September 4th 2018
Plunge into a thriving, open-water aquarium and swim with the biggest fish in the ocean as your small adventure travel group cruises out into the turquoise sea off the southern coast of Belize.
Every spring, massive whale sharks migrate to various spots along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef to feed, and Belize’s Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve is one of their favorite places. Located a pleasant, 25-mile boat ride from the harbor at Placencia, the reserve is also one most accessible formations to witness this unbelievable undersea theater.
Measuring 40-60 feet in length and weighing a massive 15 tons or more, the docile whale sharks return from April through June to the crystal-clear waters of Gladden Spit, where there they find a swirling, spiraling banquet to fill their massive tummies.
The feast includes plankton, small baitfish, squid, jellyfish, and their favorite: spawn of the black snapper (a.k.a. cubera snapper), drifting through the water in thick clouds. More than 25 species of fish congregate each spring at Gladden Spit to spawn.
Like whales, whale sharks are filter feeders, gliding through the sea with their giant mouths agape to sift out their meals from the inflowing seawater. At Gladden Spit, they swim up from the depths over an undersea wall to follow schools of spawning snapper, sometimes visible all the way to the surface.
Giants with curiosity
Despite their enormity, swimming with whale sharks poses little to no risk to divers; there’s a small chance one could slap you inadvertently with its fin. (Among strict regulations for divers is maintaining at least a 10-foot distance from the gentle creatures and not blocking their path.)
Younger whale sharks are known to be curious, even playful, around their human visitors. Sometimes whale sharks even gulp the air bubbles rising up from divers, mistaking the shiny, rising spheres as fish!
With an estimated lifespan of 60-100 years or more, whale sharks have relatively small heads with huge gill slits on both sides. They’re dark grey to brown in color with a checkerboard-ish pattern of spots (yellow, white, and/or grey) on their back.
They frequently travel in the company remora fish (3-10 feet long), which feed on morsels that the whale sharks drop. Sometimes they attach themselves to the whale shark, eating small parasites that irritate its skin.
Full moon takes control
Whale shark activity peaks about two days before through 10 days after the full moons of April, May, and June, the same time as the snapper spawning activity. Those dates for 2019 are April 19-30, May 18-29, and June 17-28.
Keep in mind that whale sharks remain on the move, and sightings cannot be guaranteed, so book your small group adventure over a few days just in case the giant fish eludes you the first time out.
Given the mind-boggling assortment of marine life that thrives in the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, you’ll for sure get an eyeful during your snorkelling / diving experience. Commonly sighted marine life at the sprawling, 25,980-acre sanctuary includes dolphin, sea turtles, sharks, and manta rays, not to mention coral gardens thriving with schools of colorful tropical fish.
In all, more than 500 species of fish, over 100 types of hard and soft coral species, and all kinds of invertebrate species thrive along the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which stretches over 600 miles from Isla Contoy, Mexico, to the Bay Islands of Honduras. The largest reef of the Western Hemisphere, it’s so diverse that Charles Darwin called it “the most remarkable barrier reef in the West Indies.”
For more blog posts on Belize check out the article on Belize’s great cave adventures, or the fascinating story of the blight of the Lionfish and how Belize is combating that problem, “Lionfish on your Plate” and how about more information on Belize’s great Lobster Festival.
September 4th 2018
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