Sunday, September 16, 2012

Guadalupe White Shark Diving Trip Report August 16-21, 2012

“Are you scared?” 

These three words were almost universally spoken to me when I told people that I was about to undertake on a White Shark diving trip. It was all part of my forty by forty, a bastardized version of the bucket list that an ex girlfriend had introduced me to. It is a list of forty things I would like to do by the time I am forty, White Shark diving was number one on that list. 

I remember researching the different shark diving operators and my head quickly began swimming from the different types of boats and services offered. When I stumbled upon SharkDiver I really liked what I read, especially the part about leaving from San Diego and not having to travel through Mexico by bus. Speaking to Patric just proved that I was making the right decision. His enthusiasm and eagerness to answer any and all of my questions put me right at ease. Not a slick talking salesmen like some of those other operations, Patric really seemed to exude a passion through the phone of a love for sharks and the people just crazy enough to want to dive with them. I remember booking the trip in February and hearing Patric exclaim over the phone, “Congratulations, you are going shark diving.” The months flew by and before I knew it my trip was upon me; packing up and heading to San Diego the excitement had yet to hit me. 

 Sharks became my obsession early on in life. The Scholastic book clubs during my formative years always offered those books on sharks that I would readily snatch up. As the years passed by, my shark collection grew to figurines, statues and a small library of shark related books. Now, here I was on the precipice of coming face to face with this Apex predator and fulfilling a lifelong dream.  When I landed in San Diego, the day before I was to set out on the boat, I could feel the excitement slowly building.

The worst part about this whole ordeal was the waiting. I befriended a group of fellow shark divers who were staying in my hotel and we agonized together over our nine pm call time to the boat. The minutes slowly ticked by and we kept wondering if we could head over to the landing a little bit earlier. Finally, we grabbed out luggage and headed over to the Horizon. There we were greeted by an assortment of other people who were just as excited as we were to get this trip underway.

Stepping onto the Horizon for the first time, one but can’t help but notice the two shark cages perched upon the aft deck. This was it, this was where we would spend the next few days observing one of the most formidable creatures in the ocean. Most people would be scared, or filled with some kind of trepidation, not I. The feelings of excitement that had yet to wash over me began to take root. I wanted the engines to start that very moment and get me to Isla Guadalupe, but once again I had to wait.
The crew were affable and ready to answer any question we may have about our upcoming trip. In a matter of moments all of the passengers on board had met one another and were sharing stories of how we got to where we were currently. After Martin and Captain Spencer briefed us on safety precautions and the itinerary, we were off to bed with visions of Whites dancing in our heads.

The next day was a lot more waiting, yet there were a few wonderful experiences that awaited us. We happened upon several pods of dolphins that seemed to enjoy playing chicken with the oncoming bow of the Horizon. The dolphins jumped and squawked as they kept us company for several miles. The photo opportunities were plentiful and it seemed as if they wanted to make sure that we got their good side, lounging and playfully following our wake. Once the dolphins left, we went back to our lounging about on deck.

That evening the display of stars was unrivaled. Coming from New Jersey, the light pollution is something akin to being able to land a small air force on any parcel of acreage. Out here in the open ocean the stars shone over the water in all of their brilliance. Satellites and shooting stars were the order of the evening with the armchair astronomers among us looking to identify the constellations. I literally laid on the top deck for an hour watching the display above in the heavens. After a hot shower below it was time to turn in for the night in preparation for the next day and my first shark dive.

Waking up every few hours like a child awaiting the booty Santa left from Christmas Eve, the time couldn’t go fast enough. Eventually, I drifted off into a restful sleep and woke to the sound of the crew readying our cages for the morning dives. Most everyone was up and about at a time usually reserved for milkmen and farmers, these adults were ready to dive with the sharks. After another wonderful breakfast provided by Mark and Caitlin, it was time to head into the cages.

As luck would have it, I was in the first group to head into the cages, and I also was the first in my team to head down the steps. Stepping down the rungs, it was as if I was unwrapping my present in the form of a twelve foot one and a half ton puppy. I situated myself quickly on the cage bottom and scanned the darkened horizon for sharks.

They say that everyone remembers their first time, and this was no exception. What appeared to be a small car was driving in from the darkness and heading at a leisurely pace towards the cage. As the sunlight began to illuminate some of the shadows it was clear that this was no small car, this was our first White of the day. To try and put into words what this feeling is like is to do an injustice to the experience. If you are here, diving aboard the Horizon, there is a reason; you love sharks. For me, someone who has been a self professed shark nerd for all of my thirty-eight years, I was in absolute heaven. The smile that spread across my face almost caused me to lose my regulator. Needless to say, this was one of the best experiences in my life. 

