The Gentle Giants of the Sea
Written By: Rhoda Gill
My dad was born in 1928 in Belize City and grew up in the northern coastal fishing village of Sarteneja.
His childhood was filled with regular kid fun & mischief and his stories brought much laughter to my brother and I as we were growing up- learning about a beautiful land filled with folklore and mystery. As a Belizean- American growing up in the US, neither of us could ever imagine the color and vivid beauty of Belize that our Dad carried in his memory.
As a young Belizean at the age of 19, his life took an adventurous turn as he chose to became a seaman, with big dreams of sailing to Cuba and other Caribbean islands. Among his stories of old British Honduras shipping & trading contracts and other historical adventures, his tale of the “humongous sharks” in Belize was our favorite and I can remember family dinners together and my single request every time was “Dad, tell us the shark story again”.
His memory would take him back to the days and we could see and hear the small hints of adventure & fear as he recounted the story- of a huge “white” shark, longer than the 40 ft. sail- boat, swimming like a quiet phantom alongside the craft filled with trembling fishermen- some of them praying and reciting the Rosary on their knees as evening outlined the eerie shadow of the shark- so close that they feared their last day on earth had come.
One day, while reading through some material for new travel ideas, I came across the most amazing historical read- about the Whale Sharks in Belize. As I read through the chapter, my eyes widened as I realized that I was reading about the same old tales that my dad knew too well: Fishermen- overcome by fear at these unknown and un-named creatures of the deep, who floated by their fishing vessels- too busy with other things but scaring the crew to living pieces… My Dad’s stories immediately filled my head and sadly I remembered his vivid fear.
It’s incredible that so many years later, Whale Sharks have become so popular-bringing tourists to Belize each spring. Appreciation of these amazing creatures has created an attraction from what instilled fear to so many.
So here is the skinny on the Whale Sharks in Belize- literally- Who, What, Where and When of these beautiful fish of our warm blue sea.
What are they?
Rhincodon typus commonly known as whale sharks are known to be the largest fish in the sea and the largest living creature.
They belong to the group called Chondryichtyes, which includes sharks, rays, and skates. Whale Sharks have skeletons made entirely of cartilage when compared to other fish that have skeletons made of bone. Unfortunately, not much else is really known about these illusive giants.
- Similar to the fingerprint of a human, the pattern of spots around the gill area are unique to each individual allowing researchers to identify individual sharks.
- The only known predator of the whale shark is humans. The mouth of the whale shark is massive, reaching a width of approximately 1 meter (over 3 feet).
- Only 3 shark species (the whale shark, the basking shark, and the megamouth shark) are filter feeders, straining their prey from the water column.
- The whale shark can reach a length of 40 feet or more and weighs 20 or more tons.
Where do they hang out?
Whale Sharks keep to specific areas in the world- mainly the latitudes 30°N and 35°S in tropical and warm temperate seas, both in oceanic and coastal waters.
Perfect locations for viewing these sharks are Mexico, Belize, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, the Galapagos, Honduras, South Africa, Mozambique, Seychelles, and India.
More Specifically- Gladden Split in Belize. This is an area located off the coast of Placencia- Southern Belize. The Sharks can be found mainly in the open area of the Gladden Split and Silk Caye Marine Reserve which is 36 Km off the coast. Gladden Split is within the central region of the barrier reef and it is the only place in the entire world where Whale Shark visits can be predicted!
Gladden Spit has a wall that slopes down to 160 feet/50mt then drops off into the blue abyss; thus making it easier for Whale Sharks to visit our waters.
Photo Courtesy Of Chabil Mar Villas
When do they visit?
Whale Sharks visit Belize’s waters every year between March and June- although sometimes they linger until September. The best times to see them are during the Full Moon phases each month during the Spring.
Whale Shark Dates 2016
- March 22nd – April 2nd (Full Moon – March 23)
- April 21st – May 2nd ( Full Moon – April 22)
- May 22nd – May 31st (Full Moon – May 21)
- June 19th – June 30th (Full Moon – June 20)
Of special note is the fact that the Whale Sharks are ALREADY IN BELIZE this year! The first sighting was January 2016!
Photo Courtesy of Tony Rath
In spite of their gigantic size whale sharks are very gentle creatures. They can be quite playful with humans, often swimming right up to boats and divers out of curiosity and allowing themselves to be petted. In Belize we recognize the beauty of these creatures and appreciate their visits.
In an effort to conserve and protect these amazing sharks, Belize has established specific guidelines for divers and snorkelers to abide by. These are:
- Maintain a safe distance from the animals, and avoid touching them at all or using flash photography. The camera flash may end up scaring them away and put you at risk for being seriously injured.
- Inappropriate human contact may also alter their willingness to interact with researchers and biologists.
- If taking photographs, try to get photos of the spot pattern just above the left fin
**The Whale Sharks even have their own global website- that document photos and conservation of these amazing creatures. This site also assists with Whale Shark identification.
Knowing these fun & amazing facts has helped to understand these beautiful fish in a unique way. Dad, if only you knew then that these were only Whale Sharks- the amazing creatures that now make Belize so popular… If we could turn back time, I would have liked to take him out to see them -to enjoy nature at its best. I am sure he would have been blown away!
Photo Courtesy of Martin Spragg
The staff at Adventures in Belize is dedicated to creating unforgettable experiences for our visitors. Whale Sharks are an “experience” of a lifetime and we hope that during your visit Belize, you get the chance to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.