Cage Diving with Great White Sharks Off Guadalupe Island
The Solmar VThe live-aboard Solmar V docked in Ensenada, Mexico, ready to make the journey west to the white shark haven of Guadalupe Island.
On the Road: Cage Diving with Great White Sharks Off Guadalupe Island
Words by Terry Ward
Photos by Josh Cortopassi
Every diver knows it. That surreal moment when a place that’s been brewing in your diving fantasies suddenly wings into view. You're familiar with all the spots. The infamous ones other divers rave about even when you’re somewhere utterly fabulous already. You listen — enviously, perhaps — carefully committing live-aboard names to memory, telling yourself you’ll get there one of these days. And then, one of these days becomes now.
After a short bus trip south of the border from San Diego and an 18-hour overnight boat crossing from Ensenada that passed in a flash thanks to a steady flow of margaritas and a host of new, shark-giddy friends fueling the fun aboard the luxury liveaboard Solmar V, there it was: Isla Guadalupe. The isloated island rose abruptly from the slate-gray Pacific some 160 miles off Baja's west coast, its jagged peaks cut with streaks of rust-colored volcanic rock.
The place looked sharky — really sharky. And in an instant, my adrenaline kicked into high gear.
I was on a four-night cage diving trip with Great White Adventures to encounter the large collection of white sharks that call the island home. In the days leading up, I constantly drilled that notion into my head — there will be great whites in the water, and you will be among them! But even as the island came into view, it still didn’t seem real.
Despite the blinding spotlight placed on the dining habits of great whites (especially during those rare incidents when humans are involved), if any animal dwells mostly in our imaginations and dreams, it's this one species of shark. Most people never get to see a great white with their own eyes. And except for rare instances, such as the juvenile male currently on display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, great whites don't fare well in captivity. Yet few of us even need to close our eyes to envision that monstorus maw filled with rows of jagged teeth. Such images are already embedded in our collective memory banks.
And suddenly there I was, about to see these grand creatures live and up-close. The Solmar V’s anchor clang-clang-clanged out of its hull and hit bottom somewhere around 250 feet as our trip host, Lawrence Groth, gathered the divers in the galley for a briefing. He explained how we’d rotate in and out of the two surface cages and submersible over the next few days. He peppered his briefing with an insider's knowledge of the local white sharks, scores of which he and his team had identified over the last near-decade of diving off the island. He and his team had even named some of sharks after Mexican revolutionaries and other heroes like Pancho Villa and Cal (Ripfin) Ripkin — both of whom would later make cameo appearances.
What struck with me most about his speech were the interesting descriptions, such as "Some are lazy; some are crazy,’ regarding the different personalities of the sharks we might see. Another one of the catch phrases was, "White sharks do fly," hence the fact that the tuna heads used to lure the sharks would be yanked from the water when a diver was entering or exiting the surface cages.
The fact they removed the tuna heads when divers were near, I found comforting. The topless condition of the submersible cage, however, I did not. The top of this cage was left open and would remain so underwater — all the better for the photographers in our group to clamber atop it and shoot photos looking up at the Solmar V and the surface action in the other cages. The submersible cage would be lowered to around 30 or 40 feet, with a maximum of two divers and a dive master inside. I wanted nothing to do with it.
Baby steps, I thought. Let’s start on the surface in the enclosed cages.
Lawrence imparted one last bit of advice that related to the rather large openings on the side of the surface cages: “If you’re hanging outside the cage with your camera and a shark comes toward you, do not pull the camera inside the cage. Let the shark see it, maybe bump up against it. If you pull it inside the cage, the shark will try to get inside. And we don’t want that.”
Into the Lion's Den
Following the briefing, we all joined in a group cheer conjuring Mel Fisher’s famous line, "Today is the day!” and moments later, the boat’s two "shark wranglers," Luis and Juan, sprang into action, tossing tuna heads attached to natural fiber ropes into the water near the cages and pouring a bucket of fish guts off the stern. In less than half an hour, the proverbial pool opened with the sighting of the first large dorsal fin cutting the surface.
There's just no way to accurately describe the feeling as I geared up for my first cage-diving experience — it was certainly unlike any other I had done before. Donning 7mm of rubber, a hood and gloves and placing the reg tight between my lips, the divemaster gently guided me and the 40 pounds of lead harnessed to my body to the back platform. Here, I tentatively scooted on my rear across a few steel bars and dropped through the top of the surface cage.
"Holy crap!" I thought as I sunk like a rock to the bottom of the cage, "What if today really is the day I see my first great white?" Indeed, even at age 35 there are still plenty of surprises left to blow your mind.
For a few minutes, I scanned the clear blue water, ribboned silver with mackerel, straining to look behind me in the unforgiving hood. Then, emerging from the deep, there it was: a jumbo jet on takeoff, just like I’d always imagined how a great white would appear. A full fifteen-feet long, silent and stealthy, moving without moving, it actually looked just like the scenes from a movie. The shark’s gaping mouth was laced with teeth splaying every which way, while the corners of its mouth were tightened, chubby-cheek style, into what some people say looks like a smile. The image was familiar — but the feeling was not.
The blood rushed in my ears as the shark came within a few feet of the cage. This was it — my fantasy was now reality. And then I saw something I’d never noticed during all those episodes of Shark Week. The shark’s eye wasn’t the lifeless black I’d imagined. From this vantage point — so close I could reach out and touch the animal if I’d wanted to — I could see more. There was grey around the black pupil, and I noticed that the eye pivoted in its socket, watching me with a sense of curiosity and acknowledgement I felt intimately.
After my incredible first cage dive, Dean Karr, a Los Angeles photographer and director working on a coffeetable book filled with images of great whites from around the world, approached me with a proposition.
“Will you be the first to join me in the submersible?” he asked. It was one of those moments where you find yourself saying "yes," even though your mind is adamantly telling you "no." Now that I’d seen the sharks up close in their realm, it was simply impossible to deny a chance to go deeper into the thrilling world of the ocean’s apex predator.
We entered the submersible from the boat, and it was lowered 30 feet down into the blue. Just like in the surface cages, hoses delivered our air from the top. Though the water was cold, the visibility was as clear as many of the my best tropical dives, with sunbeams reflecting up from the depths, and the light delicately spackling the surface overhead. Within a few minutes, two large sharks made passes in front of the cages attached to the sides of boat. And then, one by one, they soared down toward the three of us for a closer, measured look. Once again, in spite of my inner misgivings, Dean and divemaster Danny somehow coaxed me from the safety of the cage to stand on top of it with them, as the blood in my ears rushed like a river thorugh my head. For whatever brief period (those watching live video of us said it was mere seconds) I lasted up there, I was in that magical place where time truly stands still.
Eye to Eye
There is a feeling that's greater than fear, and it’s awe. Although I entered the great white shark’s world, it was only as a humble guest, honored simply to be in its presence. There were rules we played by, but it was always clear just whose game this was. Now when I view the photos from that trip on my computer, I squint into the shark’s bi-colored eye hoping to once again experience the surreal feeling of being the object of a great white's curious gaze. It's but one brief moment in my long diving career, but it's one I know I'll never forget.