(Click here to see the pictures from this trip)

Let’s get something clear from the outset: How can you NOT like a trip where you’ve got Great White Sharks literally inches from your face (from the safety of a cage, of course)?

We’ve just completed our second trip this year to Isla Guadalupe, some 200 miles SW of Ensenada, Mexico. This time we were on the Nautilus Explorer, a boat we’ve used on two previous trips to Socorro. Our group was rather compact this time consisting of Adam Gelbart and John Morgan (both of whom celebrated birthdays during the trip), Cecilia Quigley-Groman, and me (Ken Kurtis). We were a subset of the larger group of 25 divers overall, who hailed from all parts of the world including Sweden, Denmark, England, Scotland, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. As I’ve said before, it’s like the U.N. of diving.

This is a very unique trip in that it’s relatively short (five days), if you live in L.A. you don’t have to fly anywhere (we depart from San Diego), you’ve got a day on the water each way to get there, and then there are three thrill-packed days of shark diving, from 7AM-5PM every day. There’s no night diving for a whole host of reasons that deal with logistics, practicality, and safety.

Our previous trip was on the Nautilus Belle Amie and, as mentioned already, this one was on the Nautilus Explorer. The Explorer’s a very good boat to do this trip on but, to be truthful, I think I like the Belle Amie as a physical platform better than Explorer simply because Belle Amie is bigger and there’s more space on the dive deck which makes it uniquely suited for this particular trip. But given the other non-Nautilus boat options, Explorer beats all those others out.

One nice thing about this trip on Explorer is that there’s room to maneuver. Deluxe staterooms are on the lower (waterline) deck. The main deck consists of the galley, salon, and dive deck. Second deck has the Superior staterooms, the bridge, and the hot tub. And above that is the sundeck. So there’s plenty of room to hang out and plenty of space (for the most part) to spread out.

The other nice thing, unique to all Guadalupe trips, is that there are ALWAYS divers in the submerged cages from 8AM-5PM. That means that the only time everyone gathers in the same place is for dinner (7:30PM) when everyone sits down. But the rest of the day, there are anywhere from 6-12 divers underwater and not on the boat itself. So that makes it feel much less crowded than you might think.

One area that needs some improvement is the photo table which is a bit meager for 25 divers. We made it work mainly because a lot of people had GoPros and there were only four or five big-housing cameras but if you had a lot of photogs with big systems on a trip, this could be a problem.

They also need to work on the charging station. There used to be shelves below the eight outlets (which with the addition of a power strip or two are plenty) but the shelves went away during their recent re-fit and haven’t yet been re-installed. Without the shelves, it makes it hard to charge anything but the smallest things that can hang on to the outlets for dear life.

But none of this diminished our enthusiasm for this trip. That level of satisfaction rose even higher when we found out the man in charge of feeding us would be our beloved Enrique Aguilar from the Don Jose. Not only is he a good friend but he’s also an excellent chef.

We came here for diving and diving we did. We also had excellent conditions. It was bright and sunny both of the first two days with visibility that generally exceeded 100 feet. The third day it was mostly cloudy and the vis was down a bit, but was still 70-80 feet. Water temp was generally 72-74 degrees. I wore a 5mm wetsuit with a 1mm hood. Others wore anything from a 3mm wetsuit to a full drysuit. A couple of hardy souls even dove – briefly in a surface cage – with only a bathing suit.

Like on the Belle Amie, Explorer has submerged cages and surface cages. There are two submerged cages (Belle Amie has three) and there’s a surface cage accessible from the stern of the boat and a 5-meter deep cage that also accessible from that area. These two cages, each of which can accommodate three divers, are open on a first-come-first-serve basis.

The submerged cages, a 4-person and a 2-person (each plus a Divemaster), are scheduled at 45-minute intervals throughout the day. Each evening, there’s a printed schedule posted for the following day so you always know what time you’re scheduled to submerge and which cage you’re slotted for. You’re certainly allowed to skip your scheduled time and anything that opens up is available to anyone who wants it. Each diver is guaranteed three submerged cage dives each day. (Because they have that extra third submerged cage, Belle Amie divers are guaranteed four.)

I’ll preface what will follow with this: They’re supposed to replace the cages for next year so they’ll only be used for perhaps another two weeks. That being said, the two surface cages were fine but the two submerged cages each had a terrible list – sometimes as much a 45 degree angle – which made it difficult to get in and out. Once you were actually submerged, the divemaster was able to use two ballast tanks to balance it out to level but sometimes upon boarding and even descending, we were sliding into a corner.

