From April to June, whale sharks are one of the biggest attractions in Belize, literally. The largest fish in the sea, these behemoths can reach up to 12 meters (40 feet) long, though most average about half that. Whale sharks appear along the coast of Belize in late spring, particularly around Gladden Spit, near Placencia, to dine on snapper spawn. They are gentle and curious around people, who often travel to Belize just to snorkel and scuba dive alongside them.
To get an expert’s perspective on the best way to witness these massive creatures, we checked in with Bertrand Cuevas, the dive master at Turtle Inn, a Francis Ford Coppola resort on Placencia. (To learn more about Turtle Inn, click here.) For more than a dozen years, Bertrand has led snorkelers and scuba divers on whale shark tours, gaining a wealth of knowledge along the way. Here, he discusses how to plan and what you should know for the best whale shark adventure.
What are your top tips for a great whale shark experience?
Plan to visit between April and June and to stay for about four to six days after each month’s full moon. You’ll increase your odds of a sighting, since this is when whale sharks are most active.
If you’re subject to motion sickness, bring Dramamine. We tend to spot whale sharks outside the reef, where the water is choppy, and conditions may be hard on sensitive stomachs.
While it’s true that whale shark sightings are more frequent in the evening, keep in mind that tour operators are assigned time slots in the whale shark zone. As such, there’s no guarantee your tour operator will be able to offer an evening excursion. Don’t worry if you end up going earlier in the day, though. Whale sharks are often spotted then, too.
What’s the best way to see whale sharks—as snorkeler or a scuba diver?
Snorkelers sometimes have better sightings than divers. Young whale sharks are inquisitive and occasionally stay on the surface for twenty to thirty minutes. It’s very easy for boat captains to spot them and get a group of snorkelers into the water in the exact area where the whale sharks are.
That said, I would still recommend scuba diving, especially for those instances when there are no whale sharks in the zone. Divers can still see schools of fish, turtles, bull sharks, and dolphins while snorkelers may see very little.
Who would most love swimming with whale sharks?
I would recommend this tour to brave, adventurous individuals. At minimum, divers should have their Advanced Open Water Diver scuba certification, and snorkelers should have very good swimming skills. These excursions can take a toll on the body. I wouldn’t recommend this tour to individuals with a shark phobia, as there are many other species of sharks that you might encounter, too.
What is it like to swim with whale sharks?
I’ve led tours on which we’ve seen up to seven whale sharks on a single dive. Juvenile whale sharks are curious and will often swim right up to divers and snorkelers to investigate. Every whale shark sighting is amazing and breathtaking—so much so that we have many repeat visitors who simply cannot get enough of the whale shark experience.
Photo credits: (top) Popofatticus, (center two) Marcel Ekkel, (bottom) Karyn Christner; (previous page photo) Marcel Ekkel.