From mid-March to June, whale sharks come to the waters off Belize to feed while fish are spawning. I had a dream to dive with whale sharks and to visit Belize, and when I realized I could combine the two into a single vacation, I planned my trip to Central America with my son, who was more than willing to join me. Placencia, Belize, is a must for that chance encounter with whale sharks; Gladden Spit, about 26 miles off the coast of Placencia, brings large schools of fish that come to spawn. The spawning happens around the full moon during March to June. The fish release enormous amount of eggs, which attracts the whale sharks.
When I finally arrived at the dive shop on the morning of our dive, I was both nervous and excited. A couple who dove the day before did not encounter any whale sharks, so this had me slightly worried I wouldn't get my chance encounter, but I kept a good attitude about it and remembered that the dive would be fun regardless. We motored out to the dive location for an hour and passed a swimming iguana that had possibly been displaced by a recent storm; after our boat ride we got our gear ready and had a pre-dive briefing.
Just outside the reef the boat captain found a school of fish on his fish finder. We all jumped in the water and descended to a depth of about 80 feet. In the deep blue ocean I was unable to see the bottom, only spawning fish and my fellow divers. Given the darkness I wondered how it would even be possible to see a whale shark. I really focused, and after searching for about 10 minutes saw a shape emerging from the deep. I had to concentrate as the image was very faint, but slowly the shape rose until it was clearly identifiable as a whale shark! Soon the other divers found it as well, and we watched as the whale shark swam to the surface and stayed with us for about 10 minutes before disappearing again. We all surfaced, entered the boat and celebrated our excitement. It was simply an amazing encounter. Whale sharks are so majestic, and all of our dreams had just came true.
We took the boat to Silk Caye Marine Reserve and had lunch on the tiny island, which is home to a flock of terns. The water surrounding the island was crystal clear, warm, and beautiful. I laid down on the beach with the waves crashing over me and took a tiny nap before snorkeling just off the island. Can I add that, that nap was the best, most relaxing nap ever? It was the kind you dream of. We snorkeled with rays, nurse sharks and turtles, which was also an incredible experience.
From Silk Caye Marine Reserve we went back to Gladden Spit Marine Reserve to dive again. Just outside the reef before reaching our dive location we noticed boaters alerting us to head in their direction as they had spotted yet another whale shark, and this one was on the surface, but it quickly disappeared. Back at our dive location we jumped in the ocean again to look for more whale sharks and were rewarded with about five minutes of time with a whale shark, which was short but amazing nonetheless.
When I look back on this experience, I am grateful for the chance to encounter these amazing animals and all of the other wildlife we saw throughout the day. I learned about the lifecycle and habitat of the whale sharks along with the other marine life in the area, and the connections I made with my son and new friends in the context of these moments made the trip all the better. The whale shark is truly majestic, and unfortunately an encounter like this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience; their population has dropped by half in the last 75 years. Their endangered status results from habitat degradation and incidental vessel strikes, and oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most significant sites for whale shark feeding, can completely disrupt populations. To learn more about efforts to protect these vulnerable giants and how you can help, check out the important work that Conservation International is doing and consider supporting their cause.