But once down, the whole experience is rather magical. The submerged cages are at a depth of about 35 feet. They’re technically a two-story cage with the divers on the bottom “floor” and the divemaster on the top. The divemaster has a burlap sack inside of which has been placed a few slices of frozen tuna. The divemasters “dance” on top of this bag and that helps create a scent trail which helps bring in the sharks. It’s not chumming in the true sense of buckets of blood and fish guts being tossed out but it’s certainly effective enough.

The first thing the scent trail attracts are Yellowtail Jacks and they’re pretty big, around three to four feet long. Along with them come Yellowfin Tuna. I don’t recall seeing any Yellowfins last time so that was a nice addition for this trip. Anytime we were waiting for sharks to show up, the Yellowtail and the Yellowfins were a nice distraction. It was also really interesting to see how much faster the Yellowfins are than the Yellowtails. Sometimes a small chunk of frozen tuna would escape from the burlap sack and as soon as the Yellowfins perceived it, they would zoom in at high speed, many times passing by the Yellowtails, and make a precision strike on the floating piece of food.

But the reason you come to Guadalupe is for the Great White Sharks. And we were certainly not disappointed. Over the course of three days, the group made 66 scheduled submerged cage drops and we had sharks on 64 of the 66 drops. Sometimes there was only one shark, but many times there were two or even three (which was the most we saw at any one time).

And the general M.O. is usually the same: The shark comes in and slowly circles the two submerged cages, usually about 5-10 feet lower than the bottom of the cage. Sometimes they keep their distance and sometimes they make a close pass. Sometimes they go between the two cages. But they always seem aware and interested in what’s going on. So the trick is always to try to figure out a way to draw them in closer and draw them a little higher. From a photographic standpoint, the most interesting shots are ones where the shark is level or above the camera lens.

And that’s where the divemaster and the burlap sack come into play. Because they’re higher in the cage than the divers, the scent trail is higher too. And sometimes you get the sense that the sharks are just waiting to see if a big chunk will break off. So sometimes the divemasters will drop down into the lower part of the cage with the divers and they’ll bring the burlap sack with them as well. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But no matter how close or far away these sharks are, you really get a sense of the immense power and majesty that they possess. It was also very interesting to watch the interaction when there were two or three of them around at once. One time, a good-sized chuck of tuna broke off and was falling, and two sharks made a simultaneous move for it and both arrived at the same time. It appeared to us that one shark bit the other to try to chase it away, the irony being that neither one of them got the food and it fell into the abyss as both sharks retreated.

But I think that on this trip, just about everyone had at least one shark at one time within arm’s reach. And just watching them from that close up, whether you had a camera in your hand or not, was simply mesmerizing.

This is the second time I’ve done this trip. Many of the people on this trip referred to this as a “bucket list” dive and it truly is something you should consider doing. And I could see where maybe if you didn’t have the “perfect” trip the first time, you’d do it a second time. (I certainly felt that I was able to get better shots of sharks this time based on what I learned from the first trip.) But the reality is that this is probably a one-off: Once you you’ve done it, you’ve pretty much done it. There’s certainly an element of luck-of-the-draw to it. Were you in the right cage at the right time? For instance, we had a very large and very pregnant female come around, definitely the largest shark we encountered based on the video, but I didn’t see her because I wasn’t in a cage at that time and she only made the one visit.

But even though this is likely a one-time thing for you, it’s a one-time thing you definitely want to do. It’s certainly not cheap but that’s because of all the manpower and logistics involved, let alone the distance travelled. But, according to what every single person on this trip said about the experience, it’s absolutely worth it and it’s something that will live with you for the rest of your life.

And with that as the lead-in, here comes the commercial: We’re going back again next year, August 1-6. We’ll be on the Nautilus Belle Amie (the larger of the two boats) and this time we’ve got 12 spots because we’re splitting the boat with our good friends at Ocean Adventures in Venice. Deluxe rooms (double occupancy) will be $3,595 and Superior rooms (also double occupancy) will be $4,095. (Single supplement is available.) This price includes everything from San Diego: Bus to Ensenada, boat with all the dives and meals and non-alcoholic drinks, port tax, and crew tip. And if this is something you want to do, sign up now and we can set up easy monthly or quarterly payments to take some of the sting out of the price.

But this is absolutely something you’ll want to do and even though I’ve done it twice, I’ll counting the days until we return to the magical waters of Isla Guadalupe and the magnificent Carcharodon carcharias better known as the Great White Shark.

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