By Bruce "Will" Jones
Edited by Naturalight Productions
NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.
"What's a whale shark?" I had seen signs advertising whale sharks up and down the sidewalk in Placencia -- the worldês narrowest main street, according to Guinness Book of Records. I'd finally approached a woman named Miss Danna from Nite Winds, a colorfully painted dive shop, and popped the question.
"Just the biggest fish in the sea. They grow up to 45-50 feet and can weigh as much as 15 tons, but ours are only 25-30 feet." She grinned.
"Ours ..., only...?" I thought.
She broke in. "If you want to go see them, we have a trip leaving about noon today. You can either dive or snorkel. Weêll be back around dark."
I was still trying to imagine a thirty-foot fish when we sealed the deal. I spent the rest of the morning measuring everything in my mind against giant fish. OK, from this wall to that wall is about twenty feet, so they're ten feet longer than that. Or, it's about 50 feet to that school building. Back at the hotel, I dressed, left a note for my friends who were visiting the jungle, and headed down to the dive shop.
A lot more activity at Nite Winds, now. Nine other adventurers sat nervous and excited on benches waiting for the boat to be ready. Six of my fellow travelers were divers, and lots of gear had to be loaded. I had eaten one of those amazing Belizean rice-and-beans meals a little earlier, and I thanked myself for thinking ahead. Water bottle in hand, I felt ready for this encounter. Silly me.
While we were waiting, Miss Danna passed out some laminated sheets that were chock full of information about whale sharks. I learned that they come to an area on the Belize Barrier Reef known as Gladden Spit, now a marine reserve. The spot has been well known to fishermen for at least a century, because in some months of the year around the full moon, tens of thousands of big reef fish, snappers and groupers, come together to spawn.
Some of these aggregations are spectacular with five thousand fish slowly coming together. First the females arise in a swirling motion towards the surface, creating a vortex. After they release their eggs, the males follow behind, releasing their milky sperm until the water is opaque with the stuff. The fertilized eggs become free-swimming larvae that float around for about four weeks then drop out in a sea grass bed.
And what does the sex life of the mutton snapper have to do with whale sharks? Well, the sharks are filter feeders. As big as they are, they eat tiny things like plankton, microscopic creatures that float around in the sea. Somehow whale sharks learned that when the fish come to Gladden Spit, the eggs are available for dining; they come to eat caviar. That's why Miss Danna could say that I have a 90% chance of seeing one. The fish are predictable, so the whale sharks are predictable -- just ask the fishermen. What a tourist attraction. I'm about to witness one of the great biological phenomena on the entire planet!
We all pile in the boat and speed away to the reef. It's a long trip; the sea is rough. Two of my companions are discreetly seasick. I'm sympathetic, but manage to make it to Gladden. At the entrance to the whale shark zone, a Park Ranger for Friends of Nature, the NGO that has a contract with the Fisheries Department to manage the reserve, greets us. He checks us in, jots down ticket numbers, and notes the time. Only six boats are allowed into the zone at one time and for only two hours. Indeed, there is a long list of rules and guidelines to follow in this adventure.
We pass out through the reef into open ocean. We are moving very slowly, the captain looking for signs of the sharks, the guide giving terse whispered instructions.
"OK, she says in a voice tight with excitement. "Here we go."
The divers begin the ritual of loading on their gear. We snorkelers sit with our guide who gives us some last minute tips. She warns us that the sharks often come right to the surface. They are very curious creatures. As a parting tip, she tells us to look for milky white patches and swim towards them. We get in the water.
When you're snorkeling, the sea is not totally silent but is filled with wheezes, gurgles, and the sound of your own breath whooshing in and out. Once in a while I get a glimpse of something down below there, but mostly I see those slanting shafts of light that mean weêre in deep water.
By now, I have a serious case of the jitters. My companions are splashing in beside me. One of them moves off purposefully. I lag behind, little dazed, still trying to get focused. After a minute or so, I stop and stand up, let my legs drop and, still kicking, put my face out of the water to see whatês happening above.
Suddenly, the surface explodes 100 feet away. The side of a fish, a huge wall about 30 feet long, pushes up out of the water. It cruises on the surface past me, its massive mouth like a funnel gone berserk. Although itês hard to see from this angle, I can just make out a large milky patch that the shark passes through, mouth agape, before it disappears. I drop my face back in the water and peer over towards that white cloudy water, but visibility is nil. I swim slowly over looking all around me rather frantically, hoping to see it again. I'm passing through bubbles now; divers are moving in under me. Maybe they saw the shape as it passed over them and now theyêre pursuing it. The bubbles make it even harder to see. As I peer forward, a circle fades in slowly from the milky spot. The hoop enlarges till I suddenly see, struck by a bolt of lightning, that the massive shape appearing in front of me is the same gigantic whale shark, and now heês coming directly at me, and fast.
"It's following the bubbles," I shout, but no one hears me.
He has not slowed down, and now his head fills my field of vision. Nothing else exists in my world, just that enormous head with that huge, vacuum-cleaner mouth. He looms closer and closer, and finally I lose my nerve and swim to the right. The side of his head passes so close by that his tailfin almost graces the side of my face. Then he's gone, diving deep. I catch a glimpse of his tail as it disappears into the deep.
Later, in the boat, I tell my tale like an old veteran. I let the others think that the tremble in my voice is because I'm freezing cold. The truth is that my heart is still pounding like a trip-hammer. What an experience.
When we reach shore, I say heartfelt good-byes to my companions on the trip and stagger back to the hotel. As promised, the sun is just setting. When I push the door open, there are my friends draped around the room.
"Oh. Hi," says Julia. "What did you do today?"
Special Thanks to:
Friends of Nature
Friends of Nature is a community-based organization made up of representatives of five coastal communities of Southern Belize: Hopkins, Seine Bight, Independence, Monkey River and Placencia. Friends of Nature co-manages the Laughingbird Caye National Park and Gladden Spit/Silk Cayes Marine Reserve.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography
Friends of Nature
Gayle R. Usher