Great Fishwatching Vacations

Gladdon Spit, Belize

Image of Dog snapper SPAG into sunFrom Chapter 26: “In southern Belize, fifty kilometres offshore, there is a place called Gladden Spit where an elbow in the barrier reef forms a sheer underwater promontory. Here the reef plunges to depths of more than one thousand metres as it falls away into the Cayman Trench. The sun has dipped below the horizon, staining the sky red and purple. A stiff breeze has kicked up the waves and rattles cables on the boat. I roll into the water with three companions, pausing briefly to check my equipment before beginning my descent. It is a relief to leave the violent heaving boat and enter this tranquil world. I peer downward looking for the reef but the bottom is too far below to see. Shafts of light pick out flecks of plankton like dust motes suspended in deep indigo. In the midst of this watery cathedral I feel very small. Dropping deeper I see vague movements and a flash of silver flank, then another and another as fish wheel and turn below. When I get close I realize they are sleek dog snappers; there must be hundreds of them. The group parts as I descend into their midst, engulfing me in a moving wall of bodies. Countless eyes watch impassively as fish swirl past, every cheek marked with a pale teardrop shape. Glowing silver bodies tinged with pink press in upon me in the revolving mass as the dog snappers abandon themselves to the primal urge that drew them here. I revise my estimate upward. There must be five thousand of them, maybe more. They lull me into a reverie that is broken only when the fish start to thin and then leave. But it is the current that has moved me. The fish remain in the same place as if held by an invisible force.

From a distance, I can see the whole group. They form a spinning column that rises above the reef. Where the column contacts the reef, fish fan out giving the appearance of a plinth. Fish spiral up from this base and into the column, while animals near the top turn and head downward in continuous renewal. Many appear fat, their swollen bellies heavy with eggs. They have gathered here to spawn, many having traveled long distances, and the time has arrived. In the gathering gloom, a small group of fish makes an excited upward rush, their bodies pressed together in shivering embrace. A few metres below the surface they release a white cloud of eggs and sperm in an explosive burst before turning to dash for the bottom. Other groups break off in similar rushes like spurting jets from a fountain. Then the fountain itself thrusts upward as a further great mass of fish follows, saturating the water with their seed before spilling down into the depths.

I drift suspended in the midst of billowing clouds of eggs and sperm, surrounded by a frenzied but unseen struggle as new lives are forged. Out of the corner of one eye I see a dark moving shadow in the gloom. At first it seems small and formless, but as it approaches I make out the rhythmic sickle tail beat that signals the approach of a shark. A gaping black grin fills the width of its broad flat head. Huge pectoral fins spread like hydroplanes from the sides of a giant body painted with a constellation of white spots. It is a whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. The leviathan ploughs into the egg cloud and toward me, opening its mouth in a giant gape to sieve eggs from the water. It barely registers my presence, betraying no flicker of alarm or recognition. Muscled flanks glide by like a submarine as I back paddle to avoid being bowled over. Then another shark appears from behind me, this one even bigger than the first. For the next half hour the sharks crisscross the area, feasting on the dispersing caviar cloud as darkness falls. With perfect timing, as if called by some aquatic dinner gong, whale sharks come to Gladden Spit when the fish congregate to spawn and they leave when the spawning is over.”