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Great White Heaven
Shark face-off at Mexico’s Isla Guadalupe

The big talk lately among divers often centers on Isla Guadalupe and its great white Sharks. Divers worldwide have started calling the locale "Great White Heaven." I vowed to see for myself what all the talk was about.

In late September 2002 I joined Absolute Adventures-Shark Diver, a California-based white whark dive company on a 5-day live-aboard dive expedition. Guadalupe lies about 150 miles west of the Baja California coastline. It’s a forbidding collection of ancient volcanic cinder cones, dramatic offshore rocks and high mountain ridges etched against blue cloudless skies. This was where I was going to meet a great white shark. I would be cage diving for my first time.

Isla Guadalupe
Sunset view off of Isla Guadalupe
(Photo: Lyudmila Zirkova)

Heading Out
Heading toward Isla Guadalupe
(Photo: Lyudmila Zirkova)

Our group of divers arrived after an uneventful overnight steam from San Diego’s Fisherman’s Landing to a perfect morning at Isla Guadalupe. Some of the divers had come from as far away as New Mexico, New Jersey, Chicago and France. Two of the more interesting guest divers were the Kelly Brothers, two military doctors who were looking for a quick vacation between deployments.

After a hearty breakfast, shark operations had begun off the stern, cages were in the water and our dive master was taking money and bets as to when the first shark would show up. I put down $20.00 on 11.30, about two hours from now. To my surprise and shock not three minutes later the call went out "Shark!"

Everyone rushed over to the side to see a 14-foot male great white cruise past the boat and eyeball us with obvious interest. The experience was made even more exciting by the clarity of the water. One-hundred-foot visibility is the status quo at Guadalupe, making for spectacular viewing. Pandemonium reigned for the next ten minutes as divers clambered for gear and loaded their photo or video film into cameras. Team One, the first eight lucky divers, was dropped into the viewing cages.

Shark takes bait
Shark taking bait (Photo: Lyudmila Zirkova)

I was on the stern in time to see the second 12-foot white shark appear not ten minutes after the last diver from Team One had entered the cage. You could tell the divers were excited as bubbles from low-pressure air hoses erupted to the surface like an underwater hurricane. Great whites continued to show up one after the other, until we had six to seven at our cages in the 12-16 foot size. Shark operations had two Albacore tuna hang baits in the water near the cages. Great whites would cruise past and suddenly charge these baits crushing them with ease in their powerful jaws for a quick bloody snack. As I saw another storm of bubbles from the divers below and another crunching attack on the hang baits, it was getting harder to wait for my turn at the cages.

Getting in the water with the world’s top ocean predator was a real mental two-step. The "simian" or naked ape in me began to send all sorts of chemical signals to my brain. Signals like, "don’t do this", "go hide in your cabin", and "wouldn’t dry land feel great underfoot right now"? My brain was telling me to ignore the naked ape and just go! My body interpreted all this with elevated blood pressure, sweat on the brow and rapid breathing. Unlike Team One who entered the water immediately, we on Team Two had a chance to see the tuna-teeth crunching action topside, and, hence, the mental two step.

It was the second team’s turn and I found myself with legs dangling over the opening in the cage about to push off into the blue abyss. Not before the naked ape in me had one more chance to complain after spotting a rather large 15 foot white shark cruise past just on the other side. I went in with a small splash; the brain had won over on that day, "Hurrah!"

Face to Face
Great white eyes diver (Photo: Jason DeBacco)

The first thing that struck me upon entering the shark cage was the water clarity. I might have been swimming in Bombay Gin, it was that clear. The clarity also allowed me to see all six great whites at the same time, orbiting in a leisurely pattern around the hang baits and cage. These were magnificent animals; they would pass within touching distance, black eyeballs staring not at me but completely through me. I could see minute details like old and fresh scars, unfortunate trailing lines from encounters with fishermen, and lots and lots of teeth.

Great whites continued to crunch baits, turn and cruise past us in a seemingly endless display of raw power and grace. After about thirty minutes of this I begin to understand the seemingly mindless poetic dribble I had heard from Jacques Cousteau as a kid. My inner voice changed subtly from American to French accent and said "see zeh mahgneefeecent Great White, its silky flanks glimmering in zeh suhn, mahnkind is here for but a moment of zeh animal’s lifetime, we are but interlopers in the predators day!" Yup.

The day continued on with sharks coming and going. The Kelly Brothers were always the first in and last out, snapping endless rolls of film and video. One diver came on deck with a deep frown holding his video camera tentatively. I enquired as to the frown on such a perfect shark day. He replied, "I ran out of video tape and all I have left is this tape of my sisters graduation. I am thinking of using it." What do you say to that one?

The next three days were a mixed bag; we never had fewer than two great whites on site. Day four saw another full stack. At the end of day four, divers had abandoned the cages early; they sat unused as the fading sun heralded our return to San Diego that night. Most divers, exhausted from 4 days on board were enjoying a beer in the galley and reviewing moments caught on tape such as sharks who had "tasted" our cages and others who came up for hang baits so quickly they left the water briefly only to splash down like humpback whales. There was even a clip of me battling a 60-pound yellowfin tuna with fishing pole in hand on the bow only to have it neatly bitten in half by a 15 foot white shark as it slid effortlessly from underneath the boat. You had to give that shark credit; it knew when an easy meal was available.

Consider Cabo San Lucas resort and spa for your next vacation destination.

Great White
Great white (photo: Jason DeBacco)

Isla Guadalupe remains one of the best adventures I have experienced. Memories of great whites and new friends are still fresh, months later. Recently, when I took my girlfriend out to a French restaurant, I had to suppress the urge to say to our waiter, "see zeh mahgneefeecent great white, its silky flanks…" One of these days though!

Article by Patric Douglas

To learn more about the Isla Guadalupe dive opportunity,
visit www.sharkdiver.com.

[Isla de Guadalupe is one of the last pristine locations for Great Whites in the Pacific Ocean. It’s discovery and the relative ease with which divers can view these animals in 100-feet-visibility waters is changing the common notion that divers must go to South Africa or Australia to see great white sharks].

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