Swimming With Whale Sharks In Belize

As the weather gets colder in North America and Europe, thoughts turn to how to escape from the cold weather this fall/winter/spring. Gary Peterson suggests a uniquely Belizean adventure.

What if I said you could visit Belize in April or May and swim within fifteen feet of whale sharks, the largest fish in the world?

Whale Sharks are regular visitors throughout the summer months here in southern Belize, but your best time to swim or dive with them is in April/May, a few days either side of the full moon. In fact, anytime between the first full moon in March to right after the full moon in June could work.

You can book a whale shark tour out of Placencia and the best chance for an encounter is at Gladden Spit, about 26 miles off the coast.

These gentle giants return to Gladden Spit every year when the mutton and dog snappers are spawning around April and May.

This spawn is cotton candy to a whale shark and they return every year for their treat.

Keep in mind the opportunity to snorkel and dive in whale shark territory does not guarantee a sighting, never mind getting up close.      

Many a diver has returned after spending big bucks to experience this phenomenon and returned home without even a photo.

But it’s still well worth it for the breathtaking experience.

The whale sharks in Belize are usually between 20-30 feet, but records show they can reach 40 feet.    

They weigh in at around twenty tons and some can be 100 years old or more.

If you visit these sharks from Placencia, it’s about an hour and a half out to the open waters. You can expect to dive to about 60 feet, and whether you dive or snorkel, you won’t see the sea floor.

While many feel snorkeling with whale sharks is less invasive than scuba diving, I can say the diving experience with this friendly and inquisitive animal is worthwhile.

Fun fact: Although these sharks have on average 3,000 teeth, they don’t bite. In fact, suck in their food.

As instructed by your guide or dive master, do not touch a whale shark.

Try to stay at least 3-4 feet away from the fish’s head, and ten feet or more from its tail. With a fish this size, when that tail swishes, it’s gonna hurt if you’re hit!

An often-asked question around here is are whale sharks endangered or not.

The answer is a definite yes.

Each year, boats injure many whale sharks and some get caught in fishing nets. In Asia, whale shark meat and fins are a specialty, used in traditional medicine.

Whale sharks in Belize have little protection, but there is an organization that controls the tour boats in Placencia called the Southern Environmental Association (SEA). They manage the whale shark experience out at Gladden Spit.

The SEA will brief you on the regulations before your boat leaves the docks. These include no flash photography (also you need a permit from the SEA to take any professional photographs). Touching the whale sharks is subject to a US$5,000 fine if caught.

It’s worth booking early to get onto a whale shark tour as the SEA only allows six boats n the Gladden Spit Whale Shark Zone at any one time.        

These are specific dive boats meeting all SEA requirements and approved to be there. You can’t just hire a guide boat and head out.

Contact the Seahorse Dive Shop or Splash Dive Center to book your whale shark dive in Placencia, Belize.

Gary Peterson lives on the Placencia Peninsula, Belize, where he writes books about Central America and the Caribbean. Read more of Gary’s work on his blog.