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Whale sharks in Gladden Spit, off Placencia, Belize 2014 - travel report

Discussion in 'Belize' started by Exphilip, May 5, 2014.

  1. Exphilip

    Exphilip Angel Fish

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    This is my first travel report on Scubaboard. It got to be quite extensive. I am sorry if that is considered a faux pas here. But I will begin by summing up the findings. If interested you can then read the rest. Hope this helps.

    Recommendation summary
    On boat selection it is recommended to insist on a spot on the main boat (due to seasickness) and important to go on a boat with sonar (which dramatically increases the likelihood of finding the schools of snappers, and in turn the whale sharks). On account of the latter Roberts Grove is recommended over Seahorse and Splash. This recommendation is further based on the lower degree of organisation and the approaches of the dive shop personnel for the Seahorse and Splash operations as encountered. Note that the whale shark trips follow the moon cycle March - June, but not every moon circle has sightings (across the board).

    Full review
    Still excited from the whale shark encounters, I have put together this note with a couple of lessons learned and insights from my recent visit to Placencia in Belize. Gladden Spit is reportedly one of a few places where it is possible to scuba dive with whale sharks on known seasonal gathering spots. As the dives are ocean dives with no reef or buttom reference, the concentration of whale sharks not very high and the timing uncertain, the consequent challenges are still significant, and I met quite,a few that did not manage to see the whale sharks.

    The dive boats go out from Placencia in south Belize. I did not hear about any other place that would be more convenient. The sailing time is 60-75 minutes and for the boats coming from further away it can be significantly longer day trips. There are liveaboards but of them i know very little.

    The trips are centered around the moon cycles beginning around full moon and continuing for around 10 days. I was told by an experienced dive master that the fifth day was the best, which coincided with my experience and seems to fit a normal distribution for the period. But whether you believe in the moon cycle or sacrificing a black chicken the evening before, this is the period the operators go out unless you charter the boat yourself or some unusual sigthings are reported outside this period. I noticed birds hovering over the chosen dive spots the three times I encountered whale sharks so that has become an omen for me :)

    I came across 3 established operators Roberts Grove, Seahorse and Splash (one called Avadon Divers did not offer dive trips any longer, they have possibly gone out of business according to some reports). The price for a 2-tank daytrip is the same to a dot, usd 210, with 10% off for 3 or more dive trips, so relatively clear what that infers. The iteniaries are close to identical along with the offered lunch and breaks spend on a nearby reef.

    I had deliberately booked with more than one operator, and would ideally have tried all 3, as I was there for a longer period with a determination to succeed, and thus spread my bets. I ended up splitting my five days of diving between Seahorse and Roberts Grove.

    Both operators kept a tight schedule and had good equipment management. The equipment at Seahorse looked newer and better but on all my three first-of-the-day dives I ended up with regulators that were leaking sea water into my mouth and which then had to be changed for the day's second dive. Robert Grove's fins were remarkably poor and quite a nuissance since the spawning fish (Cubera) that you and the whale sharks like to hang around often stand in schools in moderately strong current.

    Having dived with some 15 dive masters in various places in Belize I feel comfortable concluding that overall they are lacking in attitude and service orientation. The dive masters at Seahorse takes the price though in being distant, rude and so bossy it takes an effort to abstract from them and enjoy the trip. They contrast so much with the Seahorse dive shop operator Brian Jr who is a friendly and helpful but unfortunately does not go on the boat or dive, as to deserve naming. Above water Kirk, Lennox and Oscar exhibit the above behavior with a couple of events worth mentioning such as being yelled at to speed up while trying to sidestep a fellow diver who started vomitting just prior to backroll entry and being told prior to descend that the regulator which had begun a minor free flow on entry would have to suffice because we were going down now. Those episodes made me request a boat change, but it didnt help much. When comparing the two, the emphasis on assisting diver on water entry and exit which given the conditions made a different for some older and female divers was however better at Seahorse.

    On boat type each operator has a main boat (say 40-45 footer, I would estimate) that they use for diving throughout but also smaller boats that they bring into use for the whale shark trips as they operate above the one boat's capacity whilst also facing the regulatory constraint that each boat is only allowed a maximum of 12 divers (excl divemasters) when entering the whale shark area. It is absolutely worthwhile to secure when booking that you are on the main boat. The small boats are actually faster but take a serious trashing at sea. Between one third and half of the people on the small boats get seasick. And that really make for an expensive, bad day as you dont get on solid ground until your return 8 hours later. On the main boat, it was more like 1-2 people out of a bigger number that got seasick.

    Another thing that makes a focus on the choice of boat instrumental is that only some of them have sonar. In my case, the only boat with it was Roberts Grove's main boat, El Dorado (ie Seahorse did not have it). It is used to locate the big schools of Cubera snapper that the whale sharks hang around with. This dramatically improves the odds. I had noticed that Seahorse had seemed quite clueless when not having another group of dive boats to aim for to the point where they just tagged Robert Groves boat. Thus we were at one time around 40 divers dumped on the same spot at the same time. This led to one of the most disorganised whale shark encounters where a whale shark was spotted at the surface. Following the Seahorse dive leader who banged his tank loudly while pointing at the whale shark and moving fast towards it, most of the 40 divers shot from 20-25 meters to 5-10 meters of depth with some continuing to the surface while the whale shark unsurprisingly quickly took off. In the chaos of bubbles and divers which happened before me, it was impossible for me to get a clear positive sighting despite the size of the whale shark and its proximity. It was not pretty.

