A Whale (Shark) of a Time

As I’ve mentioned before, at Easter in Belize, everyone goes to the beach.  At least it seems like everyone.  Buses to Placencia and Hopkins are crammed with passengers and luggage, boats to Caye Caulker and San Pedro are packed to the gunwales, and it feels like the whole country is on the move.  Admittedly, it’s not as bad as some places (don’t ever visit China during any of its national holidays – you would not believe what several hundred million people on the move looks like!), but the large numbers of travellers, combined with the holiday transport schedules, make it a stressful time to travel, and along with Christmas and New Year, the only time that you ever need to plan ahead and book things in advance here.

As I’ve also mentioned before (in a previous post), not so long ago the southern town of Placencia was a small fishing village, but it’s now one of the country’s main beach resorts, full of hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars, tour guides, and souvenir stalls.

So, mindful of my previous Easter experience on the bus, and knowing full well that I was going to go back to Placencia again this year, I splurged and booked a return flight with Tropic Air.  It may have been BZ$200 for the round trip, as opposed to BZ$50 to go on the bus there and back, but it was worth it – a five-hour bus ride in a metal coffin on wheels, driven by a maniac with a death wish, packed in with equally grumpy locals, and all kept at the same climate as the surface of Venus, was replaced by a thirty-minute flight in an air conditioned modern plane, piloted by a mentally stable and well-trained man, accompanied by middle class Belizeans and holidaying North Americans.

That’s not to say that catching a flight here is the same as at home.  When I questioned friends of mine who’ve travelled by plane in Belize as to when I should turn up at the municipal airport, the resounding answer was “Ten minutes before the flight”!  Being an internal flight, you don’t need to show your passport; in fact you don’t need to show any ID at all, you simply hand over your luggage to a friendly porter outside the ‘terminal’ (it’s a one-room building) and tell him where you’re going.  He gives you a receipt, and you go inside and give your name to the check-in staff, who tick you off a list and give you a boarding pass (which is a laminated colour-coded piece of paper that also advertises Belikin beer).  It turns out ten minutes is a generous allowance, the entire process takes about ten seconds.

Belize has two airlines, Tropic and Maya, and they both seem equal in terms of schedules, prices and planes.  The domestic flight industry in Belize works more like a bus or train service in other countries.  Easter and Christmas are the only times when people actually book in advance – with relatively small numbers of passengers, hourly flights, and prices that are the same whenever you make your reservation, many customers just turn up with cash and get a seat on the next plane.

When your plane is ready (which seems to be about five minutes after it has landed, just enough time for the pilot to have a glass of water and a quick wee, and for the passengers and baggage to be unloaded), your colour is called (I was red, so I had to wait for the blues to San Pedro to go first), and you get on the plane, find a seat (you can sit anywhere, including next to the pilot!), and within another five minutes you’re airborne.  There are no security checks, no metal detectors, no TSA-sponsored groping, no overpriced duty-free shops, no taking thirty minutes to get to your gate, no safety briefing, no heavily-made-up stewardesses or camp stewards, no reheated in-flight meal, and no middle-of-the-road entertainment channels.  For the first time in my life, I actually like flying.

Taking off, we get a brief aerial view of Belize City – on the ground it may be ramshackle and a little rough round the edges, but from up here it looks rather cute, the low red-roofed buildings interspersed with tropical greenery, the Haulover Creek slicing the city neatly in half.  Then its suburbs end almost immediately (they peter out into empty land pretty quickly, even when leaving by road), and we’re flying over an uninhabited coastline, the lagoons and beaches of Gales Point on one side of the plane and the endless blue of the Caribbean Sea on the other.

Thirty minutes later and we’ve flown down Placencia’s 25km-long peninsula, over the lagoon that separates it from the mainland, and landed at its airport (which is even dinkier than Belize City’s, and could be marketed as ‘My Little Airport’ by Fisher Price).  As soon as the plane’s propellers have stopped turning we’re out, and I exchange my receipt for my luggage and jump into the nearest taxi, without even having to pass through the building.  Door to door in less than one and a half hours, this definitely beats the bus.

The reason I’ve come all the way to Placencia (instead of somewhere much closer, like the Northern Cayes) is because of a fish.  And not just any old fish.  The largest fish in the sea, the whale shark.  Despite the name, it’s not a whale, although like some whales it is large, and it is a filter feeder, living on plankton, krill, and other tiny organisms.  But it is a shark, though fortunately (considering its size) a harmless one.

Whale sharks live in the tropics, often far out in the open sea, but every spring they migrate to certain coastal areas to take advantage of coral and fish spawning, when huge amounts of tasty little treats are released into the sea.  In Belize, from March to June (peaking in April and May), snapper spawn, releasing clouds of sperm and eggs into the water.  And the sharks have learned this and come here every year to gobble up the result of all that X-rated fishy action.  The only problem is that the snapper spawn in one place, Gladden Spit, in southern Belize, and the closest tourist area is Placencia.

I found all this out last Easter, when I was in Placencia for the first time, but I couldn’t dive then, as the trips get booked up weeks (sometimes months) in advance.  This year I was determined not to make the same mistake, so I forced myself to be uncharacteristically well-planned, booking myself in for two days of diving, plus my hotel and my flight.  And in some fortuitous timing, the Easter weekend starts on the full moon (the snapper spawn on the full moon, so the best time to see the sharks is from full moon to about a week after).

The next morning, I’m at Splash Diver Center, and it’s heaving with people.  Divers seem to have come from all over (but especially North America).  There are foreign tourists on holiday for a few weeks, Belizean-based expats like me away for Easter, and a few adventurous locals (many Belizeans I’ve met don’t seem to go for any activities more adventurous than swimming in the sea – snorkelling, diving, kayaking, anything that gets you out in the sun, hot or sweaty or dirty, that’s for crazy white people!).  Splash must be the biggest dive shop in Placencia (and probably one of the biggest in the country), but it seems like all its boats and staff are working today.  I realise why I needed to book in advance.

