ISLA GUADALUPE - AUGUST 2-4, 2015

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip)

If you’ve ever had a yearning to dive with Great White Sharks, there are a couple of places in the world where you can do so, but Guadalupe Island (or more correctly, Isla Guadalupe)  probably is the king of the heap. We not only just completed our first trip there (we’re going back in October), but I’m writing this on the journey back, while we’re getting tossed around by 6-8 foot seas.

And that brings up one of the issues with going here: Like trips to Cocos and Socorro, it involves a long open-ocean crossing to get from Ensenada (the port of embarkation) out to Guadalupe, some 200 miles south, well offshore of the Baja Peninsula. So you need a good boat to get there. There are half a dozen boats that run to Guadalupe and we were on the newest of the bunch, the Nautilus Bell Amie (sister ship of the Nautilus Explorer).

In a word, the boat is fabulous. (So is the crew. More on them later.) Belle Amie is probably the nicest dive boat I’ve ever been on. First of all, it’s huge. 150 feet long and almost 35 feet wide. There are four functional decks. The lower deck has the standard staterooms and crew quarters. All the rooms have their own head and shower and I thought the bedding was super comfortable. The main deck is the dive deck (where there are also two on-deck heads), galley & dining area (the food was excellent, plentiful, and varied BTW), salon, and two super-duper Premium staterooms. The second deck has six Superior staterooms and the bridge, and the upper deck is the sundeck with a bar, Jacuzzi, deck chairs, and plenty of space to hang out. With 26 passengers and 11 crew, it never felt crowded. We were 8 strong: Sharon Depreister, Rafi Reisfeld, Dave Alarcon, Annette Lohman, Denise Hurst, Patti Wey, Jennifer Dillon, and me (Ken Kurtis).

It takes about 20 hours (depending on the seas) to get there. First you get to San Diego. Unfortunately for us, we drove down on one of the worst traffic days in recent memory and it took four-and-a-half hours to reach San Diego via the 405 and the 5. Once there, we went to the Ramada Inn on Rosecrans near the airport as that’s the departure point for the trip. If you drive, you can leave your car at the Ramada for $10/day. We checked in with the Belle Amie DM, stashed our bags in a common room, and got something to eat. Around 7PM, you board the chartered bus and head south for Ensenada.

The border crossing is a bit of a pain as you not only have to get off the bus, but also have to get all your luggage off the bus. You fill out a Mexican Immigration form, then take your bags through Customs, play red light/green light, carry your bags back to the bus, and off you go. Overall, it took about three hours to get to Ensenada.

Even then, the bus pulls up to the port which is a “secure” facility. A guard boards and once again checks all passports against a master manifest. Once the bus is cleared (which took almost half an hour), you then get off and go through a metal detector and are FINALLY allowed out on the dock where the boat is tied up. The crew loads your bags from the bus on the boat and a little after midnight, we untied and were on our way. Needless to say, everyone was tired and went to bed. So the first day of the trip, like many dive trips Reef Seekers runs, is spent on the logistics of getting you there.

The second day is a full day at sea as you don’t arrive at Isla Guadalupe until after sunset. But that gives plenty of time to relax from the day before, hook up camera gear, get to know your fellow passengers and crew, pull out dive gear, and listen to short talks on cage Diving 101 and Great White Sharks 101.

All the diving is done from cages and the Belle Amie has five. Three of them are submerged cages (port, starboard, and middle) that are boarded at stern deck level and then are lowered down about 35 feet. Each of these cages is a double-decker, with the lower half for the passengers and the upper half for the DM who accompanies each cage.

The other two cages are the surface and the 20-foot submerged cage, both of which are attached to opposite corners of the stern and both are about 10 feet tall. For the surface cage, you hop in and settle 10 feet below the surface. For the 20-foot cage, you go down a protected ladder and then drop into a 10-foot cage. (You can see pictures of all the cages on the SmugMug slideshow.)

