Whale sharks, major attraction of new reserve

5/18/2000- At today's declaration of a marine reserve around the Silk Cayes and Gladden entrance there was a lot of talk about the underwater wonders that the area has to offer. With the 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 only increased.

Brian Young
"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 that here."

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 bubbles.

Brian Young
"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."

Stewart Krohn
"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 respect.

Brian Young
"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.

Brian Young
"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 with that."

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 regulated.

Stewart Krohn
"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."

Click here for more information on whale sharks.

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