Trip Dates: September 1-6, 2003
Vessel: M/V Horizon (San Diego Shark Diving)
Visit Sites: Guadalupe Island, Mexico
Participants: David Brown, Eric Cheng, Darren Davenport, Michael D. Dukes, Dave Gannon, David Haas, Mike Greuter, Jessie Harper, Maris Kazmers ("Kaz"), Don Kehoe, Joe Lein, Ron Martin, Dorothy and Bob McDonald, Johanna and Bruce Wight, Ron Yanega
SDSD Crew: Paul "Doc" Anes, Perry Armor, Jessie Harper
Horizon Crew: Ron, Chris, Patti, Sterling, Dave, Mark, Monica
Guadalupe Island sits in Mexican waters approximately 250 miles from San Diego, and hosts a large great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) population. It is likely the only place where great white sharks can be readily observed in clear water. San Diego Shark Diving runs chartered five and six day trips to Guadalupe in the fall and early winter every year aboard the Horizon, which leaves port from San Diego and takes between twenty and twenty-two hours to reach Guadalupe. The boat itself has a very different feel than other similarly-priced boats I've been on. While some of the other boats pride themselves on luxury, the Horizon is a no-frills boat whose goal is to get the job done. All of the procedures we adhered to were designed to give us the maximum amount of time in the water. We had comfortable beds, good food, and great service. Most importantly, the crew and the boat delivered many great white sharks for our viewing pleasure. :)
A lot of preparation goes into a successful white shark expedition. Obviously, cages are needed. By the time we arrived to the boat, the cages were already on board, ready for deployment. Also necessary are copious amounts of bait and chum. On our way out of San Diego, we stopped to fill up our holding tanks with live bait, and fishermen extraordinaire Darren and Don (and the crew as well) fished for almost the entire time they weren't in the water, catching both dinner and shark bait. One interesting implement on board is a homemade "chum cannon," which is sort of like a potato gun, except that it shoots out chunks of rendered fish. It's almost too much fun to handle.
Also on the boat is a "Harry," a Herring-esque human-shaped cutout made from carpet and wetsuits. Harry is a big hit with white sharks, who will take a test bite out of pretty much anything on the surface (this is not to be confused with a predatory attack, which does considerably more damage).
Great White Sharks
Great white sharks are cool. I tried to prune the number of images on this page, but I still ended up with too many!
We saw more than twelve individuals during our four days of cage time, and the sharks became more and more aggressive as the days went by. By the last day, individuals were routinely bumping the cage, one of them rendering the cage on the stern side inoperable by tearing through the air supply tubing running to the boat! It looks like Doc will have some repair work to do when we return to dock. Mike Dukes got some fantastic topside footage of the shark going through those cables.
It's almost unbelievable that a sea lion would hang out in close proximity to multiple great white sharks, but this male swam with us for three days, stealing bait at every opportunity. By the last day, one of the sharks had gone after him a couple of times, but I guess most of the time white sharks aren't fast enough to catch one. Experts theorize that white sharks usually attack by surprise, from below. In years past, the SD Shark Diving folk have seen a great white eat a bird and a blue shark. I've seen the video footage of the white shark taking the blue shark, and it's incredible. The white shark literally cuts the blue shark in half with a single bite, leaving the head half to wiggle around in a futile, post-mortem attempt to escape. It's really too bad we didn't get to see "wild" predation on this trip. Two guys on board (who would probably want to remain anonymous) suggested that we tranquilize the sea lion as a catalyst for more action, but of course, we would never really do such a thing. ;)
Sharing a great white shark encounter with other divers in a cage is a great bonding experience -- especially if the shark has torn from your cage the hoses that deliver life-giving air. I wasn't in the cage when that happened, but I imagine that it must have been really exciting. :)
Sharing a cage with other photographers can also be a little frustrating, especially if they don't have the courtesy to pull in their strobe arms. I'm coming back here on an industry trip in November that will be full of professional photographers, and I'm sure that camera etiquette will be an interesting issue on that trip. Most people on our trip this week were very courteous and nice; some even offered the precious outer-corner spot to those of us who were more serious about underwater photography!
