BY MELISSA GASKILL
I saw my first whale shark off Isla Holbox, Mexico, near Cancun, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico. Allotted two minutes in the water, I kicked alongside a wide, bus-sized figure covered in rows of white spots, which the locals calldominos.
Massive summer plankton blooms attract the tiny-toothed, filter-feeding sharks here, where the Mexican government created a sanctuary that allows only licensed guides to bring the tourist hordes. I’m intrigued by the mystery of these animals — no one really knows where they go before or after their summer stint in Cancun — and spending even a short time in the wide-open ocean next to something so massive left a huge impression. I decided to travel to Belize to learn more.
First, I make the quick hop from Belize City to San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, and book a dive trip to Lighthouse Reef and the Blue Hole, a well-known spot that brings many tourists to Belize. A round, near-black circle of water a couple of football fields across, like some giant eye in the sea, Blue Hole is actually a collapsed cave. Its main attraction, ancient stalactites, lie more than 100 feet deep, so it’s a short dive with a long safety stop, but often, divers see more well-known species of sharks, such as reef and nurse sharks.
On our other dives, Half Moon Wall and the Aquarium, we also see sharks, as well as rays and a plethora of wildly colored fish, coral and sponges. Very nice, but I’m ready for the main attraction, the whale sharks.
Unlike, say, dolphins and sea turtles, charismatic species that have spawned many tourist operations, whale sharks don’t come to shore or follow your boat. You have to go where they are. So I caught a Tropic Air flight from San Pedro back to Belize City and another southward to Placencia. On the hour, a line of fifteen-seat puddle jumpers take off one after the other, like an airborne invasion bearing tourist bombs. No flight attendants, beverage service, seatbelt sign or overhead bins. We didn’t have to take off our shoes and belts, or put our liquids in a little baggie. My backpack and mesh gear bag rest at my feet. The noisy craft cruises at a few thousand feet, Belize’s lagoons, rivers, jungle, and farms clearly visible just below. Now this is flying.
For a crash course on my spotted quarry, I snagged an interview with Rachel Graham, PhD, director of the sharks and rays program at New-York based Wildlife Conservation Society. Graham began studying whale sharks in this Central American country in 1998. She believes the best hope for the fish, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, may be well-managed tourism and the effect a whale shark encounter like my earlier one can have on people.
As she points out, it may not be possible to linger ten feet from, say, a full-grown wild elephant and live to tell about it. But, as my own encounter proved, a closeup with a ten-ton, 50-foot whale shark poses little danger. And people who swim with these gentle giants tend to appreciate their value alive and in the ocean — not in a bowl of shark fin soup, which whale sharks are killed for.
The sea laps at either end of the narrow runway in Placencia. As the pilot taxis to a stop in front of the small wooden terminal, two boys on bicycles and a couple of dogs cross the airstrip. Placencia has one paved road — which closes briefly each time a plane lands or takes-off — and the rest of its guest houses, gift shops, restaurants and dive shops line a complex of thin sidewalks. Lobster season opens the week I visit, and the town feels festive.
Over fresh fish and cold beer at Placencia’s Barefoot Bar, I pick Graham’s brain. “Whale sharks are an iconic species that open doorways and help people become acquainted with sharks in general,” she says. “These are animals that evolved over millions of years, perfection in predatory form. They also have an important role in the ocean — healthy, resilient reefs are dominated by sharks. They’re beautiful, magnificent, graceful, and big. The world would be an incredibly poor place without these animals.”
Not everyone can search for whale sharks in Graham’s company, but anyone can book an outing to dive or snorkel where they most often show up. We join other divers aboard an Avadon Divers craft and pound over miles of rolling blue water, past green cayes like a string of stepping stones, each sending out a siren song of white sand and palm trees. Some have a single, brightly colored house and neat dock, but most sit empty and inviting.
Dark clouds line the horizon during the one hour and 15 minute ride to Gladden Spit, where whale sharks gather in the spring to feed on fish spawn, and where Belize created a whale shark reserve.
Rain stipples the sea surface as we stop to pay three rangers in a well-weathered boat the $15 entry fee. The rangers work for Southern Environmental Association Belize, a non-governmental organization that enforces limits on the number of boats and people and the required certification of guides who bring them here. It’s a working model of that all-important, well-managed tourism.
The physical conditions at Gladden apparently put fish in the mood, and some 26 different species spawn here en masse after full moons in the spring. Graham recommends looking for Cubera snapper, whose spawn whale sharks favor.
The dive site lies outside the wave-dampening barrier reef, and what feels like the entire Caribbean fetches up here, huge swells that send the boat rearing into the air to crash back down, with plumes of white spray reaching the top deck.
Geared up, I jump into the water and waste no time descending beneath the wave action. At 80 feet, our bottom limit on this dive, the reef lies another 50 feet or so below us. Beyond, the view drops off into endless blue. On the 50-minute dive, I see a school of swirling fish, a few moon jellies, and a pod of dolphins circling above with audible clicks and squeaks. But no whale sharks.
When they do appear, Graham says, the huge figures seem to materialize out of the blue, sometimes above, sometimes below. She’s even turned around to find one right behind her, a Mack truck of a fish in perpetual first gear, with a flat, wide mouth for a grill. So, I constantly turn as I fly through watery space, eyes peeled for dark shapes and tell-tale spots.
I feel as if the giants lurk just beyond my field of vision. And there they remain, as the dive master signals time to surface. While I’m disappointed, of course, part of me celebrates the fact that these are wild and free animals that still call their own shots.
The next trip to Gladden is two days away, and Graham has work to do, so I dive Glover’s Reef the following day instead. It’s a two-hour trip to this remote atoll, but worth the reward, a still-thriving reef all to ourselves, no other dive boats in sight. We make three dives along the reef, a wall of vibrant corals, sponges and fans at about 50 feet, dropping into more deep blue space. Clouds of fish — the usual tropical suspects: queen angelfish, butterfly fish, blue tangs, damselfish, parrotfish, wrasses, only more of them — as well as goliath groupers, balloonfish, batfish, and barracuda inhabit this vibrant reef. The third dive, I cruise at about 50 feet, remaining submerged nearly an hour.
When it’s time to ascend, I scan the abyss, willing a whale shark to appear. None does.
Not seeing one gives me a reason — a need, even — to return. I mark next April’s full moon on my calendar.
Source: The Miami Herald