Our day began with sunrise at sea, just after 6AM. We had been motoring east now for some 17 hours, making way towards Isla Guadalupe at a steady clip of about 10mph.
However, while we slept, the ocean did not. Over the course of the night it slowly built into rolling swells that made some of the most basic tasks (finding the bathroom in the middle of the night up one steep flight of stairs) a bit more challenging. Below you can see the swells off the back of the boat.
Around 9AM we steamed past the iconic Northern most point of the 20-mile long and 6-mile wide island, which is marked with a rock that juts out of the ocean a hundred plus feet into the air…in the near perfect shape of a shark’s dorsal fin.
After passing Shark Fin rock, we were finally within sight of the incredibly rugged and barren terrain that makes up this volcanic sanctuary.There is little life on the island’s dryer portions. A small seasonal fishing village is present on a different area of the island, but the only sign of human life we saw on our arrival were three abandoned structures that once were housed a research facility, though now boarded up and run down.
However, at the water’s edge the lifeless landscape gradually shows signs of what might lie just off shore. The beaches are covered in seals and sea lions, resting up and bathing in the warm sun, perhaps just back from dodging the great whites that lurk only a few hundred feet offshore.
While the sea lions were enjoying the sun, we were being buffeted by the winds. The wind was posing a bit of a challenge for a number of reasons. The first issue was the primary northern dive location was in swells too rough to safely deploy the cages. So as a result we continued southward along the island in search for a better place to drop anchor. A secondary location also turned out to be in too much wind such that the boat with the cages deployed could literally be dragged off-anchor, potentially placing us against the rocks, thus our second issue.
Finally after about three hours of searching, we were able to locate a place to safely drop anchor (in depths of about 200ft – though just a few hundred feet off shore). It was at that time that Luke Tipple went ahead and conducted the safety briefing.
The briefing covered a number of topics from environmental concerns with the island (no throwing overboard of trash), to how to enter and exit the cage, to being safe in the water with the massive 2,500 pound great white sharks.
Luke’s a marine biologist that’s accompanying us on the trip, he has an extensive amount of knowledge about great white sharks in the area – as well as shark behavior worldwide. More than likely you’ve probably seem him in the past on networks like the Discovery Channel and many others (even on Mythbusters!). He also works to promote an initiative called Shark Free Marinas – which works with marinas around the world to prohibit shark fishing. It may surprise you that folks actually actively ‘fish’ sharks – generally not to eat, but rather to put over their mantels. With the world’s shark population quickly dwindling, the goal of the initiative is to provide marinas with signage and guidance on how to eliminate shark fisherman from showing up with their catches in those marinas. This post from the folks at Shark Diver talks more about the issue in depth and is a good read.
Now interestingly, while most sport fisherman aren’t so much after the shark meat – that doesn’t hold true for other parts of the world. The biggest challenge to sharks worldwide is largely the practice of ‘fining’, which is when commercial fisherman cut the fins off of (usually alive) sharks and then throw them back overboard for dead. These fins are then sold in Asia – primarily Japan and China – as a delicacy – often part of Shark Fin soup. Oh, and that accounts for more than 38 Million sharks a year.
(He’s pictured below here going over some camera operations details with a few guys)
One person who didn’t need any photographic assistance was Simon Hutchins, an Expedition Director with the Oceanic Preservation Society, pictured below. That’s him ever so carefully preparing his custom-made $100,000+ still digital camera which shoots at 59 megapixels (for comparison, I’m shooting at 18MP). Simon was on the crew behind the movie The Cove, which premiered worldwide this past summer (we were later treated to a special onboard showing as well). But I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
Once the briefings were complete, it was time to get the cages in the water. There were two primary cages with us for the journey, plus two additional cages for filming. The two primary cages are surface cages that are about 10ft long and 4ft wide…and like a duck – they float on the surface of the water.
