By Steve Hutchings
I saw Jaws when I was 11 years old, after which I was so petrified of the water I wouldn’t go in the bathtub for a year.
This is one of many thoughts swimming through my head as I step off the stern of the MV Islander and onto the top of a cage suspended three metres below the surface of shark-infested waters.
Our dive master, Luke Tipple, hands me my mouthpiece, from which I’ll be breathing surface-supplied air. I insert the mouthpiece and grab my underwater camera. Then, with a deep breath, I slide into the cage below.
There are four of us in the cage, off the coast of Baja, California.
Although I swam with reef sharks in Thailand three years ago, we’re all rookie shark divers in these waters, having endured several months of comments like “shark bait!” from our peers, united by our desire – and each of us having plopped down $3,000 US with San Diego-based Shark Diver – to experience the oft-vilified, yet enigmatic great white shark.
We move around the cage for the first five minutes, searching for any signs of a great white shark. Scores of mackerel cloud our view, attracted to the two tunas that the crew set out to attract the sharks.
Then, amidst the fish below our cage, I see a shark. He’s smaller than I anticipated. About two metres long, he propels himself with slow, side-to-side movements of his tail. I crouch down to watch, mesmerized as he disappears from sight.
Several more sharks appear sporadically over the next 10 minutes, before disappearing for half an hour. We’re beginning to think we’ve seen our last shark on this dive.
Tipple taps the other cage with a metal bar, indicating the end of the hour-long dive. I watch as the divers in the other cage ascend and wait for a new set of four divers to replace them. Nothing.
I climb out of our cage, and when I reach the surface, Tipple, in his Australian accent, says “Steve, mate, do me a favour and go back under. There are sharks all around you and it’s too dangerous to come up.”
I panic, thinking there are too many sharks around the boat for our crew to handle and that the situation has deteriorated to dangerous.
I let go of the ladder and fall back into the cage, dragged down by the 40-pound diving belt, and land on my rear end. I’m still struggling to get off my backside, when a large female shark swims past our cage, two metres in front of us.
The other three divers clamour to get their cameras in position. I’m still trying to get on my feet. That’s when I see another shark, swimming directly toward me. My heart races as his snout gets bigger, and closer.
Just as I’m convinced he’s going to attack our cage, at less than a metre away, he veers to his right and swims past me, and I notice something about him that I’ve never seen in any pictures of a Great white shark before – there is a purple ring around his pupil. We stare at each other, eye to eye, until he’s past our cage and disappears into the background.
I just made eye contact with a Great white shark.
Such was our first dive at Guadalupe Island, off Baja California, about 300 kilometres south of San Diego, on a five-day, live-aboard diving expedition arranged by Shark Diver.
Great Whites congregate off Guadalupe between August and December each year. The sharks seen here are resident sharks.
Much like the resident orcas off Vancouver Island, marine biologists have named about 60 of the estimated 200 sharks that come here.
Chica, Bruce and the ever-popular Shredder are some of the well-known sharks at Guadalupe, the latter being a favourite of many divers for his consistency and his aggressive attitude.
On a subsequent dive he veered towards a male diver in the cage, who retreated backward.
A female diver later recounted that she watched Shredder’s pupil following the male diver as he swam past the cage, seemingly pleased that he intimidated the man.
I guess boys will be boys, no matter what the species.
Steve Hutchings is a Victoria-based Communications professional with a hefty dose of adventure travel in his blood.