Saturday, April 14, 2012
Diving with the Whale Sharks in Belize (Gladden Split)
Belize is worth a trip for a variety of reasons. If you like to relax on tropical beaches, or if you like to party, there is plenty for you to enjoy there. As a nature lover, you can hike through jungles, swim through caves, zip-line across the tree-tops, see manatees, Jaguars, and Monkeys, and lots more. But for scuba divers in particular, Belize is a prime destination with attractions like the world’s second largest barrier reef (only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is bigger) and the Great Blue Hole. Around every full moon in the spring however, attention turns to Gladden Split, as Whale Sharks congregate to feed on snapper spawn.
Note: If you are interested in diving the Great Blue Hole of Belize, see my other blog post here.
My attention was first drawn to Belize for this very reason. I would imagine every scuba diver wants to swim with whale sharks at least once in their lifetime. There are various places to do this, although in many one can only snorkel rather than scuba dive. In Belize however, you can encounter these amazing fish at depth (and with fewer people around), which is a completely different experience altogether. This appealed to me enough to tickle my curiosity. Once we did a bit more research on the country, and I found out about their barrier reef as well as other dive sites, but also other offerings for the adventure and leisure tourist, we were sold. So off we went in the Spring of 2011.
As it turns out, we should have planned our trip a bit better. I knew snappers spawned around the full moon in April and May. I wasn’t quite aware of how closely they stick to their schedule. They don’t just do this “roughly around the full moon”, but it has to be right during the full moon. In 2011, we thus ended up being just a few days too early. Nevertheless, it was an awesome trip (you can read about it here), whale sharks or not. We did however immediately plan to return in 2012 just to get another shot at seeing these marvelous creatures. (And you know what: Regardless of whether there are any whale sharks in Belize or not, we would have returned to Belize anyway, and now that we saw the whale sharks, we plan to return in the future as well).
Planning the Trip
I have to admit: I am normally not a big planner. I get an idea for a trip and off we go on short notice. But our 2012 trip to Belize has been planned for almost a year. We knew the full moon was going to occur in early April and early May. The best chances to see the whale sharks are just after the full moon, so we planned our trip around that fact (whale shark dives start perhaps a day or two before the full moon but go on for several days afterwards). We did our successful dive on April 9th with the full moon having occurred on April 6th. We heard some unconfirmed rumors about a single sighting the 8th and I don’t think there were any sightings earlier. We did however hear that there were a number of sightings the two days following our dives as well. So I would plan all my future attempts a few days after the full moon. Note that if you go outside this window of opportunity, you will not have a chance to see the whale sharks, as operators aren’t even running any trips. There simply is no realistic chance of seeing them.
The best place to start your trip from is from Placencia in the south of Belize (which is also one of my favorite destinations in Belize otherwise). You can find accommodations of any level in Placencia, from the super-fancy Turtle Inn (designed and owned by Francis Ford Coppola), to the still very funky Robert’s Grove Resort, all the way down to pretty simple inns and hotels. Personally, I enjoy staying at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro, which provides simple yet very unique accommodations paired with the best food you will get on the Placencia peninsula.
Placencia has a number of dive operators. We have used 3 of them (Avadon Divers, Sea Horse Divers, and Robert’s Grove) and found them all to be well run (Splash is another operator we hear good things about but haven’t used ourselves). Personally, I think Avadon Divers is a level above all the others, but I would recommend all of them. (And I am the kind of diver who may simply not dive at all on a trip because the operators are not to my liking… as happened on a recent trip to Cozumel).
Gladden Split is a marine reserve and whale shark dives are regulated to make sure there never are too many people in the water at once and to ensure the animals are not bothered in their regular routine. Dive operators enter a lottery system to be assigned limited time slots. No more than 6 dive boats are allowed in the Gladden Split Marine Reserve at any one time, and each boat is limited to 12 divers (even though most dive boats are of a size where they could easily accommodate larger groups) and I believe 8 snorkelers. What all this means is that you want to reserve your spot early, as these dive trips are popular and are usually sold out (with many divers returning for multiple trips out). We do almost all our diving in Belize with Avadon these days, but unfortunately, we couldn’t get on their boat for the whale shark dive. Avadon passed us on to Robert’s Grove, which was also good, but not quite up to the Avadon level. (Note: Our boat was not completely sold out with only 8 divers and only a handful of snorkelers. I think Robert’s Grove may mostly service its own hotel guests and may thus be worth a call if you can’t find openings with other operators).
