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#459016 - 02/27/13 08:10 AM Prepare Now to See the Whale Shark Migration
Marty Offline
Travellers wishing to experience the spectacular annual whale shark migration to Belize had better begin preparing now if they want to make the most of this rare opportunity.

The whale shark is the world’s largest fish and the third largest animal on the planet. Long known in Belize as “Sapodilla Tom” due to its penchant for staying at the Sapodilla Cayes and Gladden Spit during its annual feeding and breeding season, the whale shark has a recorded length of 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) and weighs in at more than 36 tonnes (79,000 lb).

Although they are true sharks (Rhincodon typus) that have changed little over the last 60 million years, whale sharks are peaceful creatures, allowing divers to come close as they lazily strain plankton and other food during their annual stopover in Belize.

Bryony Fleming, who coordinates tour packages and bespoke excursions from Chaa Creek, said that the increasing numbers of people coming to see the gentle giants is another indication that more and more people are discovering the attractions of this laid-back little Caribbean country.

“Not very long ago you could go out and actually play with whale sharks and there would be no one else around,” she said, “But word has obviously gotten out, and while it’s still uncrowded, there are definitely more people coming each year to take advantage of opportunities to get close to these amazing creatures.”

Ms Fleming said recent media attention such as National Geographic’s pictorial features have spurred interest in the whale shark’s stopovers in Belize, which is one of only a few destinations these giants choose for their annual mating and feeding gatherings, with Madagascar, South Africa, Australia, Mozambique, Indonesia and the Yucatan also acting as annual hosts.

During the full moon, Cubera and mutton snapper spawn around the Gladden Spit area and the whale sharks come to feed on the rich spawn and to mate, swimming slowly near the surface, consuming small crustaceans, plankton, small fishes such as sardines and anchovies, and even larger fishes such as mackerel before having a rest on the bottom. They are curious creatures, and have been known to approach boats and allow themselves to be petted.

The annual whale shark season begins in March in Belize and continues through April, May, June and some years even further into the summer. Full moon periods are the best times to see these beautiful giants, and last year’s prime viewing times were March 17 -31, April 16 – 28, May 15 -27, June 13 -25. Ms Fleming said that while there are no guarantees that they will be seen, villagers in Placencia and Hopkins villages keep tabs on their movements and pass that information on to Chaa Creek’s naturalist guides.

“Even if you don’t get to see these magnificent creatures, the excursion out to the reef is a beautiful experience and you’re guaranteed to see plenty of other marine life,” she said.
Ms Fleming also noted that new direct flights from neighbouring Maya Flats to the coast and the Belize Great Barrier Reef are making this year’s annual whale shark migration and a host of other Caribbean Sea adventures even more accessible to Chaa Creek’s guests.

“Our Rainforest to Reef packages give travellers a rare opportunity to experience Belize’s inland treasures, such as our beautiful rainforests dotted with Maya temples and spectacular remnants of ancient cities as well as the stunning Caribbean coast and Belize Great Barrier Reef in one easy and affordable Belize vacation package.

“And now with Tropic Air offering direct flights to the coast and Ambergris Caye, there never has been a better time to experience Belize’s many natural wonders. People soon discover that the whale shark migration is just one of many incredible experiences that await visitors to Belize,” she said.

#463260 - 04/28/13 06:00 AM Re: Prepare Now to See the Whale Shark Migration [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

How to Spot a Whale Shark in the Belize Barrier Reef

Snorkeling with a whale shark has always ranked high on Nicole’s bucket list. It’s one of those rare natural encounters that few people get to experience in their lifetime.

The gentle giants, which can grow as long as 41 feet, are not dangerous creatures and should not be confused with killer whales or sharks with sharp pointy teeth.

A few years ago, when we were planning our Round-the-World adventure, we researched the best locations to find whale sharks. Our hope was to have an opportunity to swim alongside the world’s largest fish, but our itinerary didn’t bring us close enough.

Whale sharks only migrate to certain locations around the world, searching for specific food sources like plankton, microscopic plants and fish eggs. Even if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, there is still no guarantee of a whale shark sighting.

Though the elusive shark can be seen in many of the world’s tropical seas, there are a few places where your chances of success are much greater. Along with Mexico and Honduras, Belize is one of the most popular locations in the Americas to spot whale sharks.

