By SUSAN COCKING / McClatchy Newspapers

PLACENCIA, Belize -- There are two really good reasons to travel to this tiny town on the southern end of Belize in spring.

The May full moon historically is the peak period for diving with whale sharks on the edge of the barrier reef. It also ushers in strong tides that draw permit onto the shallow patch reefs for fly-fishing.

To my mind, an irresistible combination of recreational opportunities.

Filled with hope and visions of frolicking white-spotted behemoths below the surface and happily tailing silver garbage can lids on the flats, I timed my visit to arrive three days before the full moon, departing five days afterward. The Inn at Robert's Grove was my headquarters because of its on-site fishing and diving charter operations.

On my first dive at the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve about 22 miles off Placencia, our group of 12 divers and snorkelers - many armed with underwater cameras - saw no whale sharks. It was two days before the full moon, and there also was no sign of the aggregation of cubera, dog and mutton snapper that spawn along the steep drop-off from 130 feet to more than 6,600 feet deep. The spawning snapper are the draw for the whale sharks that eat the floating clouds of gametes.

No problem, I figured. I've got five more days of diving left. Now it's time to fulfill my five-year-long quest to catch a permit on a fly rod on the flats.

On the morning of the full moon, Placencia fly-fishing guide extraordinaire Eworth Garbutt and I set out for a line of patch reefs that run north to south inside the main reef between Dangriga and Punta Gorda.

"It's gonna happen today," Garbutt assured me confidently.

If all you had to do to catch these fish is to see them, then we wouldn't have had any trouble. In a full day of wade-fishing, we probably spotted upward of 100 tailing permit of all sizes flittering in schools in and out of the patch reefs. I made a few bad casts and lined a couple schools whose size I underestimated. A small fish ate my fly and spat it before I even knew what happened.

When the tide slackened, Garbutt and I headed for a lagoon, where some 50-pound-class tarpon were feeding on glass minnows. I jumped one, but that was it.

This idyllic sea of hope was starting to turn into a stream of broken dreams.

On my second whale shark expedition to Gladden Spit, the situation appeared to improve. In late afternoon, our group of snorkelers and divers encountered a circling school of hundreds of snapper on the drop-off below. It was great fun. But the whale sharks were a no-show.

I decided to give them a pass the next day in favor of a half-day fly-fishing excursion with Garbutt.

"Let's get it done today," Garbutt, the eternal optimist, said cheerfully.

The weather was perfect - sunny with a 10 mph southeasterly breeze and an incoming tide on the patch reefs.

Using a local crab pattern with a shiny green shell, I made fewer bad casts than usual to the happily tailing permit. At least a half-dozen tracked the fly as I stripped it in but none actually ate it. Garbutt switched flies to a similar pattern with a shiny tan shell, but that didn't work either. Curses, foiled again. I think this worldwide quest for a supposedly gullible permit might be doomed for all eternity.

With two days left of my vacation, I headed out for one last whale shark pilgrimage on the dive boat. Several of the same divers I had seen on the boat earlier in the week were there once more with cameras ready. It was three days after the full moon, so the whale sharks had to show up sometime, we figured.

But the whale sharks, inexplicably, were absent.

We wondered, what were they waiting for?

"I think they're an urban myth!" declared a diver from Pasadena, Calif.

Another diver from Durango, Colo., declared his intention to spend the next day fly-fishing for permit.

Forced to refrain from scuba diving on the day before I was scheduled to fly home, I lazed by the hotel pool, alternately reading a novel and wondering if anyone would finally see the whale sharks that day and if the angler from Colorado would accomplish what I could not. That evening during a happy hour intelligence briefing, I was reminded of Canadian singer Alanis Morissette's 1990s hit, Ironic, and it surely didn't give me any comfort.

Scuba divers encountered five whale sharks at Gladden Spit. Even the snorkelers, hovering on the surface, got to see them. And, to make matters worse, the fly fisherman from Colorado released a permit, albeit small. Under questioning, he didn't even know what kind of fly it was . . . "Uh, something kind of furry," he said.

Flying home the next day, Morissette's lyrics echoed in my brain, "Like raaaain on your wedding day, a free riiiide when you've already paid ... isn't it ironic, dontcha think ?"

Or maybe just really bad luck.

Bellingham Herald