WHALE SHARKS OF BELIZE
The Biggest Fish
An opportunity to share the water with a creature larger than a school bus does not come often in life - and is not soon forgotten. If you're diving in southern Belizean waters between March and June, you may be lucky enough to encounter a whale shark. The whale shark is a real shark, with a cartilaginous skeleton and gills, that feeds on plankton like a whale. Most places in which whale sharks can be encountered (Belize, Mexico, Honduras Madagascar, Australia, Mozambique, the Galapagos Islands, and Djibouti, to name a few whale shark aggregation sites) often some form of protection to the species, in part by promoting responsible ecotourism.Biologist Rachel Graham, PhD, has been studying whale sharks since 1998, in the waters of Belize, Cuba, Mexico, the Seychelles, and Madagascar, and is now working with the Wildlife Conservation Society on a global Ocean Giants 2,000 hours in the water with whale sharks and has had over 1,000 encounters with the famous gentle giants.
Dr. Graham to provide some basic facts about whale sharks, and also talk about her personal experience sharing the water with them.
WHAT IS A WHALE SHARK?
Aside from being the largest fish in the sea (up to 20 meters in length and over 15 tons), the whale shark bear live young and are believed to be long lived - living more than 60 years - and many require up to 30 years to mature.
Whale sharks are iconic creatures that put our relatively small lives and aspirations into perspective. They fly the banner for many less charismatic species and their movements weave a pattern across our tropical ocean landscapes, linking sites and making them true ambassadors of the seas. I truly believe that the world would be a poorer place without whale sharks, which is why we must protect them.
HOW IS BELIZE UNIQUE IN THE WORLD IN REGARD TO WHALE SHARK POPULATIONS?
Belize hosts the only known aggregation of whale sharks that feeds on the eggs of large schools of reproducing snappers. Although this must occur else where in the world, to date, Belize is the only known site where this takes place.
WHAT ARE SOME IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN SNORKELING OR DIVING WITH WHALE SHARKS?
The key rule is not to touch, chase, ride, or harm whale sharks in any way. Stay at least three meters away from the shark unless it comes up to you, in which case do nothing and enjoy the unforced close encounter. I ask boat drivers to not cut off the path of a whale shark when it's moving and to drop guests off 15 meters away from the shark (as opposed to right on top of the animal). We also strongly recommend not using flash photography or underwater motorized vehicles.
WHAT CURRENT RESEARCH HAS BEEN DONE WITH THE BELIZE WHALE SHARK POPULATION?
Much of the work on whale sharks in Belize was undertaken between 1998 and 2004. Their movements, site fidelity, feeding behavior, tourism value, and population size and structure were researched. I found at least 106 individuals identified from over 580 encounters. The majority of sharks encountered were in mature males with an average length of six meters. The whale sharks visiting Gladden Spit are capable of arriving exactly when the snappers spawn and leave when spawning ceases to provide enough food. After this, they move to other feeding sites along the Mesoameican Barrier Reef, such as Holbox/Isla Contoy and into the Gulf of Mexico to the north; to the south and southwest, they travel to Ultila (Honduras) and beyond. Since these studies, the Belizean NGO Friends of Nature (in Placencia) is noting the number of whale sharks encountered and the number of tourists visiting Gladden Spit.
WHAT IS THE MOST AMAZING EXPERIENCE YOU'VE EVER HAD SWIMMING WITH A WHALE SHARK?
Probably with a whale shark named "Mr. Facey," whose name comes from a Creole word for someone with an attitude. Mr. Facey is a young male (about six meters) who reveled in surprising divers, doing peekaboo, moves behind them, and swimming up to them and placing his snout in their midriffs. In my case, Mr. Facey swam up to me at 25 meters depth and parked his snout at the level of my stomach. We sat there for a while not really knowing what to do as this was a bit facey for a first date. Since I could not move sideways or downwards, I eventually crawled on top of his head and pushed away against his dorsal fin. He came back several more times, always gently, always hanging in the water. In the end I almost ran out of air and had to surface.
ANY SCARY MOMENTS?
Never a scary moment. Whale sharks are gentle giants and even though I have encountered many in my nine years of diving with them, I remain in awe of their grace, docility, and curisosity.
To learn more about whale sharks, visit
Whale Sharks can be found in southern Belize waters between March & June (during a full moon).
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