A Whale (Shark) of a Time – Update

As you may (or may not) remember, last Easter (April 2012) I travelled down to Placencia to try to catch a glimpse of some whale sharks, as they followed the annual snapper spawning.

I did manage to see one (after two days of diving), but it really was just a glimpse – the enormous fish was so far away that I could just make out the shape, and not much else.  And the lack of perspective in the endless empty blue sea meant that it was almost impossible to fathom (little nautical joke there!) how far away it was, or how big it was.  It was still nice to see one, though.

But even though I was happy to catch that glimpse (it’s more than most people see), I was still disappointed that I didn’t get a good goggle at any of the elusive fish up close.  And that disappointment, combined with my natural desire to see more, along with my unnatural OCD-based obsession to keep trying until I did, meant that I’ve been persistently visiting Placencia and going diving throughout the 2012 and 2013 whale shark seasons.  And last month, my dogged tenacity paid off, and I finally saw one up close.  Five, in fact.

After seeing the glimpse in April 2012, I went back in May 2012.  And saw nothing (in fact, the sea was so rough that one of the two dive days was cancelled, and the non-cancelled day was uncomfortable, to say the least – a 2-hour trip over rough open sea, followed by a vomit-inducing scramble to get my gear on and exit the boat, an unsuccessful dive, and finally, an arm-breaking attempt to hang on to the line and get back on the heaving boat.  Not fun).

The whale shark season ends in June, when the snapper stop spawning (and by that time, the weather is starting to turn – the rains are coming, the sky is clouding over, and the sea is starting to resemble a rollercoaster).  So that was that for 2012.

But this year, I was back on the case like (insert name of favourite detective – Columbo / Sherlock Holmes / Ginger chap with the sunglasses from CSI Miami).  April’s weekend of diving produced nothing again (and it wasn’t just me that was missing the sharks – they normally start to appear in March, but hadn’t been seen at all at that point).  But the owner of my guesthouse insisted that they would arrive eventually, and the snapper had been spawning for a few months by that time, so May was looking good.

And so it was that I take my fourth trip to Placencia in May 2013, for my 7th and 8th days of whale shark diving.  And the sharks finally play ball this time.  On the two dives of the first day, we see three of them – all from a distance,  but a small distance, close enough to see the checkerboard outline of pale spots and stripes on their skins.  And they’re all moving slowly enough for us humans to be able to follow them, as they swim lazily amongst the enormous school of snapper (presumably waiting for the thousands of smaller fish to start spawning and provide them with lunch).

And on the last day, an even bigger jackpot.  Once again, we see one below in the snapper school (according to the dive master, you normally tend to see them from above [if you do see them at all!], as they follow the snapper, who stay at around 40 metres).  But this time (for reasons known only to itself), the shark slowly rises out of the school of snapper (which separates and then recombines in that graceful way that schools of fish do), and keeps coming up, until it’s so close to the surface that even the snorkelers get a good look at it.  And mid-way through its ascent, it slowly turns over, so we get to see the rest of the shark too – the white belly, the enormous flat head, the gills so huge that I could swim through them, the capacious mouth that must be at least a metre across, and the laughably-small eyeballs, which look like they were stuck on the ends of its head as an afterthought.  It must be about ten metres long, but however large it is, it’s certainly bigger than the boat we came in, and a magnificent and beautiful animal.  After spending some more time following it (it takes all my effort to swim as fast as I can just to keep up), it imperceptibly speeds up and glides off into the inky depths.

So that’s my whale shark adventure finally completed, and another item on the bucket list ticked off (and it is worth ticking off – if you’re a diver, seeing a whale shark is a ‘once in a lifetime’-type experience [at least it is for me, I’m not paying all that money and going again!]).  Sadly, this time around, I didn’t have an underwater camera to capture the event, so these photos will have to suffice (courtesy of Splash Dive Shop in Placencia).


2 thoughts on “A Whale (Shark) of a Time – Update

  1. hi again, would it be possible to see these guys snorkelling or is it only viable while diving? do you recommend a good cheap guesthouse in Placencia?


    • Hi James – every time I went diving there were snorkellers on the trip too, so it’s definitely possible. Because the sharks are following the snapper, and the snapper are at around 20m or below, they don’t always come to the surface (and because they’re fish and not mammals, they don’t have to come up to breathe). So if the whale sharks did make an appearance, I think you’d probably get a better view of them as a diver than as a snorkeller (but you’d still see them snorkelling). So if you weren’t a diver, I’ll still recommend going. And if you do dive, I’d recommend diving.

      The place I normally stayed at in Placencia is Lydia’s Guesthouse – it’s clean, cheap, and in the middle of everything.


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