By Bernadette Bernon
June 1, 2001
South Water Cay, Belize
16 48.932 N 88 05.151 W
In my mask and snorkel, I hovered in the deep tropical water just outside Belize's massive barrier reef, tossing about like a cork in the three-foot chop and searching into the depths. I wasn't sure, really, what to expect out here, but I was hopeful, and a little nervous. Shafts of light from the morning sunshine pierced the blue water, disappearing into the darkness of the ocean — such a marked contrast, I thought, from the bright turquoise shallows and coral beds we snorkeled every day. Suspended, I searched for Douglas, who was scuba diving at 95 feet somewhere below with a handful of other divers. I couldn't see them. Heck, I couldn't see anything.
No sudden movements, I told myself. Breathe slowly. Maintain energy for the long haul; you might be out here all day. Then I thought I caught sight of something, about 150 yards ahead. Yes, bubbles from the divers. I started swimming slowly through the waves toward them. Brian Young, the Belizean dive master leading this excursion out through the cut in the reef at Gladden Spitt, had told me and the few other snorkelers to stick with the divers, to follow their bubbles and remain in a tight formation over them. He'd told the divers the same. "This isn't a regular dive," he'd said with emphasis, "where you'd give each other space down there. On this dive, I want you right next to me, so close that our gear touches, and stay like that as we move along." We'd been in the water only 10 minutes or so, and Brian's formation still left a bit to be desired, but we were working on it and beginning the ballet of finding each other and closing in as we got more comfortable in the rough water.
Then, suddenly, just a few feet underneath me, emerged the great behemoth head of a 35-foot whale shark, the largest fish in the world. I gasped into my snorkel in instant terror, and in astonishment that he'd snuck up on me so suddenly, and instinctively I sucked in my stomach, stretched out my arms and legs, and arched my back up so as not to touch him. He was so close to me, and — my god — so huge! He turned his body to the side a bit and stopped right under me, so that I was looking at the profile of his massive head — it was the size of a child's swimming pool! — and he gazed at me with his black ball of an eye. How ungainly I must have looked, splayed out like a neon-flippered frog — certainly, I prayed, I wouldn't seem like much of a threat to him. His enormous polka-dotted dirigible of a body was inches beneath me then, and after we eyed each other a good minute, he slowly leveled back out and meandered on toward the divers' bubbles, just as I'd been doing before the rictus of shock had stopped me in my tracks.
As the terror eased into fascination, I pulled myself together, began to breathe again, and carried on after him, trying to stay just over him, and matching the velocity of his slow speed with all the swimming power I had. His distinctively patterned body — all spots and bars along his back, and a white underbelly — moved so elegantly as he swam toward the bubbles, and I began to wonder where everyone else was. Was it possible that I was alone with this incredible being? Oh, what a lucky day. We hovered together in the glory of the tickling bubbles, weightless, with me gawking at him and his open mouth and toothless jaws and undulating gills, as he gobbled the bubbles. He didn't seem to mind me, and from time to time he double-checked with his great eye to make sure I was still there. Buddy, I thought, wild horses couldn't pull me away from you and this moment.
I began to feel badly that the bubbles would turn out to be so ultimately unsatisfying a meal for the whale shark, but he seemed content to screen the water through his gills like a great sieve, unfazed and hoping for the best. I know all about this, I mused; I've downed plenty of empty-calorie meals myself. Then, another colossal whale shark came to the bubble party, gazed at me curiously, coming close enough to almost touch me with his nose, then he too began screening water bubbles. With two giant whale sharks on either side of me, suspended in this vast ocean, with no one else in the vicinity, this was one of the wildest, most awesome states of affairs in which I'd ever found myself. I tried to stay calm and still, and watched in wonder.
Before long, a couple of other excited snorkelers flapped over. One fellow reached out and touched one of the whales — which Brian had specifically instructed us not to do — and like lightning the two breathtaking creatures were spooked and gone. I made a mental note of the clumsy idiot's swimsuit so that I could steer clear of him the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, below us, Douglas was having a ball. Thousands of five-foot cubera snappers — all steel gray and purplish, the largest snappers in the Atlantic — were swarming in a frenzy of spawning and the divers were right there with them, their air bubbles mixing with roe and floating upwards. At the same time three whale sharks were frolicking among the commotion, screening the glorious eggs through the spongy tissue in their gills "as fast as you devour Godiva chocolates!" Douglas tactfully noted later, when he told me that this had been the best dive of his entire life.
The docile whale sharks migrate from all over the tropical waters of the Caribbean to the outskirts of this particular reef off the Belizean coast for an annual banquet to satiate their appetite for the roe of the cubera. Schools of these giant snappers collect in deep water outside the reef cuts here in May, June and July, and between the full and quarter moons of those months they spawn, big time. As their eggs are released into the water — looking just like the bubbles released from divers' regulators — the whale sharks try to gobble them up. It's a marked improvement over their regular diet of floating microscopic organisms, baitfish, and tiny squid. Whale sharks reach maturity at 30 years of age, and can grow to almost 60 feet — that's one and a half times the length of Ithaka!
Except for the hour-and-a-half trip each way from Placencia in the Seahorse Divers high-speed powerboat, and an hour for lunch, we spent all day in the water with the whales. The thrill of my first encounter in the morning would be repeated several times in different and equally awesome iterations throughout the day, although I'd never be completely alone with them again as I had that first time. In our dive group were three people from the World Wildlife Fund, who were in Belize to witness the "aggregation" of cubera and whale sharks, as they called it, and to try to convince the governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras to establish this precious reef as a protected marine sanctuary, preserving it from the devastating effects of net fishing — which the WWF estimates could wipe out the cubera snapper in two seasons. If that happens, they said, the whale sharks will never return. I thought about these things as I floated, suspended in the ocean, with the enormous docile creatures playing and feeding around me. I thought of their fate, which was in the hands of the four poverty-stricken countries along the reef. I thought of looking into the eyes of the whales, and how they'd moved me, and I hoped for the best for them. Somehow, I could feel that this had been a very rare communion with creatures whose days may be numbered.
Editors' Note: Brian Young, who owns Seahorse Divers, a PADI and NAUI certification dive school in Placencia and who's well respected in Belize as an environmental preservationist, specializes in dives to find the whale sharks. People come from all over the world to dive for the sharks with Brian, who can be reached by calling (800) 911-1969 in the U.S., or (6) 23166 in Belize. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org