Diving with whale sharks in Placencia, Belize
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).
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?!
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.
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.