Great White Cage Diving

Great White Cage Diving

No scuba diving skills are required, but a sense of adventure and steady nerves are a must when great white sharks swim past the bars of your underwater cage.

Great White Cage Diving
A male great white glides past cage divers off Guadalupe Island. The sharks are migratory and their season at Guadalupe runs from mid-summer to early fall.
Photo © Jim Cornfield.

A windless dawn rises over Isla Guadalupe, 115 miles west of the Baja California coast. Rolling slightly in a gentle swell, the 80-foot trawler Horizon motors toward the island’s north end. The skipper adjusts his heading a few degrees and glances down through the bridge windows at his dozen or so passengers, gathered on the foredeck.

They’re stirring early, shaking off sleep, gabbing, sipping coffee, eager to catch sight of their first landfall on this remote spear point of volcanic rock. In the distance, beyond a cloud-topped headland, sunlight outlines the arc of Guadalupe’s northeast inlet. There, deep in flat, dark water, something else is stirring, and everyone on board is thinking about it.

It’s Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. The inshore waters of Guadalupe are one of the few known habitats for migrating populations of this extraordinary creature, the world’s largest predatory fish. With a typical adult length of 13 to 16 feet, girth measured in meters, and body weight between 1500 and 2500 pounds, the great white is a true “apex predator,” the king of the food chain.

Shark Diver chief Martin Graf briefs divers aboard Horizon before they enter cages for morning’s rotation. Photo © Jim Cornfield.
Shark Diver chief Martin Graf briefs divers aboard Horizon before they enter cages for morning’s rotation. Photo © Jim Cornfield.

His cartilage-skeletoned family of vertebrates has lived on this planet for 400 million years. To scientists and shark devotees, great whites are a feast of complex behaviors — coy in their breeding and migratory habits, wary, calculating hunters — terrifying, adept killers.

Until a few years ago, close-up observation of these animals in their habitat was pretty much out of the question. Swimmers and scuba divers wisely avoid them, and any useful scrutiny in an aquarium is difficult, since they don’t survive prolonged captivity. But the recent growth in the popularity of “shark cage diving” has changed our relationship with the great white. On this particular morning, the entire ship’s company — crew and clients — are here under the aegis of Shark Diver, one of the leading operators of shark cage excursions to Isla Guadalupe.

Strictly speaking, shark cage diving isn’t diving at all. No scuba certification or even swimming skills are required. In a typical scenario, “divers” are safety-briefed and then descend into sturdy aluminum cages just beneath the surface, with unlimited air supplied, hookah style, from topside via scuba mouthpieces connected to rugged 12-foot hoses.

Exultant cage divers after their first shark sighting of the day. Photo © Jim Cornfield.
Exultant cage divers after their first shark sighting of the day. Photo © Jim Cornfield.

Most cage dive boats are luxurious in their appointments (with excellent meals and sleeping accommodations) and spend about 3 days at the island, (Shark Diver’s cost for a five day expedition is around $3100 per person), with each diver making four to five one-hour “rotations” daily, taking periodic rest breaks on deck.

Within the first few minutes of today’s first rotation, a hefty, 13-foot great white rises slowly from the blue-black water below, curious about the visitors. The mix of terror and elation in the cage at this moment is almost palpable. Over the steady underwater gurgle of exhaust air bubbling from the regulators, divers hear their own muffled cries of awe, mostly the word “wow,” exclaimed through clamped teeth on a rubber mouthpiece. Camera shutters click wildly in their waterproof housings and the divers’ eyes widen, fixed on the shark.

After a slow glide past the cage bars, an arm’s length from the divers’ faces, he turns indifferently and descends back into the shadows. High fives are passed around among divers in the cage and will continue for the rest of the excursion, as shark divers are repeatedly treated to similar intimate encounters with the great white in his native lair.

MV Horizon crewmen position a shark cage off the trawler’s stern for the mornings dive operations. Photo © Jim Cornfield.
MV Horizon crewmen position a shark cage off the trawler’s stern for the mornings dive operations. Photo © Jim Cornfield.

It’s a sight that few other human beings will ever see in person. “We’ve been given a gift here,” says Shark Diver’s founder, Patric Douglas, a leading advocate for white shark conservation, “This chunk of rock and volcanic cinder cones — Guadalupe Island — is probably the most robust white shark habitat on earth.”

As formidable as great whites are, ravenous overfishing has kept them on the world’s endangered species lists, dating back all the way to the 1974 bestseller Jaws, and the blockbuster film that followed. “Even today,” Douglas says, “a set of white shark jaws can fetch $5000 in Ensenada, and a whole carcass can bring $20,000 on the black market.”

The revenues from shark cage diving excursions help to fund outreach efforts like Douglas’ Guadalupe Island Conservation Fund, and the effects are beginning to make a difference in the welfare of the great white. In 2004, two years before his death, novelist Peter Benchley boarded Horizon for his own Guadalupe Island visit. He wanted to see firsthand the creatures he had so publicly demonized in Jaws. By that time, Benchley was already an advocate for white shark conservation, having seen the destructive results of the senseless bloody orgy of shark hunting spawned so long ago by his vivid prose. He was visibly moved by the majesty of these animals, and it wasn’t long before his campaign to save great whites began to take hold in the media.

An adolescent male shark, approximately 12 feet in length, comes in close to inspect the cage. The sharks are capable of seeing, hearing, smelling and even sensing the heartbeats of divers in the cage. Photo © Jim Cornfield.
An adolescent male shark, approximately 12 feet in length, comes in close to inspect the cage. The sharks are capable of seeing, hearing, smelling and even sensing the heartbeats of divers in the cage. Photo © Jim Cornfield.

The great white shark will always be the subject of controversy. Simply the knowledge that this powerful predator co-exists with us on the planet remains a darkly provocative and fascinating thought. But sympathy for the white shark should never obscure their important role as an effective predator.

Luke Tipple, a widely respected shark biologist and formerly Shark Diver’s Director of Operations, is outspoken on this subject. “Occasionally,” he muses, “you’ll hear the phrase that great whites are ‘misunderstood.’ They may have been mistreated, but give them their due. They are definitely not misunderstood. Many millions of years of evolution went into producing this animal, and he is, first and foremost, an astonishingly efficient killer. Let’s not take that away from him.”

Copyright © Jim Cornfield / 2013 Singular Communications, LLC.

Jim CornfieldJim Cornfield (www.jimcornfield.net) is a veteran travel writer and commercial photographer based in Malibu Canyon, CA. His work has appeared in scores of publications worldwide, and his underwater features have run in Scientific American, Sport Diver, Scuba Diving, and Rangefinder magazines.
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