I ended up using two wetsuits in the water. One of the few challenges of having a relatively low body fat percentage is you get cold much easier. So I combined my 3mm triathlon wetsuit with a slightly large 7mm scuba wetsuit. While we got our gear on, one of the crew started the less than fun task of getting a fish head on a rope and tossed into the water. One surprise here was the lack of movie-style ‘chumming’ – or basically tossing a bucket of blood and fish guts into the water. Nope, only simple fish heads were tossed out in the water tied onto a rope in an attempt to lure the sharks to us.
With that, it was time to jump into the water. The cages are managed on a rotation scheme to ensure fairness. The two cages each house 3-4 people in them comfortably and you get 60 minutes per rotation. So 60 minutes on, 60 minutes off. Pretty straightforward really. It takes just about that off-time to completely thaw back out again from the chilly 61*F water. While some of you out there that routinely swim in that water temperature may think it’s fairly warm, I remind you that you’re actively moving somewhere and keeping yourself warm (i.e. swimming, surfing, etc…). Next time try simply submerging yourself above the head and standing still for an hour…yup…break out your extra thick wetsuit next time…
Once down in the cages you’re connected via surface supplied air using dive regulators. So, it’s like scuba-diving, except you have an endless supply of air. One additional twist is that we use an inordinate amount of weights in order to firmly plant you on the cage floor so you’re not floating around like a rag doll. Oh, and there’s no BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) to wear.
Sharks at Isla Guadalupe – like most other wild animals – do not operate on a set timetable like going to a dolphin show at SeaWorld or a display at the zoo. Nope, they operate on their own schedule.
Which in turn means we operate on their schedule.
And their schedule today meant we did a lot of waiting.
So, for the most part we just sat around the cages. We faced front and back in an effort to be on the lookout on all sides, this was the easiest and least bouncy method to conduct our watching efforts. Because the cages float on the surface, significant movement in the cages tended to throw everyone else off kilter, sorta like playing on a see-saw.
(I’d like to point out that I take a damn good fish head photo)
Sometimes it was taking pictures of my brand new Timex Ironman watch slowly flooding and dying a horrible death…
You may ask why we didn’t take photos of fish, or any other living creatures. Well, that one’s pretty simple. There were none. Not a single fish came and visited us in the first hour. Nothing. Nobody was interested in our bait, well…except a few seagulls. I do have some pictures of them floating, from below, but I’ll spare you the endless supply of seagull shots I have because of this trip.
After our first hour of slowly induced water chill, we rotated out of the cage and into another fantastic meal – lunch. Here’s Luke lending a hand to pull me out of the water, while my brother gets his weights removed from the deck crew.
…and again starring each other in the face.
More pictures of nothingness ensued:
Oh, and less we forget the fish heads. By now we found at least a few customers, a couple of tiny fish – to join the our little underwater party.And we noticed that while we were out of the cage, the team that rotated into the cage (former Marines) had done some redecorating of the place…nice. 🙂 Perhaps this new idol would draw the attention of the sharks.
But despite the newly placed idol, another hour was spent submerged without any shark activity. And at that point it was time to call it a day. The light was starting to fade behind the mountain and the cages needed to be pulled. The total shark count for day one would tally up as zero.
The positive side however was at this point it was time for dinner again. And the chef’s in the galley were once again putting together an amazing meal. Fresh mozzarella caprese, with a lemon chicken piccata and squash medley.
It was funny how there were always DSLR cameras lying around the tables. Interestingly, all DSLR’s I saw were Canon, and the vast majority were the mid to higher range models (5D/7D and 40D/50D, with various L-lenses – the 17-40 being the most popular). I’ll talk more about camera details in the coming days – because I know some folks out there are interested.
Post-dinner folks once again gathered on the back deck, this time with a bit more alcohol involved in an attempt to wash away any worries and prepare for what will hopefully be a big day tomorrow.
As Luke said at dinner tonight “We schedule three days in hopes of getting one great day with the sharks. This means we still have two great days left with the sharks.” Hopefully, for the sake of both us (and the film crew who are anxiously waiting around twiddling their thumbs) that turns out to be true.
(Please note: All photos and text are copyrighted by me – Ray Maker – if you want to use a photo, just ask and e-mail me. Unlike the sharks, I don’t bite. Thanks!)