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Diving with Great Whites in Guadalupe

If you can believe it, I thought I’d get bored cage diving with great whites in Guadalupe. I’m the kind...

If you can believe it, I thought I’d get bored cage diving with great whites in Guadalupe. I’m the kind of diver who swims around a site extensively, peeking and peering under every overhang, always wondering what’s around the next corner. I knew that on my upcoming trip to Guadalupe Island, Mexico, onboard Nautilus Liveaboards’ Belle Amie, we’d be stuck in one spot, doing the same dive essentially over and over for three days — go down in the cage, hang out and watch, come up — albeit to see great white sharks.

Much to no one’s surprise, diving with great whites turned out to be utterly enchanting, exhilarating, and the furthest from bored I’ve ever been underwater. As it happens when you have a 17-foot (5.1 m) shark just inches away, you don’t really need a coral reef to keep your attention. But let me backtrack to San Diego, where the adventure began.

Getting to Guadalupe

I fly into San Diego early to spend a bit of time in the city before meeting “Shredder,” Nautilus’ fully decked-out coach. It’s painted with a giant great white on the side — hard to miss — and it collects guests at a hospitality suite in Point Loma for the drive to Ensenada the night they board the boat. I’ve got a bit of a land trip planned beforehand, but typically, all the divers gather by 7 p.m. to begin the drive, which takes about 2.5 hours, including a brief stop at the Mexican border to check documents. After the coach arrives at the port in Ensenada and guests board, it’s time to begin the 22ish-hour crossing to Guadalupe, which lies around 150 miles (241 km) west of Baja California.

Boarding the Belle Amie

Nautilus has four boats, three of which regularly ply Guadalupe’s waters. I’ve chosen the 147-foot (45 m) Belle Amie, the largest of the four, with a capacity for 32 guests. Although I was worried before the trip that there might be too many people, that fear disappears upon boarding. Launched in 2015, the modern boat is extremely roomy and modern, with 17 staterooms and suites, a large salon, dining room, expansive dive deck and upper level with a hot tub and outdoor grill/bar area. There’s plenty of room for both privacy and socializing on board.

We cruise overnight and much of the next day, largely spent doing shark briefings and getting a head start on the copious overeating we all know and love from a liveaboard trip. Our divemaster Pedro explains exactly how the dives will work. Each submersible cage can hold three divers and one divemaster, and we’ve all been assigned certain cages at certain times. We’ll get turns each day in all three cages: port, starboard and center. We climb into the cages at the surface, using surface-supplied air and regulators. The deck crew slowly lowers each cage to around 24 feet (7 m), where it stays for around 45 minutes before slowly winching back up. There are also two surface cages, open all day every day from 6:30 a.m. until dusk. Pedro tells us we can hop into those cages anytime we want, as long as there’s space.

We also go over safety extensively — no hands or cameras outside the cage, no touching the sharks, even if they come close enough. Although it’s in only 24 feet of water, it is an overhead environment since you’re in a cage. Divers must be comfortable knowing they cannot immediately go for the surface should something go wrong. That said, a divemaster accompanies you on every dive and stays in the cage the whole time. If anything happens, they’ll winch the cage up and let you out. There’s also backup air in each cage, should something go wrong equipment-wise.

Once I hear that the water temperature is around 68 F (20 C), I quickly realize the wetsuit I’ve brought won’t cut it, especially since we aren’t moving around a lot in the cages. The Belle Amie luckily has a wide selection of suits though, so I find a 7 mm — and decide to wear my original suit underneath.

Our other divemasters, Casey, Martyn, Juan, and Keoni will handle everything from getting us into our gear to joking on the dive deck and chopping up the fish we’re using to attract the sharks.

We arrive at Guadalupe around dusk. The only residents of the 25-mile-long (40 km) island inhabit a small fishing village for part of the year, which we don’t see from our sheltered anchorage. As the sun sets, all we can hear is the barking of elephant seals on the shoreline and the sound of the water slapping the hull.

Dive, dive, dive

“At 6:30 in the morning, the cages open,” says Casey. “If you’re ready, you can go down!”