We spotted a total of twelve sharks on our dive today, with one being a new kid on the block. There were stretches where you would see nothing for minutes only to be snapped back to attention by a flurry of underwater activity when the sharks decided to come in and play. The visibility and proximity of the sharks afforded even the most amateur of photographers (namely myself) the opportunity for several incredible photo opportunities. At the end of the day, the staff helped us out of the cages and back aboard to sit down for another wonderful meal. The best part of all this, we get to do it all again tomorrow. After a great meal and four dives, this writer is ready for bed.

Day 2
I am not by any stretch of the imagination a morning person, yet I have found myself up before sunrise both days. Today I was awarded with a magnificent Isla Guadalupe sunrise which filled up a bunch of space on my camera’s memory card. Breakfast soon followed which was a delicious mix of eggs, bacon and Chef Mark’s banana pancakes which were out of this world. The way this day of diving worked out was that my diving group had a later dive time, and the seven o’clock dive time was an open rotation. I decided that I would get in and see what was going on this early in the morning. This dive was rather peaceful, with The Russian and a new shark that were patrolling quietly. It seemed as if these sharks were like the divers, tired and still filled with a bit of morning malaise. After a few languid passes they both disappeared, the Russian’s lone appearance for the day. Our dives for the rest of the day had great visibility and a few sharks who were curious as to what was going on near the cages. I was able to get in five dives on day two and each one was unique in its own way. 

            Topside, we shared stories of the day as we waited for dinner. I must tell you that most of us were just as excited for dinner as we were for our cage diving by the end of the trip. Mark and Caitlin kept the small kitchen humming and we were never at a want for good food or drink. Our dinner for the evening was a pork tenderloin with corn, rice and spinach salad. A few of us ventured outside and dined al fresco as we stared at the sea lions along the beach.

Day 3

            There was no sunrise on day three. The morning was overcast and a gloom hung over the divers and the weather. We were saddened that today was our last at Isla Guadalupe and the weather was not doing anything to lighten our spirits. My dive group had the first rotation this morning so it meant that if I hopped in for the open  dive I would be in for two hours. Marks’ breakfast was enough to keep me topside as some brave souls ventured down into the dark and what I could only assume was cold water. I passed on my rotation since the weather had now started to mist. My group had a few shark sightings and I readied myself for my turn in the rotation. 

            Suiting up, I was a bit disappointed that it was a little darker and cooler than it had been yesterday. Perhaps the sharks had already tired of us and called upon their weather Gods to make us go away. This intrepid group of divers may have been deterred, yet we were damned determined to get our last dive of the day in. I settled in on the outside of the cage and waited for what I thought would be a few dark pictures of a shark or two as I called an end to my trip.

            One of the new sharks that we had spotted was definitely a ham of the bunch. Martin speculated that this new shark was inquisitive as to what the cages were and what was going on in his space.  We spotted him about fifteen minutes into the dive,; diving low and deep underneath the bottom of the boat. As you get further along in your dives, you will notice there are particular habits which each diver picks up in the cages. For example there are a few unique ways that we will observe the sharks from inside the cage. One is the whirling dervish. This move is when you are focused on the shark as he cruises silently along under the boat. You are so certain that he will loop around and come back that you follow what you assume to be his plotted shark course. This friends, is a bad idea. Shark are one thing and one thing only; unpredictable. As you are watching him he will somehow appear right before you in the front of the cage, causing you to spin around like a whirling dervish. There is the crab walk, the cage hang and a few that I am sure you will have fun naming on your own. 

            The water was beginning to lighten a bit and the New Guy was patrolling lazily along under the cages. In the next few minutes, several bait bags and shark attractant (Ground mackerel guts and blood) were added to try and bring our friend to the surface. The shark got the hint and began swimming closer to the surface for some face time with us. 

            I cannot pinpoint exactly which point our shark decided that since it was our last day, he was going to put on a show of all shows for us to remember him by. I just remember him inching closer and closer to the cage, swimming by and staring in as if to say, “Are you ready?” The bait bag was the first thing he decided to investigate. The day before, several bait bags had met there demise at the jaws of these White Sharks. The crew assured us that if the sharks decided to do so, they could have a bait bag treat each time it was thrown out.  The New Guy came up and played with the bite bag, going for it but not really putting his whole heart into it. The cameras fired up and we got some great shots. Happy, I though at least the last day proved to not be as bad I had feared.

            New Guy was not done yet. He decided that after he had grown tiresome of the bait bag, he would come and investigate the boat. The night before I had seen some red splotches on the top of the shark and I asked Captain Spencer what they were. He informed me that many sharks have these marking, whether they are blue, black or red. They are bits of paint that have rubbed off on the sharks boat when he scratches his back along the bottom of the hull. Apparently New Guy had scraped his back against the boat prior and now wanted to see what the rest of this contraption was about. He changed course quickly and headed for the boat.

