In Search of The Reclusive Whale Shark, Gladden Split
Gladden Split Marine Reserve, Belize, no lucky. Maybe next time we have better luck hunting for Wabbits. Special Thanks to Michelle Foster for making her 4th trip all the way from Texas and still no Whale Shark sighting on a dive and Gaylynn Kapri for participating in the production of this film at Gladden Split.
In three special locations along the Meso-American Reef, whale sharks gather in large numbers during certain times of the year, creating some of the most impressive marine aggregations found anywhere on Earth. What draws them here? Where do they come from and where do they go? And, what is being done to protect them. Our first stop on the journey takes us to Gladdens Spit, Belize, where 10’s of thousands of snappers spawning attract dozens of whale sharks. This short promo video is a thank you to Isla Marisol resort for all their support!
Whale Sharks in the Tropical Atlantic/Caribbean
January Whale sharks start to arrive off Honduras.
March-May The Bay Islands and Belize attract whale sharks in numbers. Cubera snapper are gathered in spawning aggregations off Belize’s Gladden Spit, and the spawn seems to be what attracts the sharks.
June-September The northern Caribbean is warming up for the spring. Off Holbox Island off the north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Bay Islands, Belize and Tobago several hundred whale sharks gather, feeding as bonitos (July and August) and then corals (September) spawn.
Internationally, Belize is known for its beautiful snorkel and dive destinations. During the months of April, May and even June, southern Belize is where professional and novice divers head to in search of the elusive whale shark. These gentle sea creatures temporarily visit our waters to feast on a veritable banquet of fish eggs during spawning season. As someone who loves the sea and has never encountered the giant whale shark, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Placencia Peninsula with my ultimate goal of swimming with these giants of the sea.
Traveling all the way from Ambergris Caye to Placencia requires a lot of coordination and planning, but with a direct flight via Tropic Air, we got to the peninsula with ample time to enjoy a relaxing evening. Following a restful night’s sleep I and my companions (the boss and miss bossy) were ready for the challenge. Our dear friend Anna Williams at Robert’s Grove Dive Shop ensured that we were well taken care of. With gear in hand, Tamara, Mary and I were ready for the experience of a lifetime.
We eagerly jumped into the large, fully equipped boat that awaited us. The vessel had everything, from restroom to freshwater shower, cooler of icy water and even a top deck; nothing else is needed to ensure a good time. We took our place on the upper deck of the vessel ready to enjoy the panorama. If the first 15 minutes was a sign, we were in for a good day! We saw dolphins and eagle rays jump out of the water a mere few feet from each other as we pulled out of the lagoon! Oh yes it would be a great day to be in the water; we could tell. Once we were off the peninsula, we settled in and read up on the whale sharks, learning how to conduct ourselves while they are around. Like humans, whale sharks are curious, so we have to proceed with caution around them.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see LOTS more AWESOME photos in the San Pedro Sun
“A once in a lifetime experience with the largest fish in the world”
I’m in Placencia, a sleepy little town at the end of a 20 mile long peninsula in Belize’s Caribbean waters. I awake early in the morning and begin preparing for the day’s adventure. My tiny cabana on the beach has no A/C and I’m already dripping with sweat from the hot, humid air. Knowing that today’s journey to swim with whale sharks came with not-so-great odds of success, I tried not to get too excited about what was to come. Little did I know just how exhilarating the day was destined to be.
(watch the video above in HD on youtube here, trust me it’s worth loading in HD!)
Whale sharks are the biggest fish on the planet, however they pose little danger to people as they are slow and docile. Swimming with them is an experience sought after by people all over the world and today was going to be my chance. There are few places in the world you can get in the water with whale sharks; and Placencia is one of them. For a few months each year during the cycle of the full moon, they come to feed in Gladden Spit, an area 20+ miles off the coast.
I headed out with Splash Dive Center, Placencia’s biggest dive operator with the plan to go on two dives in search of spotting them. The boat ride takes around 1-1.5 hours to reach Gladden Spit, the designated zone for spotting them. The captain and crew began searching for signs of them. After picking a spot, we all dove below the surface with great anticipation of what would come. The water is eerily deep since the bottom is not visible to the eye, no reference points exist and there is nothing surrounding you except endless blue water. We go to a depth of 40 feet, followed by 80 feet and see nothing. After swimming for what seemed like hours, we had reached our maximum dive time and surfaced. Having seen nothing but blue water, it was probably the least pleasant diving experience I’ve had to date. Spotting a whale shark in these conditions felt hopeless, and most of the boat’s moral was quickly fading.
