ISLA GUADALUPE - August 1-6, 2016

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

Worst. Shark trip. Ever.

We didn't see any sharks the three days we were there. Two of the three cages weren't working so they put six divers in the one working cage. Since there were only three regs we had to buddy-breathe the entire time. The food was all frozen Swanson TV dinners. They forgot to get frozen tuna as bait so they used canned tuna fish but they refused to open the cans. On the way back to Ensenada, the boat sank and we had to swim to shore. And then the bus back up to San Diego caught on fire as it rolled over a cliff. But other than that, it was a great trip and we're looking forward to going back. (Is this the April Fools newsletter???????)

Best. Shark trip. Ever. (Now starts the REAL review.)

This is the third time we've been diving Isla Guadalupe with the Nautilus folks and this really was the best of the three trips. A lot of that was due to the incredible and multiple encounters we had on our first dive day and divers on the boat were saying that if the trip ended right then and there, they would feel like it had been worthwhile. The second and third dive days were also good but just not as action-packed as the first one. But of the 27 divers on board (14 of whom were our group), everyone had multiple close-up shark encounters.

But let me start at the beginning and take you through this somewhat chronologically.

We were 14 strong on this trip: Gary Hamilton, Anthony and Griffin Nex, Betsy Suttle, Marilyn Lawrence, Todd Leibl, Lars Dennert, Ted Wangsanutr, Jeff & Nancy Gardner, Jessica Roame, Paul Dimeo, Joe Squires, and me (Ken Kurtis). Many of the divers are my fellow compatriots at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

The trip started in San Diego at 7PM on departure day (which is also consider Day 1) so the first order of business is driving down there, which took us about three hours from Westwood. They've also got a much nicer rendezvous hotel this year, the Best Western Plus Island Palms Hotel & Marina on Shelter Island. There was a restaurant and bar to bide time until the bus to take us to Ensenada arrived, and there was a dedicated room in which to leave your bags. The only issue (and it all worked out in the end) was with parking since the hotel doesn't really have a big lot or extra spaces. So if you'll be driving down (most of the people on these trips fly into San Diego), confirm with the Nautilus office ahead of time as to what the parking situation will be.

Once we got on the charter bus to take us to the boat to Ensenada, it's about another three hours in transit, the "about" being affected by the length of time it takes you to cross the border into Mexico. Rather than just getting waved through as you might in a car, commercial busses are required to offload their passengers and baggage, you go into the Immigration office to get your passport stamped and pick up a tourist card, then you grab your bags and walk through Customs and an x-ray machine, play red-light./green-light to see if they'll inspect your bags, and then reload the bags and reboard the bus. Pain in the butt but out of the control of the Nautilus folks.

Once in Ensenada (about 90 minutes after you clear the border), you get right on the boat (we were on the wonderful Nautilus Belle Amie for this trip), your bags are loaded on for you by the crew, there's a very brief orientation to the boat and your room, and off you go. So we got underway a bit before midnight for the 20-hour crossing to Isla Guadalupe.

The standard rooms are comfortable but compact. There's a double bed and a single in each along with a separate shower and toilet. One comment about the standard rooms is that there's not a lot of storage space. Some hooks or a hanging bar would be a nice improvement. But if you can live out of your bag, it's not all that bad. And these rooms are all at the waterline so it's going to be the smoothest ride on the boat.

If you want to spend an extra $500, you can get one of six Superior Suites, which are up on the second deck. They're probably 50% bigger than the standard rooms, have big windows, a nice big shower/bathroom area, and a little alcove with a clothes rack and an area to store bags. No complaints about storage space here. However, because you are higher up on the ship (same level as the bridge), if there's rocking and rolling, you'll feel it a bit more up here. Paul & I were in one of these rooms and it was quite nice.

The Belle Amie is simply one of the nicest dive boats I've ever been on so no matter where you end up, you'll be comfortable. The boat is huge (135' long x 33' wide) and the main deck is the prime hub of activity with the galley, salon, dive deck (with TWO deck heads as well - a very thoughtful and oft-used feature), and stern shark cage area all located here. The second deck is the Superior Staterooms and bridge, along with a large wetsuit rack, and the third deck is the Sun Deck which also has a Jacuzzi, bar, deck chairs, and plenty of space to lounge.

We also want to single out the fabulous crew under the command of Captain Bryden on this voyage. By my count, there are 13 crew people (so a crew/guest ratio of almost 1:2): Captain and second Captain, two cooks in the galley (led by the master Chef Pebe), three host/hostesses who handle galley/salon and room duties, five DMs to ride the cages and herd the sharks, and an engineer. All of them were extremely helpful, always smiling, and the attitude was always "How can we help" rather than "Why are you asking me this?"