            I have seen Jaws countless times and consider it sacrilege if I miss an episode of Shark Week, but nothing prepared me for what I was witnessing with my own eyes. The shark was headed for the boat and trying to bite the underside of the hull. I kept the camera focused on him as he did so, hoping that it was only gently tapping the hull and not going to ramming speed. With the maneuverability of a jet fighter he shot back and came in for a second attack which was now aimed at the prop. 

            Getting closer to the prop, he gently nibbled on the prop as well as drive shaft. What the hell was this shark doing? My morning dive had turned into a full on Discovery channel special on shark habits in the wild. The taste of the prop disagreed with his discerning palette and he turned and looked at the cage. Nahh, he wouldn’t.

            At no time in my trip did I feel unsafe in any way, let me stress that the crew was top notch in their focus on passenger safety. Knowing that I had Martin and the rest of the group above gave me a quiet confidence that no matter what this shark decided to do, we would all be sharing stories of the dive, safely later in the day. However, seeing him decided to set straight for the cage gave me a minute’s pause where I thought, this is going to make for one great fish tale.

            The shark rammed into the cage near the bottom base trying to gauge just what exactly was sitting in front of him. Inside the cage we looked at one another, wondering if this shark had just came in and gave us an exploratory bump. Before we could refocus he came in for a second swipe at the cage, only this time he misjudged his girth and got himself in a tight spot.

            When they tell you at Shark Diver that you will get up close and personal with a shark they are not lying. This is as close you can get to a sharks mouth without becoming his lunch or being his dentist. As he came back for another bump he decided that he’d stick his snout into the cage. Being in the corner, I was able to see the underside of his chin and his lovely row of teeth. He shook his head loose from the cage and I am sure they heard the pounding of our hearts all the way back in San Diego. He wasn’t done and he came back in for another swoop at the cage.

            Unfortunately for this shark his special reasoning was a bit off kilter. He thought that he’d be able to fit between the boat’s stern and cage with ease, never thinking for a moment that this area was more than likely a tad bit too small for his enormous girth. It didn’t stop him from performing his acrobatic act with grace and aplomb; ok, actually he did so in a series of frenetic jerks and tail lashings that caused my whole dive group to exhale in unison and think that we might be going for a ride courtesy of this thrashing shark.

            After what seemed like an eternity (most likely a reality of 4 seconds) the shark squeezed through the opening and we were clear once again. A quick trip to the surface to check in with Martin and we were ready to continue our dive. He continued to pose for pictures, the events of the last few minutes calming him a bit. When it was time to head out, I looked around underwater and thanked him for an unbelievable experience that he had provided us. 

            When I got back to land, and rid myself of the sea legs that had served me nicely, I couldn’t believe the experience that I had just had.  As all good raconteurs do, I wanted to share my tales with anyone who was within a five mile radius and I did so with vigor. More than half of the folks that I had met on the trip were staying in the same hotel, so we all decided to meet up later that evening and head to a bar to decompress form the excitement. We laughed and chatted about the amazing trip that SharkDiver had provided us with and also realized that we had formed friendships along the way. Out of sixteen passengers, nine of us gathered that night in the bar feasting on fish tacos and drinking beer.  I’d say that is a very good percentage of happy customers.

            When I arrived home and began reliving the trip through pictures and stories, one friend asked me a question that really made me think. She asked me, “Was the trip everything you had hoped it would be?” Without hesitation I replied that it exceeded my wildest dreams, and that’s not hyperbole. Many times we tend to elevate things in life, whether they be the fish that got away story or the girl or guy. Even if I wanted to try and make this trip better, there would be nothing in my imagination to top it. 
            I would like to thank the whole M/V Horizon crew for their tireless dedication in making our trip the most pleasurable it could be. Everyone was a consummate professional and their knowledge and helpfulness made for an experience of a lifetime. Someday in the future I will head back to Isla Guadalupe and a new cadre of friends both above, and below the water will great me.

Just an FYI, new guy wasn’t entirely new. He was Bullseye, a shark who hadn’t been seen in Isla Guadalupe for three years. Just proving once again that if anything, these sharks are unpredictable.

Shark Diver,

Jason Ordini 2012
Isla Guadalupe, Mexico

About Shark Diver. As a global leader in commercial shark diving and conservation initiatives Shark Diver has spent the past decade engaged for sharks around the world. Our blog highlights all aspects of both of these dynamic and shifting worlds. You can reach us directly at