I'M FINNING 80 FEET DEEP off the coast of Belize with a small cluster of scuba divers and our dive master, Brian Young. We have paid him to lead us to elusive, enormous Rhincodon typuswhale sharks. At the moment, with shafts of sun stabbing through the myriad shades of aqua surrounding us, the ocean feels empty.
Then, about 20 feet beneath us, a swirling school of thousands of cubera snapper appears. Young stops, and we gather in a circle above the fish, our air bubbles rising. Hopefully the white cloud will mimic snapper spawn, and the gentle giants will come up from the deep to investigate. But then one of the divers does the unthinkable: She breaks away from the group, drops into the school, and starts setting off her camera flash. The fish quickly disperse, and we return to the surface, the first of our two dives a bust.
Back in the sweltering cabin of Viper, the yellow-green-and-red-striped dive boat, tempers are running as high as the 97-degree heat. Several of the well-heeled divers onboard have spent a fruitless week searching for a whale shark. Young shakes his head: "I jes been havin' me a terrible streak of bad luck."
Divers come from all over the world to swim with these behemoths, and, locally, Young is one of the whale shark kings, having long demonstrated an uncanny ability to locate the animals on instinct. He's been diving for 15 years among the whale sharks, which come annually to Gladden Spit, an elbow-shaped reef formation about 26 miles off the coastal town of Placencia, in the southern third of Belize's coast. Young recognizes many of the same sharks year after year.
The giant creatures, which can grow up to 50 feet long and weigh more than 12 tons, show up around the full moons, especially from March to June, when the snapper come to spawn. Very little is known about the nonaggressive animals. In Belize, whale shark watching has become big business, and a ranger-patrolled marine park has been established to keep things under control.
It's time to get back in the water, and Young is anxiousthis will be the last chance for most divers onboard to see whale sharks, and he wants to deliver. We descend to 80 feet, and for 15 minutes we see nothing. Then another school of snapper appears, and Young gathers us together. As our bubbles rise, lo and behold, a 25-foot specimen emerges, its wide straight line of a mouth opening for business, its white belly silhouetted against the surface. Slowly, the whale shark corkscrews down around our column of bubbles, its gray spotted flank passing a yard from my mask before vanishing into the deep. Young's streak of bad luck, it appears, is over.
Details: Brian Young owns the Seahorse Dive Shop; $150 per two-tank dive; 800-991-1969, www.belizescuba.com