Great White Sharks – Isla Guadalupe, Caribbean

Great Whie Shars
Isla Guadalupe, Caribbean

16-foot Great White says hello.

For divers who attended DEMA this year a lot of talk centered on Isla Guadalupe, Great White sharks, and what divers from all over the world are now calling “Great White Heaven”.

In late September 2002 I joined Absolute Adventures-Shark Diver, a California based white shark Dive Company on a 5-day live aboard dive expedition. Guadalupe is 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 the first time ever.

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 our dive crew had come as far as New Mexico, New Jersey, Chicago and France. My favorite team so far 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 the side to see a 14-foot male great white cruise past the boat and eyeball us with great interest. The experience was made even more exciting by the clarity of the water: 100 foot visibility is the status quo at Guadalupe, making for spectacular viewing. Pandemonium reigned for the next 10 minutes as divers clambered for gear, film and video was inserted into cameras, and Team One, the first eight lucky divers, were dropped into viewing cages.

I was on the stern in time to see the second 12-foot white shark appear not 10 minutes after the last diver from Team One had arrived in 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 6-7 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. Another storm of bubbles from the divers below, another crunching attack on the hang baits. It was almost my turn.

Getting in the water with the world’s top ocean predator is a real mental two-step. The “simian” or naked ape in you begins to send all sorts of chemical signals that you have no control over to your brain. Signals like, “don’t do this”, “go hide in your cabin”, and “wouldn’t dry land feel great underfoot right now”? Your brain is telling you to ignore the naked ape and just go! Your body interprets these signals as elevated blood pressure, sweat on the brow and rapid breathing. I admit I was suffering from all three. Unlike Team One, who entered the water immediately, we on Team Two had a chance to see the tuna-teeth crunching action topside, hence the mental two step.

It was the second team’s turn. 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 that day, hurrah!

The first thing I was struck with 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 6 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 you but completely through you. I could see minute details like old and fresh scars, unfortunate trailing lines from encounters with fishermen, and lots and lots of teeth.

Seeing an open-mouthed shark can cause the same effect in observers.

Great whites continued to crunch baits, turn and cruise past us in a seemingly endless display of raw power and grace. After about 30 minutes of this you begin to understand the seemingly mindless poetic dribble you once heard as a kid from Jacques Cousteau. Your inner voice changes subtly from American to French – “Maitre De” and says “see zeh magnificent greaht white, its silky flanks glimmering in zeh suhn, mahnkind is here for but a moment of zeh animals 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. When I inquired 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 about using it”. What do you say to that one?

The next three days on site 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 onboard, were enjoying a beer in the galley and reviewing moments caught on tape. Sharks who had “tasted” our cages, 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.

Isla Guadalupe remains one of the best adventures I have done in a long time. Memories of great whites, and new friends are still fresh months later. Recently I took my girlfriend out to a French restaurant, and I had to suppress the urge to ask our waiter to say, ” see zeh mahgificent greaht white, it’s silky flanks” – one of these days though!

Isla de Guadalupe is the last pristine hold out for pacific Great Whites. Its discovery and relative ease in which divers can view these animals in 100ft visibility is changing the common notion that divers can find them primarily in South African or Australian waters.