Ours is a full boat, with twelve divers and two divemasters.  And not only do the rest of the divers look older than me, they all look and sound way more experienced, swapping tales of diving Lake Michigan in winter or the Red Sea at night.  As we get ready, I notice they’ve all brought their own gear with them, including a phenomenal amount of electronics – shiny dive computers, electronic depth gauges, beeping air meters, flashing pressure sensors, not to mention a variety of still and video cameras.  The tourists are more expensively kitted-out than the staff.  I can’t even take my Casio watch into the sea, as it’s not properly waterproof (that’s what I get for buying it in a petrol station).  But my fellow Belize City-based volunteer Holger has generously loaned me his GoPro underwater video camera, so I’m not looking quite as shabby as normal.

We get to Gladden Spit after about one and a half hours, it’s about fifty kilometres from Placencia.  After waiting for our turn (the sharks are a protected species, so there’s a limit on the number of divers who can be in the water with them at any one time), we jump in and follow the lead divemaster down.  The bottom is over forty metres down, and the deepest we can go safely for any decent length of time is about twenty metres, so we spend the dive essentially floating in mid-sea, too far down to see the surface, and too far up to see the bottom either.  Diving in that environment is a little strange – most dives I’ve done are near the seabed, so you have a continual (mostly horizontal) surface to follow.  Without that guide, it’s surprisingly easy to get disorientated – apart from a general idea that upwards is brightest and downwards is darkest, it’s hard to tell exactly which direction is which.  And as you’re moving slowly, you don’t get the sensation that you’re changing direction or body orientation while it’s happening.  So it’s only when your ears start popping with increasing pressure and the other divers slowly start to revolve that you realise that you’re upside-down, and descending!  I make a mental note to follow the divemaster.

Sadly, there’s no whale sharks spotted on the first day, but we do see plenty of fish – several huge schools of cubera snapper, the spawn of which are what brings the sharks here in the first place.  There must be hundreds of them, lazily swimming in unison below us, their silvery bodies reflecting the light like pieces of glass.  As the sharks follow the snapper, so do we, making for a tiring dive (although my diving elders don’t look nearly as knackered as I do at the end of the day).  And at lunch, with the boat moored on the turquoise water over a shallow reef, there’s plenty of colourful reef fish, and a friendly turtle to snorkel with.

The next day we get another chance to spot the elusive rhincodons, and this time we hit the jackpot.  Within minutes of entering the water, the divemaster frantically hammers on his tank and points into the cerulean distance – it’s a whale shark.  One the first day, we were given surprisingly detailed instructions on what to do if we saw one – we were to gather in a circle and keep together by holding hands; apparently the shark would mistake us for a group of spawning snapper and circle around us, in the hope that we might release our eggs!  We even had a practice go, floating together silently for a few minutes, like some underwater support group.  Sadly, all that training goes out the window when we see the shark, as we (and every other dive group in the vicinity) frantically swim in its direction, while fumbling with cameras to record the once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I’m so engrossed in the view that I don’t even bother with the camera until the shark is disappearing into the inky depths, but that doesn’t matter, we all get a good look at it as it swims slowly around us in a wide circle and then silently dissolves into the blue.  As there’s nothing around it, it’s impossible to get a sense of scale, I’m not sure if it’s small and close or large and far away.  Later, the divemaster tells us it’s a juvenile, about seven metres long (adults are around ten metres).  However far away it is, it’s close enough for us to see the shark-like shape and make out the domino pattern of white dots on its back.  Everyone is very pleased by the sight, and there’s a gratuitous amount of arm-waving, fist-pumping, and high-fiving afterwards (it’s mostly Americans, what did you expect?).  Even I’m smiling.

It’s the only shark we see over the weekend, but it’s enough for me – it was the first one spotted in Placencia so far this year, and many of the other dive groups didn’t see it at all, so I’m happy.

And flying back on Easter Monday, I have two more noteworthy sightings – first, the country’s recently re-elected Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, and his family, waiting at Placencia’s dinky airport just like regular folk.  Not only that, they get on the same plane as me back to the city, no first class cabin or luxury private jet for them.  And second, I notice, amongst the luggage and cargo stickers marked ‘Fragile’ or ‘Heavy’ or ‘This Way Up’, a whole roll of stickers that says ‘Cake’.  Not ‘Food’, just ‘Cake’.  I never realised airmail cake was such big business in Belize.  Is there such a paucity of bakeries that cake has to be flown around the country?  Are people baking their own and taking them on holiday with them?  And what happens if you want to transport food that’s not cake, do they have stickers for every comestible?

Footnote – Despite having filmed at least thirty minutes of footage in the aforementioned GoPro, it’s still in the editing stage.  It turns out I’m not much of a videographer, or an editor either.  And taking still pictures from the video produces images that aren’t as good quality as taking the picture directly.  So in the meantime, these photos will have to do.  And there’s always Google Images and YouTube!

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4 thoughts on “A Whale (Shark) of a Time

  1. WOW! Amazing blog as ever John. I am incredibly jealous as I have never seen a whale shark when diving. It’s on my list though together with manatees and narwhals. Have you see either? GoPro cameras… I would die before I handed mine over to a mugger :-) which reminds me of one of your other blogs involving a laptop I believe.

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    • Yeah, it was pretty cool, I’d like to go again in the future and see if I can get a closer look, as they’re impressive animals, even from a distance. I did see some manatees off Caye Caulker last year, but no narwhals so far, might have to go a little further north for those! And the GoPro came out unscathed, I’m attempting to edit the video as we speak!

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