    This leads me to address a general problem, namely the focus on the chase and finding a whale shark, and not on additionally doing a prebriefing on what to do if and when one is found. This briefing always happened after (and too late). Obviously the above described approach of the Seahorse dive leader achieves very little. The more sensible dive leaders ask the group to stay together which might bring the whale sharks up higher instead of retreating deeper, but only after the fact on my trips.

    Adding to the diffusion of the dive group is the different capacities to hover above the snappers in the current, and divers staying closer to the surface to conserve air during the search. When the current is on the stronger side, it is a difficult dive. To Seahorse's credit I saw how the manager convinced a newly certified diver not to dive.

    Above I described the way the moon cycles direct the timing of the trips. From speaking to the dive shop personnel on location, I learned that not all moon cycles from March to June have sightings. Thus I was told that April 2013 had no sightings while June that year atypically had been very good.

    The significance and excitement of finding the whale sharks are not lost on the operators, and despite of all sorts of doubts as to their motivations, when the "wild goose chase" is on and there are still no sightings, it is my clear impression that the operators, captains, and dive leaders do all they can.

    The third operator, Splash I did not dive with. From my dialogue with them and divers that I talked to who had dived with them, I will share some insights. Initially my email enquiring about availability went unanswered eventhough I had both emailed the dive shop and the two co-owners Patricia and Ralph individually. So I called them and talked to Patricia. In the time span of 24 hours I was in turn offered assistance with lodging, promised availability on the whale shark trips, pushed for a response and then told off on all of this. I simply had not been able to read, nor respond and for that reason Patricia wrote me that they were now full and to go elsewhere. I was a bit perplexed but with other operators at hand, I was, as always, contend to avoid disorganised dive centers. I learned later that other divers had been added to the manifest after our email exchange so the "no availability sign" slapped on the door appeared less than truthful. A couple of divers that I met on one of the Seahorse trips told me that I should count myself lucky for this. They had changed to Seahorse as they found Splash's boat untidy and the diving unorganised. I should add that Splash's owner, Ralph during my trips, reported sightings on a daily basis here on Scubaboard and these appeared accurate and were helpful.

    I do not know if Splash's boat has sonar, but I do know that they dumped their divers on top of Roberts Grove's divers (as I had seen Seahorse do). Whether this is due to lack of sonar or confidence in using it, I do not know. But suffice to say that Roberts Grove was the only operator that I saw exclusively rely on own sonar and search skills, and that they were the ones who took me to swim with whale sharks several times; once 4 whale sharks at the same time. That made my trip and convinced me.

    Fortunately I had acquired a Gopro camera some time prior to this, and recorded the time that one of the whale sharks came up to me. I will try to upload it here on this post.

    Also worth adding that out of the pictures that I took, two led to positive identifications on the research database of whaleshark.org. The whale sharks that I met are called BZ-11 and BZ-16. BZ for Belize which is where they have been spotted over the last decade or so, as well as in Honduras. The identification is based on the unique dotted pattern on the side of the whale shark. If in the future, the whale sharks are spotted again, I will get an email alert as to where and when, which will be a neat way to remember a great dive experience. I encourage you to try. The researchers ran the pictures through their database in a matter of days.

    ---------- Post added May 5th, 2014 at 02:40 PM ----------

  2. Ralph Capeling

    Ralph Capeling Dive Shop

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Placencia Belize
    While ExPhilip did not dive with Splash, he has prepared a very detailed and well written report and he does mention us.

    For clarification, all of Splash's boats have fish finders (which I expect Exphillip is referring to as sonar). At whale shark time we bring in extra boats (which are large boats as there is no island nearby for the surface interval, lunch break, wait for your time slot interval). These do not come equipped with fish finders but we have three portable ones we issue to the chartered boats.

    ExPhilip says "I do not know if Splash's boat has sonar, but I do know that they dumped their divers on top of Roberts Grove's divers (as I had seen Seahorse do). Whether this is due to lack of sonar or confidence in using it." This statement is absolutely incorrect. Splash and Roberts Grove had swapped time slots so as to simplify logistics for both our dive operations. Splash and Robert's Grove boats were never in the whale shark zone at the same time.

    Each boat is limited to 12 guests and at Splash we have 4 boats that go to the whale shark zone and these tend to be fully booked most days well in advance. Once we are full, we put people on our waiting list as some people book several days of whale shark diving but see whale sharks early on and ask to change to other destinations such as the Blue Hole trip or Glovers Atoll and we try to accommodate them. These cancellation spaces also go quickly.

    Patty and I have recently had a lot of difficulty with emails but think we now have this more or less sorted out. These email issues have been frustrating for our customers, maddening for me personally and Patty has had to work into the wee hours of the day to try to keep up with inquiries.

    One of the large boats we chartered did not meet our standard, notwithstanding promises by the owner to make certain improvements based on our experience with the boat last year. We will not use that boat again or any of his other boats.

    Ralph Capeling
    Splash Dive Center
    Last edited: May 6, 2014
    chillyinCanada likes this.
  3. Exphilip

    Exphilip Angel Fish

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Last edited: May 5, 2014

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