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November 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Great White Cage Dives Go Awry

it may not be as safe as you’re told

from the November, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Diving instructor Chan Ming, a Shanghai-based advertising executive, got more than he expected when he embarked on a five-day trip out to Mexico's Guadalupe Island with 20 others aboard Solmar V for a cage diving experience with great white sharks. It was October 4th. Other divers had just left the cage, and he was alone with his camera when a large beast, chasing a tuna bait on a line, hurtled toward the cage and crashed through the (too flimsy) bars to join him.

A video of the event, taken from the surface, went viral on social media and there was a memorable moment recorded as the huge shark thrashed about in panic and an attempt to escape when someone was heard to ask, "Is anyone still in the cage?"

One of Solmar V's crewmembers, thinking quickly, opened the top door of the cage, allowing the great white to escape by breaching through it, after being stuck for about 20 seconds, resulting in very dramatic top-side images. Better images than produced by Chan Ming. Evidently, he managed to escape for a moment through the bars into the water before re-joining the cage.

The solitary diver climbed out of the cage after the shark had gone, both parties seemingly none the worse for the experience.

In a telephone interview with the New York Times, Chan said he did not have time to take photos of the encounter, and could not see what was happening as the shark was thrashing because the cage was rattling so violently. He said he was not afraid to be trapped inside the cage with the shark.

"Honestly at that moment I don't have time to get afraid," he said. "Because the shark is coming, a very sharp moment, two seconds."

Not at all put off by the experience, he continued to dive the following days saying, "I felt so lucky. Why would I be scared?"

Ten days after the event, the operators of Solmar V issued a statement to explain what had happened, saying that 'shark breaches of that magnitude were a one-in-a-million occurrence.'

They say they have since reinforced their cages and extended the 'no bait zone' around all cages. All Guadalupe Island operators expect to meet soon to share ideas to minimize the dangers.

But, is this as rare as one in a million as Solmar claims? Well, there were two similar incidents in the weeks before!

Bluewater Dive Travel operations director, Katie Yonker, was involved in a terrifying and remarkably similar incident during September while diving from Nautilus Explorer. A 13-foot female shark known locally as Big Mama bit through a diver's air hose and although one of the boat crew members managed to open a safety valve restoring air pressure to the hookah-style breathing system, the shark became stuck in the cage's open balcony (upper level), wedging itself deeper as it struggled to break free. The divers remained trapped in the section of the cage beneath it during its ordeal.

"It's hard to put into words the thoughts and feelings that went through my head," she wrote on "The first minute or so felt like a horrific earthquake underwater, and I kept thinking, 'we just need to wait this out.' But in the back of my head, I feared the cage would break apart, and this would be the end for me. I was calm, but felt very, very sad."

Yonker said a female diver trapped in the top part of the cage with the shark was able to reach the bottom section without being injured by the massive predator. The boat crew then set about freeing the shark.

"After a few failed attempts, they tied a rope around her tail, lowered the cage back into the water, and tried to pull [the shark] out backwards. Her gills were pressed against the cage bars, so a dive master went into the cage and pressed on her gills, which freed the shark and she swam away," she wrote.

Baiting or chumming over or on a shark diving cage is strictly prohibited at Guadalupe, but some operators seem to ignore this rule. In fact, Katie Yonker described how "the submersible cages descend with one bag of fish chum, which entices the sharks with its scent."

Ed Stetson, who was out on Nautilus Belle Amie, wrote to Undercurrent, "This year, the Parks Department is allowing 'wrangling' at Guadalupe.  This is where bait is thrown out on the surface to attract the sharks, then pulled in before they eat it. Wrangling was prohibited for several years, but it was still being done. It appears that the Parks Department realized this, so decided to allow it, but regulate it.

To get a wrangling permit, the boat must have a pulpit where the wrangler and throw the bait, well away from the cages.  This minimizes the chance of the sharks chasing the bait and hitting the cages. The idea is good, but it doesn't always work."

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