Whale Sharks are one of the biggest fish in the sea. The largest one ever measured was 40 feet in length with a mouth almost 5 feet wide. However, despite their size they are quite gentle. If they approach a diver or snorkeler, which they sometimes do, it’s more out of curiosity than any type of aggression. In Belize, you can dive or snorkel with whale sharks during the months of March, April, May and June. They congregate in a marine park called Gladden Split which can be reached by day trips from Placencia, Hopkins and Glover’s Reef Atoll. During these particular months, around the time of the full moon, a variety of reef fish such as mutton snappers spawn (reproduce) in the Gladden Split Area. They release millions of baby fish eggs and it is this event that attracts the whale sharks every year, who come and feed on the eggs. Interestingly, the bubbles from a diver’s regulator look like eggs. And in fact, it’s not uncommon for whale sharks to swim towards a diver. It happened to me. Imagine a massive 30 foot whale shark swimming towards you! But they are just curious, and pose no harm. All I had to do was move to one side and he went along his way.
I’m often asked what is the best time to see them. This is variable, but generally speaking 4-5 days after the full moon on the months specified above will give you the best odds of seeing a whale shark. This corresponds with the spawning cycle of the reef fish (remember the sharks come to feed on baby fish eggs). Although they start spawning around the full moon, the production of eggs peaks about 4-5 days after the full moon, hence attracting more whale sharks.
The length of the boat ride to Gladden Split varies on where you are leaving from. For example, from Placencia it’s about 1 hour and half. Gladden Split Marine Reserve is actually outside the Barrier Reef so you are basically in deep sea waters. As a result, it is recommended that snorkeleres be good swimmers and divers be experienced. Also, if the wind is strong and the waves are big, you might get see sick so bring some sea sickness pills. When I did this dive a few people couldn’t keep their food down. Once you’re actually in the park area, how do you find the sharks? One of the guides stands on the bow (front) of the boat and scans the surface of the water in search of the distinctive white dots on the back of the whale shark. Whale sharks often come up close to the surface and if a guide spots one he’ll usually inform the other boats nearby. Because they come close to the surface, it means snorkelers have a good chance at seeing them as well.
If no whale sharks are spotted at the surface, then the divers gear up and descend to about 80 feet. Keep an eye on your depth gauge because it’s blue water all around. Since you don’t really have a point of reference (like a reef wall for example) you can drop very deep without noticing it. After everyone is at 80 feet, the divers huddle up in a circle and this creates a large stream of regulator bubbles that rise to the surface. Remember, whale sharks mistake your regulator bubbles as fish eggs so this technique often works to attract them. Once they show up, they may stick around for a while and at other times they leave pretty quickly. Either way just the sight of one of these massive whale sharks is enough to leave you in awe.
Most tours will include 2 tanks for divers and 2 swims for snorkelers so you’ll have double the chances of seeing a whale shark on any particular day. Between dives/swims you go back into the calm waters behind the Barrier Reef to relax and have some lunch. I recommend booking at least 2 days of whale shark diving or snorkeling to increase the odds that you’ll see one. Another thing to consider when planning your vacation is that dive shops have a daily limit of 25 divers and snorkelers. This limit is to protect the whale sharks from too much human impact. These limited spots fill up quickly, so it’s highly advisable to book your spots early or you might get to Belize and not find a space.