The trip out to Gladden Split was relatively easy the day we did it. Gladden Split is about an hour and a half straight out into the Caribbean Sea from Placencia (due east). Boats are limited to 2-tank dives, which means you do not usually have to start too early (our boat left at 9am) as they can easily fit in the dives. Our trip was during an exceptionally calm day with almost no surface waves. I understand that often this is not the case and it could get a little rough. (This may also impact the enjoyment of snorkeling I would think…).
As you enter the marine reserve, the captain of your boat has to obtain permission from a marine park ranger who is on site with an anchored boat on a shallow part of the reef. It is somewhat likely that there already are a number of boats at the main whale shark area and your boat will have to wait. In general, this dive is an all-day affaire and you want to make sure you are on a boat of reasonable size. Operators such as Robert’s Grove and Avadon have good-sized boat with plenty of space to move around and (most importantly) plenty of shade as well as food and drink. We have also seen other boats out there which were much smaller, requiring divers to stay in their seat and offering practically no shade (we saw some divers seek shade and cooling in the water and under the small bow of their boats). It would seem to be an absolutely awful idea to be out there with one of these small boats. Not just would it make for a long day sitting in one spot, but you would absolutely get your noggin boiled under the tropical sun! So make sure you use an operator with a good-sized boat.
Our Time In and On the Water
Our boat left dock at about 9am embarking on our 90 minute trip out to the Gladden Split area. It is a nice boat ride going out in between some islands and over relatively shallow water. I had my feet dangling of the bow of our boat and saw a few rays swim under us and I saw dolphins on at least 3 or 4 occasions. (Although unlike Avadon on our prior dives, the Robert’s Grove guys did not slow down or stop to see if the dolphins had any interest in interacting with us). We arrived at Gladden Split and checked in with the park ranger. At that point it became clear that there were already 6 boats out in the relatively small whale shark area, so we queued up to wait with 3 other boats. There clearly was no particular rush for us to be out there any earlier. We anchored in a sandy area between some shallow reefs. For about an hour, we had the opportunity to swim and snorkel off the boat in quite a nice area. It is amazing how you are basically out in the middle of the ocean yet all of a sudden have an opportunity to swim in 10 feet of water and leisurely snorkel about.
Whale shark watching season is also turtle mating season. For almost the entire time we anchored, we had a very large (biggest I had ever seen) and friendly loggerhead turtle swim back and forth under the boat. I am not sure if it just enjoyed seeking out the company of humans or whether it mistook us for potential mates. At some point, a second turtle came around and started to interact with “our” turtle. For a while we thought we were about to witness something special, but alas, it was not to be as the female in the end just turned the unfortunate would-be-dad down and he swam away with seemingly his head hanging low.
Before we knew it, it was our turn to try our luck with the whale sharks. We knew from radio chatter, that none of the other boats had seen any yet (and there were only vague rumors about a single whale shark sighting the day before), so my expectations in general were fairly modest. We motored out into the deeper waters where the snappers spawn and the whale sharks come to feed.
The dive itself is a “blue water dive”. This means that you are diving in deep water suspended in the water column. In other words: You will often not see the bottom and you won’t see the surface. (It’s anywhere between 130 and 200 feet deep there, or more). This was our first blue water dive and it is a different sort of diving. I am not prone to getting disoriented, but even to me, this was a little odd. You take your giant stride off the back of the boat and the group then descends to 60 or 70 feet. (You are not allowed to dive deeper than 80 feet in the Gladden Split Marine Reserve). At that point, all you see is blue. Horizontal visibility that day was about 80-100 feet or more, but I can only say that because I saw the other divers in the water. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know whether you are seeing 200 feet of blue water, or 2 feet of blue water. At is an eerie feeling at first as you find yourself looking around in all directions, as you are not sure what might be appearing out of the deep or from behind you or…
After a few minutes, a certain calm sets in even for new blue water divers. On our first dive, we saw absolutely nothing. I think I may have briefly glimpsed a fish at one point or another, but all in all, there was nothing. After the first few minutes of blue water excitement, this was the most boring dive I have ever done. What could you see theoretically? Well, a lot! In addition to the whale sharks, there are other sharks (reef sharks, bull sharks, silky sharks,…), rays, dolphins, barracudas, and a whole lot more. But we didn’t see anything at all. Not even a jelly fish. Only an undetermined distance of blue water in front of our masks. My expectations sank to an all-time low. I would have bet a lot of money that there was no whale shark in the area.