From a diving standpoint, all the cages are the same. All the diving is done off of a master hookah system so there’s no need for tanks or BCs. To make sure you’re good and negative, DUI weight & harness systems are used and they’re loaded up with anywhere from 25-45 pounds of weight. (You’ll use more than you think you need.) All you do prior to a dive is put on your wetsuit and booties. I wore a 5mm – others went in 3mm, some people had drysuits, there was one shorty, and one or two times people went just in bathing suits. Slap your mask on, put on a weight harness, and you’re good to go.

Each of the cages has four regulators running off a single manifold. On the submerged cages, one is for the DM and the other three are for diving guests. On the surface and 20-foot cage, there’s no DM, so you can put as many as four divers in each of those. (There are also emergency tanks in each cage should the hookah system fail, which never happened on our trip.) You step on to the cage, start down ladder, they hand you the reg over your right shoulder, you drop to the bottom, and then move to a corner of the cage to make room for others joining you and you’re good to go.

All the cages are made out of stainless steel and they all have excellent sight lines. The space between the bars is small enough that a shark can’t stick his nose in, but big enough that you can stick your camera (and sometimes even the upper half of your body) out so it’s easy to get shots of the sharks without any bars in the picture.

The three submerged cages run from roughly 8AM-5PM with a cage dropping every ten minutes. To ensure that everyone gets an equal shot at these, each day there’s a schedule posted as to who’s in which cage for which drop. Everyone was given four cage drops each day, and each dive lasted about 40 minutes. If you don’t want to go at your scheduled time, you just let them know and they make that slot OPEN. By the same token, if there’s an OPEN slot, regardless of how many submerged cage dives you’ve done, they’re available to the first person that wants it. The reality was that the first day, just about everyone did all of their scheduled dives. On the second day, most people did most of their scheduled dives but there were plenty of OPEN spots to go around. And on the third day, probably half the people did half their dives so you could pretty much dive in a submerged cage anytime you wanted.

The surface and 20-foot cages are open from roughly 7AM-6PM and available at any time for those who want to go in. As long as there’s a reg available, have at it and stay as long as you want. There were times when I would finish a submerged cage dive and hop right into one of the other cages to continue observing and shooting. I think one day I spent two hours underwater without a break.

And speaking of observing, don’t feel like you have to be a photographer to enjoy this trip. Although we certainly had our share (the boat has 24 charging stations spread out over three triple-decked camera tables), there were non-photogs too. And even my first two short dives (in the surface and 20-foot cages prior to my first submerged cage dive), I didn’t take a camera and spent the time just observing the behavior of the animals.

And while we certainly had plenty of sharks, the first thing you’ll notice are the Yellowtail. There are hundreds of them hanging under the boat and around the cages. And they’re big, three to four feet long. They’re hoping to snatch a handout because although they don’t feed the sharks to lure them in, they do do a modified form of chumming. It’s not the bloody bucket of fish “stew” like you saw in “Jaws”, but what they do is take a whole frozen tuna, cut it up (with a chainsaw no less) and then put a few slices in a burlap bag that goes down with the DM for each cage. Once underwater, the DM then begins stomping and dancing on top of the burlap sack and, as the tuna thaws and the stomping continues, the scent permeates the water and sometimes little chunks of fish squirt free. So the Yellowtail are always on alert for free fish coming out of the bags.

But the Great White Sharks are the main attraction and they certainly didn’t disappoint. On every submerged cage dive (and we collectively did almost 100 over the course of three days), I think there was at least one shark spotted on every dive, multiple sharks on most dives, and on one dive we counted seven at once. Pretty impressive. And these aren’t itty-bitty sharks just so you can impress your non-diving friends and say you saw a shark. These are top-of-the-food-chain major predators. This time of the year (the season is generally mid-July through end-of-November) what you see are males, who are smaller than females. So the sharks we saw were mostly in the 12-15 foot range. Still VERY impressive. But there was one shark that was estimated at 18 feet long. Wow.

Towards the end of the season, and definitely in October when we’ll be back for our second trip, most of the animals are pregnant females. They’re much bigger than the males and much girthier as well, so that should be equally impressive, if not more so.

