“The great fish moved silently through the night water…”
Peter Benchley, Jaws, 1974
Look, man. Sharks are bitey murder-machines and I totally dig them for that! Take all that bitey and murdery, super-size that crap, and, well, you have something really special. You have the great white shark. Okay, maybe also a dinosaur, but don’t get me distracted!
Word on the corner of Super Pimp Boulevard and Big Swinging Nuts Way, a corner that I am known to loiter, is that there is an absolutely wretched island off of the coast of Baja, Mexico that is lousy with great whites. And, at this wretched island you can actually cage dive with the great whites.
You had my curiosity at wretched island as I kind of dig that stuff, but you had my attention at cage diving with great whites!
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy
How does one get out into the middle of nowhere to cage dive with the most evil of fishes?
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which supports research for the resurgent great white shark population that lurks in the waters off of Cape Cod, decided to do a fund raiser – make a donation to the Conservancy and adventure minded boys and girls could get on Islander Charter’s boat for 5 days to cage dive with the sexiest of murder-machines at Guadalupe Island. Oh, and they would trot out Dr. Greg Skomal of Shark Week fame.
Cage dive with great white sharks AND Greg Skomal???
Conservation Note: For you finance geeks, that is two trips to Guadalupe Island at 15 people per trip and both weeks completely sold out! That is a lot of money raised to support great white shark research and all for an extremely eco-friendly cause.
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We boarded the Islander at Ensenada, Mexico and set sail for Guadalupe Island. Yada-yada-yada-24-hours-later and we finally arrived at the island. And what a bleak, windswept inhospitable wretched island it was – pretty much just barren forlorn rock cliffs as far as the eye could see.
What makes Guadalupe Island such a special place to see great white sharks? There is a massive population of blubber-rich fatty pinnipeds that beach themselves on this island and use the surrounding waters for their own personal toilet. Kind of like me at the beach.
With that much delicious and nutritious blubber floating around you are bound to get sharks. Lots of sharks!
Setting The Shark Stage
Well, we didn’t come all of this way to visit the local Arby’s. Let’s do this!
First, the cage goes into the water.
Then, tasty motivation in the form of bait is provided to entice the sharks out of the briny depths. Rotting fish heads is just what the ichthyologist ordered!
About ten minutes after the fish heads entered the water we had our first shark celebrity appearance. Well, that was quick! It takes me longer than that to put on a pair of cut-off jean shorts.
Holy F! THERE WAS A GREAT WHITE SHARK IN THE WATER!
A Note About Baiting For Sharks: The boat only has so many fish heads and it’s not like there is a fish head store around to pick up more if we run out (yes, I understand that the ocean is a fish head store, but shhhhhh). In order to stretch the bait supply, the crew has to play a fun game with the sharks. Human bait-hurlers wait for the shark to approach the bait. Then, the bait-hurler totally bait-jerks the fish head away from the shark*. What a fun game!
*the bait-hurler wins most of the time, but the sharks do get their fill of fish heads. Mmmm, fish heads.
With a shark in the water it was time for the cage-divers to suit up and get into the cages.
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And there I was…in a cage…with a great white shark lurking nearby! I’m not going to lie, it was kind of magical. At this point I might have peed in the wetsuit a little, but that was mainly just to keep warm in the cold water.
Supplemental Fish In The Picture
The stripped fish are pilot fish and they follow the shark around wherever it goes to snack on leftovers. Basically, pilot fish are the shark’s entourage. The other fish are scad mackerel that show up to feed on the fish head bait. The sharks don’t bother with either of these small timers as they like big hunks of meat. Did someone say Arby’s?
Myth Versus Reality
We’ve all grown up with a lot of hype and myth built around great white sharks. Were great white sharks the relentless murder-machines that maybe we secretly want them to be? No is the answer to that question.
My first impression at actually being in the water with a great white shark: this is just a fish. Sure, a really huge fish with an evil flesh eating mouth, but it really was just a fish like a trout or a bass.
Otherwise, the sharks would generally cruise around out in the open water in a total state of chill. They had no interest in the boat, the cages, or the bobbing meat-apes within the cages. They had zero intent on murdering anything that wasn’t a fish head.
At the most the sharks would occasionally drive by the cage and evaluate what this uninteresting business was about. During these slow swims around the cages I could get a good look into those black eyes. There is definitely some kind of curiosity going on behind its glance as it was figuring us out us as we gawked at it. No murder or malice in those eyes though.
Sharks Striking The Bait
A nice perspective from being in the cage was that you could get a shark’s eye view of their hunting behavior. It’s basically a slow cruise in proximity of the prey, their brain decides to give it a go, there are a few quick flicks of the tail, and then BLAMO!
As you can see, the shark’s body really propels out of the water from the power that it generates from a few flicks of its tail. No wonder why there are so many fatalities from exploratory bites from a great white shark. Of course, the giant evil mouth contributes to the damage as well.
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The Gross Hand Of Man
It wasn’t all good under the sea. Over the course of diving for a few days we had quite a few visits from a tragic shark. Sadly, this shark had some kind of plastic rope around its head that was biting deeply into its flesh.
Note: there is a guy on Instagram named George Probst that goes by the handle @iphotographsharks. George informed me that someone free dove with this shark and cut that piece of rope. They couldn’t get the rope off of the shark because it was embedded in the skin, but at least the rope was no longer constricting the shark. George seems to know everything about the sharks of Guadalupe Island so I believe him. Plus, I believe everything that I read on the Internet.
Guadalupe Earns Its Reputation
There was just an absolute crap-ton of sharks at Guadalupe island. The water at Guadalupe Island is as clear as water can possibly get. That extreme visibility allowed for seeing the huge volume of sharks consistently as they moved in and out of the depths. Over the course of the dive I must have seen over a dozen different great white sharks with a maximum of four at one time!
I am so incredibly happy that a place like Guadalupe Island exists – a place where people can go to appreciate the remaining bitey murder-machines that we still have left on this planet. If you dig great white sharks and want to see them from the safety of a cage then I cannot recommend Guadalupe Island enough!