We surfaced after about 35 minutes with seemingly little air in my tank. Much less than I normally have at a dive to 70 feet. It seems I had developed a problem with my gas-gauge. I surfaced with my buddy and we kept swimming at the surface with a few snorkelers, until I was completely out of air. Oddly enough, my gauge already showed I was at 0 psi, yet I kept breathing out of my tank for another 10 minutes or so. So something was clearly not right. Nevertheless, I noticed that every single diver on this dive ran out of air much quicker than normal. I am not sure whether that is due to the excitement or whether it is because one tries to swim further than normal in the hopes of finding a school of snappers with the likely accompanying whale shark.
We went back onto our waiting dive boat and motored back to shallower areas for lunch and some additional snorkeling. At that point, our crew made a crucial decision: We were going to wait until as late as possible before we would go back in. You have to be out of the Gladden Split area by 5pm, so our plan was to not motor back in until 3:30pm or so. I give the crew a lot of credit for this, as they could have taken the easy way out and tried to be back home as early as possible. A lot of other dive boats seemed to do exactly that. But our boat wanted to wait it out because the dive master felt the best opportunity for sightings was as late in the day as possible. (Note: The Avadon boat also seemed to follow that same strategy of going the extra mile and went in for their second dive at exactly the same time as we did). So we waited on our boat for a few hours, had lunch, went snorkeling, and tried to stay in the shade.
On our way back in, we used the sonar of the boat and motored around in the main area for a little while in an attempt to find schools of fish under water, which we hoped were the spawning snappers. (One can never be sure as there are other schools of fish as well). Finally, our captain settled on an area he thought looked promising. From a bystander’s perspective of course, all one sees is the nondescript surface of the ocean. Our captain seems to have a good eye for different shades of blue, as well as his depth finder, because as soon as we entered the water, we saw schools of snapper beneath us. We descended to 65 feet.
Yet still, all we saw at first was snappers. Gazillions of them. Our dive master was a little ways ahead of us, while Ellen (my buddy) and I hung back with a park ranger who accompanied us, in the hopes she might know any special tricks. After about 10 minutes of finning around however, the dive master tapped his tank in a clonking noise to get our attention. He pointed into the blue void. At first, we couldn’t see anything, but soon enough, the dark outline of a whale shark appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
I am not even going to attempt to describe the awe-inspiring feeling this was. You see the wide iconic shape of the head of the shark (just the mouth can be more than 4 or 5 feet wide) with the pectoral fins off to the side. It was just slowly swimming right towards us with slow but powerful left and right sweeps of its tail fin. Most people are amazed as to how slow this animal moves, but looks are deceptive. It may not move its tail fin back and forth all that quickly, but when a 30 foot fish moves its fin back and forth, it’s sweep radius is considerable. The fish swam right through the group of divers at exactly our depth. I imagine the snorkelers could still see it, but clearly, we got a much better look. The whole encounter was surreal. You just float there, trying not to forget to breath, and the shark glides by you in the most peaceful way possible. Some people wonder whether it is scary to see an animal of this size, but the encounter is so non-threatening, there just never is any thought of fear entering your mind.
The encounter only took a minute or two. In hindsight, the first sighting was really just a blur. But there you have it: Your adrenalin sky-rockets after the sighting, as you realize you had just checked one of those items off your bucket list. It was fun to see the reaction of the group. Most people had probably given up hope of seeing a whale shark that day. Several of the divers in our group had been out the prior days without any luck, and this was their last opportunity. One girl even did a little victory dance under water :-).
But this was just the beginning of the dive. We swam on for another 15 minutes or so without another sighting, but then another whale shark appeared out of the depths. It came up from below us and headed straight towards us. This time, we had a bit more composure to actually take it all in and enjoy the whole experience. I think for most people, the first encounter is to overpowering to really enjoy it, but this second encounter was just plan incredible. As the shark was literally headed straight for Ellen and me, we go the classic look of the shark coming at us head on. Eventually, I even pulled Ellen to the side a little so we wouldn’t accidently be bumped by the shark (which I envision similar to being bumped into by an inflatable rubber boat).
The shark then swam right past us very slowly and I could see its tiny little eye look right at us, probably trying to figure out what this weird species of aquatic bipeds with cameras was that congregates at Gladden Split every full moon in the spring.
The shark was easily close enough for us to touch it with our outstretched arm. (Do NOT however touch a shark or even try to hold on to it to hitch a ride! Not only does it distress the animal, but there is a $10,000 fine for touching a whale shark, and apparently there could even be associated jail time!). The encounter also seemed a bit longer this time (although it is hard to say). The shark then swam a little closer to the surface so the snorkelers probably got a better look this time than with the first shark.
