GLADDEN SPIT/SILK CAYES
The Gladden Spit & Silk Cayes Marine Reserve lies within the central region of the Barrier Reef about 36 km off the coast of Placencia Village. This area of Barrier Reef contains the best-developed and most continuous reef due to its elevation, good water quality, and modified wave regime. The southernmost tip of this area sticks out and is called The Elbow or Gladden Spit. Three small cayes – North Silk, Middle Silk and South Silk – lie south of Gladden Entrance just inside Queen Caye. A colony of terns has been recorded to nest on North Silk Caye.
Since the 1920s, fishermen have congregated at Gladden Spit on the Belize Barrier Reef to harvest mutton snapper and grouper during the ten-day period around full moon during the months of March to June. The fishermen often landed huge catches, and many of the fish were gravid (carrying eggs). Often the men noticed huge whale sharks swimming nearby, usually surrounded by milkiness in the water.
In 1997, a team of scientists and local fishermen found that the snappers came together to spawn, filling the water with milky eggs and sperm, and that the whale sharks — filter feeders — had come to eat the eggs — a combination of events that is both biologically important and thrilling. Mutton snappers, the most common commercial fin fish harvested in Belize, appear from March to June, during the same months as the Cubera snappers and Dog snappers. The latter two species produce particularly large, tasty eggs, which seems to be one of the primary motives for the presence of the whale sharks.
Some local tour operators from Placencia, the closest village to Gladden Spit, soon discovered the tourism potential of the predictable presence of whale sharks, and a new industry quickly grew up.
In 2001, the site of the whale sharks was declared a protected area, Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (GSSCMR). In 2002, Friends of Nature, now SEA, began to co-manage the reserve along with the Government of Belize.
SEA manages whale shark tourism at Gladden Spit in Belize, with direct input from a whale shark working group made up of national stakeholders. Sets of guidelines to ensure a safe and ecologically-sound experience for everyone, including the whale sharks, have been developed.