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Brian Young

Brian Young, tour guide and former fisherman

Before a dive in the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, Brian Young tells the eco-tourists on his boat the best way to attract whale sharks.

“We all want to get real tight together so we can simulate the spawning,” he tells the divers. “It looks like the spawning with all the bubbles going up and that will attract the shark. They are down there with the fish, swimming around waiting for the spawning to start. So if we simulate something like that, they come in for that.”

He points to a whale shark near the boat. “There's one right on the surface right there,” he yells, “right behind you!” The divers gasp in amazement at the huge fish they are about to visit with in the water. When asked if his guests always get excited when they see a whale shark for the first time, he beams, “Oh, man. I’m feeling excited myself!”


Will Heyman, The Nature Conservancy

We swim right into the school of these things so you’re just looking around and it’s just solid fish. It is just unbelievable. Fish aggregate to spawn because the physical oceanographics are such that you get convergent currents at a reef promontory which take larvae offshore and away from the reef. It can be pretty spooky being in one of these milky spawn clouds and just looking around, you really don't know what's coming at you.

Forty miles off the coast of Belize, on a small Caribbean island called Laughing Bird Key, the rhythms of life are defined by natural forces, like the wind and the currents. Several months each year, during the time of the full moon, something extraordinary happens.

Whale sharks
Whale sharks

Just below the surface of the water, tens of thousands of reef fish, snappers and groupers, converge on a spot called Gladden's Spit. Their bodies are big and ripe, and ready to reproduce. The mating frenzy begins when the females, in a swirling motion, suddenly release their eggs. Following behind, the males then release their sperm to create an underwater snowstorm. The spawning season also attracts scientists from around the world.

The lesson learned from the success of the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve is simple; when a fishery is saved, there are often unexpected benefits.

What's coming at them is the largest fish on the planet. Up to sixty feet long, whale sharks come to feed on the dense cloud of eggs that the spawning fish produce. Several years ago Marine biologists discovered a problem. At the start of the spawning season local fishermen were catching tons of fish, before the snappers and groupers had a chance to reproduce. When the fish populations declined, the whale sharks began to leave, in search of more prolific spawning sites.

Everything changed when local officials created the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve. The catch is now carefully monitored and recorded. During the spawning season fishing is limited. Within a few years the fishery rebounded. And then the whale sharks returned, and with them came a new source of income, eco-tourism.

Dive boat near the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve
Dive boat near the
Gladden Spit Marine Reserve

The lesson learned from the success of the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve is simple; when a fishery is saved, there are often unexpected benefits, like the once in a lifetime opportunity to swim with largest fish on the planet. Here in Belize the protection of a fishery not only helped the people of Laughing Bird Key, it’s a model for marine communities around the world.


Read more about The State of the Planet's Oceans:
Introduction | Aveiro | Belize | Calcutta | Dry Tortugas | Greenland | Lima | New Bedford


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