ISLA GUADALUPE - September 1-6, 2017
But that’s the “price” we had to pay to participate in our fourth trip to Isla Guadalupe, the Land of the Great White Sharks. Once again, we were going out on the Nautilus Belle Amie, which has to be simply hands-down the nicest (and largest) dive boat I’ve ever had the pleasure of diving from, and which is perfectly suited for this specific trip.
Our group this year was smaller than in the past, only six strong (out of 28 total on the boat). This year our crew consisted of Selo Imrohoroglu, Vlad Baydovskiy, Walt & Susie Crandall, Steve Ladd, and me (Ken Kurtis). Since the trip starts in San Diego with a bus ride down to Ensenada and the boat, that’s what necessitated the drive. We knew ahead of time it was going to be torture (took us almost five hours to go from Westwood to San Diego and only two hours on the way home) so leaving at 1PM took a little of the sting out of it. But when you’re booking these trips, if you can avoid one that starts or ends on a Friday, that’s probably a good idea.
The rendezvous point is the same as last year, the Best Western Plus Island Palms Hotel & Marina on Shelter Island. It’s a nice hotel with a decent restaurant (they use a meeting room as a gathering point) but the major issue for anyone driving in is that the hotel offers NO parking. We were able to cut a special deal with them but this is something Nautilus really needs to address. Their suggested option is to park at the San Diego Airport (only a couple of miles away) and then taxi or Uber to the hotel. But I think that’s a bit nuts. There’s a free public parking lot across the street from the hotel but no overnight parking is allowed. And the last thing you need to do is come back from this wonderful trip only to discover that your car is no longer where you left it. Although not that many people drive in for this trip, there are at least a few on each trip, and this is something that needs to be resolved.
The other thing to understand is that the bus you’ll get on for the ride down to the boat is coming up from Ensenada with the passengers who just completed their trip. So while the intended departure time from SD is 7PM, don’t hold them to that. In our case, we knew the boat had arrived back in Ensenada a bit late and it took them a little while to get across the border. So we ended up leaving SD around 9:30PM which meant we didn’t arrive in Ensenada - which is almost 90 miles away plus you need to factor time for crossing the border - until well after midnight.
But once in the Ensenada marina (after clearing two security checks), you get right on the boat, 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 2AM 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. 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.
The ride out was a bit of a concern for us as there was an approaching tropical storm (Lidia) that was moving up the western side of Baja. We weren’t sure if this was going to affect us or not, with the greatest fear being that the Ensenada Port Captain would close the port and we wouldn’t be allowed to leave for a while. (That actually to the trip following ours.) The reality was that we had a fairly smooth crossing and didn’t really feel any effects from Lidia until we were already at the island (and it was minor - just some increased swell).
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.
The Belle Amie is simply one of the nicest dive boats I've ever been on and no matter where you end up, you'll be comfortable. (The beds are also the most comfortable ones I think I’ve ever slept on on a boat.) 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 want to highlight the fabulous crew under the command of Captain Gordon on this voyage. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the new relief captain is none other than Beto (I don’t know his last name) who has been the captain of the Okeanos Aggressor for close to 30 years, and now has now started working with Nautilus. And to continue the old-home-week theme (and to underscore that the diving community is small), we were very happy to have Enrique from the Don Jose as our chef and Joel Iberra, also ex-Don Jose as one of the mates and DMs. (To top it all off, Don Jose engineer Hernan Parra, who now works on the Nautilus Undersea, came by on our last day to say hello.) By my count, there are 13 crew people which is a crew/guest ratio of almost 1:2. 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 SSW 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. There’s also a session where they educate you about what they know about the sharks and why they congregate at Guadalupe. For a non-dive day, it’s amazingly busy.
The shark cages in which you dive/observe are of two types: submerged and surface. The three submerged cages are winched down to a depth of about 25 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 roughly 8 feet wide, 6 feet deep, and about 12 feet tall.
