Whale Shark Tourism Co-Management & Protection
The Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus, is the biggest fish in the ocean growing up to 60 feet in length. Despite their size, whale sharks are surprisingly gentle and curious and are therefore referred to as “gentle giants”. This magnificent creature may live to be over 100 years of age, reaching sexual maturity around 30 ft (10 m), which is when they are approximately 30 years old.
Whale sharks are easily identified by white spots that cover the animals’ skin. These patterns are unique to each individual and, like a fingerprint, can be used to identify and count the number of individuals within a population or area. This slow moving fish is a filter feeder, feeding on plankton that is made up by tiny plants and animals that can be found close to the water’s surface; nevertheless, whale sharks can dive to a depth of over 3,000 ft (1,000 m). On the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species, the whale shark is listed as “vulnerable to extinction”.
Preferring warm waters, whale sharks are found throughout the tropics and the low latitude temperate regions. This species is considered highly migratory, travelling thousands of kilometres. The whale shark is a transient resident of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, passing through Belizean waters and gathering at Gladden Spit for what is one of the largest predictable congregations of whale shark known in the region.
Whale Shark Research
SEA also conducts monitoring of this species, counting the numbers of spawning fish at the site, and also the numbers of whale sharks that are sighted. For the months of March to June, teams of divers visit the site twice a day for at least 10 days after the full moon, recording the number of sightings per dive. In 2011, two individuals (“Palacio” and “Caracol”) were successfully satellite tagged within GSSCMR by a Wildlife Conservation Society research team. The tracks uploaded onto the internet showed their routes within the Gulf of Honduras. In 2012, SEA started working closely with tour operators to gather more information on whale shark sighting numbers in order to get a better idea of the size of the whale shark population in the area.
Gladden Spit And Silk Cayes Marine Reserve
As mentioned, the gathering of whale sharks at Gladden Spit occurs for approximately ten days after the full moon between the months of March and June where they feed on eggs from aggregations of spawning snappers. In light of the importance of this site for fish spawning aggregations, in 2000, the site of the whale sharks was declared a protected area, the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (GSSCMR), and since 2003 whale sharks have been a protected species in Belize and no individual may be caught or killed in the waters of Belize (GOB SI 56).
The Southern Environmental Association (SEA) co-manages GSSCMR along with the Belize Fisheries Department. SEA manages whale shark tourism at Gladden Spit with direct input from a Whale Shark Working Group made up of national stakeholders. In order to protect the whale shark populations and minimise stress and also to ensure a safe and ecologically-sound experience for everyone, a set of guidelines have been developed and followed. These guidelines can be viewed under Whale Shark Tourism Interaction Guidelines, along with a list of Whale Shark Licensed Guides. Through the use of these guidelines, whale shark tours have allowed people to experience the natural beauty of this magnificent species in its own habitat.
The Gathering At Gladden Spit
Since the 1920s, fishermen have gathered at Gladden Spit on the Belize Barrier Reef System to harvest mutton snapper and grouper during the ten-day period around the full moon for the months of March to June of every year. The fishermen often landed huge catches, and many of the fish were gravid (carrying eggs). Often the men noticed huge whale sharks swimming nearby, usually surrounded by “milkiness” in the water.
In 1997, a team of scientists and local fishermen found that the snappers came together to spawn, filling the water with milky eggs and sperm, and that the whale sharks – filter feeders – had come to eat the eggs – a combination of events that is both biologically important and thrilling. Mutton snappers, the most common commercial fin fish, harvested in Belize, appear from March to June, during the same months as the Cubera snappers and Dog snappers. The latter two species produce particularly large, tasty eggs, which seems to be one of the primary motives for the presence of the whale sharks.
Local tour operators from Placencia, the closest village to Gladden Spit, soon discovered the tourism potential of the predictable presence of whale sharks, and a new industry quickly grew.
Whale Shark Belize