Because Guadalupe is a little over 200 miles SW of Ensenada, your first full day is totally at sea, which gives you plenty of time to be briefed on the dive ops, prepare camera gear, and simply get ready for the diving to start the next day. On our trip, we arrived at the island shortly after sundown and the crew deployed the five shark cages then (the setup takes a bit over an hour) so we'd be ready to go bright and early the next morning.

The cages are of two types: submerged and surface. The three submerged cages are winched down to a depth of about 35 feet and that's where you observe everything that's going on. The cages themselves hold three divers and a DM, all on surface-supplied hookahs (there are backup scuba bottles in the cages in case of an air supply failure). The submerged cages are double-decked and roughly 8 feet wide, 6 feet deep, and about 18 feet tall. The DM usually stays in the top part where he has a burlap sack with frozen tuna inside. He spends most of the dive stomping on this to create a scent trail and that's what helps attracts the sharks, along with a hundred of so Yellowtail Jacks hoping to steal a nibble. (We also saw some turtles, a couple of sea lions, dozens of Yellowfin Tuna, and even a pair of dolphins as well over the course of three days.)

The two surface cages, one on each corner of the stern dive platform, are roughly the same size as the submerged platforms but are single-decker, so only about 9 feet high. They can accommodate four divers at a time and are available from 6:30AM-6PM on a first-come first-serve basis. If there's a reg available, you're free to go in.

Water temp this year was a bit cooler than last year. Two different computers showed the temp at depth to be 69-70º which was about 4º cooler than last year, so I certainly noticed it. I wore my 5mm Pinnacle suit with a 5mm hood and was quite comfortable. Visibility varied each day with Day 1 being around 50 feet, Day 2 being the best at over 100 feet, and Day 3 being in the middle at 70-80 feet.

They've added a new wrinkle this year (and had to get their Mexican permits modified to do so) which I liked a lot. They call it "wrangling" although, in fairness, you could also call it "shark tempting." They've got a special platform (I called it a pulpit) that attaches to the corner of the boat, right between a submerged and surface cage, and then sticks out about 10 feet over the water. You'll see pictures of it in the slideshow. One of the crew stands on the end and tosses out a long yellow polypro line at the end of which is a red float ball. Attached to the float ball, and hanging underneath like a baited fishing line, is a chunk of frozen fish. (They wrangle in the morning and afternoon, when the sharks are most active, and take a break from roughly 10A-4P.)

Because they're not allowed to directly feed the animals, the crew member waits and watches and as a shark approaches, he then starts pulling the baited line back in towards the boat. This serves not only to maintain the interest of the shark but also to draw the shark closer to the cages so the divers inside can get a better view.

And the sharks absolutely know the game. Sometimes they simply circle in, seemingly uninterested, and sometimes they make a legitimate run at the bait. Sometimes they get it, most of the time they don't. But the most amazing thing I saw was on our very final dive when there were two sharks, one much larger than the other, circling the baited line. One would make a pass, then the other. This went on for many minutes. But at one point, I realized the smaller shark was circling but I'd lost sight of the larger one. I happened to look down and that's when I saw the bigger shark, zooming up fast from depth at a 45º angle, and . . . BAM!!!! . . . he hit the bait and in one gulp it was his. It was sort of like that scene in the original "Jurassic Park" where Muldoon is going to save the kids and is hunting Velociraptors and has one in his sights that he's been stalking when he realizes that there's a second one to his left who's about to pounce and kill him and all he says is, "Clever girl." Same feeling here.

The other thing I really like about the way Nautilus has this trip set up (it was the same format on our two trips last year) is that they assign divers to specific submerged cage dives. Each submerged dive is roughly 45 minutes long and, with three cages, that means cages are going up and down at roughly 10-minute intervals. The schedule is posted in the evening so you will know when your three submerged cage dives are for the next day. They basically go through each trio of divers and once everyone's had one dive, they repeat the process and order for #2 and #3, and shift you over one cage so you end up diving all three submerged cages each day.

