Author: Maurice D. Valentine

Overcoming Fear and Making a Shark Movie in Guadalupe Island, Mexico

Maurice D. Valentine is in Mexico on a mission: to meet the Great White Sharks at Guadalupe Island and make a movie (or two) about it. But to make the most of this amazing (and expensive) opportunity, he’ll have to face his his fears, confront his own misconceptions, and figure out how to film it all without blocking his camera with air-bubbles.

“Are you going to eat all that? You’ve been sitting there for almost a half an hour. You’re probably the only customer today that’s taken so long to eat one of my burgers.”

I looked up from staring at my half-eaten burger at the bartender before me. She giggled at my silence, and as she turned away kept her stare on me long enough that I could read her mind. She was wondering what was bothering me so much. I must’ve looked worried.

And I was.

I’d just gotten off the phone with Deborah from Nautilus Explorer, making sure I had a wetsuit reserved and everything else was kosher for my trip. And that trip started TODAY. My 5 days aboard the Belle Amie, a luxury boat destined for a small remote piece of rock 150 miles off the coast of Mexico, called Guadalupe Island. It’d sounded like awesome fun– but the gravity of what I was about to do was suddenly weighing on my shoulders.

”I was going to dive with sharks. But not small reef sharks. The big ones. The huge eating machines that media and lore have painted as wild, mauling monsters of death hellbent on destroying Mankind.”
I was going to dive with sharks. But not small reef sharks. The big ones. The huge eating machines that media and lore have painted as wild, mauling monsters of death hellbent on destroying Mankind.

Great White Sharks!

Up until that point I gladly told anyone what I was going to do at the end of my 5 and 1⁄2 week trip across the United States. Practically everyone I told thought I was crazy. When I told my mother, she immediately started praying loudly as if she needed Jesus Christ himself to persuade me from doing it! I laughed it off and told her not to worry. Thousands of people had done this before me over the years, and they came out okay.

Besides, I remember seeing Jacques Cousteau on one of his tv shows when I was kid. The White Sharks never got near him. I watched them chase down baits, rip them to shreds, flotsam floating in the water – and his crew filming it all from the safety of their steel cages.

But then there was JAWS.

I saw it when I was only 7 years old. It scarred me for life.  I remember having a horrendous nightmare afterwards of a Great White Shark – not swimming in the water, but in the sand – eating people alive as they slept sunbathing on the beach!

But, back to the pub. My stomach churned inside. It was in knots. No, I didn’t think I was gonna die, but I was thinking just what the HELL am I doing this for? I sat at the bar cold sweating, trying to calm myself down. I couldn’t eat or drink. I’d lost my appetite.  I couldn’t finish that burger. I was too nervous.

After a few moments, it was time to go. The bus was leaving in a few hours and I didn’t want to be late. This trip wasn’t cheap – almost 3Gs USD – and I wasn’t going to let it all slip down the drain because I was dragging ass getting to the pickup point. So I asked the bartender if I could get the burger to go. She said sure and bagged it up for me. I legged it out of there knowing I wouldn’t eat it – and gave it to a homeless man on the street.

There. Did my good deed for the day, God. Now please watch over me as I dive with these sharks. There are no atheists in foxholes (or shark cages).

Guadalupe Island, Mexico

Guadalupe Island, Mexico

This place looked like Kong Island from the King Kong reboot in 2005 when we finally arrived in calm waters the next evening. Marissa brought me upstairs to the top deck after she excitedly came down and told us in the galley that the island was in sight. I got up, grateful to know that the 12 foot swells were over.

The boat had twisted and turned like a top for 10 plus hours – and Dramamine was the drug of choice for everyone but me. Mine? Beer. Specifically one named Great White Beer. Worked wonders! I was slightly drunk, but oddly enough still had my sea legs.

The moon was full, illuminating everything and the air was very warm. Guadalupe Island stood right in front of us. It was this foreboding dark brown mass, easily discernible against the clouds and stars, over 250 feet high in some areas. As I observed the barren landscape, I could hear the cries of what seemed to be children in the distance. Children? Not exactly. It was the local colony of fur seals. The island had a colony of Elephant seals as well – which could be why the Great Whites love this area so much.

“In the distance I could see lights of a few other ships…Thank goodness…that way if something went wrong with the ship (i.e. it sunk) we could be rescued from being eaten alive.”
After I’d had enough of the view, I went back down to the second deck and stood in front of the steel cages hanging off the stern of the boat. The things were massive and there were four of them, each about 15 feet high and very solid. They were all attached to military grade wenches and as explained to me by the more experienced divers, the best that money could buy.

Apparently other shark diving operations around the world don’t use cages as sturdy as these, and that made me grateful for choosing such a top notch operation like Nautilus Explorer. But, my stomach still churned at the thought of entering the water and seeing the sharks. So I remembered back to my days in Army jump school, and how I beat the fear of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane: by being the first one out!

So that’s what I was gonna do. I decided right then and there I would be the first one in the water to see these things up close and personal. And when I decided that, I became very eager for the morning to come as I wanted to get this over and done with!

Fright, be gone.

