Cage-Diving with the Great Whites

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

 

Flying through the clouds towards my rendezvous with my daughter Dana in San Diego, I thought about our upcoming adventure.  After dreaming about it for years, I was  going to have the opportunity to climb into a submersible cage to observe and photograph Great White sharks in their natural habitat.  We were hooking up with a boat called the M/V Islander that evening at 8:00 PM at Fisherman’s Landing in San Diego, our final destination a remote island called Guadalupe Island, some fourteen hours off the coast of Mexico.  But it was hardly a straight shot.  Because Guadalupe Island was officially Mexico, we had to sail down the Baja coast and clear Mexican Customs in Ensenada, both going and returning.  Landing in San Diego, I met Dana without any hassle at baggage claim.  As we had some seven hours to kill before boarding, I had booked us a day room at the Holiday Inn across the street from Fisherman’s Landing.  Just a place to keep our stuff while we went out to eat, maybe take a swim and catch some rays afterward.  For me, the idea of a catnap had real appeal.  I don’t bounce back from the longer flights like I used to and retirement has made a daily afternoon nap just about automatic. After checking in, we decided to have lunch at Miguel’s Cocina, one of the nearby eating spots recommended in the San Diego Shark Diving literature package.  After a nice lunch, we returned to the hotel and relaxed by the pool until it was time to change and head to the pier.  Holiday Inn provided a shuttle bus over to the pier and before long we were being welcomed aboard the M/V Islander.

  

The M/V Islander

 Neither of us really knew what to expect in terms of accommodations.  To be safe, we both had paid an extra $200.00 for single rooms.  In the future, we won’t be doing  that.  All the rooms were tiny and smelled strongly of mildew.  Most rooms had sinks  to brush your teeth and such, but the heads were located one flight up adjoining the galley. I thought nothing of this initially, but would become very aware of it as the trip wore on.  On the really rocky nights with rough seas, a trip to the head at 3:00 AM was a real adventure.  My “single” room had four bunks and was the only cabin aboard with no sink. As Dana’s room adjoined mine, I just brushed my teeth in her room, no big deal.  The  bunks were small and not high enough to allow easy access, so you had to kind of slide into them like putting pizza into an oven.  Sitting up too quickly assured a nice knot  on the top of your head.  All that being said, I slept soundly throughout the trip.  I had to remind myself this was not my usual ultra-luxury Seabourn cruise, but a great white shark cage-diving trip.  The Islander was a fishing boat, not a cruise vessel. Besides, I was so pumped to see the great whites from a cage that no cabin inconvenience was going to dim my enthusiasm.

Our Master of Ceremonies, Jimi Partington

Our Master of Ceremonies, Jimi Partington

 

After a brief safety talk and orientation by Englishman Jimi Partington, the guests were left to get acquainted.  To my surprise, eight of the fifteen divers aboard were women.  Everyone sat around the galley and introduced themselves, but for most of us, it had been a very long day. Between flying cross -country, the 3-hour time difference and having caught some sun at the hotel pool, I was beat.  I headed below to my cabin, careful to duck my head (that time) and maneuvered my bod into my bunk.  Although we were hugging the coastline on our course to Ensenada, this is still the Pacific Ocean, so there was considerable movement.  Unlike most people, the tossing of the boat and the sound of the waves affects me much like taking an Ambien.  I sleep better at sea than I do on land.  I was out  immediately .

The Galley and Gathering Place

 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

 

I awakened early, refreshed and hungry.  Putting on shorts and a t-shirt I headed up to the galley, this time failing to duck my head and nearly knocking myself cold. But pain cannot hold a candle to hunger, and I eagerly sat down to fruit, juice and coffee. The chef was a young lady named Bree who did some good things with a less than ideal galley to work withShe would really impress me later in the trip when the waves really became huge.

Chef Bree and Dana

 

One by one, everyone assembled in the galley to eat and shoot the breeze.  As this was to be a travel day covering 220 miles of open ocean, Dana and I had imagined putting on plenty of  sunscreen and lounging on deck in the Mexican sun.  As I went out on deck, it was beautiful and we were entering the marina at Ensenada to clear Mexican Customs.  Although we had been forewarned about this procedure at the pre-sailing safety talk, the sight of the Mexican officials coming down the dock with a dope-sniffing dog and soldiers armed with automatic weapons was a little disconcerting.  But everything went smoothly, and we were on our way to Guadalupe Island about half an hour later.  Almost immediately upon leaving the harbor, it became apparent that our day of sun and deck-lounging was not to be.  The sky turned gray, the seas grew very rough and the temperature dropped, seemingly all at once.  Two wildlife photographers who were part of our party, Lindsay Crawford and  Mark Enarson     had made this voyage before and disappeared below to their cabins, not to be seen until we had reached Guadalupe Island.  I found out  later that they knew some things we didn’t about this crossing.  For the next fourteen hours, we were given that lesson by nature.  We sat up on the top deck, where the ship’s movement was most violent and the air very cold, with no shelter from the constant buffeting winds.  Wrong move.  Many of the guests were seasick.  I had grown up with sailboats, taken a Sailfish* out in a hurricane and gone on over 100 cruises in all kinds of weather conditions without ever feeling seasick. But I found myself  feeling a little queasy and  had a complete loss of appetite.  I wondered whether this what feeling seasick was like?  The answer was yes it was, and although I was never actually sick, I can now empathize with those who get seasick.  The best move according to Mark and Lindsay was just to lie flat on your bed and try to sleep.  Live and learn.  We all did much better on the trip back.

