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The Annual Whale Shark Season Is Upon Us: The Gentle Giants Return to Belizean Waters!

An exciting time of year approaches for dive enthusiasts! The annual whale shark migration to Belize begins in the latter half of March and lasts through the months of April, May, June, and sometimes even into the months of July, August, and September. These behemoths of the sea come all the way to Belize with one thing in mind: converge on the area within the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, where large amounts of grouper and snapper gather to spawn with the arrival of the full moon each month. The fish larvae provide a plentiful food supply for plankton like krill and copepods, as well as for small fish, squid, and jellyfish, which are in turn what the whale sharks feed on. The shark is also known to feed on the fish spawn itself, particularly the freshly-released spawn of cubera snapper and dog snapper. In this area, at this time of year, this supply of larvae, plankton, and small fish is so abundant in the water that the sharks don’t even need to propel themselves forward to feed; they simply hover and suck food into their mouths, filtering the intake with the mesh of their gill rakers. Because of this method of feeding, as well as their gigantic size, they are dubbed “Whale Sharks”. However, they are actually a true shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest extant fish species on earth.

Scuba Divers Swimming Alongside Whale Shark

With Hatchet Caye’s unique placement just within the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, the prime locations to view these majestic creatures are literally just minutes away. This means a quicker boat ride and more time in the water with these amazing denizens of the sea – they are truly a sight to behold! They are the third largest animal on the planet, just behind the African elephant and the Blue Whale; they can grow to lengths of 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) and can weigh as much as 36 tonnes (79,000 lbs). Imagine, then, diving with a creature that reaches, as an adult, the size of a small school bus and that may be anywhere from 30 to 100 years of age (30 is the age at which they reach sexual maturity). The species is a former contemporary of the dinosaurs, originating around 60 million years ago. They have changed very little over the time that they have existed on earth.

Whale sharks are mostly solitary and secretive creatures. The only time that it is convenient to interact with and learn about them is when they emerge seasonally to feed; for the rest of the year it is difficult to track them and study behavior such as their mating habits. Therefore, during the whale shark season, marine biologists and conservationists go diving to observe and photograph the creatures; as with other animals with spotted skin, the pattern of spots is unique to each whale shark and may be used to identify them. The photos are uploaded to a global database and are matched with other photographs from all over the world to identify individuals and thus keep track of their roaming habits. This effort also serves to establish a better estimate of their population numbers. The exact population is not certain, but it is low enough for the creatures to be considered an endangered species – they are presently listed as vulnerable to extinction in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

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. Nicknamed Sapodillo Tom after one of the areas the whale shark was first known to frequent (the Sapodilla Cayes), the gentle giant has always been an object of fascination for many fishermen, who used to dare each other to dive after them in the hopes of catching a ride on their backs. However, it’s always a good idea to take a few very simple precautions when snorkeling or diving with whale sharks: maintain a safe distance from the animals, and avoid touching them at all or using flash photography. This is because you may end up scaring them away and risk yourself 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; if your photos are appropriate they may be uploaded to www.whaleshark.org, the aforementioned global whale shark identification library.

The best times during the season to view these amazing creatures are: March 17 -31, April 16 – 28, May 15 -27, and June 13 -25. Contact us at Hatchet Caye to learn more about our dives with these wonders of the sea!

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