An opportunity to share the water with a creature larger than a school bus does not come often in life—and is not soon forgotten. If you’re diving in southern Belizean waters  between March and June, especially after the full moon, you may be lucky enough to encounter a whale shark.
Biologist Dr. Rachel Graham researches for the Wildlife Conservation Society and lives in Punta Gorda where she runs BlueBelize Guest House. Dr. Graham has spent literally thousands of hours in the water with whale sharks around the world. I asked her about swimming with the world’s biggest fish.
Whale sharks are iconic creatures that put our relatively small lives and aspirations into perspective. They fly the banner for many less charismatic species, and their movements weave a pattern across our tropical ocean landscapes, linking sites and making them true ambassadors of the seas. I truly believe that the world would be a poorer place without whale sharks, which is why we must protect them.
The key rule is not to touch, chase, ride, or harm whale sharks in any way. Stay at least three meters away from the shark unless it comes up to you, in which case do nothing and enjoy the unforced close encounter. I ask boat drivers to not cut off the path of a whale shark when it’s moving and to drop guests off 15 meters away from the shark (as opposed to right on top of the animal). We also strongly recommend not using flash photography or underwater motorized vehicles.
Much of the work on whale sharks in Belize was undertaken between 1998 and 2004. Their movements, site fidelity, feeding behavior, tourism value, and population size and structure were researched. I found at least 106 individuals identified from over 580 encounters. The majority of sharks encountered were immature males with an average length of six meters. The whale sharks visiting Gladden Spit are capable of arriving exactly when the snappers spawn and leave when spawning ceases to provide enough food. After this, they move to other feeding sites along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, such as Holbox /Isla Contoy  and into the Gulf of Mexico to the north; to the south and south east, they travel to Utila (Honduras)  and beyond. Since these studies, SEA Belize, a conservation organization in Placencia , is noting the number of whale sharks encountered and the number of tourists visiting Gladden Spit.
Probably with a whale shark named “Mr. Facey,” whose name comes from a Creole word for someone with an attitude. Mr. Facey is a young male (about six meters) who reveled in surprising divers, doing “peekaboo” moves behind them and swimming up to them and placing his snout in their midriffs. In my case, Mr. Facey swam up to me at 25 meters depth and parked his snout at the level of my stomach. We sat there for a while not really knowing what to do as this was a bit facey for a first date. Since I could not move sideways or downwards, I eventually crawled on top of his head and pushed away against his dorsal fin. He came back several more times, always gently, always hanging in the water. In the end I almost ran out of air and had to surface.
Never a scary moment. Whale sharks are gentle giants, and even though I have encountered many in my 14 years of diving with them, I remain in awe of their grace, docility, and curiosity.