 

Dana soaking up the warmth of that dynamite Mexican sun.

 

En route to Guadalupe Island

Thursday, Friday and Saturday, September 19-21, 2013- Diving Days

Our first glimpse of Guadalupe Island

 

Enough of the preliminaries.  As Guadalupe Island came into view, I had the same feeling in my stomach as the first shot of the island in King Kong It is forbidding,  virtually uninhabited and just the sort of place where you might picture the big white sharks hanging out.

Jimi and Mike deploy one of the two cages.

Dana and me in the cage. Photograph by Gail.

 

The cages were in the water right after we had dropped anchor as a shark had been spotted almost immediately.  The M/V Islander deploys two cages from the stern, each ideally holding four people or less.  While the cages are occupied, two crew members repeatedly throw bait which appeared to be large tuna heads attached to a rope from the port and starboard sides of the stern.  As the sharks go for the bait, the crew members drag the bait close to the submerged cages to increase the chances of a close look and a good picture. There is no better, clearer water on Earth to photograph white sharks, with visibility exceeding 100 feet.  The divers were split into two groups, each to have an hour in the cage followed by an hour out.  The hour out of the cage was good too when the sharks were around, as a lot of the action took place at the surface.  

Dana and I were in group one and we donned our wetsuits and equipment and made the climb from the boat to the cage.  As many of the divers did not have scuba certification, there were no tanks.  Breathing was done through a hookah attached to rubber hoses.  It took a little getting used to, but actually worked very well.  And having to wear tanks would have made the cages a lot more congested and hindered movement.

Our first visitor.

 

More interested in the bait than the folks in the cages,

 

We had company from a great white almost immediately, although he did not seem particularly interested in us.  Mild curiosity maybe, but no overt sense of aggression whatsoever.  This was to be the case for the whole trip.  I was taken with the grace and beauty of the creature.   Jimi had spoken at length with me about his experiences with sharks in Cape Town, Guadalupe  Island and Australia.   He has found that each shark has a very recognizable and unique personality.  Some are always aggressive. These folks are easy to recognize, much like their human counterparts.  A barroom brawler has a very easily-identifiable look.  His nose goes in about four different directions, scar tissue over the eyes and elsewhere, maybe a couple teeth missing.  The same goes for the sharks.  The scrappers are missing parts of fins and covered with scars.  While injuries to the torso generally heal fairly well, fin and tail injuries do not heal and grow back. The crew can identify different sharks they see at Guadalupe Island every year as much by behavior as by size and appearance.  A shark called Shredder comes calling every year, and although he is undersized for the company he chooses, he likes to come when the big females do.  His torso carries the marks of that decision.  But he is hyper enough to have established his residency.  We were hoping to see a huge male named Bruce who comes every year and had been spotted in the area.  Alas, he never showed for us, which was a shame. Bruce evidently is both playful and a ham, the consummate showman.  He is one of the crew’s favorite sharks, but there are probably a dozen or more that have names and are Guadalupe regulars.  September draws the younger males we saw, but by mid-October thru November, the adult females come to Guadalupe Island.  These are what I had hoped to see, and also the reason I’m going back for the November 10, 2013 trip.  Not surprisingly, the smaller sharks begin to leave when the big girls arrive.  The Big Mamas have no qualms about making a meal of a smaller great white if annoyed.  The big females can exceed twenty feet and two tons.  I’ll be interested to see if I’m as relaxed in the cage with them as I was with the young males.  The big females are the alpha predators, with nothing except perhaps killer whales and Man to fear.   The young males don’t have that kind of size or confidence yet.  It will be a different experience.  The big females may very well be cautious too, but that is out of choice, not necessity.  They call the shots.

 

Notice missing half of dorsal fin. Bad attitude?

This shark seemed very interested in us!

 

As to why great whites make the long annual trip to Guadalupe Island, the answer is very simple: seals.

 

Elephant seals on the beach. Not a bad place to be.

 

The huge elephant seals can exceed a ton, a hearty meal for the biggest of sharks.  There are also much smaller seals whose speed and athleticism are simply extraordinary.  Contrary to all the clips from “Jaws’ with the dorsal fin cleaving the water’s surface,  great whites are deep water swimmers and ambush attackers. They come shooting to the surface from underneath to hunt.  In talking to the crew, I was astounded to learn that less than half of the surface attacks on seals by great whites are successful.  Often the escapes are split-second avoidance moves by the seals, but that is enough.  And since the sharks generally eat just every couple weeks, they are joined by the seals in hitting the bait.  On our trip, we had a seal that had no qualms swimming circles around the sharks and hanging around the bait.  He seemed to know that without the element of surprise, the sharks had no chance of catching him.  And the sharks seemed to grasp it as well.  The seal was never bothered although he was very brazen.

