The Great Whites of Guadalupe Island, Mexico

Story by Joe Flacco

Posted: June 26, 2017
 

It was a beautiful morning. The sea surface calm and the sky blue with only a misty cloud hanging over the highest peak of Guadalupe Island. We were anchored in a protected bay off Prison Beach on the northeast corner of the island. During the months of July through October, these waters are home to a large population of great white sharks that migrate down the west coast to breed and feed for the summer. Onboard the 112’ luxury expedition vessel, Solmar V, we were here to jump in the water with these misunderstood sharks to witness their behavior while in their natural surroundings from the safety of a shark cage. The excitement onboard was intense!

This adventure, available to anyone who can snorkel and has the guts, started in San Diego, CA where we were picked up at 10 a.m. by Solmar V staff and escorted by air-conditioned bus to the boat in Ensenada, Mexico. Upon arrival to the boat, where welcome aboard appetizers and beverages were waiting, we departed on our expedition by 1 p.m. During the 165 mile, open ocean crossing to this remote island, we encountered huge schools of dolphin, sea lions and even a blue whale! Some of the dolphin broke away from the school to body surf the bow wave. All came extremely close to the boat making for great photo ops!

Since 2005, the Solmar V has been operating these high-octane adventures amidst the criticism of some who claim they are too risky. To demonstrate that these trips are strictly regulated by the national park and are held to a high level of safety, on this trip, the Director of SEMARNAT (The Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources for Mexico) for the state of Baja California agreed to not only join us, but bring along his entire family. His wife, two daughters, 9 & 12 years old, and his son who is 14. SEMARNAT oversees CONANP which is the governmental agency that manages the national parks throughout Mexico. As one of only three places on earth where this type of shark encounter can be consistently observed, Guadalupe Island is very important to Mexico. The Director and his family all enjoyed the open ocean encounters on the crossing and were excitedly awaiting their first cage-diving experience to see the famous great white sharks of Guadalupe.

As usual, the great whites did not disappoint! After a detailed orientation by the crew and a hands-on demonstration of how to use the hookah breathing system by one of the boat’s trained instructors, everyone was ready to take the plunge! No SCUBA certification is necessary to use the hookah system which is basically surface supplied air. With the cages right on the surface, the breathing experience is much like snorkeling. The cages are attached to the swim platform by a proprietary system that made it super easy to get in and out when your turn came up.

These were not flimsy cages as you might see in the movies, or here about in the “fake News” media. They are made of a very strong, marine aluminum alloy and constructed to specifications implemented by the national park after years of research and studies. Once in the cage, the shark wranglers who are perched on a platform 10 feet out over the water, start attracting in the sharks with large pieces of tuna attached to a biodegradable hemp line. This perch enables the wranglers to control the baits in a way that brings in the sharks while keeping the baits a safe distance from the cages. The baits used are of human consumption quality and purchased from a government certified supplier. In addition, the whole operation must have a valid Environmental Impact Study in place to legally operate in these waters.

Although movies like “Jaws” and, most recently, “47 Meters Down” want you to think that these animals will do anything to get at the humans inside the cage, that is hardly the case. Without bait to entice these predators to the cages, you might occasionally see a shark off in the distance and if lucky, maybe observe a close swim by. The fine-tuned wrangling method used by the Solmar V brought these incredible creatures near enough for all to realize, up close and personal, their unbelievable grace and power, all while in their natural environment. This also makes for fantastic photo and video opportunities! This adventure is much like a land safari to witness lions or gorillas in their habitat, only this is just below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

The family had been in the cages only 10 minutes when the first shark showed up. He was huge! With two four-person cages, the kids with David, an instructor, were in one cage while I along with the father and mother were in the other. Soon another shark showed up and then a third! They came in slowly and gracefully to the baits and then the biggest one broke away from the bait to curiously swim only a few feet out from the kids’ cage. I could see the kids wide-eyed wonder through the snorkeling masks and hear them gasping into their breathing rigs. These close encounters continued for the next 30 minutes and then unfortunately, it was time to take a break and let other guests onboard share this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Once the kids were out of the cage, it was a non-stop chatter fest! They were very excited and could hardly wait to get back to school to tell their friends they had been in the water with not just one, but many great white sharks. They immediately wanted to get back in the cage but David explained how they rotate guests out and in every hour so that everyone has plenty of time in the cages with the sharks. They seemed a bit disappointed until a crew member miraculously appeared with home-made cookies and hot chocolate! After an hour in the water, the hot chocolate really hit the spot! Other tasty treats continued to mysteriously appear at just the right time for guests exiting the water.

The shark encounters were outstanding all day long and so were the meals and snacks from Chef Tony! With a stellar reputation for his delicious and filling cuisine, Chef Tony has received many job offers from guests who have gone gaga over his food. Luckily for the Solmar V, Tony enjoys the comradery and benefits of where he works and doesn’t seem to be leaving anytime soon. In fact, the whole crew functioned like one big, happy family and treated everyone like friends while seamlessly performing their onboard duties. Many travelers on this trip had been aboard multiple times on this and other adventures Solmar V offers.

By the end of the day, the mood was festive with everyone settling down to a memorable dinner and cheerful conversation about the wonder filled shark encounters had by all that day. We all agreed that the best part of the evening was that we still had two more entire days at this legendary island with the majestic great whites of Guadalupe!

The Solmar V runs 4 night / 5 day trips to Guadalupe Island in the summer months of August through October. They pioneered cage-diving at Guadalupe and their crew is renowned for their service, experience and safety. For a special, discounted rate to join one of these expeditions of a lifetime click here.