Diving In

Diving with Great Whites in Mexico

The next morning I was set. The whole stern of the boat was a hive of activity. All of the some 15 plus crew members were preparing the ship for the dives like bees. The cages were already in the water, ready to go. The compressors of the hookah systems were already up and running, and Divemasters Garrett and Ryan were cutting up over $4000 dollars’ worth of tuna for the sharks to feed on. While the rest sorted out coffee and tea for the morning, I sorted out my wetsuit, GoPro – and whatever nerves I had left.

I looked at my faithful Citizen dive watch and it said 6:30am. Time for the surface cages to open. I apprehensively approached Garrett while he was sorting something out, asking if they were open as no one was in them. “Of course they are, Mo!” He said. “Here, come down and we’ll suit you up with weights!”

Moments later, I had lead weights on to keep me at the bottom of the cage and a regulator in my mouth and was climbing down the ladder into the water!

That familiar inhale/exhale of scuba diving was in my ears as I slowly climbed down. The water was a warm 75F as it crept into my wetsuit and hood. Very comfortable compared to the colder waters in other parts of the world. My ears were popping as I hit the bottom of the cage, and I was still a bit jittery. Small surface waves made the cage bob up and down and throw me about. I climbed back up the cage asking Divemaster Darren (who was watching me from the stern) if all was well. He reassured me that everything was, and if I was having a hard time standing to just sit on my knees at the bottom of the cage and relax.

I did just that. Or tried to. My breathing was off big time as I sat there and looked around. The water was crystal – and I do mean CRYSTAL clear. Over 70 feet visibility. I looked to my left and right outside the bars of the cage. Nothing but deep blue water. I looked up. A rising sun making the waves splashing on the surface into liquid prisms, the sunlight shining in bright, shimmering white stripes. I looked below. Nothing but a deep, blue gloom with waves of sunlight piercing the depths. Very haunting. Because I knew they were down there. Somewhere.

“A tuna head attached to a bright yellow line and an orange buoy reached way out in front of me, slowly making its way back to the boat.”
Suddenly I heard a splash above me. It was the bait. A tuna head attached to a bright yellow line and an orange buoy reached way out in front of me, slowly making its way back to the boat. They were wrangling, aka throwing the bait out in the hopes that the smell and sound of it would get a shark’s attention. Just before I got in the water I saw the Divemasters putting the remains of chopped Tuna in burlap sacks and tying them to parts of the cages. This was all an attempt to get the sharks smelling them. Apparently they can smell the smallest of scents for miles. The Divemasters told all of us during a briefing on shark behaviour the night before that just the sound of the engines of the boat would get them curious as odd sounds do attract them, and they have a very curious nature to begin with.

And they were right.

Meeting the Sharks

I’d been sitting in the cage for almost 30 minutes with Josh, a very experienced underwater photographer when the first Great White appeared. It came out of the gloom some 70 plus feet in front of us as this slithering grayish shadow. And no, it didn’t charge the cage like I envisioned it would. Nor did it zip around the water like it was propelled by turbojets; it gracefully glided over to us with ease, taking its sweet time. It really threw me. As the size of this behemoth began to dawn on me as it drew closer, whatever fear I had, whatever thoughts I had of this denizen of the deep mauling and trying to eat me – washed away.

This animal was truly beautiful to look at!

The shark came right up to our cage. It was huge. Almost 15-feet long and easily weighting over 1200 pounds. Razor sharp teeth dripping out of its mouth as it cruised by. I could’ve reached out and touched it! It glided by our cage, its deep black eyes scanning us up and down as it went by. I followed it with my eyes, mesmerized as it went into the gloom behind us – then turned around on a dime and came back for another look.

“…as it drew closer, whatever fear I had, whatever thoughts I had of this denizen of the deep mauling and trying to eat me – washed away.”
I looked at its skin as it went by us again at close range the second time. The texture was almost like leather. On top it was a combination of gray/green/brown, while the bottom half was white. Its body posture was relaxed – I didn’t get any type of aggressive feeling from it at all.

This one had “clasps” on its rear underside which the divemasters explained meant it was male. They also explained that the some 150 catalogued and tagged sharks that inhabit these waters are differentiated by the mottling around their gills and mouths. They’re very unique patterns and not every shark has the same one. It’s led to the sharks getting some rather colorful names, like “Sad Face,” “Bruce,” “Joker,” and “Domino.” I couldn’t remember which shark this was, but it was fracking spectacular!

By the next day I guess you could consider me a shark diving veteran. I’d spent several hours in both the surface cages and the submersibles. I had seen at least four sharks chasing the baits and always coming by to give us the eyeball. Again, I never felt threatened by them. Really, none of us did. The demeanor of these sharks was such that it actually relaxed me. They weren’t agitated and neither were we. Perhaps we were all just in awe of each other! Us by the size and beauty of these behemoths and them wondering just what these things in rubber suits were in these metallic contraptions…

Stay tuned for Part II to meet more of Guadalupe Island’s sharks.
Photo Credits: Header image by wildestanimal, All remaining pictures and video footage courtesy of the author. Do not use or reproduce with permission.