At today's declaration of a marine reserve around the Silk Cayes and
Galdden entrance there was a lot of talk about the underwater wonders
that the area has to offer. Last July, News Five viewers got to sample
those attractions for the first time on Belizean television...and
tonight, with the area now under official protection, it's only fitting
to take a second look.
With longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and three offshore
atolls rising from the seabed beyond, Belize has no shortage of
world-class underwater attractions. But the fastest growing activity for
scuba divers in Belize has nothing to do with exotic coral gardens or
mysterious underwater caverns. Instead it is based on the rare chance to
see and interact with the largest species of fish in the sea: the whale
shark. Growing as large as 45 feet in length these colossal creatures,
which do not have teeth and feed by sucking in plankton and tiny fish,
are found in tropical waters around the world. But while whale sharks
are by no means rare, finding them with any kind of regularity has been
limited to only a few places like the Philippines,
South Africa and Mexico. In Belize whale sharks were for many years the
stuff of legend. One youthful fisherman from Placencia recalls his first
encounter with the behemoth known locally as Sapodilla Tom.
Brian Young, Dive Guide
"When I was doing commercial fishing out at the elbow with my dad, that
is in the early 80s when I saw my first whale shark out there. I was
scared like hell because in those time neither my dad or any of the
fishermen had any idea what kind of sharks we were seeing out there."
But Brian Young didn't stay frightened for long and as his profession
changed from fisherman to dive master his interest in the gentle giants
"Over the years going out there to fish in April, May and June and
seeing the sharks out there I could see a potential in taking people to
see these sharks. I watch a program in Australia, where people go all
the way to Australia, pay some tremendous amount of money to see whale
sharks. When I saw that program, I said well I could do something with
And that something has been to use his experience to guide hundreds of
adventurous divers including this reporter, out beyond the point of reef
called Gladden Spit to a particular spot, which for some reason the
whale sharks find special. As the skiff prepares to head out into the
blue Brian advises us to stay together to produce a large column of
"They would always come back as long as we don't interfere with them and
let them go through their own procedure, they always come back. So we
stay in our tight group and observe them from that group."
"Brian has scouted the area and he believes that if we are lucky we'll
get a chance to glimpse what we have come so far to see. If I'm lucky
this underwater camera will allow us to share the experience."
Once below the surface the divers move in loose formation_watching and
waiting as the bottom of the sea slopes sharply beyond our vision_until
suddenly, as if on cue a solitary figure approaches_and this one is not
wearing a wetsuit.
Although the briefing made it clear that the two tons of shark headed my
way is harmless anything from the same family as jaws has got to command
"We believed that they were coming to the area to mate, we believe that
there were some type of plankton roaming the area why they come to that
area. Until recently about two years ago we did late evening dives
following, the fish, see the fish spawning and then see the whale sharks
coming to feed on the eggs."
And Brian backed up that theory with photographic evidence. A month
earlier his own video camera recorded the frenzy of spawning snapper
releasing their eggs. It's not hard to imagine that a hungry whale shark
might find some similarities between these milky white secretions and
the frothy mass of air bubbles produced by a dozen divers.
"What I do is I get my group in a tight formation and we hover and drift
with the current over the snappers create that kind of spawning look
stuff with the bubbles and then the whale sharks would just go crazy
And the divers have also gone crazy for the whale sharks. Virtually all
of the Placencia guides do whale shark dives and the growing traffic at
Gladden Spit may pose a threat to the species' future. Perhaps even more
critical is the survival of the schools of snappers, because without the
spawning fish there would be no reason for the whale sharks to
congregate. As a result of
these fears there is mounting pressure to place the area under official
protection: the number of divers would be limited and commercial fishing
"Veteran divers could go a lifetime without experiencing the power and
beauty of a single whale shark. Brian Young and his fellow divers from
Place have discovered them in abundance, literally camped in their
backyard. It's a natural resource they'll have treat with respect."