“Whhhiiitttteeeee Shark!” Two words most people hope to never hear for fear they might be their last. Certainly not two words that ever become background noise. But when you venture by boat 150 miles off the coast of Mexico to Guadalupe Island, a geological wonder, a biosphere reserve and one of the worlds premier sites to cage dive with great white sharks…things are a bit different. Over the three days we anchored off Guadalupe that call became a dinner bell for the 16 shark-hungry excursionists eager to see yet another massive gray shape cruise the boat, a fin break the water–or best of all–a big guy go for the bait and show off his three-inch pearly whites.
The trip is a five-day live aboard with a price tag of $3,100.00 including food, drinks, an onboard shark expert, gear….and guaranteed shark encounters. It runs out of San Diego and after a brief stop with Mexican boarder patrol in Ensenada we spent 18 hours on the open ocean getting to destination. If you’re prone to seasickness, Dramamine is your best friend. The on-board accommodations are modest bunks but just right for this adventure.
The second morning we woke up to sunrise accentuating the already dramatic outline of Guadalupe and the crew lowering the cages into the water. A hearty breakfast served in the galley and the first team was deployed into the abyss.
The cages float at the surface, the water 200 feet deep, crystal clear with up to 100-foot visibility. Our boat, the 80-foot MV Horizon, carries two cages, each holding four divers hooked up to an on-boat air supply. No scuba experience is necessary with this “hookah” system. The water is 70 degrees but wardrobe consists of a toasty five-millimeter wetsuit with hood and booties for length of exposure. Divers rotate for one hour in the water all day long.
Nature has endowed these uber predators with perfect camouflage. How a 16-foot fish materializes out of nowhere is spine tingling and magical all wrapped into a perfect toothy package, and for a shark buff, it’s pure rapture. Their approach was not remotely sinister, but a very curious slow pass that brought us eye to eye with one of nature’s greatest predators. For the record, the term “dead eye of a shark” is dead wrong. The black pupil is rimmed by blue, and when the shark looks at you, you feel it.
Quite frankly the sharks showed us nowhere near the curiosity we showed them. Because the island is a biosphere, feeding them is prohibited. The crew can only chum and use pull bait for attraction. The bags filled with an intoxicatingly putrid mix of fish guts and blood is why they come, not us. It allows for dramatic scenes when the shark commits to investigating, the jaw opens and extends and goes for it…sometimes the shark is faster than the crew and the bag makes its peace with God.
Between cage time we occupied ourselves downloading pictures, catching some sun on the deck and waiting to hear…“Whitttteeeee Shark.” Apparently a deckhand started the yell and it stuck.
Evenings are for swapping stories and listening to shark expert, Martin Graf, give a breakdown of sharks from that day. On average, we saw seven or eight whites daily ranging in size from nine to sixteen feet. Martin knows them by name. He knows their personalities, their habits and how they got their scars. If you see a shark the crew hasn’t seen before, you get to name it. Make it good; no one knows exactly how long white sharks live.
The season runs from mid August to early November with conditions being best earlier and the biggest females showing up later. I was on the first trip of the season, and size was not a disappointment. If the big girls are 18-footers, I didn’t miss the extra two feet.
How exactly does a place like Guadalupe became a mecca for white shark diving? By pure accident apparently. The crew of our vessel was a seasoned lot who has been making the shark trips for over 10 years. A few years before that they were a bunch of guys scuba diving and spear fishing the clear waters around the island. That is until they started encountering more and more white sharks. As the story goes, enough close encounters forced them to rethink their diving habits but became the inception of Shark Diver, one of the original and longest running outfitters to Guadalupe, with founder Patrick Douglas a shark advocate and conservationist at the helm.
I’ve never much liked the term “trip of a lifetime.” It implies a climax to adventure. In the world of shark diving, this trip was just that.
To book a trip with the Shark Diver crew, visit www.sharkdiver.com.
Photo credit: Kinga Philipps