My first shark appeared head-on in the distance slowly swaying from side to side. With elegant grace and composure it continued towards the cage with mouth opened just enough to boast a healthy set of triangular teeth. Like the star of a grand performance, the shark held everyone in awe as it turned slightly just in front of the cage to examine an offering of tuna.
It was a huge 14ft (4m), 2,175-pound (987kg) female. Her body was sleek and muscular, capable of high speeds if necessary. She ignored the bait and gave the caged divers a once over then slowly swam away, never changing her pace. Author, Peter Benchley, sure pegged it correctly when he referred to these creatures as “natural perfection”.
Once I became a scuba diver though, I was under the impression the only place to see this shark was in South Australia or South Africa. Unfortunately, visibility at both locations can often be poor for photography, usually ending in huge travel expenditures for mediocre shots.
True, the sight of these huge sharks hurling themselves out of the water in South Africa can be exhilarating. Yet, it’s one of those instances when everything needs to be perfect. The right location, time of day and camera settings must be precise in every way to be able to capture the true moment.
It wasn’t until I heard about the small volcanic island of Guadalupe,150 miles (241km) out from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, that I realized a diver could have crystal clear visibility and comfortable warm water in which to clearly see and photograph great white sharks.
It was late September when I joined 17 others on the 116ft (34.8m) liveaboard dive vessel, Nautilus Explorer, for an expedition to Isla de Guadalupe.
We departed San Diego, California for the 220-mile (354km) journey organized by Doc Anes of San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions, a pioneer in the field of recreational shark encounters. During this time, we learned that Guadalupe is home to countless sea birds and colonies of elephant seals, California sea lions and the endemic Guadalupe fur seal.
In 1925, the island was originally established as a Nature Preserve and recently granted overall protection as a Biosphere Reserve in April of 2005, limiting human exposure.
Rebecca Kobelkowsky, a representative from the Mexican government, was also on board, assigned with the task of evaluating and setting new regulations for both commercial shark expeditions and sport fishing charters around Guadalupe.
The next day, Jessie Harper, one of Doc’s shark wranglers for five years, filled us in on a white shark photo identification project she began four years ago.
Within the last two years, the archival venture has evolved into a large binder identifying and naming over 50 individuals. Photo images are collected from visiting underwater photographers and catalogued, using scars, color patterns, dorsal and tail markings for identification. Jessie has since turned the project over to Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research in Oceanside, California, but continues to collect images for identification.
“We are seeing the same individuals year after year,” comments Doc. “Their personalities are as unique as their markings and they appear to be extremely intelligent by remembering failed attempts at getting the bait we set out to attract them with. When one direction doesn’t work, they try another and keep on trying until a different angle works.”
Sneaky Pete will actually sneak up on you. Flash just flies by when he shows up and Bruce, like Finding Nemo’s Bruce, is very big in girth! You can’t miss this guy. He also looks like he is smiling.
Many of the sharks have also been tagged, transmitting important data back to the institute via satellites telling of their location and other essential facts. The sharks appearing around Guadalupe have been tracked as far away as the Farallon Islands off California and to Maui, Hawaii.
“When hunting, these sharks will usually go after prey about one-third their length,” states Bob Gladden, a videographer for Doc’s Shark Expeditions. “That makes me about one-third the length of an 18-footer, a creature which weighs over 3500 pounds!”
With this in mind, I went to examine the three heavy-duty marine-grade aluminum cages on board. Two cages were 10ft (3m) long by 7.6ft (2m) tall and 38 inches (1m) wide, holding four divers while floating at the surface. The third, smaller cage was also along for shark observation at depth.
A huge freezer held a supply of frozen whole Blue-fin tuna and numerous frozen one-gallon (4-liter) jugs of “cow” blood. The tuna will be cut in half, tied to a rope, which looks like bailing twine, and thrown into the water by shark wranglers to encourage excitement. Live bait is also brought on board for fishing while enroute to and from the island.
I’m sure sharks were on everyone’s mind as they retired for the evening, in hopes of seeing “Bruce” the next day.
We awoke to find the remote island of Guadalupe gleaming in the morning sun with hues of bronze, red and gold gleaming in the rocky cliff face. I could only imagine how nice diving might be, but no one had any thoughts of jumping in to find out, that is, until the cages were lowered into the clear blue water.
With water temperatures of 70°F (21°C), I was grateful to have on my dry suit; 5-7mm full-body wet suits (...)
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