Swimming with sharks…or hoping to if we can find some

My best friend, Heather, taught me a lesson a few years ago. She told me she was going to stop giving things as gifts and start giving experiences instead. She gave play tickets to her mother one time, took a friend out for a birthday dinner, etc. It was a lesson I admired, one that doesn’t support materialism and the continued collection of “stuff” but instead puts our focus where it should be, on building memories. And in keeping with her philosophy, one year for my birthday and Christmas she bought me scuba lessons.
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Heather and her boyfriend had been diving for a few years already. When she and I took girls trips together she would go diving in the various places we went while either I stayed on the beach or went snorkeling instead. I loved that she wanted to share this with me. So I excitedly signed up for lesson at the local scuba shop in Rapid City, Black Hills Scuba. They were such a great place to go to learn, friendly and patient and supportive. Because I started my classes in the winter we did our first dives in an indoor community pool. And when it came to do my open water certification dives, instead of waiting for the ice to thaw on Pactola Reservoir, I opted to go to Marathon, Florida, in the Keys and Abyss Dive Center. Heather me there which made the whole thing such an incredible experience. And later that year we dove the Great Barrier Reef in Australia together. Memories I will always cherish.

Since then I haven’t been good about keeping up with my diving, focusing more instead on my big bike trip that started almost a year ago. I’ve been out of the water for a couple of years and need a refresher dive (well more than one actually) before I’m back in the swing of things again.

Belize is known for it’s incredible scuba diving, and specifically for a phenomenon that is going on while we plan to be in Placencia. Each full moon during the months of March through June the local fish schools start to spawn. And giant whale sharks come to feed on the spawn somewhere around those full moon days. Heather and her boyfriend dive while they are here but won’t be here around the full moon dates. I decide to linger a few days longer in hopes of getting a chance to swim with this gentle giants and schedule a place for us on a snorkeling trip the day after the April full moon. Fingers crossed…

Whale sharks are filter feeders and the largest known species of fish in the world, measuring in some cases about 40 feet long and weighing in at something like 20 tons. They live in warm and tropical waters all over the world and feed seasonally off the coast of Belize near Gladden Spit, in a UNESCO world heritage site and marine park. And I want to see one at least, and hopefully work the courage up to swim with one.
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Splash Dive Center sends a van to pick us up from Placencia town early in the morning. We get treated to Johny cakes, yogurt, fruit and juice for breakfast and Creole food for lunch. It takes an hour and a half for our Captain to guide us out to the reef in the small boat. We sail past the harbor of Placencia and between the peninsula and island and out past a number of small Cayes and reed islands, many of them privately owned. The water is a dark cobalt blue and is fairly calm today. As we near the Gladden Spit area I start to see patches of turquoise in this cobalt sea, indicating that we are in shallower reef areas.
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There are 2 divers today and 4 of us snorkeling. The boat will go outside the reef, into stronger seas (although the master diver tells us its a smooth day), and the divers will drop to about 80 feet (the max. depth allowed in the park) while the snorkelers will hover over their bubbles in hopes the whale sharks mistake the cloud for fish schools and spawn and come swimming by us. I take along an inexpensive, disposable underwater camera and later realize it has film in it that will need developing and will not provide me pictures for the blog. Oh well, so I will find some on the internet.
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The divers drop in and descend and I prep with a shortie wetsuit and mask and put fins on at the back of the boat and await my turn to splash. I’m the next to the last one in the water and the moment I drop in from riding the large swells in the boat to the synchronized floating on the surface I am transported…below me is a the most beautiful blue water I have seen in ages. I’m sorry this isn’t my pic, but its the closest I could find to what I saw under water that day. Courtesy of http://www.artflakes.com
As the air is released from a regulator it’s usually a larger or group of larger bubbles that come up. As they rise, they form a shape somewhat like an old fashioned dome hub cap from a car, or a jellyfish. And as I watch them rise I can see my reflection in a few but can’t move fast enough with my awesome and technical camera gear (sarcasm) to capture it. This photo is from http://www.instillpictures.com.
As those larger bubbles get closer to the surface they explode in a gentle way, into a million tiny little champagne bubbles and continue their journey to the surface. It’s like swimming in soda.
From the Writer’s Bloke on WordPress:
I can’t see the bottom that lies somewhere about 150-200 feet below me, but I can watch the divers and following their bubbles is easy but the drift is fast on the surface so I have to swim in circles to not outpace them. I keep hoping and waiting but there is nothing in the water but the people from our boat. Later the divers say they saw a 10-foot bull shark down below them but not much else. After 45 minutes we get back on board and go back inside the reef for some top time and rest before the next round.

We have a master diver with us today, Dwayne, and a local woman, Mo, who guides the snorkelers. We enjoy their stories of the local life in Belize and the small village of Placencia. Mo grew up here and her father started a grocery store, Wallens, in the 1970s. Her father had one of the only two vehicles in town, a pickup that he used to haul groceries from the mainland to supply the village. The people on the boat are all really nice and it’s nice to chat. We go for a swim in the shallower reef water and will come back again for a longer one-hour swim after we try our luck for the whale sharks again.
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So after two hours we make another trip outside the reef to a place just slightly further south on the arm and try this again. Divers first to their 70-80 foot depth and we snorkelers in their canopy of air. It’s just as beautiful and richly blue as before. Brian describes the smaller bubbles as diamonds, and they really do look like that. It’s mesmerizing. We hover for about a half hour and see no sign of anything so the divers ascend and we are all headed for the boat when suddenly we catch a glimpse of a school of fish. Eureka! At least we hope. If this small school of fish has a stalker (ie. whale shark) perhaps we will get to see what we have been looking for. We watch them for a moment…and then they are gone. Just like that. So after a few more minutes we are done. And there will be no whale sharks for me today. Oh well, it was a beautiful day anyway.

Photo courtesy of http://www.belize.com.

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