Visibility ranged from terrific to very good. One the first day, I put it at 150’ in the morning because I could see the length of our 150’ boat underwater, and from 35 feet deep in the cage I could also see the outlines of the bottom contours, and we were anchored in 200 feet of water. Water temp was constant throughout our three dive days at 71 degrees. I was quite comfortable in my 5mm Pinnacle Cruiser and alternated between a 1mm Tilos hood and a 3mm one.

But the sharks are definitely the stars here. It’s thought they spend the nights deep and hunting so when the first cage drops at 8:00AM, you might only see one and it’ll likely be below you. But once there’s some activity in the water the Yellowtail are all around, the sharks come up to see what’s going on, and you get some really intimate encounters. The sharks are frequently passing right by the cages at eye level and on one dive, Dave was actually able to reach out and touch one (even though that’s against the rules). And on two other occasions, sharks bumped (“rammed” makes it sound too aggressive) the cages. Not sure if that was out of curiosity or what but at no time did anyone feel threatened or anything like that.

Over the course of three dive days, I personally was able to dive 17 dives. So there’s ample opportunity to go in and photograph the sharks, review your work, make some changes in how you’re shooting, and go back and do it again. I mean, let’s face it: There are only SO many shots and angles you can get on a single species and you either get it or you don’t. But the opportunities are certainly there.

And a lot of that opportunity is created by the schedule set by the crew for diving, eating, and everything else. The general sked (and you can see a pix of the daily board in the SmugMug slideshow) is tea and coffee out around 5:30AM, surface cages open at 7, continental breakfast at 7:15, cage diving starts at 8, full hot breakfast at 9:30, diving continues all morning, lunch around 1PM, diving until 5 or 6PM, cocktails at 7, dinner at 7:30. Go to bed and repeat the next day.

And I have a new appreciation for the logistical complexity of this trip. Not only do the submerged cages need to be lowered each morning and then raised again each evening (in case the weather changes and we have to move), but on each set of cage dives, you’ve got three DMs for the cages, two or three deckhands to lower cages and hand out weightbelts, two hostesses bringing around water and fruit, plus while all that’s going on, there’s the cook and helper in the kitchen preparing the next meal and likely one or two crew taking a break. They really work almost all the time, they work very hard, but  they all seem to enjoy the job and really focus on making the guest experience as good as it can possibly be. So kudos to the crew.

The only major hitch in the trip happened on the last day and at the end of the day to boot. The weather had picked up somewhat overnight so the boat was bouncing a bit but we were able to get in and out of the cages, albeit carefully. But late in the afternoon, a weld on the 20-foot cage broke and the ladder snapped free (still tied to the boat, but now not attached to the cage), so the divers in that cage had to come out and the entire loose ladder and cage had to be pulled. Captain Bryden made the decision that that was the omen that the weather was picking up a bit too much so we cancelled the last hour of diving, pulled the cages and lashed them down (which in and of itself takes a good hour or so) and headed for  home in what we knew was going to be rough weather.

As I am writing this paragraph, we’re still about 15 miles off of Ensenada and have another 90 minutes to go, putting into port around 9:30PM instead of the scheduled 1PM. Due to the size and direction of the swell, we’ve had to run at a little over half speed, and have had to run a zigzag course so as not to beat up the boat or the passengers too badly. That all adds time to the journey and while it was 20 hours to get out to Guadalupe, it’s going to be about 29 hours to get home. Plus we still have to be bussed back up to San Diego and then drive home to Los Angeles. So as I said at the beginning, understand that a long trip offshore is required but it’s really not that much different timewise than flying to Yap.

Was it all worth it? Absolutely!!! This is an incredible adventure that you must experience at least once in your life. And – COMMERCIAL ALERT – we will not only come back in general but are specifically booked to come back on the sister ship Nautilus Explorer October 21-26 and I still have three spots available on that one. If you’re interested (and after reading all of this and seeing the pictures, how could you NOT be salivating about this???) give me a call

But even if you can’t do the October trip, there’s a good chance we’ll come back again in 2016. We like dealing with Nautilus, we love the boat, we adored diving with the sharks, and how could you not want to do that a couple of more times?


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