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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Click here for more information on whale sharks.