I Had a Close Encounter While Great White Shark Diving in Guadalupe!

Great White Shark

Great White Shark Diving mostly takes place in a cage, but there are some people who dive with these animals without the cage. I’m not one of them! The Great White Shark is the ocean’s top predator, and I know that these animals are wild and therefore unpredictable, so I tend to like the idea of having the cage as a barrier! Today is the beginning of Shark Week 2019, so let’s talk about sharks!

Cages ( I saw one of the sharks lazily eat one of those sea birds!)

Seeing a Great White Shark up close is the ultimate shark experience, and it is extremely popular in places like South Africa and Australia. Social Media is filled with videos of mishaps, so much so that one would think that the mishap is the norm, but it isn’t. Most dives go smoothly.

Randy on the Submersible platform! No bars!

My daughter and husband had had a dream of going Great White Shark Diving since she was a little girl. Our family tried to make that dream take place in Cape Town, South Africa near Seal Island, but the water was extremely rough, and the visibility was bad. My husband, daughter and son went into the cage, but even though the shark was within ten feet, they couldn’t see it. I saw it much better than they did from the deck of the boat, and it was huge. I actually said to the Captain, I think you need a bigger boat. Ha ha, I didn’t mean to repeat a line from JAWS, but did it without thinking. The shark in South Africa was an 18 to 20 footer. Most of the people on the boat were too seasick to even consider going in the water, so my family was among the few who dared the cages. Not the best experience!

Randy and Alexandra in the cage in South Africa…the cage was so small!

We tried again a year later, and I booked a liveaboard cage diving trip to Guadalupe Island, a volcanic island 150 miles off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in the Mexican Baja. Great White Sharks frequent the island during August and September, when the Northern Elephant Seals are giving birth to their young. The island is the last refuge of the Northern Elephant Seal and the Guadalupe Fur Seal. It has been a pinniped sanctuary since 1975.

Active adults don’t worry much about the Great White Sharks.

There are several liveaboards you can book to cage dive with the Great Whites during the season, but while we were there we didn’t see another boat. We went during the 2010 season, so more boats are going out now. It’s hard to believe it was almost nine years ago! The memories are fresh in my mind!

Glorious Blue Whales!

We had an incredible journey. We saw Blue Whales on the way to Guadalupe Island, and the ocean looked like it was full of fountains! What a privilege to see the endangered Blue Whale, the largest mammal on the planet! Once we arrived in Guadalupe the boat anchored, and the cages were put into the water. They attach at the stern of the boat, and it is not difficult to get in and out, though I can tell you, the water is cold!

Randy and Alexandra, ready to see some Great Whites! You can see the other cage and how close it is.
Wesley and Alexandra in the cage with a bird’s eye view!

The water is also as clear as you could ever imagine. Looking down into the endless blue was an amazing sight. Out of that beautiful blue come the Great White Sharks, and they blend in so well in their environment it surprises you how close they are before you see them! Here is how it works: a bait handler baits the sharks with tuna, and I believe they allowed the sharks to get the tuna every 4 or 5 times they were baited. The sharks showed no aggression toward those in the cages, they only seemed interested in the bait. Yes, they looked at us, but not in a predatory way. Kind of like, what are these idiots doing?

Looking down at the platform.

The boat also had a 30 foot submersible platform where one could watch the sharks without being in a cage. The platform was not baited, so the sharks didn’t come very close, but it was incredible to see them without bars! It was fascinating to watch them interact with the cages above. I watched lithe, adult dolphins and seals swim circles around the lumbering Great Whites, knowing there was no chance that the sharks could catch them. Young, healthy adults don’t worry overmuch about Great Whites, they seem to take pleasure in teasing them. It is much easier for the sharks to eat the young, the sick or old, and it also keeps the gene pools healthy.

Zapata is famous, see all of his tags? You’ve seen him on Discovery!
Fresh wounds on Zapata when he showed up at first, but they healed FAST.

