Our decision to visit the county of Belize was based on the whale sharks of that region which generally gather just off the coast of Belize during the months of March-June during the time of the full moon. In Belize, during this time, the whale sharks can be found near the reef area of Gladden Split, which is 30 miles east of Placencia. Over 20 species of Caribbean fish release their eggs in this area, specifically the Black or Cubera snappers, which brings the whale sharks to this area to feed.
The Whale shark is found throughout the tropics and have thought to have inhabited the earth’s oceans for more than 200 million years. Whale sharks are not whales, but were named as such for their immense size and they are the world’s largest fish reaching at least 60 feet in length. Until recently they were feared due to their immense size, but they are not man-eaters, they are actually one of only three species of sharks that are filter feeders. They feed by filtering large amounts of water across their gills while swimming or by gulping water and then filtering the food in a stationary position. Along with fish eggs, whale sharks feast on other tiny animals such as zoo-plankton, jellyfish, small bait fish, and squids.
Whale sharks are thought to have a life span of over 100 years. Because they grow and mature much slower than many fish species, whale sharks are very vulnerable to depletion through fishing. Scientists believe their numbers have been greatly reduced in areas where targeted fishing takes place, such as the Asian-Pacific region which supplies the Asian fin and meat markets. Although whale sharks are protected in several countries and are listed in the convention for migratory species, whale sharks do not currently benefit from global management and protection. Most countries, however, are now realizing that whale sharks are worth far more alive through tourism than what dead sharks can offer. Consequently, countries such as Mexico, India, Maldives, Honduras, Belize, Australia, USA, Seychelles, and the Philippines, now have developed whale shark tourism and have passed national state or site specific laws protecting whale sharks. To further protect whale sharks from potential harm that may result from tourism, Belize, Australia, and the Philippines require their guides to undergo additional whale shark conservation training to promote safe and sustainable tours.
I always try to learn a little about the animals I am going to see so I can have a better understanding and appreciation for the creatures who share our world with us. Plus I like to be able to educate others if possible after returning from a trip. Because of the whale shark conservationism of Belize, the number of people interested in whale shark tours, and the length of time to get to where the whale sharks may be (3 hours by boat one way) we only booked one whale shark excursion. This excursion involved a 3+ hour boat ride one way to the deep waters off the coast of Placencia. Whale sharks are solitary fish feeding mainly at night so as with any animals, sightings are never guaranteed. Although we were one of several snorkelers aboard this small boat, with the remaining visitors being divers, we had just as much opportunity to see whale sharks as the divers, as whale sharks tend to spend most of their time near the water’s surface.
Our whale shark excursion involved snorkeling very fast behind the divers who were about 60 feet below us. The divers swam together and released bubbles from their dive tanks, thought to simulate fish eggs being released, which would draw in the whale sharks to feed. Although we got a ton of exercise by repeating this for several hours, we saw no whale sharks.
Despite not seeing any whale sharks (we also opted out of going to the Blue Hole as it would have been another long day and of not much use from a snorkeling perspective), our trip to Belize was still excellent. The snorkeling in the clear warm waters off Ambergris Caye area was spectacular and we were able to snorkel with 6 foot nurse sharks and giant sea turtles. One turtle kept coming closer to me and actually was beginning to make me nervous as he seemed like he was trying to bite me. Later the guide pushed him away from me and told me the turtle was attracted to my bright yellow camera wrist strap!
We very much loved our short time in Belize. It is easy to understand why many people are choosing to retire here with the warm sand and beautiful beaches. We hope to come back again some day. Good Bye for now Belize!