We left the whale shark spotting zone for our surface interval (a break between dives) to eat lunch and regroup. Along the way, a large pod of dolphins swam with the boat and did tricks – our first sign that things may turn around for the day. During our meal the captain spotted large numbers of birds gathering in the water; this was an indicator that whale sharks could be nearby. The engines roared and the chase was on. Everyone’s glum mood was disappearing and began to re-energize with hope. Before we even knew what hit us we could see a dark silhouette below the water.. it was an enormous whale shark! Next came a mad scramble for everyone to jump into the water and meet what they had been waiting anxiously for.
What came next was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. There I was, in the water with a 40 foot long whale shark just feet away from me. I could literally reach out and touch it! This was the kind of moment that takes your breath away, especially when you’re trying to kick your feet quick enough to keep up with a whale! No less than 2 minutes later and it had swam away, too quick to keep up with. We all swam back to the boat, our bodies shaking with excitement, and minds still processing what we’d just experienced. Those 2 short minutes had made the entire journey worthwhile, but it wasn’t over just yet.
Having agreed to forgo a second dive, we instead pursued what appeared to be the better odds – spotting whales at the surface to snorkel with them. In total, we plunged in the water and swam with whale sharks on five separate occasions.
Those of you who fear other kinds of sharks might not want to read what’s next. It’s also fairly common to see the ‘other’ kind of sharks during these expeditions and from the first jump in we had two other very curious reef sharks with us; roughly 8-10 feet each. During our third time in the water they came very close to check us out.
After more than 100 ocean dives this is the closest I’d ever been to a shark this size, and I have to admit it was almost as nerve-wrecking as it was incredibly awesome. We all left the water with all of our limbs in tact…
Swimming beside these majestic creatures was an unforgettable rush like none other!
Last week 70-odd of the world’s whale shark researchers converged on Atlanta for the 3rd International Whale Shark Conference. It was an unusual meeting in having so many exotic tropical countries represented in such a small group of delegates. Overall I’m happy to say it was a great success (Sorry AJC, would have linked the original and not this syndicated version, but y’know, pay walls…). One of the more interesting themes explored at the meeting was the lack of a robust global population estimate for this species. It’s the biggest fish in the world, how hard can it be to count it? Well, pretty sharking hard, as it happens. And yet, some tantalizing bits of evidence were echoed in talks from several locations and these hint to a much larger global population of this species than we are aware of. Maybe.
1st bit of evidence.Whale sharks spend a lot of time below the surface. Derrr, I might hear you say, it’s a fish… Except, it is a fish that spends (or so we thought) a disproportionate amount of time at the surface. This was based on observation (obviously) and some tagging data, but as the tagging has continued we have learned that in fact they spend much more time out of sight than we thought. We used to think they were at the surface except for occasional dives, some of which could be very deep, but now we are learning that they may stay deep for significant chunks of their lives, which puts them effectively out of detection range. And even when they are at the surface, they make such frequent short range dives that subsurface behaviour becomes a big part of their daily pie chart of time use. This means we need to up the estimates of population by a correction factor that accounts for the portion of time they spend out of sight. What should that factor be? Dunno yet, I’ll get back to you after the next conference.
2nd bit of evidence. Tags and photo ID disagree on connectivity. How groups of whale sharks in different parts of the ocean are connected (or not) is an important question both biologically and for effective conservation measures. On this matter, two different research techniques disagree somewhat, but they do it in a way that hints at a bigger population. Satellite tags have shown plenty of evidence of connectivity between different sites in the ocean, sometimes on scales of thousands of miles. For example, animals tagged in Mexico often show up in Belize, Honduras and the Gulf of Mexico, even Brazil. And yet, photographic identification databases (the most important is Wildbook for Whale Sharks, formerly ECOCEAN), show surprisingly little connectivity. Despite over a thousand individual sharks identified in Yucatan Mexico, for example, only a handful have been re-sighted in the other places I just mentioned. How is this possible if satellite tags show frequent proof positive of connectivity between these locations? Well, it’s probably because tagging is a “population independent” method, but photo ID is not. That is, the results of satellite tagging depend only on the movements of the tagged animal and not on the size of the population in either place, whereas the chances of re-sighting a whale shark photographed in one place at another place depends to a large degree on how many sharks there are at the new site. The lack of photo ID re-sightings suggests that these populations are in fact pretty big, so big that finding that familiar “face in the crowd” actually becomes statistically pretty unlikely.
