Friday, May 11, 2012

Sharkus Maximus

That's Latin for Whale Shark, right? No? Well, it would be appropriate - they're are astoundingly ginormous creatures... (it's actually Rhincodon typus, if you were curious). Turns out, they can also be fairly elusive creatures - you'd think it might be hard to hide when you are 40+ foot shark swimming slowly and lazily through the waters, but it seems they rather like to dive... to depths of over 1,200 meters. (I'm certified to 30... I'm no whale shark - sigh...). But the whale sharks like to eat too, and their favorite snack lives (and spawns... the whale sharks actually eat the eggs of the fish - caviar!?) a little closer to the surface. Which is [naturally] where we, the divers, come in.

Backtracking just a little bit... I had no idea I'd try and go see whale sharks on this trip. In fact, I didn't even know they were any down here, but one conversation led to another, and the internet confirmed... and there I was in the sleepy town of Placencia in the South of Belize just in time for this month's Full Moon. As it turns out, the fish spawn at the Full Moon, which draws the sharks to the surface, so that's the time to go see them. Between April and June anyway - they're finicky creatures. Getting to Placencia for the Full Moon (which turned out to be the Supermoon) wasn't actually in any way part of my plan, so I had to rearrange a few things, but there I was, lazing on the beach in Southern Belize, waiting for the sharks.

Life was pretty hard down here

As I did a lot of this for two and a half days

The full moon was Saturday night; Monday was deemed a good day to go whale shark hunting, and off we went! I pretty quickly realized that there were a few minor downsides to the whole chasing whale sharks thing - it's a long, bumpy boat ride to get out to Gladden Spit where they like to hang out (over an hour), and once you are there, it's really whale shark or bust; there's not a whole lot else to look at. Either you spot a whale shark, or you see a lot of blue:

And some divers swimming through the blue... But not much else.

And on our first dive, that's basically what we got - a whole lotta nothin'! Lots of blue water all around, no whale sharks, no coral, not even any fish around... I did see three teeny little jelly fish ... pretty underwhelming. We were underwater a long time though - 57 minutes, one of the longest dives I had done, not one of the more interesting ones though. Lunch came about, we ate, we lazed about for a couple of hours until our next time slot, and back in the water... towards lots more blue in all directions. But, all of a sudden, some 30 minutes into the dive, the action started to pick up - first, a little bull shark swam past us, then groups of the feeder fish began showing up and milling about, and our guide was darting all over the place, looking for things... so it all felt like we were just on the verge of something! Time kept ticking away - I kept nervously glancing at my gauges, still a good amount of air left in the tank, but it is slowly running out... This feels so much like something's about to happen though! Just gotta hold out a little longer... Alas, at 400psi left in the tank, I had to admit that it was probably time to call it a day, whale shark or not, and surface. Safety stop, up to the surface, untangling the equipment while bopping up and down in the waves, and all of a sudden, there's the excited call: whale shark! Our guide, also on the surface by now, confirms! Mask back on, regulator in, and back under water - must find the shark! A few minute of thrashing and darting about down there followed, but, sadly, the whale shark seemed to have come and gone... so back to the surface. Running up to 73 minutes on the dive, I was well past my longest dive time ever, but was also running out of air.

So, on the hour long ride back to Placencia, I got to reflect and re-evaluate - it seems whale shark diving is not quite so black and white after all. Even though I didn't actually see the shark, four people in the group did see him, so there's reason to believe they are not entirely made-up creatures... (Underwater unicorns?) And besides, between the bull shark sighting and all the anticipation and excitement of the feeder fish, the dive had did not feel anything like a total loss, even if I didn't actually see what I had come for. So, rationalizing or not, getting back to Placencia, I felt ok - sort of a calm feeling of 'that's just the way things go with nature'. Besides, the next day was to be more diving - Glover's Reef, which is one of the best dive sites in the Caribbean (if not the world!). And, if really need be, this is just good reason to come down here again, for the whale sharks...

So, with the thoughts in my head more or less sorted out like that, I was back at the dive shop the following morning (and I do mean morning - 5:45AM!!! Belize really needs to be in a different time zone...) to head over to Glover's Reef. This involved another long boat ride, and a long day of diving - three dives, but whale sharks were not even on the schedule, the reef was pretty spectacular, and much unlike open blue water, quite full of fish and other marine life:

A funky fish swimming through the waters

One of several big turtles we saw swimming gracefully about

Getting up close and personal with the fishes

There was a shark that I'd caught swimming away from us too and a couple of crazy looking lobsters, so it was definitely a good day of diving. I wouldn't say it's one of the best in the world - personally, I think the South Pacific/SE Asia sites are far more spectacular, but the reefs off of Belize can definitely be in the conversation. And, really, who cares about that conversation - if you are in Belize, you've got to dive the Barrier Reef!

So, back to Placencia one more time, strategizing on how to head up North the next morning ... when we arrive at the dive shop, and there's a buzz around! I'm talking to Hank, our whale shark dive master from the day before, and yeah, the whale sharks are coming up! They saw several, the sharks got pretty close to the divers - people have pictures and everything. And, there is a general theory about that, while [obviously] nothing in nature can ever be guaranteed, generally, once the whale sharks start to come up, they tend to stay up for a few days. So, all of a sudden, I've a bit of a dilemma - I'd been planning to leave Placencia the following morning, having come to terms that nature is just stupid and unpredictable, and that if you want to be guaranteed to see an animal, you should go to the zoo (and naturally, the Japanese do have some whale sharks in captivity....), but, but, but, whale sharks!

So, clearly, I stayed another day. Securing a 10% discount on my third dive helped make me feel a little better, and my hotel had my room available for exactly one more night ... so it clearly was meant to be. Besides, it's only money, right? So, finally, Day 3! Back to Splash (the dive shop), where I feel like I know everyone by now, back on the boat and back out to Gladden Spit. Let's make it happen, nature, or I'll be seriously pissed at you... Back in the water for the first dive - lots more blue again... but also some fish start to show up, so it's a little exciting... no whale sharks to report still, and we're out after a mere 45 minutes. In fact, the radio chatter confirms that none of the boats around had seen any whale sharks in the morning.

Fourth time is the charm, right? Back into the water in the afternoon for one last dive... Some twenty minutes go by, and we really haven't seen anything... I'm going through some rather dark thoughts in my head... But then, things brighten - we start seeing fish, and another group of divers, and the intense energy of anticipation and excitement from the second dive the other day is back!

Pretty soon, we could see a LOT of fish all around us

When a whale shark might be nearby, this is a fun trick the guides use - get everybody in a tight group, and blowing bubbles. The whale sharks tend to mistake the bubbles for the eggs that the fish product

And, this time, we didn't have to wait long! A whale shark was out to join us!

Is there a whale shark in this picture!? Well, yes there is - just look for the spotted shape going horizontally across the middle of the picture

So, as you can probably tell, my pictures didn't come out so well on this day - this was the best one, and this is after doing a lot of post-processing on it. We actually had three sightings (no idea if it was the same shark, or different ones), and each time the shark hung around, circling slowly and leisurely for a few minutes. Unfortunately, they were circling at a depth of some 20-30 feet below us still (and our guides and dive masters were very insistent that we stay safe and not all start diving down to 120 feet to get closer to them... which is admittedly for the best), but worst of all, the zoom on my under water camera picked a terrible time to temporarily stop working. So... the moral of the story, if you want to get a good look at the whale sharks, you'll really just have to come down here yourself, because the mental image I got of those giant shapes calmly making their way through the seas was perfectly clear and quite impressive, even if the photographs were not. So, all in all, a very good day indeed!

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