On top of that, depending on how many divers there are on board (or who chooses to pass on a scheduled dive), there are a number of slots each day that are marked as OPEN. These are available to anyone on a first-come first-serve basis, although they do keep track of how many "extra" dives everyone gets to make sure that no one is hogging all the available extra submerged slots. The system really works out well. For instance, on the first dive day, my first dive was at 8AM in the starboard cage, followed by #2 at 10:50 in the middle cage, followed by #3 at 1:30 in the port cage, and then I also picked up an extra dive at 3:05 in the starboard cage. On the second day, the schedule shifted so my first dive was at 8:45, and on the third day, it shifted again so I started around 9:30. But this way, everyone gets a chance to dive at various times throughout the day. And counting surface cage dives, I think I did 18 dives over the course of our three days at Guadalupe.

The real question is: How many different sharks did we see? They've identified close to 200 different Great Whites at Guadalupe over the years. But because the sharks are circling in and out of view, you're always asking yourself did you see the same shark twice or was it two different sharks? Some sharks are easily ID'd (one had a white gash across the top of his head), others not so much. What you're looking for are patterns and markings and you generally start with the area around the gills and then work backwards to markings on the rear body and maybe the fins.

In looking at my pictures and comparing the left-facing shark pix and then the right-facing shark pix (and I freely admit that some of the lefts could also be some of the rights since I don't know if left-side marking mirror right-side markings), it looks like I've got four different right-facing sharks and seven different left-facing sharks. So it seems safe to say that we saw at least seven different animals over the course of three dive days. Sizewise most were in the 12-14 foot range, but there was one that we think was much closer to 18 feet (because when she went vertical she was almost the height of the submerged cage) and while the animals were mainly male (expected this time of the year), we also saw two females (unusual for this time of the year).

Day 1 of the diving was the highlight for me. We had constant action on every one of our submerged cage dives and pretty good action on the two surface cage dives I did. I'm one of the people who would really like to get as close as possible to the sharks and I missed out on the best Close Encounter of the Great White Kind.

We had one guy circling the cage over and over and I decided that maybe I'd get a better view and shot angle if I went up to the top part of the cage with the DM. Once I got myself planted up there, I couldn't really see the shark as he was now aligned with the bottom half of the cage and there was some cage equipment blocking my view. Of course, THAT was the moment that he chose to literally stick his nose in the cage between bars to get a good sniff of Betsy & Marilyn who were still in the bottom section. And then to top all of that off, he backed out and then circled underneath and bumped the bottom of the cage under Betsy's feet. Nice adrenaline moment.

However, I got my moment on the next submerged dive when we had another shark making a very close pass down the side of the cage. You'll see the picture in the SmugMug slideshow with the bars in the foreground and the smiling shark immediately on the other side of the bars. In fact, after I took the shot, I had to back up just a little bit so as not to have a Close Encounter of the Toothy Kind. Way cool.

We had good shark action and close encounters on Day 2 and Day 3 but nothing could match the constant action we got at all three cages on that first day. I think that over the course of the three days, with something like 72 scheduled cage drops, I don't think there was a single dive where anyone got skunked totally. Now perhaps that meant you only got a brief glimpse of a shark in the distance, but you saw something.

And the fact that both the Nautilus Explorer and the Solmar V were there the first two days (they left but then the Horizon arrived for the third day) might have had some effect on how many sharks we saw, since you'd assume they're going to go around to each boat. But I do know that there was one shark, named Bruce, who visited the Nautilus Explorer on Day 1 and Day 2 but who we never saw at all.

At the end of dive day #3, the cages were brought up and secured, and we began the long trip home, arriving back in Ensenada a little after 3PM the following day. Plenty of time to go through pix, pack up gear, and enjoy the afterglow of the trip. Then it's a bus ride back up to the border where it took us close to two hours to make it through (certainly out of control of Nautilus), back to the hotel, and then back up to L.A.

Here's the bottom line: If you want to see Great White Sharks up close in their natural environment, and especially if you don't want to be diving in blood-soaked chummed-up water to do it, there is no better option than Isla Guadalupe and - IMHO - no better operation to do it with than the folks at Nautilus, whether on the Belle Amie or the sister ship Explorer. It's certainly not a cheap trip, especially for the actual number of dive days, but given the logistics of making the whole thing run smoothly (and the crew REALLY does work their tail off), and the fact that living in SoCal, you don't need to factor in airfare, it's absolutely worth doing.

Will we go again in 2017??? I'm game if you are. With our Yap Immersion #2 running through August 2, and with a total solar eclipse in the U.S. happening on August 21 (I'll be in Nashville for that), the best options for me would either be August 7-12 or August 12-17. If you’re interested, let me know and I'll secure the dates with Nautilus. But this is definitely a trip that should be on your bucket list and I'm quite happy to be the guy who helps you check that off.

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