Monday, November 20, 2006

Face to face with sharks

"We've got shark!"

By the time a crew member shouted the cry, 17 divers aboard the M/V Islander had just about given up hope of discovering a geographically desirable great white shark destination at Isla de Guadalupe. The boatload was skunked on the first day of a three-day trip — not a shark in sight.
And no worries if you're not a scuba diver. No dive certification is required to dive with great whites, and no gear is needed other than a mask, booties and a wet suit with hood. While many a novice has been introduced to great whites, it's hard to imagine a new diver suiting up, jumping into the cage and controlling their buoyancy in the presence of the sharks.

News of the great white shark migration to Isla de Guadalupe, 175 miles southwest of San Diego and west of Punta Eugenia on the Baja California Peninsula, sounded too close to be true. Great whites started migrating to Guadalupe about 10 years ago. Little is known about their habits or where they go when they depart in December. The population is estimated to be around 50, unlike the thousands that prowl the waters off South Africa.

In recent years, the adventurous have headed to Gansbaai, South Africa, the hot spot for catching great whites in action. A large population was discovered gorging on newborn Cape fur seals precariously perched on Dyer Island.

About half a dozen of our Guadalupe divers had experienced close, exciting encounters in South Africa, where you don't have to climb into a cage to catch the action. The great whites there can be counted on to breach the water as they hunt seal pups. But Baja California is a whole lot closer than a two-day trip across the Atlantic.

Departing San Diego, the 80-foot M/V Islander motored 23 hours through moderate chop to reach Guadalupe. Captains Shane Slaughter and John Conniff, co-owners of the boat, spend spring and summer running two- and three-day albacore and yellowtail trips off Baja waters. Between August and December, when the fishing season slows, they haul out two aluminum shark cages and run five-day diving charters, primarily for Patric Douglas' Absolute Adventures.

Shark master and dive instructor Luke Tipple, a cheerful Aussie, emphasized safety concerns. One safety procedure is to chum fish meal and drift skipjack bait away from the camera aperture or opening of the cage windows. "The sharks will come close and eye-ball you, but we don't want them coming directly toward the cage for the bait."

The boat is basic. Its double- and triple-bunk cabins share two bathrooms. The galley/salon seats 24 passengers in four leather booths. Cozy, you might say, with limited privacy.

Cook Paul Grebetz did his sous-chef prep in a small, open galley. His cuisine was hearty and heavy "fisherman fare." And there was lots of it, usually richly topped with gravy or butter. Grebetz's baking surpassed his tasty meals; he cooked a mean rhubarb and strawberry pie, fresh fruit turnovers and all the bread.

Just after sunrise, the ocean settled as the island came into view. The starkly beautiful island is a geological wonder. Its 98 square miles are environmentally isolated, surrounded by deep water. Dramatic vistas along the north end of the island rise to 4,200 feet, high enough to create its own weather system. Isolated areas of colorful red volcanic layers bring to mind the Grand Canyon.
Guadalupe island pine and cypress trees condense cloud moisture into freshwater springs, supporting a community of plants along the top ridge of the island. After goats were introduced by sealers and failed ranching enterprises, the island was wiped clean of most vegetation.

Around every shoreline bend is a unique lava formation. Fur seals perched on top of large boulder rock falls, while elephant seals (both with pups) slumbered on beaches.

The crossing had seemed like an endless rock and roll, with a half-dozen of the divers suffering various degrees of seasickness. On arrival, the group came alive with anticipation. Supposedly, every boat and captain has a different name for Guadalupe's bays. "We call this North Bay." Anchored at the site of a former federal prison, currently a Mexican research station, they are attempting to measure shark movement using triangulated buoy transponders.

Captain Shane and the four deck crew members deployed the 4-by-10-foot cages with an electronic boom, lowering them three feet below the surface and a similar distance away from the stern. A pump chummed fish meal into the water, quickly attracting schools of scad mackerel and top smelt. Two 5- to 6-pound skipjack were floated on buoys off each side of the hinged adjacent cages.

Four divers rotated in hour-long shifts in each cage. Hookah lines filter compressed air through ScubaPro regulators to divers weighted with harness-type vests. Pocketed with 35 to 40 pounds of weight, negative buoyancy enables divers to stand or sit on the bottom of the cage. Circling the perimeter of the cage was a 2-foot camera aperture opening.

Three taps on the cage meant rotation time. Unless you have very long legs, getting out of the cage was awkward. After handing cameras to the crew, the exit required climbing a metal ladder and then precariously balancing on the top of the cage. A wrist grab from the crew was required.
Dive instructor Tipple warned: "The worst-case scenario is to fall off the cage into 200 feet of water with 40 pounds of negative buoyancy weight pulling you into the abyss."

Swimming gracefully like a whale shark, a 15-foot female great white, her neck covered with mating scars, circled the boat. Then a smaller male appeared. The adrenaline rushed, but the sharks appeared to have little interest. They continued circling except when one launched into high gear to grab a dangling skipjack. When sharks were around, the hour seemed like minutes. Fortunately, on the second day, everyone enjoyed the thrill of seeing four great whites.

On our final day, viewing began as usual at 7:30 a.m. A single great white appeared around 10 a.m. and swam aimlessly under the boat at a depth just out of camera focus. But he stayed with us for most of the day, occasionally teasing us with a nearby swim-by.

If you are keen on being in the water with this apex predator and aren't keen on traveling as far as South Africa, Guadalupe is the place to go. There may not be as many sharks to be seen, but a single great white will do.


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