There are also two surface cages, one on each corner of the stern dive platform, which are roughly the same size as the submerged platforms but not quite as tall. The top of the cage is level with the surface and the bottom is about 8 feet down. These cages can accommodate four divers at a time and are available from 7AM-6:30PM on a first-come first-serve basis. If there's a reg available, you're free to go in. Nautilus will also allow non-scuba-certified divers to go in these two cages after they’ve had an orientation to breathing off the hookah. Amazingly to me, we had about 6 non-scuba divers on this trip, and they weren’t just non-certified Significant Others of divers. Some people just want to do this.
There are some changes from last year, all due to the cage failure incident on the Solmar V. You’ve likely seen the video where the shark crashes into the cage, part of the cage - which is bolted instead of welded - breaks, the shark is stuck inside and thrashing, and then comes leaping out of the top in what is truly one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen, especially when you realize that it seems like a Solmar crew member was just about to jump into the cage to look for a diver still inside as the shark came flying out. (He was actually underneath the cage and safe.) If you haven’t seen this, just Google “shark breaches cage” and it should be the first video.
The first change is that they no longer have bait inside the cages, as was the case last year. The other change is that while the cages last year were basically double-deckers, with the DM in the top open half, they’ve now been cut down so the DM simply sits on top of the entrance to the main part of the cage. My notes (and depth gauge) from last year show we went 35 feet deep. Now we only go to 25 feet because more of the shark action is happening near the surface. And that’s because the Mexican government still allows “wrangling” - where a piece of bait is tossed out away from the cages at a 45º angle and then pulled back in as the shark approaches - but they now allow two wrangling stations whereas last year there was only one. In addition, Nautilus now hangs some “tea bags” off the stern of the boat. These are burlap sacks with a large slice of frozen tuna inside (it’s what we used to take down in the cages previously) so they emit a scent trail that helps attract the sharks.
The other thing that’s new for this year is a nothing-outside-the-cages rule. Last year, we’d be sticking our torsos and cameras through the bars to get good “clean” shots without bars in the way. No more. But they do seem tolerant enough that if you have your arms wrapped about the cage bars so that your camera port is between/outside the bars, that’s OK. But stick things too far out and you’ll get talked to about it.
Because of these changes, while the sharks still make close passes by the cages and certainly investigate what (and who) is inside, there’s a lot of action at the surface. The general idea is that the wrangler throws the baited line out (the bait sits under a float), keeps an eye out for sharks, and - as one approaches - pulls the bait in towards the boat and then out of the water so the shark can’t get at it. Not that the sharks don’t try. In fact, you’ll see one picture on the SmugMug page of an orange float where the shark got hold of it.
But the sharks are smarter than you think. I like to describe my work at the Aquarium of the Pacific as trying not to get outwitted by fish each week. Same thing here with the wranglers.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the sharks know exactly what’s going on and exactly where the bait it. It was fascinating to be in the submerged cages and watch a shark slowly meandering and lazily circling underneath us, and then suddenly turn 90º and head at top speed straight up to strike the bait (usually successfully), propelling himself partially out of the water to do so.
This is not unusual behavior. It’s been well-documented in Great Whites in South Africa where they strike sea lions from below and at great speed, hurling themselves and their prey out of the water. I would assume this is the way they might strike sea lions at Guadalupe as well. It’s quite an effective strategy because there’s basically no defense against it. By the time you (“you” being the target) realize the shark is making a run, it’s too late to escape.
In Guadalupe, the sharks aren’t constantly hitting the bait, but they certainly make multiple efforts over the course of the day. And the crew monitors the aggression level and frenzy of the sharks and if it seems like things are getting out of hand or if the sharks are coming too close to the cages, then all the bait is pulled out of the water for a while until things calm down.
Water temp this year was a bit cooler than last year. Two different computers showed the temp at depth to be 68-70º which was about 2º cooler than last year (and that was about 4º cooler than the previous year), so I certainly noticed it. I wore my 5mm Pinnacle suit with a 5mm hood and was quite comfortable.
Visibility was not as good as we’ve had in the past when it’s been over 100 feet. This time it was generally around 50 feet in the morning, and that would drop to as little as 30 feet by late afternoon. On top of that, there was a milky haze in the water that appeared generally mid-morning down to a depth of about 10 feet, and then would spread deeper as the day wore on. By the end of the day, it was as deep as 20 feet which made shooting sharks in the shallower areas nearly impossible due to the haze. In fact one time we were coming up in a submerged cage from a late-afternoon dive, a shark hit the bait maybe 20 feet away from our cage, and we could barely see it due to the haze.
