Shark Diver Trip Report
Isla Guadalupe - August 16-22, 2012
Matt Nobles, Shark Diver
If you're reading this, you're probably already "into" sharks. Maybe you are a diver (possibly even a diver who has done shark dives), and maybe not. In all likelihood, nobody needs to sell you on how captivating and charismatic white sharks can be. You may be wondering, however, why Shark Diver is the right choice for your trip of a lifetime. I hope I can share my reasons for choosing Shark Diver and relay a bit about my experience to help you decide. For the cynical among you, I'd like to state upfront that I have no stake in the Shark Diver operation. I began as only an enthusiast like many of you, and now I am a highly satisfied client.
Virtually everything about our trip was organized and well prepared. Our journey began when we boarded the vessel in San Diego -- there was a quick round of introductions, some paperwork, and everyone was quickly settled. We learned basics of the Horizon and the crew were all extremely helpful, professional, and fun to be around. The meals were excellent every time (some examples throughout the week were the cinnamon amaretto french toast, cornish game hens with raspberry-chipotle glaze, and outstanding prime rib). The ride from Ensenada to Guadalupe was filled with excitement and anticipation. On our way out of the Ensenada area we encountered a pod of dolphins feeding -- a wonderful bonus and a positive omen for what was in store.
One aspect of the trip that I was not entirely prepared for was how easily everyone integrated onboard. Without exception, I found all of my shipmates (as well as the crew) to be pleasant and easygoing. We spent several nights talking, sharing personal stories, and of course we all bonded over the unbelievable common experience we shared throughout the week. One of my shipmates, Sarah, observed that having 16 strangers in close proximity for several days would ordinarily end with us all eager to go our separate ways, but instead we experienced the opposite. When we returned to San Diego, the first thing we all wanted to do was spend time together over dinner and drinks. Here's hoping we can arrange a Shark Diver reunion in 2013!
So what about those white sharks? Our divemaster, Martin, remarked during one of the pre-dive briefings that seeing white sharks at Guadalupe is much more fascinating than the spectacle of endless chomping, breaching, and "most dangerous sharks" lists that we regularly see on television. Sure, we all love that stuff too, and everyone has seen Jaws a thousand times, but your experience in-person with these animals will give you a perspective that you can get no other way.
At Guadalupe, you will have the opportunity to see white sharks behave as they do naturally -- with stealthy cautiousness, curiosity, and occasional aggression. We had some days with lots of sharks (as many as 12 individuals that we captured on photo/video in a single day) and some days with fewer, but more active sharks. The sharks have individual personalities, thus you will probably have a range of experiences. Some sharks circle underneath and others are more direct. Some of the sharks display very clear intelligence and adaptation, which is highly interesting to observe. I personally saw a shark adapt in minutes from slow surveillance to making tight, quick circles under the Horizon, using the boat and cages for camouflage to strike at the floating baits. You will witness them puzzling over divers in the cages, at first from afar, and later in very close proximity. Nothing (NOTHING) compares to having a white shark look directly into the eyes of each diver in your cage in turn as it cruises slowly past.
The final dive of our trip was the most spectacular. When we entered the cages, there was a single male about 14ft in length named Bullseye in the area. For 15 minutes, the shark cruised around us, some 30-40ft below. Then he exploded. Suddenly he was everywhere -- disappearing into the blue and only moments later appearing in startling fashion behind us. He struck at several floating baits and became increasingly bold. He bumped our cage with his snout, delivering a glancing blow. On another pass, he chomped at the float bait and thrashed between the cage and the stern of the boat, solidly striking our cage and poking his nose into the cage window, before twisting away. All of us gawked at each other underwater, our hearts racing and our eyes wide. Our shipmates in the other cage rotation, who witnessed this topside, were equally in-awe of the action, running from side to side and watching the shark churn the sea into foam. That hour in the cage passed in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Several hours later, as we prepared to depart from Guadalupe, we took a group photo on the Horizon's bow; as everyone gathered for the shot, Bullseye appeared again in the water to starboard, as if he wanted to signal farewell. A perfect coda to an unbelievable day.
I am not much of a photographer, but documenting this trip was really important to me. The environment at Guadalupe seems custom-built for seeing white sharks. The backdrop of the island features sheer rock faces, deep blue water, and variable sunshine. It was generally warm and beautiful throughout our time on-site. Water visibility at Guadalupe ranged from good to absurdly good during our three days of diving. If you are a photographer, I would recommend a DSLR-type camera with a sturdy housing. Wide angle lenses are best inside the cages (I shot mostly with a 16mm prime lens), and you'll probably want to shoot in shutter priority mode at 1/125 or faster to capture the sharks in motion. I'd recommend good quality flash cards too, since you will probably shoot continuous drive photos in sequence and speed in writing to the media can make a difference. Don't bother with a strobe, everyone shoots in ambient light and a strobe will only help to illuminate floating particles rather than the sharks themselves. Also bring a polarize lens for topside shots -- I got several great stills of the sharks around the boat and near the cages. In total, I probably shot 600+ stills during the entire trip.
Everyone associated with the Shark Diver and Horizon operation are true professionals. Not only do they know exactly what they are doing in every respect, they really care about you, and they are deeply invested in shark conservation and research. They understand that people are thrilled by sharks but they aren't interested in operating in a way that would put the sharks at risk. For example, the crew are very explicitly NOT feeding the sharks with the floating baits; they also aren't leading the sharks intentionally to crash into the cages, which wouldn't be good for the sharks. Everything that happened on board was safety-focused and I felt as though we were all in good hands at all times. These issues, especially the sensitivity to ecology and conservation, were very important deciding factors for me. Not sure about your priorities, but personally, I don't really care as much about having a hot tub on my boat. I DO want to support people who treat sharks the right way and work to protect them for future generations.
To my fellow shipmates and to all of the Horizon crew, I thank you sincerely for the time we spent together. I knew I would see white sharks on this trip but I had no idea I would return with so many new friends.
To Patric Douglas, your reputation and work ethic are glowing for good reason -- Shark Diver is a first-class operation. To future shark divers, I wish for you the same kind of experience I had: one you'll never forget.