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January 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nautilus Belle Amie, Guadalupe Island, Mexico

eye-to-eye with a great white

from the January, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Shortly after the social media video of a great white shark inside a cage with a diver at Guadalupe Island went viral in October, friends learned I was going there myself to cage dive with great whites. The reaction was pretty much "You're going where?" "Have you seen that video?" "Are you nuts?"

Cage diving with Guadalupe's great whitesNow, I've dived with Guadalupe's great whites twice before from the Nautilus Explorer, and I've never had a shark inside the cage with me. But on this trip, it felt like they were trying.

Anticipating great white shark encounters is half the fun, and for me that began the moment I signed up. In October, my buddy and I arrived late afternoon at San Diego's Best Western Island Palms Resort, and I could feel the excitement among the divers as we met in the hospitality suite. The room buzzed. Around 7:30 p.m., we boarded the chartered bus, clutching cookies and water bottles, for the 25-minute journey to the Mexican border, where everyone disembarked and went through immigration while the luggage was X-rayed and the bus scanned and inspected. Then, off for the twohour drive to the Ensenada pier. After being greeted by Captain Bryden, we departed for the 150-mile, 20+-hour steam to Guadalupe Island for the five-night trip with three days of cage diving This was one of the quietest boats I've ever been on, with barely perceptible generator and engine noise even while underway.

The 135-foot broad-beamed Belle Amie is a stable vessel, so the crossing wasn't too rough, although a couple of passengers kept to their cabins the entire time. During the full day at sea, I got to know many of the others, including divers from Finland and Holland, ranging in age from the 20s to the 70s, as we set up gear, had muster station practice, ship and cage orientation, and three meals. This, by the way, is not scuba diving; air is surface-supplied, so the only gear you need is a mask, and of course, a wet suit or dry suit for long hours in cool water.

Shortly after our 8:30 p.m. arrival, the crew lowered the five cages into the water. I hit the sack in anticipation of my assigned 8:00 a.m. cage dive, wondering if I would see sharks that early. Great white sharks are the only sharks at Guadalupe; they range from 16 to 20 feet, with smaller males appearing earlier in the season, and the big females showing up later.

Guadalupe Island - MapWhen I wandered down to the galley for pre-breakfast at 6:30 a.m., one eager diver was already dressed and waiting for one of the two surface cages to open. Later, at 8:00 a.m., the 45-minute cage rotations to 30 feet begin. I was guaranteed three rotations a day in the deeper cages, with two other people, the times and people changeable. I signed up for more dives should any vacancy arise, and many did. And yes, I saw two different smaller sharks during the first rotation, a good omen. After leaving the cage, I'd hang my wetsuit one deck up for meals, but there were a few people who didn't appear to take them off until after the cages closed for the day.

The three diving days required my managing meals around my dives and watching the "shark wrangling" from the deck. The five divemasters, Luis, Armando, Ryan, Pedro, and Garrett, and the captain, took turns from the pulpit protruding out over the boat edge, wrangling the large pieces of bait on a line to entice the sharks closer, helping divers in and out of the cages, standing on the cage to keeping it in position, and guarding the cage top opening to stop a shark from entering. One day, I spent two hours moving between cages until my toes went completely numb; I saw other divers shaking from the cold, but they just couldn't force themselves to stop watching the sharks! The first day, along with up to 10 different sharks circling the cages and chasing bait at the surface, a moss-covered turtle hid under the cages, turning his back to approaching sharks. A curious sea lion zoomed over from the near-by island, hugging the boat when sharks came around, and nibbling on the bait or swimming circles around the cages when they weren't. A day equal to any of my two previous trips.

MV Nautilus Belle AmieAll those hours in 69-degree water and air in the 60s to low 70s made a person ravenous, and we indeed ate well. Chef Marco and his two assistants churned out one great meal after another. Pre-cage-dive oatmeal, toast, fruit, juice, and coffee was followed later by eggs, pancakes, oatmeal, breads, and cereal. Lunch might be pizza, hamburgers, or tuna or chicken sandwiches, as well as delicious soups. Sit-down dinners varied, but always included a salad and dessert, maybe steak or roasted chicken; one night it was a taco dinner on the top deck. Dietary requests, such as gluten allergies or no red meat, were taken into consideration, but mine didn't always turn out palatable, usually consisting of overcooked chicken. Hostesses Nubia and Laurentina kept the food coming, including wrapping meals for divers still in cages (one guest marveled at how the eggs remained perfect for hours), as well as tidying cabins and changing towels and sheets. The dining room held four tables, each seating eight, and many breakfasts and lunches were served on the dive deck to divers still in wetsuits. Because of the large crowd, the packed dining room was very noisy at dinner, when everyone was finally out of the water, making it difficult to understand conversations.

