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The Gentle Giants return to Belize

21 March 2011 9 Comments

One of Belize’s lesser known but most stunning attractions is the annual whale shark migration that returns to Gladden Spit over the next few months.

Beginning in March and running through April, May, June and sometimes further into the summer, the annual migration of these gentle giants to Belize is a rare, truly magnificent sight. In fact, Belize shares the distinction of hosting whale shark migration feasts with only a handful of other places in the world, including Madagascar, South Africa, Australia, Mozambique, Indonesia and the Yucatan.

Known locally as “Sapodilla Tom” due to their penchant for the Sapodilla Cayes on the Belize Barrier Reef, whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, the third largest living animal on the planet and, at some 60 million years old, represent the last living members of their family. Although they are true sharks (Rhincodon typus) whale sharks neither bite nor menace, content instead to lounge peacefully or swim lazily while drawing in huge amounts of water through their mouth to strain out plankton and other food. It is this manner of feeding, as well as their enormous size that gives whale sharks their name.

And gigantic they are, with the largest verified at 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) in length and the heaviest at more than 36 tonnes (79,000 lb), and there are numerous accounts of much bigger specimens. Travelling the world’s oceans, they typically live from seventy to a hundred years and each one carries a unique pattern on its skin that makes individuals easy to identify.

But for all their size, whale sharks are docile and even friendly to humans. For years fishermen from Placencia and other areas made sport of diving down to hitch rides by grabbing onto the tails of these behemoths, who seem to actually enjoy interaction with humans. Today they delight the divers and fishing parties lucky enough to meet up with them during their full-moon feeds.

During the full moon, Cubera and mutton snapper spawn around the Gladden Spit area and the whale sharks come to feed on the rich spawn and to mate. The sharks swim slowly near the surface, consuming small crustaceans, plankton, small fishes such as sardines and anchovies, and even larger fishes such as mackerel, and can also be seen having a rest on the bottom. They are curious creatures, and have been known to approach boats and allow themselves to be petted.

With full moon periods the best times to see these beautiful creatures, this year’s whale shark prime times are,  March 17 -31, April 16 – 28, May 15 -27, June 13 -25. While there are no guarantees that they will be seen, villagers in Placencia or Hopkins keep tabs on their movements and generally have a good idea if old Sapodilla Tom is out there. If you’re considering booking an all-inclusive rain-forest and reef vacation with Placencia options, such as those offered by Chaa Creek, you can ask the front desk to enquire about this year’s migration. Even if you don’t get to see these magnificent creatures, it’s still a stunningly beautiful excursion out to the reef with plenty of marine life to see.

And if you are lucky, be prepared for a rare and wonderful experience you’ll never forget.


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9 Comments »

  • Jessica said:

    We’re going to be on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker during April 16-24th, and hoping to find someone who can take us whale shark diving/snorkeling from there! Any ideas? :) Thanks!

  • Mark said:

    Check with Chaa Creek – they arranged a reef trip for me

  • Sue said:

    We returned from Belize Mar 27 and encountered a stinging organism in the waters at Ranguna Caye. The organism was not visible to the naked eye, we were told it comes into the waters the same time the whale sharks appear. Do you know what it is, and is it related to the whale shark migration?

  • Belize -My Eco-tourism Destination | Belize Travel Blog said:

    […] encounters. Maybe I could even bring a survivor with me on the trip and sneak off for a swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, during one of our day […]

  • Eco Belize charts the 7 Top Green Travel Destinations | Belize Travel Blog said:

    […] Mesoamerican Reef, the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere, complete with chances to view the elusive whale shark and other rare fish species. To help protect the reef and support sustainable fishing, local fishermen have formed a […]

  • Maya, Whale sharks and Easter in Belize | Belize Travel Blog said:

    […] lately had several people asking how to combine an Easter break with a chance to see the annual Belize whale sharkmigration and visit Maya temples as […]

  • Maya, Whale sharks and Easter in Belize | Extreme Elk Hunting said:

    […] lately had several people asking how to combine an Easter break with a chance to see the annual Belize whale shark migration and visit Maya temples as well.“Fortunately, given Belize’s small size and our […]

  • Maya, Whale sharks and Easter in Belize- Household Family Blog said:

    […] lately had several people asking how to combine an Easter break with a chance to see the annual Belize whale shark migration and visit Maya temples as […]

  • Prepare Now to See the Whale Shark Migration to Belize | Belize Travel Blog said:

    […] The whale shark is the world’s largest fish and the third largest animal on the planet. Long known in Belize as “Sapodilla Tom” due to its penchant for staying at the Sapodilla Cayes and Gladden Spit during its annual feeding and breeding season, the whale shark has a recorded length of 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) and weighs in at more than 36 tonnes (79,000 lb). […]

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