Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Guadalupe Island -Trip Report 2009

Editors note: Megan Murray almost became a Shark Diver in 2008. Unfortunately she had to cancel her trip with us at the last moment.

The upside is she joined us this year, and as they say, "the second times is the charm":

Where Things Start

The other day I was sharing the details of my trip to Isla Guadalupe with a friend. I started with the story of meeting everyone on the H&M Landing on the morning of August 17th. I began to see folks with suitcases and no fishing poles and started to figure these may be fellow travelers bound for the Horizon. I think it was Jeff who called out the first time. “Who’s here to shark dive!?” Ice broken.

After two years of telling people about my trip plan and getting “oh my god! Are you nuts!” in response, it was awesome to be surrounded by folks who were up for it. Not just up for it but stoked to get out there and see some White Sharks up close. Maybe it’s my own stereotyping of what sharking is all about, but I didn’t expect to see a lot of other women on the trip. I had this story that I’d be surrounded by tough guys. All certified, all knowing, and that I’d be the odd woman out. Not so friends. I shared the experience with four other women, and half of our group wasn’t certified. We were from everywhere, with all kinds of stories about why we were there. Meeting everyone was a big part of the trip for me that I had barely considered in my excitement to see some sharks. The people were just fantastic and I’m thrilled to say I’m still connected with them.

After the story intro, my friend said “It’s like Fantasy Island!” Hmm… something like that. It’s just that Martin isn’t as snappy a dresser as Mr. Rourke. (Almost buddy! I swear!)

The crew was just fantastic. We were well fed, well cared for and even entertained. And I don’t necessarily mean Jeff’s tendency to break into song or show you his moves. Mark’s cooking was awesome. I began to think he might be fattening us up for something… hmmm. It’s a pretty fantastic thing to have a bunch of great guys heeding your every need while hanging near a remote island in the Pacific. C’mon ladies. How often does this happen for you?

The Crossing

When you get your prep packet and it says to plan for seasickness, plan for seasickness. I was cocky with my patches, Dramamine, and ginger. Yeah whatever, modern and ancient methods of seasickness mitigation, the Pacific will win! Being my very first open water crossing of this magnitude, I was pretty much doomed. In all reality, the drugs did a good job. It’s just important to have a plan for the crossing

(Beyond geeking out that I was indeed on my way, I didn’t). Give yourself things to do.

So what’s to do for 22 hours? How about meet your fellow divers, get your ‘this is what the boat looks like’ pictures, watch one of the many onboard DVDs, or read? There’s a plethora of shark and diving reading material on board for the trip. Including a fantastic photo book of identified IG sharks and the differences in their markings. Let me begin the lobby for publishing of this book please! Maybe an IG Shark of the Month calendar… oh yeesh, that’s a whole different kind of shark porn. Proceeds go to the conservation effort maybe? Let some of your better photographer guests contribute to the cause by offering up a great pic for the sharks? Just cloud busting here guys.

Back to the crossing… Overall, wear lots of sunscreen regardless of the weather, and don’t just stare at the world rocking up and down. Not unless you want to be rocked to sleep like a sick baby, or feel a constant state of almost queasy. Oh the things you’ll learn. The best part of the crossing is waking up to a boat that isn’t rocking with gusto, and realizing, wait. I’m here.

Isla Guadalupe

When I woke up on the first dive day I crawled out of my bunk and climbed the spiral staircase to the main lounge where I could smell breakfast and see the morning sun. At the top of the stairs I could see out of the window to the beautifully striated rocks and glittering deep azure water of the island. It was all of the pictures and video I’d ever seen come to life. It was stunning and surreal. We could see clouds boiling over the tops of the island. The tone of the morning was awe. We all quietly said our good mornings and grabbed something to eat. We could hear the winch that lifted the cages into place while we munched our breakfast. I could see what I felt on everyone’s faces.

Excitement, awe, anticipation… we had it all.Let’s get right to it. The first day was surreal.Rise & shine, get your info, squeeze into a wetsuit and you are in. “OK, who’s next!?” I think Martin’s unquestioning confidence about what was about to happen made it really easy to simply get in a cage without thinking about any negative outcome. We’d covered all of the safety dos and don’ts. We had our breathing and our masks under control. Now it’s just you, some new friends, a cage, your attentive crew, a whole lot’ a water, scad, mackerel, and those fish you came to see. Now wait.Your mind turns to other things… Test some camera settings.Get your breathing in check so you can stay down without working at it. Try not to get spun up in your air line.

It all melts away the second you get your first shadow of big movement. Like smoke in a familiar shape, just distant enough that you question whether you’ve seen anything at all. You know they are here. It was at this stage I noticed my cage buddies and I were all facing different directions and on patrol. We just slid into it. This is where it gets really good.

