Not only are whale sharks magnificent, gentle beasts that hold the title of the world’s largest fish, they’re incredibly intelligent too. They migrate to the warm waters of the Caribbean between the months of April and June and feed on the vast numbers of snapper varieties that spawn in Belize in these same months. Mutton snappers, dog snappers and cubera snappers all come out to spawn when the moon is at its fullest, and these nocturnal giants take full advantage of the unsuspecting feast laid out before them. Whale sharks are actually filter feeders and so they don’t feed on the snappers themselves, but rather feed on the masses of snapper spawn suspended in the warm waters.
When to Visit Belize to Dive with Whale Sharks
Unfortunately it’s not always possible to make an estimated guess as to when the whale sharks will arrive – they arrive at different moons in different locations each year, and they travel huge distances in order to mate in the warm waters off Belize.
Thankfully for us scuba divers from all over the world, when the whale sharks do eventually make it to the Caribbean coast of Central America, it is possible to swim, snorkel, dive and play in the presence of these gentle beasts. Although they are massive beyond belief, they are non-threatening and usually rather curious about the two-legged bubble-blowers swimming around them. People can even ride on the backs of larger whale sharks, and the ever-inquisitive youngsters often engage with humans. No matter your experience with these fascinating creatures, it is without a doubt a very special privilege to have the opportunity to get close to them. After all, they are the biggest fish known to man!
What Exactly is a Whale Shark?
Whale sharks are the biggest non-mammals currently on Earth and interestingly, although they have the word ‘whale’ in their name, they are not actually whales at all. They are in fact the biggest shark species in the world and 1 of only 3 filter feeding shark species. The other two filter feeders are the megamouth shark and the basking shark. Having been around for over 60 million years, the whale shark is the only species within its Rhincodontidae family. Despite their huge size, these filter feeders feed on a wide variety of tiny organisms such as plankton, fish spawn, crab larvae, krill and algae. If you’re lucky enough to swim alongside one of these amazing specimens, take note of the fascinating, almost passive way that they feed.
Whale sharks can live to over 70 years old and spend that time living beneath the warm waters of tropical and temperate seas. These fascinating creatures travel huge distances in the open seas and will reportedly return to the same site in Belize year after year. There are many reports claiming to have found whale sharks growing as big as 45-50 feet, but the longest confirmed length is actually 41.5 feet.
Where to Spot Whale Sharks Off Belize
Silk Cayes Marine Reserve and Gladden Spit are two of the most well-known sites to dive alongside the world’s biggest fish. The Marine Reserve is located roughly 25 miles from Placencia town located to the south of the 3 coral atolls in Belize. A beautiful sloping wall in this area is the best known site for spotting these graceful beasts, and it’s usually at 60 feet where you get the most whale shark action. The wall slopes gradually down to 150 feet and then experiences a sudden deep drop. Whale sharks frequently swim in shallower water because this is where they feed, and so snorkelers on the water’s surface can take advantage of these times to enjoy an exciting swim with these enormous marine animals.
To Belize’s north lies Ambergris Caye, another spot that is world-famous for whale shark sightings and interactions. In fact, whale sharks are so prevalent in this area during the months of April, May and June that local dive shops as well as those further afield in Mexico will offer special dive trips simply for this purpose. Many of these trips focus on letting the clients get into the water to swim alongside the whale sharks. Having an informative dive captain who is familiar with the area will give you the best chance at spotting these great creatures. Although the snapper spawning season ends in the warmth of summer, it is still possible to see whale sharks around Belize.
Let us know if you’ve travelled to Belize to see the whale sharks, we’d love to hear about your special whale shark encounters!