ISLA GUADALUPE - OCTOBER 23-25, 2015
(Click here to see the pictures from
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
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.