To no great surprise, there are many people in this world who have no desire whatsoever to enter the ocean in the presence of great white sharks. Even safely ensconced in protective cages, some just find the entire idea antithetical to the concept of personal safety and good sense.
Then there are those of us who completely ignore those practical notions of sound judgment, and jump at the chance to witness, in person, the power and majesty of one of the world’s most ancient and thriving apex predators.
Included recently in the latter camp — for a dive trip to see great white sharks off Guadalupe Island, Mexico — were several doyens of military Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC), two former CIA employees, three former Navy SEALs, a Silver Star-decorated Army Ranger/Special Forces/Delta Force medic, a physician to a President of the United States, three of the most experienced scuba divers in the U.S. (all three NOGI Award recipients), and a handful of other thrill-seeking adventurers looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the sharks. And boy, did we find it.
Despite this author’s preconceived notions about the great white shark, they turn out to be majestic, ethereal creatures under the water, graceful in their movements and far from the Hollywood-fabricated images of mindless killing machines. To be visitors in the great white shark’s world, a guest in a cage much like an astronaut in a capsule daring to venture into the dark of space, was a true privilege and a thing of wonder. Some might dare call the experience “life-changing,” as how does one not alter their perspective of existence as a result of spending time with an animal that has prowled the oceans for millions of years, since long before humans even dared emerge from their aquatic cradle.
Enduring 40 total hours of underway travel time on a 150-foot boat over nearly 400 miles of the roiling Pacific Ocean — with swells at one point topping 10 feet — a bit of seasickness for some (and a lack of terra firma for all) over the course of six days was all completely worth it to experience a proximity to these ancient predators of the world’s oceans. The sharks migrate as far west as Hawaii from Guadalupe Island, and also go north up to California, but find themselves every Fall in the protected waters off the volcanic coastline of Guadalupe, as the females near the end of their long pregnancies. The island sits about 200 miles west of Baja California, Mexico, and is inhabited by no more than a couple hundred hardy fishermen.
One’s first excursion into the blue of the Pacific inside one of the submersible cages — with wetsuit, weight belt, and mask donned, and hooked up via hose and regulator to a compressor-supplied source of air from the surface — results in them being lowered by a small crane mounted on the aft of the boat, into the chilly embrace of the ocean. Nerves inevitably tingle, as you imagine a cable snapping, or the compressor breaking down.
Those contingencies are covered, however, and the dive master perches at the top of the cage’s interior ladder, like Spider-Man (or Woman, depending on the divemaster), eager to point out the sharks from every conceivable approach angle. The nervousness soon passes, giving way to wonder, excitement, and awe as the sharks begin to emerge. It is a moment that will be hard to ever forget.
Submerged about 35 feet under the surface, it took only moments for the first great white to swim by, attracted by the pieces of large tuna being dangled on the surface to help bring them up for a view. As they swam up into the seawater-filtered light, like royalty of the deep, they seemed in no rush at all, and far from frantic, bloodthirsty beasts. Instead, they slid through the water with elegance and grace, propelled by a muscular tail fin that gently swayed back and forth as they maneuvered through the water. Only when they decided to go for the tuna on the surface did they shift into what can only be described as a focused intensity.
The shark would make a circle, usually under or near the submerged cage, start to ascend, and then at times go full vertical in the water to come up from below the bait. They would then erupt from under the surface like a missile, straight up into the air, more often than not having successfully eaten the piece of tuna, despite the surface “wranglers” attempting to yank it away at the last second. This was so as not to overfeed them, according to one dive master, who also stated: “In the end, the shark always wins.”
And win they did, over and over again for three days. Some approached from below, some from the surface, with dorsal fin exposed on approach, and others made their approach from a flatter angle but still fully underwater until the last second. In short, they are adept and intelligent hunters, to say the least. Those divers who were in the two surface cages that remained fixed at the back of the boat, at a depth of about 10 feet, often had a front-row seat to this display of awesome power. The sharks would surface for the tuna right in front of the cages. On multiple occasions, as they fell sideways back down to the surface at the completion of their leap, they would bump the cages, rubbing against them, as if to say, “pardon me, I’m trying to eat here.”
Jan, one of our divemasters who essentially abandoned his life in France to dive with the sharks full time, told us during an underway brief en route to the island that we would see the great white sharks differently after we dove with them, and that we might even come to find affection for them. He was right. It is impossible to share the same physical space with them, seeing them dominant in their environment, observing them from the safety of the cage, and not come away with a certain affection and admiration. While they should be respected for what they are, and even feared in certain circumstances, one can also come to find these creatures magnificent and endearing. I certainly did.
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Feature image: Photo courtesy of Frank Butler