Diving with whale sharks in Placencia, Belize

Free diver with whale shark.

Who wouldn't want to swim with whale sharks? We certainly did--so when we realized that our anniversary trip to Belize was going to coincide with the May full moon (that is to say, smack in the middle of Belize whale shark season), we shuffled our itinerary around to include a couple of days in Placencia, Belize for a whale shark dive or two.

Well, we saw some.

And as cool as it was to swim with these massive animals, I have very few positive things to say about the way the operations seem to run down there.

As our dive operator suggested, we booked two days of two-tank whale shark trips to maximize our chances of seeing the sharks. Our first morning, we crammed into a cramped, tiny boat for the rough two-hour crossing out to Gladden Spit, a marine reserve outside the Belize barrier reef.

How Belize Whale Shark Diving Works

So the way things run down there is more than a little weird. After making the crossing, the boat drifts in a calm, protected reef area while the divers gear up. Then everyone sits and waits, in full gear, while the boat cruises around in open ocean conditions--eight-foot seas were not uncommon--while watching the fish finder for an aggregation of spawning fish. This isn't always quick, and passengers occasionally sat for half an hour or more, sweating and getting seasick with tanks strapped to their backs.

Our operator sent out two boats, and so far as I could tell, theirs were the only dive boats in the area who actually had fish finders. This doesn't stop the other dive ops from sending their boats to follow the boats that do.

When the captain finds a fish aggregation (hopefully within recreational depth limits--more on that later), everyone live-boat splashes in and regroups at the predetermined maximum dive depth 0f 80 feet.

Keep in mind that there are as many as six boats at the site, so there can easily be a hundred divers in the water. Also keep in mind that this is a virtually bottomless (2000+ feet deep), "blue water" environment, with no visual reference for depth. Is this a reasonably advanced dive? Yes! Would you expect dive operators to be responsible and treat it as such, and require some level of skill (greater than zero) of their diver clientele? Yes!

Do they? Absolutely not!

So what happens when you drop 100 flailing and bicycle-kicking beginner divers on top of a school of fish who are trying to spawn in peace? The fish get pissed off, that's what, and they go deeper, because they can, and you can't, so there. So you end up watching a fish spawn event from about 50 feet above, without the ability to (safely) get any closer using the provided equipment.

So yeah, we saw whale sharks. Fuzzy, just-on-the-edge-of-visibility-limits, far away whale sharks. Two of them on the first dive! Still pretty cool, even in spite of all the mayhem, right? Right!

It gets better (worse).

Belize whale shark from afar

Spot the whale shark.

 

Far-away whale shark (yes, they're huge) and a school of snapper.

How Belize Whale Shark Diving Doesn't Work (let me count the ways...)

So I mentioned I'd return to the subject of snapper aggregations within rec diving limits--here we go. The captain didn't appear to care if the fish spawns were happening at 80 feet, 100 feet, 400 feet, 299872340 feet--whatever. He just told us to jump in. We spent the next dive following a divemaster around aimlessly in blue water while he searched fruitlessly for the spawn/sharks, which were presumably there, but much, much deeper (unless, of course, the captain just made it up that he found something, which totally could have happened, but I have some faith). Have you ever spent an hour in 50 feet of blue water and seen... absolutely nothing? We have! Whereas I had plenty of time to compute my SAC rate, and got lots of practice holding a depth without any visual reference, there wasn't even a jellyfish to be seen. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

No problem, right? The ocean isn't a zoo... there are no guarantees you'll see anything interesting or anything at all... blah blah blah. We dealt with it, disappointed but realistic.

Until it happened two more times the next day.

That's right, we spent 3 consecutive hours underwater to tour the empty blue water. Fabulous! A bargain at just $90 USD per dive. Wait... we paid for this?!

A bored diver in blue water.

A bored diver in blue water.

The Only Consolation

The only consolation in the entire experience was that we did actually see a whale shark up-reasonably-close at one point. On a surface interval. Someone spotted a smallish one near the surface, and all six boats' 100 snorkelers mobbed into the water after the poor thing, yours truly included, of course. In the aforementioned 8-foot-seas. Excitement! Mayhem! Whale shark! It really was actually truly amazing, but what chaos.

People clamoring to snorkel with a whale shark

Some of the mob, snorkeling with the whale shark.