At that point, I started to supposedly get low on air again. I was reasonably certain I just had a problem with my gauge, and I had checked Ellen’s air and I knew I could breath of her’s for a little bit if need be. But why risk anything? I had decided to ascend to safety-stop depth when I got an answer to that question: A third shark appeared! I just had to stay! It slowly cruised by us, getting as close as 10 or 15 feet to me and Ellen. Not quite as close as the second one, but still! This was the third different shark we saw that day (one can tell by the shape of their fins).
Note: The whale sharks you encounter at Gladden Split are not juveniles, but they are not fully gown. The ones we saw were about 30 feet or so. They grow as large as 40 or 45 feet. But let me tell you: A 30+ foot animal (10 meters) is a LARGE fish. It is like swimming with a school bus! I’d still like to get a chance to see one that is even bigger, but these were still plenty large. They are the largest fish there is, after all.
After this third encounter, I was down to about 300 psi and gave a signal to the dive master that the two of us were going to ascend. Unlike in all other dives I have done where the whole group generally ascends together, in this case, we ascended and the rest of the group stayed as depth, as a single buddy-team doesn’t want to ruin the chance of the rest of the group for another encounter.
So we ascended to our safety-stop depth of 15 feet on our own, and all of a sudden, we were surrounded by other sharks! I am not even sure how many there were, and after seeing a 30 foot fish, it is hard to estimate the size and distance of anything else, especially in blue water. I would think that these sharks were about 4 or 5 feet in length. They were silky sharks. The Wikipedia says something like “silky sharks have been known to act aggressive to divers but that is generally not a problem as they only occur in open water and you are unlikely to ever encounter one”. Well, except for us, since we were out in the open ocean. After all the excitement of this dive, I have to admit, it gave me pause. What were we to do now? But since I was basically out of air, we had little choice but to hang out for our safety stop, alone, and have these sharks circle around us. All in all however, they did not seem overly interested. We just waited it out, and they made no aggressive moves. We continued our ascend after the safety-stop and swam around on the surface a bit longer.
At that point, just to top off this 5-star dive, I got stung pretty good by a jelly fish. I never wear a wet suit when diving in warm waters, so this one hurt (and I still have the markings as I write this close to a week later). I felt we had accomplished our mission on all accounts so we returned to the boat. I suppose we should have waited just a little longer, as the people who remained in the water saw a fourth shark just a minute or so after we had climbed up the ladder. But oh well!
As you can imagine, back on the boat, everyone was all smiles and people were high-fiving each other. This was an incredible, maybe even a life-changing experience. And by all credible accounts, we had been the first ones to see them this year, thanks to the extra patience of our dive crew. (Over the next few days, there were numerous sightings as well).
I have been told by some divers that the experience of a while shark dive like this was too organized and crowded for them. Personally, I never felt that way. Yes, our group had 8 divers in the water, and we did see another group under water. But when you see a whale shark 2 feet away from you, whether there are a few more divers within sight is really something that doesn’t make a big difference to me. Would it be cool to just encounter a whale shark somewhere by accident? You bet it would be! But the chance of that happening are remote.
I did enjoy doing this with scuba gear and at depth. I know there are several places where one can snorkel and swim with whale sharks, and I am sure that is cool too. But I enjoyed seeing them under water and in a smaller group. I think all the snorkelers on our boat had a great time, but swimming at the surface, elbow-to-elbow with the next snorkeler, looking a the sharks from above in the hopes that one will come close to the surface just can’t be the same experience. I would recommend the Gladden Split dive over organized whale shark snorkel trips (as are offered at places like Isla Mujeres in Mexico and other places) and I would recommend diving over snorkeling at Gladden Split too.
On a side note: As we were told afterwards, Bill Gates was also there that day and saw the whale sharks. I have no way of checking whether it is true or not, but I have no reason to doubt that he was there as we heard it from several independent sources. If it is true, he must have been among one of the groups of divers we met under water. So I guess we can now say “we went to Belize and dove with the whale sharks together with Bill Gates”. If nothing else, it makes for a good story! ;-)
Note: A big “thank you” goes to Tony Darst who gave me access to the photos I used in this blog post. My own camera case broke a few days earlier, and I would not have had any photos from our dive if it wasn’t for Tony who was on this dive with us and has since become a friend. Check out many more of his photos at www.Tonys-Eye-Photography.com
Posted @ 4:46 PM by Markus Egger (firstname.lastname@example.org) -