Diving with the Great White Sharks of Guadalupe Island
The margaritas flowed as we left land behind and the Solmar V scuba-diving boat morphed into a party cruise for the 18-hour crossing from Baja, California. There was a lot to celebrate: we were heading out to the land of great white sharks and planned to dive with the ocean's most feared predator. It was something I'd long wanted to scratch off my bucket list, and, after talking to the other passengers, I learned I was hardly the only one.
But in the morning, when Guadalupe Island finally appeared through gauzy layers of marine fog hovering above the horizon, I felt the hollow in my stomach outgrowing my courage. The mood among my fellow passengers had changed, too. The previous night's party vibe had stilled into something more reverent and wary as we all quietly took in the striking scenery and let our minds settle on what was lurking below the water's surface.
I'd signed on for a shark-diving trip with Great White Adventures to Guadalupe, a remote island in Mexico 160 miles off the coast of Baja. Guadalupe's jagged peaks, layered strata and waterfalls of clouds spilling off cliffs make the place look like the set of a dinosaur movie, but the crystal clear water is where it's all happening. Along with South Africa, South Australia and the Farallon Islands off Northern California, Guadalupe is among just a handful of places in the world where you can get in the water to swim with great white sharks -- in a protective cage, that is. While all these locations offer thrilling encounters, Guadalupe is known for having the most reliable sightings, along with the best visibility underwater. All the better for me to see the rows of serrated teeth swimming my way.
For weeks, I'd been mentally preparing myself for the fact that I'd be entering the water with the ocean's apex predator. "There will be 18-foot-long great whites with teeth bared inches from your face," I'd been thinking, trying to reassure myself with the knowledge that there'd be a cage of steel bars between me and the sharks. And, even though I'd been a diver for many years and spent plenty of time in the water with the reef sharks of the Caribbean and the Pacific, I was unsure how mentally prepared I was to come face to face with one of nature's oldest hunters -- the top of the oceanic food chain.
As we reached the dive site at Guadalupe, I scanned the water for fins. The previous night's margarita-fueled partying was now a distant memory, and I found myself hyperaware in the present moment. Clang clang clang went the boat's anchor, plunging into more than 200 feet of water just offshore from where a colony of elephant seals and Guadalupe fur seals lolled in the sun. These seals are what draws the great whites to these waters. Contrary to Sharknado fearmongerers, the predators don't really like the taste of humans. Many great white attacks happen when a shark mistakes a surfer or swimmer for a seal. Still, the sound of the anchor chain descending into the abyss echoed the thudding in my chest.
A few crew members went to work preparing sludgy buckets of fish blood and tuna heads to lure the great whites close to the boat. Others hung two steel cages off the stern. The dive boat offered two types of cages: surface cages just under the water and reassuringly close to the boat and a deeper open-water cage 30 feet down. When I joined the trip, I told myself there was no way I'd do the deep one. That seemed far too terrifying.
As the boat prepared for the sharks, it still wasn't sinking in that I'd actually be entering the water with the animals. Then my name was selected to be in the first group to go into the cage. My legs went weak. A rush of blood filled my head.
We stood on the deck watching the shark wranglers pull the tuna heads through the water, and it was only a matter of minutes before the first shadow appeared. Gunmetal grey and passing by one of the cages like a stealth bomber was the biggest shark I'd ever seen in person. No matter how many nature documentaries and Shark Week shows I'd watched, nothing had prepared me for the awe of seeing a 16-foot-long great white slice the water with its enormous fin.
"Pool's open," shouted a dive guide. That's diver speak for "time to get in the water."
Breathing regulator clenched vice-like between my teeth, I slid on my bum over bars across the small gap between the stern of the boat and the cage. It felt like crossing a whole ocean, and when I plunked into the safety of the cage I was relieved that I could see 360 degrees around me and a good 100 feet into the cold blue water in every direction. Whew, I thought, there wasn't a shark in sight.
Minutes passed as I watched the tuna heads leave their oily slicks overhead. If I'd had eyes in the back of my head, I'm still quite sure I would not have seen her approaching. A great white the size of a small station wagon appeared as if from nowhere, taking shape out of the blue. She eyed the fish on the surface, turned her gaze toward us in the cage, then passed soundlessly by, as if unwilling to exert the effort it would take to snag the fish from the rope. But when she circled back a few moments later, the animal's intention was clear. In a sudden burst of speed and a flash of scissoring teeth, she pulverized the tuna head and nearly slammed into our cage, turning at the last second with a flick of a tail that left only a cloud of blood and guts in her wake.
It went on like that for hours. The beauty, the speed, the precision! The rush every time was pure adrenaline. And when photographer Dean Karr asked me to descend in a submerged cage with him for the afternoon's dive, I was ready for a deeper plunge into the realm of the great white.
We were lowered in a cage off the side of the boat, deeper and deeper, until we stopped about 30 feet underwater. The top of the cage was open the whole time to let the photographers climb out for an unobstructed shot of the sharks. It also eliminated a barrier between us and the great whites. As we descended, I thought my heart would rip my chest wide open. Two large sharks were patrolling near the surface cages. No way am I getting out of this cage, I thought.
But it's surprising what you find yourself doing sometimes. After a few minutes watching the sharks at the surface, I wanted to see the animals with nothing between us. So I steadied my nerves and climbed out the top hatch of the cage, holding onto the wires connecting it to the boat.
The sharks noticed us, but they stayed several yards away, making wide circling passes, as if just having a look, before returning to the more enticing tuna-fueled surface action at the surface. I don't think I lasted more than a few cage-free seconds out in the open ocean with the sharks. But the freedom, awe and pure respect for them is something I'll revisit in my head for the rest of my life.