Whale shark in Belize

A little freedive got the mob out of the frame.

Whale shark in Belize

Dorsal shot.

Snorkeling with a whale shark in Belize

I call this one "whale shark in space."

Free diver with whale shark.

A free diver with whale shark.

 

The Verdict

Belize is a fascinating and magical place. Go to see the Mayan ruins. Go to see the caves. Go to see the monkeys and the jaguars and the toucans. Go to dive for sure. Even dive the Blue Hole, if you must. But don't go to swim with the whale sharks.

I hear Mexico is nice for that.


3 Responses to “Diving with whale sharks in Placencia, Belize”

  1. Debbie says:

    great blog post!

    I went to Exmouth, Australia a year and a half ago to swim with the whale sharks and it was amazing. It was much better run than yours sounds.

    Our boats had a spotter plane, and once they found a shark the boat went about 100 or 200 feet in front of the shark and 10 of us dropped off into the water. As soon as we hit the water, we put our faces in to see where the shark was…every time it was swimming straight towards up at the surface. What a rush seeing that huge thing come towards you in the water!

    We then quickly split into two groups on either side of the shark, staying 30 or so feet away from them at all times, and then swam along side them for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, back to the boat so the next group of 10 could enjoy the fish. It was amazing and very well organized to not only give us maximum viewing of the shark but also to keep the shark safe and not scare them into diving deeper.

    I would highly recommend it! We swam with 3 different sharks, two swims with each shark and it was well worth the money.

    · July 25, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

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  2. Jessica S says:

    Thanks for the amusing report (I found you through ScubaBoard)
    I’ve done a whale shark swim near Cancun. We used snorkels since diving near whale sharks is prohibited there. Unfortunately, you also have to wear one of those floaty vests which makes it impossible to free dive.
    On the boat trip out my husband and I chatted with the other passengers who were made up of several generations of a family from Mexico City. The seas were somewhat rough and some of them started to look a little sick as time went on. I noticed there was quite a bit of determined staring at the horizon.

    After about an hour a message came through by radio that Whale Sharks had been spotted not far from where we were. Once we got to them, we experienced the same circus-like atmosphere you did, with about twenty boats and their passengers swarming around the whale sharks. The whale sharks didn’t seem stressed, although I doubt I’m qualified to gauge a marine animal’s emotional state. Still it was somewhat disconcerting to see, although not as disconcerting as the sideways motion of our small boat in such high seas. One by one,our fellow passengers succumbed to seasickness and started puking. The oldest son told me later that he is studying Marine Biology and spends most of his school year on boats, but he was puking right along with the rest of the family. Apparently, I was the only person on the boat who’d taken seasickness medicine. Even our young guide confessed to me that she was feeling ill. I did my best to ignore these proceedings, not wanting to “catch” the same malady, but it was pretty difficult to do in such tight quarters.
    Despite all that the whale shark swims were exciting. The swims are highly regulated which means that the boats must remain a certain distance from the sharks and that only two people per boat can be in the water at any time. On my first turn in the water, the whale shark I was attempting to swim with moved so fast that I lost him/her after just a few seconds. Luckily, my second time was golden. My husband and I dropped into the water simultaneously, just as the shark was turning to face us. We both had the awesome experience of facing directly into the shark’s huge gaping mouth which is something I’ll never forget. It only lasted a second before the shark turned and we began swimming alongside it. The shark was fast and we were both swimming as hard as we could to keep up. Luckily, we had our scuba fins on for extra propulsion which helped to extend the encounter a little longer. After about 15 – 20 seconds it became a losing battle. Sadly, I watched the giant tail pass by and then it was over. We headed back to the boat and the other seasick passengers.
    After a few other people had been in for swims, the crew asked my husband and I if we wanted to go in one more time before heading back to shore. After looking around at the miserable faces of some of our fellow passengers we decided to forego the third swim. Everyone looked grateful, and we both agreed that we probably wouldn’t have been able to top our second swim.

    I’d have to say this trip was as horrible as it was amazing. Yes, I would recommend it, particularly if you have a strong stomach, but I doubt I will be returning.

    · January 3, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

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  3. Ashley says:

    Jessica: HA! “As horrible as it was amazing”… well said. That sums up my experience as well. Thanks for sharing :)

    · January 3, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

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