Fuzzy photo but the only shot I got of the seal cavorting with his nemesis.

  

Saturday, September 21, 2013 

 

After cage diving for about half the day, the cages were raised in preparation for our trip back to Ensenada.  On the trip over, I had asked crew member Mike if the passage from Ensenada over to Guadalupe Island was always so rough.  He replied that it was but the return trip was much rougher.  I looked at his face for a telltale grin, but he was quite serious.  The spot where we had anchored at Guadalupe Island was in a serene cove, but no sooner had we passed the point and headed out into open ocean, the shit hit the fan.  Pans clanging, people being slammed into walls, and ocean swells which looked like they would come right over the rails and swamp us.  Our Captain Jason was superb, but it was the roughest ride of my life.  It was during this maelstrom that I witnessed the chef, Bree, at her best.  She was moving almost effortlessly around the galley carrying trays of food to and from the oven while we were caroming around the boat like the balls in a pinball machine.  Remarkable. Just when we were at the point where we were not sure how much more of this we could take, the skies cleared, the waves died down and a warm, wonderful sun came out.  The rest of the trip was spent up on the top deck snoozing and sunning.  Pods of Grey whales sounded off to the side, several schools of dolphins joined us at the bow, and we even spotted a blue whale, the world’s largest mammal.  A really nice end to one of the coolest trips I’ve ever taken.

Warmth of the sun and calmer seas made our return sweet.

 

Back in San Diego, a group of the passengers including Dana and me arranged to join Jimi and fellow mate Justin for some drinks and chow.   At the end of the evening, there were hugs all around, and I told Jimi he was very likely to see me aboard again.  I had no idea it would be less than eight weeks later.  Should taking this trip appeal to you, contact Islander Charters out of San Diego at (619) 224-4388.  I believe they still have openings for the November 10, 2013 trip I’ll be on.  Keep in mind this is roughing it, and you’d best be good on the open ocean.  You will probably come back with some new cuts and bruises.  I did.  And also keep in mind this will be possibly the most exciting and unforgettable experience of your life.  And the Big Girls should be there.  Cage-diving is like every other type of fishing.  You can do everything right in terms of preparation, verify from the boat’s instruments that the fish are right there below you and chum until you’re blue.  Nothing.  The sharks don’t feel like coming up.  And then your next shift in the cage, you have three sharks at once.  Such is the nature of fishing.   

  

This shark shot out from under our cage to the bait.

Fabulous picture by Gail.

 

In closing, I want to thank Jimi, Justin, Mike, Doc, Jak, Bree and our Captain Jason for a great experience.  I’ll see you guys in a few weeks for the November trip.  I also want to say thanks to our great group of divers who got along so well and worked so well together.  Kudos to Kristy Limon, Dana Anselmo,  Nicola Roberts, Claire Forder, Caryn and Cathy Brough, Mark Enarson, Gail Garabedian, Lindsay Crawford and the rest of our group.  We did well.  Here’s hoping our paths converge in the future.

Jud

                                                                               

Fellow diver and wildlife photographer Lindsay Crawford made a video of our trip which really caught the feeling of it.  To view the video, click on the following link.

http://youtu.be/XLhozqV7dPY

 

 

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10 Comments on “Cage-Diving with the Great Whites”

  1. frubster Says:

    Jud …a beautifully written piece and what an amazing journey. Your bucket list just got a lot shorter!!!

  2. Dana Says:

    Such an amazing trip! Glad we got to do it together. The “challenges” were all part of the experience and showed us that we can get through anything.

  3. Nicola Roberts Says:

    What a great report on a wonderful trip! I can’t quite believe that we were there now! :)

  4. Kristy Says:

    Thanks for the great re-cap of our trip. I had a blast, and cant wait to go back. Until we meet again…….

  5. kim Says:

    Wow, it sounded like quite the adventure. I think you found your new hobby Jud.
    P.s. Dana looks adorable in the photos
    .

  6. JP Says:

    Jud – you are unbelievable!

  7. Gail Says:

    Jud, just read your post on our fabulous September 2013 shark trip. I’m glad I waited a couple months, because your blog brought everything back in living color. Thanks for such a beautifully written recap of that once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Gail

    • wjudson461 Says:

      Gail, I’m glad you liked the piece. Check my blog in a day or two. I went back November 17 for a second trip to see the “Big Girls.” We did, 4500 lbs. worth. The new piece will be less text and mostly pictures. Happy Holidays. Jud

  8. Jinmy Says:

    Mr. Judson this is great- I love all the details and the pictures are awesome; beautifully done!!
    -Jinmy @ Professional Eyecare.


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