By Lee Findlay
It had been on the ‘to do’ list for over a decade and finally, after 16 hours on planes, three hours on a bus and a rough 20 hour crossing by boat, I was about to cross it off. I was in an aluminium cage sitting in the blue at 12m, my heart pounding with excited anticipation, waiting for that first glimpse. Then, out of the azure blue haze, in he glided – scientific name Carcharadon carcharias – the great white shark. The immediate impression was one of absolute awe, followed by more than a little trepidation, and the welcome feeling that a sturdy cage sat between me and him, or should I say them, as within minutes we had three great whites slowly circling us. This was the first of nine incredible cage dives I experienced over the next three days, and it only got better!
I was at Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Mexico, 186 nautical miles south-west of the port town of Ensenada, home to a seasonal population of over 150 individually identified great whites. Guadalupe is no tropical oasis, it is a barren volcanic rock, very steep and quite high, reaching 1300m at its highest point. It is 35km long and just under 10km wide, and the above water typography is mirrored underwater. We were anchored in a wide bay on the north-east side of the island, only 200m offshore but already in a depth of over 70m; the bottom drops away very quickly to over 3000m. The island is uninhabited apart from a small naval base and a few fishermen on the south-west side. The prevailing weather comes from the west and, due to the height of the island, cloud usually sweeps around it, so that the bay itself generally sits under a hole of beautiful blue sky. That was certainly our experience over the time we were there.
But what is the attraction for the sharks? Well as you might guess, Guadalupe also happens to be a major breeding site for a number of seal species – Guadalupe fur seals, elephant seals and California sea lions – all of which are favourite food options for great white sharks.
Our particular boat operated four cages – a surface cage, a cage hung at 5m (accessed via an enclosed ladder attached to the back deck) and two cages which are lowered to 10–12m. All cages have surface supplied ‘hookah’ air, with the surface and 5m cages accommodating three divers each, and the two deep cages accommodating two and four divers, plus a dive guide for each deep cage. All cages except the surface cage also have back-up scuba tanks with regulators for use if anything goes wrong with the hookah system. The surface and 5m cages are available for unlimited use, subject only to a regulator being available, but the deep cages operate on a strict roster system. The diving day starts at 8am and everyone is guaranteed three 45-minute dives per day in the deep cages, alternating between the two- and four-man cages.
Safety is paramount, as you would expect. An extensive briefing, covering all aspects of the cage operation, the hookah system and the use of the harness weight belts, is done on the first day during the crossing. The surprising aspect for me was the amount of weight you are required to carry. They provide DUI full harness weight belts in small, medium and large configurations – containing 9, 14 and 19kg of lead respectively – but virtually everyone is recommended to use the large option. I found getting in and out of the cages carrying that much weight to be a bit tricky at first, but you soon get used to it, and when the odd swell comes through and throws you around in the cage, you certainly appreciate the extra weight to hold you down.
The emphasis is on viewing the sharks in their natural state. ‘Wrangling’, where baits are dragged across the surface in front of cages to encourage ‘attack’ behaviour, is now banned. The majority of the ‘chumming’ is done by the dive guides on the deep cages, hence this is where the action mostly is, although the 5m cage can also be good, especially at the point that the deep cages are brought back to the surface, as the sharks follow them up.
The dive guides take down hessian bags containing chunks of tuna (fresh tuna is cut up with a chain saw each morning) and stomp on them to release blood and small pieces of fish into the current trail. This brings the sharks in close but doesn’t get them into a feeding frenzy. Unfortunately, it also brings numerous large kingfish around (the locals call them yellow tail mackerel). They are completely ignored by the sharks but regularly get in the way of the ‘perfect’ shark shot! The sharks mostly cruise around in slow, relaxed circles, but their power and underlying menace are obvious. With nothing more than a flick of the tail they can transform from almost motionless to the equivalent of an underwater ‘bullet’.
Over the three days the dives went from good to better to best. We never had fewer than three sharks on any given dive, and on some of the afternoon dives there were five or six individuals circling around. At those times it was frenetic in the cage, as they came in from all directions and you never knew where to look. At this time of year (August) they were all males in the 3–4m size range. The even larger females (up to 5m) apparently do not show up until November/December, but we were not concerned, these guys were more than impressive. Having seen them up close it’s hard to believe they get even bigger.
I have done many overseas dive trips over the years and the actual experience almost never lives up to the pre-trip expectations and hype. In this case though, it not only lived up to all expectations, it exceeded them! If you have any interest in cage diving with great white sharks, you should seriously consider Guadalupe Island. Put it on your bucket list now, the experience will stay with you for the rest of your days!
Guadalupe Cage Diving Operators:
Note this company operates two boats, the Explorer and the Belle Amie.