Everyone — including me — is buzzing with anticipation on our first day. Our group of 31 is split about 80 percent/20 percent between divers and non-divers, who must remain in the surface cages. I’m in the port-side cage first with a couple from Canada who’s celebrating their anniversary — “keeping the excitement in the marriage,” as they tell me. We each don a harness filled with between 30 and 40 pounds of lead to keep us down, since we aren’t using BCDs or weight belts. I strap on 35 pounds and inch over to the cage, happy I’m in a double wetsuit as the cool water seeps into my dive booties.

I’ve timed my trip for mid-September in a season that runs from mid-July to mid-November. The beginning of the season usually brings the younger, hungrier male juveniles — there’s lots of action, but fewer giant sharks. The big females typically show up in September, so I figure I’ve got a good shot at seeing both. 

The crystal-clear blue water of Guadalupe is one of the island’s main draws as a great-white destination, and visibility does not disappoint on this first dive or any subsequent ones. We’ve got at least 120 feet (37 m) and the first glimpse of a great white circling below our feet is absolutely breathtaking. It slowly rises, nearing the cage, and as we glance around, we see at least two others nearby as well. The water is so clear that the experience is surreal; the other cages seem suspended in mid-air, and we watch sharks circle them as well before these powerful animals head to the surface to check out the bait.

Everyone comes up from the first morning’s dive grinning widely and excitedly chattering, and I honestly can’t believe I thought I’d get tired of this. On that first dive we count five separate sharks at once, and over the course of three days, we’ll see up to nine on one dive. After three dives on the first day, though, I’m having some serious ear trouble and experience my first reverse squeeze on the way up from the last dive. Reluctantly, I decide to spend the next two days in the surface cages. Again, though, my misgivings are unfounded, as Martyn winkingly reassures me, “don’t worry, all the action is at the surface.”

Days two and three

I’ve got a serious fear of missing out, so I decide to spend as much time in the surface cages as possible for the next two days. I suit up and am in the water by 7 am, waiting and watching. All day long, two shark wranglers stand on gangplanks over the water, repeatedly tossing the bait into the water near the surface cages (but not too near), trying to draw the sharks in. Consequently, there’s rarely a time when a diver is in the water and there’s not a shark nearby. At the surface, the animals not only cruise around, but repeatedly rocket up from out of the deep to go for the bait.

Early in the day a big momma shows up — she’s absolutely enormous at around 18 (5.5 m) feet long, and she takes her time going from cage to cage, making eye contact with the divers inside. It’s clear that she’s curious about us and completely in charge of her surroundings, moving languidly with slow undulations of her tail. I feel no fear, though, only a rush of adrenaline and gratitude that I’m able to observe such a glorious animal in her own environment.

I eat lunch in my wetsuit on the dive deck, and during a water break afterward, I’m sitting on the gangplank, chatting with Casey. The bait, tied to a long hemp-fiber line, is bobbing idly in the water when suddenly a giant shark breaches right in front of us, shooting up from the deep and launching half its body fully out of the water to get the bait. The divers lucky enough to be in the surface cage when it happens are jumping up and down underwater — I can hear them yelling through their regulators — but I’m not sure they got a better view than I did, sitting just feet away as the animal burst through the surface of the water and snatched the fish. “It doesn’t matter how good you are at wrangling,” says Casey. “In the end, the sharks always get it.”

Heading home

Each evening after dinner, we conduct a shark ID session in the lounge, comparing images and trying to match the sharks we’ve seen with known residents of the area. During the trip we identify no fewer than 20 animals, some well-known and some new to even the dive crew.

Our three days at sea end all too soon when the cages close at dusk on the third day and we head back. I tour the boat and chat with the captain, who talks a bit more about the sharks at Guadalupe.

“At the end of the day it’s not about fear,” says captain Beto. “It’s about respect. When you see these animals in person, you realize everything that’s been written about them as crazed man-eaters is wrong. You realize why we call them great whites and you know how lucky we are to share the water with them, even for a little while.”

As I watch the island slip out of view, I couldn’t agree more. A trip that originally seemed like a “one-and-done” to me has somehow climbed to the top of my list of potential repeat destinations. It turns out three days in the water with these magnificent animals wasn’t boring after all.

 All images courtesy Nautilus Liveaboards

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