3rd bit of evidence. Where are all the ladies at? The veritable explosion of whale shark science in recent years has been due in large part to the recognition of the phenomenon of whale shark aggregations, or constellations as I now like to call them (you chose it, dear reader). I’ve written a ton at DSN about the one that occurs in Yucatan Mexico but there are actually at least 12 locations in the world where whale sharks gather in large numbers – always to feed – relatively close to shore. And those are just the ones we know about. There are constellations taking place in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, the Seychelles, the Maldives, Mozambique and Tanzania, to name a few, but they all have one thing in common: they are dominated by immature males. Very consistently so, in fact; nearly all of these selachian sausage-fests show the same 3:1 male:female sex ratio, and the overwhelming majority of animals are immature. It’s basically an elasmobranch frat party, sans the beer pong. We know that whale sharks give birth to the genders in a 1:1 split, so you have to ask: where are all the other immature females? For that matter, where are all the mature animals, both male and female, and where are all the little ones too, under, say, 4 meters? When you really break it down, we are basing a sizable chunk of whale shark research on one small demographic slice of the whale shark pizza: immature males. That’s no way to study a species, and it certainly makes it hard to get a good handle on he global population, when the numbers you are extrapolating from represent such a small segment of the overall population.
Taken together, these bits of evidence suggest that there might be a lot more whale sharks out there than we know of. Some genetic studies have estimated populations (in the genetic sense this means the number of mature females) between 100,000 and 250,000, which is a LOT more than what we see, especially when you add in the males and immatures of both genders. But genetic techniques are no substitute for observational data and there we are still sadly lacking. One one level, this actually gives me a warm inner glow. I find it both tantalizing and fascinating to think that we are unable to account for perhaps 3/4 of the population of the world’s largest fish. It’s like the dark matter of the marine megafauna world. It gives me a strange sense of encouragement that they are out there somewhere, evading our best efforts and proving daily that the ocean still has her fair share of secrets.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” – Aldous Huxley
Diving with Whale Sharks, the largest living fish on the planet is an incredibly amazing experience and Belize is one of the few places in the world where you can get to experience this. We do have to warn you that in order to go on this expedition you need to book very early. There are limited spots available during the months the Whale Shark passes by, this is to help protect the sharks from being exposed to too much human contact as well as the other marine life in the area.
The average size of a whale shark is about 25 feet long but there have been recordings of ones well over 40 feet long. Don't let their size fool you though, they are gentle creatures that are merely curious and will readily come towards you if they don't feel threatened or harassed. Wouldn't you be curious too?
When can the whale sharks be seen?
The months of April and May are usually the best times to plan your trips to see these amazing creatures. With years of observation some people say the best time is three or four days before and after a full moon or new moon. However they can be seen throughout the summer months as well.
2014 – Whale Shark Dates
March 15 – March 26 (Full Moon – March 16)
April 14– April 25 (Full Moon – April 15)
May 13 – May 24 (Full Moon – May 14)
June 12 – June 23 (Full Moon – June 13)
2015 – Whale Shark Dates
March 4th – March 15
April 3rd – April 14
May 3rd – May 14th (Full Moon – May 4)
June 2nd – June 12th (Full Moon – June 2)
The largest concentrations of whale sharks are at Gladden Spit, which is approximately 26 miles, or a 1 hour and a half boat ride off the coast of Placencia where the sharks love to feed. Don't worry about keeping up with them though, that should be pretty easy as they are considered slow swimmers at about 3 miles per hour and they swim by moving their entire bodies from side to side. There is so much to admire about these gentle giants of the sea.
The Gladden Spit which lies within the central area of our Barrier Reef was established as a Marine Reserve to help protect whale sharks from the threats of irresponsible tourism in 2000 and Whale Shark Interaction Regulations has also been implemented. The area alone is simply amazing with over 20 different species of reef fishes passing through in large numbers. So is this adventure for you?