review.
The downside.Not everything goes to plan on an expedition cruise. On our trip, passengers were unable to experience True North's famed heli-touring after the Indonesia Government placed a ban on foreign helicopters. A village visit was also cancelled because local leaders did not grant us access, and then a storm wiped out the only chance of a mountain hike. These last-minute changes limited the daily program to snorkelling, diving and not very good fishing.
The upside.Fortunately, the beautiful and co-operative whale sharks, abundant marine life, sublime location, friendly fellow passengers and fun crew made up for the setbacks. Overall, the West Papua cruise was one of our all-time favourite experiences -- on a par with the Kimberley cruise we did with True North seven years ago and which remains such a fond memory that it brought us back for more.
--By Louise Goldsbury, Australia Editor