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.