- Published on Monday, 04 March 2013 13:12
- Written by Sammy Cimeno
Your first glimpse of a great white shark is truly a memorable experience.
First, you notice a barely discernable speck in the distance that slowly assumes a shark-like appearance. Then you notice the length, perhaps as little as 9 feet, but sometimes over 16. Then you are impressed by the girth, these sharks are a lot bigger around than you expect from their length. Lastly you focus in on the mouth—and all those serrated teeth.
Mexico’s Guadalupe Island was once world famous as a place to free dive world record setting yellowfin and bluefin tuna, and yellowtail jacks. Now it is recognized at the best spot to dive with great white sharks. While there are several locations to view great white sharks worldwide, Isla de Guadalupe is unique among white shark diving destinations and has all a shark diver could ever ask for.
First, Guadalupe is home to lots of sharks; you might have six or more at the cage at one time, and may see over a dozen different animals on a five-day trip. Second, the water is very clear here, with visibility often well over 100 feet! Third, the water is warm, averaging around 72°F. It is also a short trip from the US, and even shorter if you live in California.
Isla de Guadalupe is located in Mexican waters, about 250 miles south of San Diego and about 100 miles offshore of Baja California. Guadalupe is a single large (about 22 miles long) island and several small islands. It is big enough to have a very nice lee for shark boats to hide from the Pacific wind, and is tall enough to create its own weather—when the rest of the Pacific is in fog, the east side of Guadalupe is warm and sunny. It is only about a day’s steam south of San Diego. This truly remote volcanic island has towering cliffs, cinder cones, and plugs. The topside images of the island are simply spectacular when the sheer cliffs explode with intense reds, oranges and pinks in the morning sun.
The only human inhabitants of Guadalupe are a small contingent of Mexican sailors, and a handful of subsistence fishermen. There are, however, huge colonies of pinnipeds on the island: Guadalupe fur seals, California sea lions, and elephant seals. These and the huge population of offshore tuna make this an ideal dining area for white sharks.
Shark diving is limited to the north end of the island and boats tuck into the lee of Spanish Cove and Prison Beach. The remains of a prison and accompanying chapel are on the rise behind the aid-to-navigation (unmanned light tower). Onshore, Guadalupe fur seals play in the shallow water and giant elephant seals sleep or play and bellow on the beach. Some operators offer panga crises along the shore. This is a great way to get images of the local marine mammals.
The commercial shark boats have honed cage diving to an optimal sharky experience. Boats either depart from San Diego, California or Ensenada, Mexico; and most trips are five days in length, one day each traveling to and from the island, and three days at the island diving in shark cages. Some operators offer longer trips.
You can expect a typical trip to be full of fun and surprises, and yet this is the most consistent place to view white sharks. Boats normally arrive in the morning of the second day of the trip and the crew deploys the cages and begins chumming. Depending on the tides, currents and the whim of the sharks, they may take minutes or several hours to show up. Often, sharks begin circling the boat before the anchor is dropped and chumming has begun.
The first hours provide ample opportunity to get your gear together, do an “orientation dive” in the cage to make sure you have the right amount of weight, and become comfortable with this new dive environment. Unlike scuba diving, cage divers do not use fins, and weight themselves 20 or more pounds heavier than you need to be neutrally buoyant. Cage diving is more like hard had diving than scuba diving—you walk on the bottom of the cage. Typically, there is cage space for half of the passengers and shark divers spend one hour in the cage, one hour out, throughout the day, and sometimes into the evening hours. These cages are stout and shark-tested; the most common injury on these trips is sunburn from the hot, Mexican sun.
When the sharks show up the cage diving begins in earnest. Each shark has its own personality. Usually the first sharks to show up are cautious, and hang out beyond the cage or underneath. Others are absolutely fearless from the very beginning and slowly swim inches from the cage. As the day progresses, most become very comfortable and begin to take hang baits 10 feet or so from the cage. By the end of the day they are up close to the cage eyeing the divers within.
These sharks also have personalized hunting styles. Some will slowly and cautiously approach a hang bait, while others will move straight in. Still others are more cunning and will lurk in the depths, only to charge the bait from below with great speed and violence.
Some sharks, particularly the smaller ones, are sleek and clean with a flawless complexion. Others are scared by time and violent encounters with prey and other sharks. Adult female sharks usually have bite marks right behind the head. During mating males hold on to females with their teeth. Many of the male sharks have nasty bite marks around the head, back and gills, presumably by other white sharks. Sharks of both sexes can have paired puncture or cut marks around their mouth, which are characteristic of pinniped bites.
Is natural to be apprehensive and even frightened when you first slip into a shark cage surrounded by a half dozen 15 foot or greater sharks, with big shiny teeth. After a few minutes you come to the realization that the sharks have no interest in eating you, and even if they so desired, the cages are robust enough to keep even the most cunning and frisky shark out.
At that point most begin to relax and enjoy the experience. The sharks are beautiful and graceful. As they swim by the cage with the tiniest amount of effort, you see their muscles flex, and their ever-observant eye keep an eye on you, the cage, the bait, and anticipate where they might get their next snack.
Cage divers are as different as the sharks they watch. Some are happy to have several hours with the sharks in the first day or two and spend the last days recounting their experiences and enjoying a tequila-based drink. Others, particularly photographers, cannot seem to get enough, and spend every minute they can in the cage.
Regardless of the reason you want to be one with the shark in their environment, all come away with a greater appreciation for this top predator. Guadalupe is, after all, the only place that allows divers to have prolonged, intimate encounters with white sharks in crystal clear, warm water.
|Great White Adventures
|Club Cantamar Resort/Liveaboards
San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions