Very few animals initiate such a mixture of fascination and terror as the great white shark. The undisputed bad boys of the shark world, great whites are the largest of all predatory sharks, reaching lengths of up to 6m and weighing in at nearly 2000 kg at full maturity. Residing in all cold temperate and tropical seas, they have one of the widest geographic ranges of any marine animal.
Scott Bennett Investigates
Unfortunately, they also have one of the most notorious reputations. Shark Week’s blatant sensationalism notwithstanding, Jaws hasn’t done the image of sharks, and great whites in particular, any favours. After more than 4 decades, perception overrides facts. Certainly, there have been attacks and people have died or been seriously injured, but a healthy dose of perspective is required.
One is more likely to get struck by lightning or win a lottery than be attacked by a shark. One phobic friend has never even seen a shark outside of the Toronto aquarium, yet won’t even go into the ocean. Surely, a 40+ year-old movie can’t prompt such irrationality, can it?? Apparently, it can. The concept of seeing them up close, even from within a cage, invoked a variety of responses from concerned friends including “, Oh my God”; “You’re crazy”; and “Come back alive”.
I previously had the opportunity to see great whites off Cape Town in South Africa. Although shark numbers were high, low visibility combined with a shark cage as long my sofa and no air supply made photography difficult. Despite this, observing these magnificent creatures in the wild was extraordinary. There was no fear, only exhilaration; I couldn’t wait for another opportunity. Five years later, that opportunity arose at Mexico’s Guadalupe Island.
Situated in the Pacific 240 kilometres off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, Guadalupe is one of the world’s premier locations for observing great white sharks. Volcanic in origin, the island measures 35km long and 5.9km across. A chain of high, volcanic ridges ascends to 1,298 metres at its northern end and 975 metres at the southern end. A Biosphere reserve, the island is home to three pinniped species: California fur seals, California sea lions and Northern elephant seals. Ruthlessly hunted, the Northern elephant seal was believed extinct in 1884 until a remnant population of eight individuals was discovered on Guadalupe in 1892. Granted protection by the Mexican government in 1922, the species has made a remarkable recovery. Today, the population has recovered to over 100,000, ranging from Mexico to Alaska.
It is this abundance of seals that lures the sharks in such large numbers. Unlike in South Africa, Guadalupe’s visibility is crystal-clear, sometimes in excess of 30m. Although the sharks are present most of the year, the prime viewing season is between August and November, when sea conditions are calmest. Despite this, seas can be rough, something I would later discover firsthand.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “It’s the not the destination, It’s the journey”, an adage that proved especially true when travelling to Guadalupe. From my home in Toronto, it is an easy 5-hr flight to San Diego, where I stay a night at the Hampton Inn, the tour departure point. A beautiful city with a laid-back vibe, San Diego quickly wins me over and I have a pleasant afternoon exploring the area.
The following morning, everyone assembles in the lobby prior to the 10:30 departure. The group consists of 15 people (14 men and one woman) from Germany, France, the UK, the US and Canada. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of luggage, a good deal I suspect is camera-related.
From the hotel, a chartered bus will take us to the departure point in Ensenada, a 90-minute drive south of the border. Although the border at Tijuana is only a 20-minute drive away, I surmise crossing it would be nothing short of pandemonium. The world’s busiest land border crossing, fifty thousand people pass through daily and I brace myself for a long wait. Upon arrival, everyone must disembark the bus, taking all their luggage with them. A short walk leads to immigration, where an official greets me with a cheerful “Hola” and a smile. As the company had filled out all paperwork in advance, I present my arrival card, she stamps it and I am in Mexico. I’ve had more difficulty entering my own country!
Back on the bus, we embark for Ensenada. It is my first time in Mexico and I am intrigued. Everything is different, yet somewhat familiar. The architecture and feel reminds me of the Philippines, but with parched browns replacing the lush greens. Someone once told me the Philippines was like Mexico in Asia and I now understand the analogy. Enroute, we stop at a 7-Eleven for some snacks. Upon perusing the diabetes-inducing pastries, I opt for a coffee with canella (cinnamon), a combination I immediately savour.
The drive is quite scenic, the coastline is rugged and parched, punctuated with swanky expat homes and the occasional resort town. The sight of high-rise condos along the barren coast is decidedly incongruous. While not the palm-fringed shores of tourist brochures, the beaches are undeniably pristine and stretch for untold kilometres.
We also pass by Fox Baja studios and I just manage a glimpse of the massive water tank used during the filming of James Cameron’s Titanic. Further south, we stop at a scenic viewpoint. The coastline’s rugged arc sweeps into the distance as fish pens stocked with tuna for the Chinese market punctuate the cobalt ocean.
We soon arrive in Ensenada, a bustling port city that is the third-largest in Baja California. An important commercial, fishing, and tourist port, its extensive marina is home to a wide variety of vessels, from small fishing boats to monster cruise liners. It is also home to the MV Solmar V, our home for the next five days.
A member of the Pelagic Fleet, the Solmar V is a 112 ft. long exploration vessel that is one of the pioneers of Guadalupe cage diving. Ornamented with mahogany, brass and granite table tops, the carpeted salon features a large-screen HDTV with VCR, DVD player and stereo system. Lunch is waiting in the saloon and everyone tucks into a sumptuous spread of shrimp, salsa, guacamole and tortillas.
It’s then time to meet our crew. On hand are Captain Gerardo, chief engineer Aurelio, chef Tony, steward Bernie, deck hands Andres, Javier and “Crazy” Luis (yes, that’s what everyone called him), and divemasters Daniel, Nacho and Jake. After lunch, I am taken to my cabin, which I share with John from Florida. Compact but comfortable, it features two bunks, ensuite bathroom with shower and air-con. For possibly the first time ever, I manage to secure the lower bunk.
With everyone settled and fed, it’s time for some briefings; first with Captain Gerardo on the safety features of the vessel followed by Daniel, who gives us a rundown the following days’ activity. No scuba certification is required, although a certification card is required for the submersible cage, which is lowered to a depth of 30 feet. Participant ages have ranged from ten to eighty. However, rules are strict; no hands or feet outside the cage (why you would want to???) absolutely no touching the sharks and no alcoholic beverages until after you are done in the cage. No problem there.
The rest of the afternoon was spent readying my photo gear and getting acquainted with my fellow travellers. Virtually everyone had camera gear but fortunately, the large table on the lower rear deck had plenty of room for the small mountain of equipment.
The next morning, I am dismayed to learn an unexpected mechanical difficulty has pushed our mid-day arrival to 9:00 PM. Unfortunately, things do happen. After all, this is more of an expedition than a simple pleasure cruise. Having already assembled my camera gear, all I can do is sit back, relax and dream of sharks.
Arising at 6:00AM, it is still dark outside, so I grab a coffee and head for the rear deck which was already bustling with activity. The two rear cages are already in the water and being secured while the submersible cage is being positioned off the starboard side. Despite its far-flung location, Guadalupe isn’t exactly serene. Off in the darkness seals bellowed; if there were seals, there would be sharks!
The sun finally peers above the horizon, blushing the upper ridges with color and I have my first look at the island. We are anchored off the southern west coast and the scenery is dramatic. Rugged cliffs cascade to the water’s edge, while a cloudbank drapes over the summit reminiscent of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. As the sun rises, the colours intensify. Dramatic hues of red and orange contrast with the cool tones of water and sky, the only vegetation the occasional tuft of scraggly grass. Unfortunately, there is no time for photography; according to the board, I am slated for the first group and I have to get organized!
A maximum of 4 guests is allowed in each cage for one hour in duration. Getting into the cage looks a lot more difficult than it turns out to be. Once attired in wetsuit, hood, mask, boots and gloves, I make way for the rear deck to be fitted with a weight harness and “hookah”, the surface supplied air system. After stepping down to the dive platform comes the tricky part: Sliding down a small horizontal ladder (over the water) on one’s backside, one rung at a time, to the cage. Despite visions of falling between the rungs, it proves easier than expected. Then, it is a short climb down to the floor of the cage. Once everyone is inside, the top is secured.
It proves to be a bit tight. Picture four photographers of varying sizes and heights with cameras and strobes trying to jockey into a position without obscuring anyone else. I initially enter with the 20kg harness but promptly float like a wayward balloon. Additional weight is necessary, so I climb back out and change to the heftier harness. This time I sink like a stone. With everyone primed, all that is missing is the sharks.
We don’t have to wait long. Within ten minutes, the first shark appears. Swimming past, it pays us no heed, exuding a serenity and grace completely at odds with its rapacious image. Mind you, I suspect things would be different if I was OUTSIDE the cage.
Everyone is mesmerized. I don’t even take a photo, instead watching this incredible creature only a few metres away. It is small by great white standards, maybe only 3 metres, but hey, it’s a great white!!! The ensuing hour is amazing, with several sharks passing near the cages. They are definitely curious but exhibit no aggression whatsoever. Before we know it, it was time for breakfast. No one wants to leave!
For the remainder of the day, the schedule is much more relaxed. As long as there isn’t a queue, guests can stay inside the cage as long as they like. Being just under the surface, there is no danger of nitrogen buildup. The fellow from the UK has one stint nearly four hours long!
The shark action proves unpredictable, with a flurry of activity followed by quiet spells. On one occasion, I signal the wranglers I want to exit. As I start to climb out, a pair of sharks appear out of nowhere, heralding a new spell of activity. Back in I go. Alas, every so often it is necessary to emerge for meal or bathroom breaks. As getting in and out of a 7mm suit isn’t one of my favourite activities, I opt to keep it on for surface intervals. Fortunately, it’s Bernie to the rescue, bringing lunch right to me on the dive deck. Talk about service!
Even topside, there is still plenty of action to photograph. Watching the wranglers entice the sharks with tuna is great fun. This is an ongoing activity, with Jake and Luis doing one shift and Nacho and Daniel doing the other. A telltale whistle from Luis indicates a lunge is imminent. Most of the time, the bigger sharks swim up to the bait before veering off at the last second. It is the younger males that are more aggressive, in particular, one smaller male whose snout is heavily scarred. I hope to get a classic shot of a shark head out of water with jaws agape, but this proves easier said than done.
Compared to other sharks, great whites have somewhat refined dining habits. When the bait hits the water, it isn’t a voracious free-for-all; if several sharks are present, they size each other up and the biggest one feeds first as the others patiently wait their turn. “I’ve seen worse table manners at an all-you-can-eat buffet”, said Jake with a smile.
The Marine Conservation Science Institute, a non-profit research organization, has been studying white sharks at Guadalupe since 2000. In 2002, a shark identification program was initiated. To date, at least 241 individuals have been identified, boasting such names as Bruce (naturally), Cream Puff, Gums, Stimpy, Kaiser Wilhelm, Pius Maximus and my personal favourite Mr. Valuelink!?! During our two days at the island, ten individual sharks are observed; six individuals the first day joined by four new ones the second. Although most weren’t in the ID book, one specimen was recognizable, a large male missing the top of his tail ID’d as Andy. Most visit repeatedly during the day, with two or even three animals visible at one time.
At dinner, there is good news; the mechanical issue has been remedied. As no one has a connecting flight the next day, the captain generously allows a late-day departure to make up for our missed afternoon. There is lots of celebrating that night. It’s a good thing the Mexican beer and Chilean wine are complimentary! Bernie also makes a wicked mango margherita, but I limit myself to one.
Photographing within the cage presents some challenges. Despite their large size, the cages are buffeted by the surface conditions. Remaining steady proves difficult, but it doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of the motion. A corner spot proves the most coveted, allowing unobstructed views from two sides of the cage.
However, it isn’t the bobbing cage or the number of people in it that create the biggest challenge; it’s the mackerel. Perpetually swarming around the cage or even through it, a great image is often spoiled by misplaced mackerel covering a shark’s eye, dorsal or tail fin. They also position themselves between the cage and shark, giving the impression of shark-sized mackerel. The trick to getting good images? Spend as long in the cage as possible!
Even with the long return trip, the effort is worth it and then some. All in all, I spend 10 hours in the rear cages over two days, plus an additional half hour in the submersible cage. Seeing these magnificent creatures up-close in the wild proves a dream come true. Although a contentious issue to some, cage-diving does help support shark conservation efforts. With shark populations plummeting worldwide, a change of perspective is essential. Once people experience these magnificent creatures firsthand, harmful misconceptions can be cast aside. Rather than the ravenous eating machines of the movies, sharks are vital ocean predators and an essential part of marine ecosystems worldwide. Their demise would be a tragedy beyond comprehension.