One thing I really like about the way Nautilus has this trip set up (it was the same format on our previous trips) is that they assign divers to specific submerged cage dives. Each submerged dive is roughly 40 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. This is how they guarantee you three submerged cage dives and they rotate you around so everyone gets a starboard, a port, and a center cage dive.
On top of that, depending on how many divers there are on board (or if someone 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, so you can certainly pick up extra dives if you like. I think on this trip I did 10 submerged cage dives and 5 surface cage dives, for a total of about 13 hours underwater with the sharks.
The real question is: How many different sharks did we see? They've identified 228 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, 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.
One nice thing they added this year was a “Shark ID” session at the end of each dive day prior to dinner. People would show images they shot and we’d try to compare those to photos of already ID’d sharks to see who we saw or if there was a newcomer to the party.
Sizewise most of the sharks were in the 10-14 foot range, but at some point you just start saying “big”. Most of the animals we saw were males plus there were one or two females sprinkled in the mix. That’s the usual ratio for this time of the year.
Our first two dive days were probably the shakiest I’ve ever had a Guadalupe. I have no idea how many individuals we saw but at one point on a dive, I could see five different sharks at the same time. Pretty cool. I want to say that those two days, there was never a time on any of the dives when there wasn’t at least one shark within visual range. They weren’t always hitting the wrangler’s bait or anything like that, but they were at least in the area, swimming around, and cruising by the cages doing the shark version of “Hey, what’s up?”
It was also on our first dive day, in the afternoon, that the swell generated by the aforementioned storm Lidia caught up with us, causing the boat to rock slightly from side-to-side. Normally, this isn’t a big deal but don’t forget that the cages, even the submerged ones while underwater, are still attached to the boat. So if the boat rocks to the right, the starboard cage goes down a little, and at the same time the port cage goes up. When the boat rocks back, the motion reverses.
I did all of my dives with Steve Ladd and Walt Crandall. I happen to be a fan of roller coasters. I’m not sure abut Walt, but Steve is not a roller coaster aficionado. I also happen to know that, since I’ve done this trip three other times, anytime you’re in the cage, it’s a good idea to try to lock your arms and legs around the cage bars so you can hold yourself in place if there’s any rocking going on. Steve didn’t acquire that skill right away and simply got tossed (as did Walt) like a salad. He was not a happy camper. I, on the other hand, showed perhaps not enough empathy for his situation as I was laughing so hard as he got tossed up and then down, all the while trying to signal that we should end the dive early, that I could barely keep the reg in my mouth. Fortunately for Steve, the rocking didn’t last too long and we eventually made it back up.
One other nice thing about the first two days is that there were only one (and then two) other boats there. But on the third dive day, there were six boats present. Although the boats are spread out and don’t directly interfere with each other, the third day was less-sharky than the first two. But we still had plenty of activity and I don’t think there was a dive, on any of the days, when we didn’t see at least one shark at some point during the dive, and for a while, not just a fleeting glance.
This is definitely a bucket-list trip. By the same token, I think it’s a trip you only need to do once. You’ll have ample opportunity to see (and photograph) sharks over the course of the three dive days. And if you can’t get a good look at a shark in that amount of time and shoot every possible photo combination available, then maybe you’ll never be able to. But it’s definitely a unique type of diving that, while pricey (and justifiably so given the amount of crew they need to carry, Mexican permits to pay for, and extra gear required), is absolutely money well-spent.
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 2PM the following day. Plenty of time to go through pix, dry and pack up gear, and enjoy the afterglow of the trip. Then it's a bus ride back up to the border where it only took us 20 minutes to cross (sometimes you get lucky), back to the hotel, grab a quick bite, and then back up to L.A. and home by 9:30PM.
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 ships Explorer and Under Sea. Add to that the fact that living in SoCal, you don't need to factor in airfare, it brings the total cost down and is absolutely worth doing. The season runs from August through mid-November and if you can’t arrange it for this year, put it on your 2018 schedule.