We had a terrific time. The four of us enjoyed the dives, the meals, and the camaraderie of the divers. Of course, I was the one who was in the cage most often. You had to sign up for a rotating schedule daily, as 16 divers couldn’t dive at the same time. I never missed one of my times! I took photos and just enjoyed the sheer beauty of these animals. Does that sound odd? I used to think they were ugly, but when seen up close, their eyes are violet, and their coloration beautiful.

My visitor!
A submersible sub the dive operator was trying out, it was very cool as the sharks came close to it!

And so we came to the last day, and Randy and I were scheduled for the last dive. There were 4 of us in the cage, but Randy exited early. The rest of my family isn’t crazy about cold water diving, and while I’m not either, I am willing to put up with it in order to see exciting marine life. Randy went to the 2nd deck to hang out with Alexandra, our daughter, who was taking photos. While I was photographing the sharks I noticed that the bait was pretty close to the cage and I prepared to take an awesome closeup.

You can see how close the bait is to the cage.

The shark who went for the bait did not have room to turn and slammed into the opening of the cage.  These cages have an 18 inch opening for photographers and it was just big enough for the Great White to get stuck, all the way to his pectoral fins. It felt like a big 18 wheeler had crashed into the cage. I was right at the opening where he got jammed.

When the shark hit the cage, there were three of us inside. The young man who was in the middle pulled me back…which was a blessing since I was right in front of his snout (ie, teeth).  The poor shark was panicked and thrashing violently. I kept trying to hold on to the bottom of the cage, but could not keep my grip, so I kept floating up.  The shark actually did a 360 degree turn in the opening, which caused his gills to bleed.  My husband and daughter, watching from above, thought it was my blood, so you can perhaps imagine how upset they were. Alexandra kept her finger on her camera trigger, so we do have some interesting photos from above while I was inside the cage.

Fabulous dinner at Jake’s in Del Mar, near San Diego, after a successful trip!

It seemed a very long time that the Great White Shark was violently shaking the cage. I cannot say that my life flashed before my eyes, but I did think about my children, and hoped that if I died, the shark would take me all the way down with him so my kids wouldn’t see their mother torn up. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. While the shark was upside down I received a bump on the head from his snout, and he somehow ended up with my air hose in his mouth, so my air felt a bit wet and salty going into my lungs. I suffered no more damage than that, and believe me, I am thankful. What an experience!  I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but it makes a good story. Hopefully my grandchildren will think I am pretty cool. I would go Great White Shark diving again. Accidents happen.

You don’t want photos with bars in them! That’s why the cages have the 18 inch gaps!

All of life is a risk, and diving (especially Great White Shark diving) is a calculated risk. It is rare that an accident happens, but they do happen. I want to stress that no shark at any time on the trip showed any aggression. Getting in a cage with Great White Sharks swimming around has inherent risk, no matter how many precautions are taken. No shark at Guadalupe has ever attacked a human being, and I know people who have been with them outside of the cages, free diving, with no sign of aggression. I’ve been diving with many species of shark, and I have never felt threatened. Most are actually quite shy. I’m not the type to stay home, trying to avoid accidents. I am fully aware that it is more dangerous to drive my car than it is to go Great White Shark diving. I love wildlife, marine life, the ocean, and traveling, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, not while I am moving and breathing!

Photographers need those 18 inches!

As far as cage diving is concerned, I know there are pros and cons as to the practice. Why do people do it? Some do it to face their fear of Great White Sharks, some to have a once in a lifetime experience by seeing these magnificent predators in their own environment, and others because they are photographers, oceanographers, marine biologists, or naturalists. I believe that responsible dive operators are the ambassadors of the Great White Shark, and those who have the good fortune to see them invariably become shark lovers and conservationists. These operators also have a vested interest in keeping these sharks safe, and reporting any illegal activities they may witness. I believe the practice is more pro than con. What do you think?

Here’s to kicking off Shark Week 2019!

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Tam Warner

Award Winning Travel Journalist and Blogger, writing about Eclectic Travels in the Empty Nest! From scuba to luxury cruises to kayaking to expeditions, Tam is ready to go! Contact me at travelswithtam@gmail.com

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Tam Warner

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