Gladden Spit in the Belize Barrier Reef, located about 26 miles off the coast of Placencia, hosts a high concentration of whale sharks during the months of April and May, when schools of cubera snapper are actively spawning in the area.

Gladden Spit is also a protected area, so the park rangers only allow six tour operator boats at a time, which contributes to the intimacy of the experience.

We spoke to several Belizean locals, scuba dive shops, and tour operators, curious about the best time to spot a whale shark. Depending on who you ask, each person has a different opinion with conflicting results.

Some say your chances are highest 3 days BEFORE the full moon, some say 3 days AFTER the full moon, others say its THE DAY OF the full moon. But everyone will agree that it’s most likely to see the whale sharks surrounding the full moons of April and May, although even that’s not guaranteed (sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t read the tourist brochures).

How do you find the Whale Sharks?


Unlike a whale, whale sharks do not need to surface for air, making them very difficult to spot. Eric, our fearless snorkeling guide with Splash Dive Center, briefed us on the unique process for spotting the underwater giants.

The process is actually quite fascinating.

When Eric originally explained it to us we thought he was playing around with our ignorance. He wasn’t.

Belizean tour operators have fish tracking systems installed in their boats that search for schools of large fish that frequent Gladden Spit. The ideal fish they look for is the Cubera Snappers because the whale sharks like to eat their eggs.

Once a school of snappers are found, scuba divers enter the water and follow the fish. When the scuba divers get close enough, they collect in a circle above the fish and link arms together.

Then they wait.

Eager snorklers rest on the ocean surface, intently focused on the deep blue sea, searching for shadows in the distance.

Thousands of tiny bubbles float towards the surface, simulating the cloudy spawning process of the snapper. The whale sharks, not being the most intelligent creatures, are tricked into thinking that the bubbles are actually its food source. They rise from the depths of the deep blue to feed, their huge mouths wide open, scooping up the bubbles.

The more bubbles the scuba divers can make, the better the chance of attracting the whale sharks!

When we arrived in Placencia, our spirits were high.

Our tour with Splash Dive Center was strategically planned for the day of the full moon in May, one day after our snorkeling trip to Laughing Bird Caye. We couldn’t have timed it better if we tried.

Now it was up to the whale sharks and mother nature to cooperate.

We were warned that the full moon can bring on high winds and rough seas, so we were pleasantly surprised this was not the case on the morning of the tour. The winds were calm, the water was like glass, the sun was shining – everything was falling into place.

The Burning Question – Did we get to Snorkel with Whale Sharks?!

When we first jumped into the water it was a strange, creepy feeling. The warm water was so dark and blue, with nothing in sight except scuba divers 50 feet below. In every direction, all we could see was the water slowly changing from indigo blue to black, then nothing.

We found the snorkeling to be a great way to search for the sharks. Warren, our adventurous boat captain, was constantly in talks with the other boats, giving the snorkelers a slight advantage over the scuba divers. If other divers have better luck 100 feet away, snorkelers can easily jump back in the boat and get dropped closer to the action.

Our first two attempts in the morning were unsuccessful.

After about an hour in the water, we took a break and left the protected area for lunch and snorkel in the shallow coral reef. It was amazing that in such a short distance, the water went from thousands of feet deep to less than 10 feet.

Our team had positive feelings for the afternoon sessions.

As soon as we re-entered Gladden Spit, we spotted a pod of dolphins. We immediately jumped into the water and swam with them for a few moments before they got bored and moved on. Then the scuba divers descended and began simulating the spawning process again.

We started to get that warm, fuzzy feeling when we saw a school of thousands of fish followed by three remora fish, commonly found attached to sharks.

The moment felt right, so we floated on the surface and waited with anticipation.

After about 45 minutes of following the scuba divers, Eric made the call.

We would head back the boat. Although the stars were literally in alignment, the elusive shark was just to shy to make an appearance.

Sadly, nobody saw a whale shark that day.

As Eric put it, “This is the ocean, we never know what we’ll see”. We were reminded that spotting whale sharks in the open ocean is like going on an African safari and spotting a leopard, there’s never a guarantee.

Although we were disappointed that we didn’t spot a whale shark, it was still an incredible experience swimming in the deep blue sea of the Belize Barrier Reef. It’s not every day we get to play in the world’s second largest reef system!



Click for excellent scuba lessons with Elbert Greer!

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