The mackerel parted and we saw the first Great White gliding in the distance. I stopped breathing and wondered if he’d noticed. It was a primal moment. I felt, just for a second, like a Gazelle at a watering hole. I gripped the cage firmly and remembered all of the systems that were in place to protect me. The fear fell away. There before me was this most beautiful animal, more flying than swimming. I’d been prepping to take this all in for two years and here it was. That moment alone was worth the price of admission. The White Sharks at IG are exactly as advertised; big beautiful, and bountiful.

We didn’t wait long for that first moment. In the first day we’d meet three sharks. I was blown away. We did one hour rotations until the sun got too low in the sky to safely see what was going on. It was hours and it felt like no time at all. We were pumped. The experience of first time proximity to these animals is overwhelming. It’s hard to explain it without getting verbose and gushy (at least for this writer). It is silent except for the sound of your own bubbles and breathing. This vast, and I do mean vast, animal is moving slowly toward you like liquid in liquid, incredibly conservative in its movement. There’s no need to rush. He’s the snake-charmer and you are the snake. Then a slight duck down and he’s gliding right beneath the cage. You get a good slow look at all of the details. The grey topside of their bodies look like they’d be soft as velvet underwater. More of that snake-charmer stuff… we know those denticles can draw blood. One of my favorite moments was the first time I was checked out. I, or someone in the cage, had moved enough to be noticed. A shark gliding past the front of the cage shifted his head and had a visual lock on us in a nanosecond, not unlike a dog. Snap… I’m looking at you. We could see his eye moving up and down the cage sizing each of us up. Probably more ‘why are the stupid bald monkeys in the cage again?’ than ‘you look like dinner’. I realized that their eyes are far from solid black orbs. There’s a greenish, clearish color to them, and you can see a distinct iris (I think) in there. It almost gives them expression. I wasn’t prepared for that. My favorite expression was Bruce’s. Martin commented that Bruce has a kind of grin when you see him head on, and I agree. He’s got almost cute white marshmallow jowls that accentuate the look.

I remember a time when I was so irrationally frightened of sharks. Honestly people, we’re talking frightened in pools. That time is long gone. These animals have personality, and cunning, and beauty, and ferocity and they don’t want you, they are doggedly curious. Curious enough to be really dangerous if you don’t know their territory, and don’t understand their habits. Bruce on the other hand is down-right cute. For a Great White Shark that is. Bruce takes the cute approach to snake charming.

It’s like the Shark Week I wish Discovery would broadcast. One of the coolest parts of the trip was meeting Mauricio Hoyos, a researcher who makes his home on the island for four months of the year. You can see his research complex (read: shack) on Google Earth. Once you’ve seen it you will understand what a commitment this guy has made to the IG ecosystem. Mauricio joined us for dinner one night and offered us a fantastic presentation about the IG sharks. This was a really important part of the trip for me. To see the work being done, the passion around it, and to learn throughout the process was priceless for me. This is what ecotourism should be.

Remember what I said about sunscreen?

Due to a large bit of stupidity, and substantially rockin’ sunburn, I didn’t get to take advantage of every rotation on the final two days, but insisted on getting in and saying hi at least once each day. I was never disappointed. There were sharks every time. It struck me that each day they seemed to get a little more comfortable, a little more curious, and a whole lot closer. It was nonstop. Even when I wasn’t in the water, instead perched at my steak-out in the shade, I got awesome shots of dorsal fins in the water, video of minor breaches, and great color commentary from my boat mates. “Two White Sharks! Ah ah ah!”… The Count still makes me laugh. The water at IG is so amazingly clear you can see tens of feet down just standing topside. Some of our sharks were in the habit of wide, boat-sized circles where they’d approach the cages by running down the port rail. I could walk down the side of the boat watching them slice through the water. Just beautiful. This trip sealed the deal. I’m totally mesmerized by these creatures. Here’s what you gotta do.

I’m praying my planets align so I can go back to IG next year. Not only will I get to see the beauty of IG, and the great folks from Shark Diver, but I’ve now got buddies who’s “OMG” response means they want to come too. If you are a fan of this blog I me implore you to take this trip. Meet these creatures face to face and learn as much as you can. If you can’t make the trip, support the conservation efforts in any way you can. Be an advocate. Support pro shark laws and research efforts. Talk to your friends about the reality of sharks and their plight. Spread the word about protecting these awesome creatures and don’t believe the shark porn disguised as educational media. It’s more dangerous and damaging than any shark I’ve met.

I can’t wait to climb the spiral stairs and see that island again.

Megan Murray

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