MV Nautilus Belle Amie - RatingThe second day started out promising, with three to four 16- to 20-foot sharks appearing. A small pod of dolphins swam by, paying the sharks no mind. For the second rotation, my cage mates and I voted to keep our starboard cage at the surface, where it had the best view of the shark feeding. The wrangler would throw a line with a good-sized chunk of fish and then try to jerk the bait away from the shark before it grabbed it. Occasionally the sharks made half-hearted attempts, probably because they were overfed as they traveled between the other liveaboards in the area. Other times, they would attack aggressively and grab the bait, resulting in loud clapping on the deck. No sharks visited on my third rotation, so I kept my mind off the cold and boredom by watching the other cages and practicing forming bubble rings -- an acquired skill. All total, I spent about three-and-a-half hours in cages on the first and last days, and just over two hours on the second day. Many people spent more time. When some divers began to hog the starboard surface cage, grumbles from a few of us led the crew to create wait lists and enforce time limits.

My upper deck superior room, almost as large as my bedroom at home, had a full-sized shower, toilet, a king bed (could be set up as twins), two-night stands, and a spacious area to hang clothes, though it lacked drawer space and bathroom shelves, so I kept toiletries on a small stool in the cabin. After the cages closed around 6:00 p.m., I luxuriated in a hot shower and then joined happy hour for snacks and drinks as laptops came out for picture sharing. Though a few people had to stand, the lounge accommodated everyone -- I was told that the boat holds 32 and there were 31 on board, plus crew. I also worked on my photos in the dining room until shooed away at mealtimes. After dinner, we tried to identify the sharks we had photographed by name from a database started in 2002 by Nicole Nasby Lewis, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute. I was terrible at this, except for identifying Lucy by her extremely bent tail. (On the upper deck one night, under a sky full of stars, we watched another named shark, Jaws, on the big screen.)

Shark cages rigged at the aft of the vesselThe third and last morning, I awoke with some trepidation -- since day #2 was slow, would the sharks show up? During my first rotation, a couple of great whites swam past, while at the same time, shark feeding and breaching action was picking up on the surface. A few sharks came halfway out of the water (on a previous trip I saw a great white totally leave the water while I was at 30 feet). During my next rotation in the starboard cage, kept at the surface, one 20-foot female shark missed the bait, failed to turn sharply enough and got her teeth caught momentarily on my cage, about a foot from my face! Talk about an adrenalin rush! It's particularly exciting when a great white looks like it's coming straight for the cage or goes directly underneath the cage. Divers had to quickly remove their hands from cage bars when sharks swung by within inches or hit the cage accidentally; I saw one diver end up on her butt on the cage bottom when she quickly pulled away and lost her balance.

For our last rotation of the trip, we let our port cage go down to 30 feet and got great shark action at depth. Back on the surface, bent-tail, beat-up-looking Lucy, another 20-footer, was back for the third day, and everyone rooted for her to get the last piece of bait being doled out. And she did!

Diving at Guadalupe Island is for just about anyone with even a small sense of adventure (I've heard of children under 10 doing the trip). Non-divers are welcome, but they must stay in the surface cages, where most of the action was anyway. One gentleman had a nasty sinus squeeze and stayed in the surface cages, a couple people went in the surface cages wearing only swimsuits and tee-shirts for short periods due to wetsuit problems, and a woman found out she was pregnant between the time of booking the trip and going on the trip, so she also stayed in the surface cages. I've done this trip three times now (it was only supposed to be once), and am already planning another!

-- D.Y.

Our undercover diver's bio: Having been certified since the early 70s, I've logged about 3800 dives. While I hate the stress of travel, a buck up and love diving around the world. My best dives were in the 90s at Sipadan, when you were still allowed to on the island, with showers in the jungle and sinks hanging on trees. I plan on diving until my last breath, even if I have to crawl into the water.

Divers Compass: Port fees of $65 had to be paid in cash; everything else could be put on credit cards ... they rent 7mm wetsuits ... Standard cabins ran $2995/ person; my superior cabin was $3495, which seemed expensive until I considered the distance traveled and the amount of fish fed to the sharks ... We headed back to Ensenada immediately after the third day's cage dive, arriving around 6 p.m., then bussed back to San Diego for a night at the Best Western ... The boat had three huge camera tables with multiple charging sockets and enough room for all cameras, two warm showers on the back of the boat and two large dive deck heads ... Preventive measures are a good idea if at all prone to sea-sickness...no alcohol until you're done for the day. www.nautilusbelleamie.com

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