Because most of us were only in the cages every other hour, we had a lot of time topside to socialize, to review the photos we had just taken, and to fish for dinner and shark bait. The island of Guadalupe itself is interesting to look at as well, its sheer cliff walls jutting straight up from the ocean's surface. Like other isolated islands, introduced species have decimated the local flora; Guadalupe's large goat population has stripped its surface bare of vegetation.
Some of the photographs below show Don's surfboard, which he had outfitted with carpet to make it look like a seal or a turtle. Great whites took two large semi-circular chunks out of his board. Also below are photographs taken by Michael Dukes, who focused mostly on topside photography during our four days at the island.
SD Shark Diving passenger Michael Dukes snapped some fantastic photos of white sharks biting things on the surface. Specifically, sharks bit Harry, Don's surfboard, the fender of the port-side cage, and the air supply tubing and security rope of the stern-side cage. Michael has graciously allowed me to use his photos on this page. Photos from Michael are below.
Monday, September 1, 2003
19:46 - We boarded the Horizon early this morning and were en route to Guadalupe by approximately 9:30. Captain Ron and San Diego Shark Diving owner Doc Anes gave a boat briefing as soon as we started off. We are now at some local fishing grounds catching dinner (for us) and bait (for the white sharks). Don just landed a good sized blue-fin tuna and a yellow-tail, so it looks like we will be eating well tomorrow!
Tuesday, September 2, 2003
23:18 - It's late, and I'm exhausted. We had encounters with four to five individual great white sharks today, and the first arrived during our practice dive, only half an hour after the cages went into the water! All of them were male, and the largest was somewhere around ten to twelve feet long. Two of them stayed around the cages (one had a black satellite tag and the remnants of a brown tag attached to his dorsal fin), coming in fairly close, but the others kept their distance. One large one buzzed by with a pilotfish riding just under his nose, but he never came back for a second look.
The weather has been amazing here so far (which means that there has been plenty of sunlight for photos). The visibility in the water was good as well, although it started to cloud up a bit late in the afternoon. A boat carrying a team from National Geographic is anchored not far from us, and spotted a 12-15' female late in the afternoon. Hopefully she will come in tomorrow. :)
Jessie Harper (one of the crew, and recently featured along with Doc Anes on Discovery Channel's Shark Week) is attempting to identify and catalog all of the white sharks we spot. It's difficult because she's relying on photographs from those of us who are shooting digital. I only photographed one of the multiple sharks I saw today because he was the only one who came in close. Now that we know about the ongoing ID effort, we'll try to shoot shots of new sharks that come in, even if they are not close enough for us to get a photo that we would normally keep.
Wednesday, September 3, 2003
17:08 - There's a young sea lion bull swimming around, stealing bait. We're all secretly hoping that he'll be hit by a great white, even though most of us will not voice such a desire without suitable disclaimers. :) He's been followed by one a few times, but never in a way that looked threatening. Like yesterday, a great white showed up within half an hour of the cages entering the water. We have seen at least four individuals today (I have photographs of two of them from underwater, and one additional one from the surface), all of them fairly large males. I call them "large" because they are all 10' or longer, but a 10' great white shark is actually quite small for the species. Still, they're really impressive animals. It may just be my imagination, but they seem to move with more purpose than other shark species do.
We haven't had any cage bumping yet, and none of the sharks have come in really close. But we still have two more days in the water with them. :) We go into the cages in hour-long shifts, each followed by an hour-long break on the surface; some of us have been staying in the cage for longer shifts, taking empty spots left by skipped turns. In particular, Douglas has been a cage-fiend, staying in their for hours at a time. I've been experimenting with my camera (with red filters and such), so I've opted to take all of my breaks to see the effects of my experimentation. The hotshoe connection in my housing broke today, and I had to solder the thing back on. Unfortunately, I discovered that 1) it is not easy to solder a small connection on a rocking boat, and 2) melting plastic smells really bad. But it's working now. I'm certain that it will break as soon as I touch it again, so we're leaving the soldering iron out in the galley. :)
19:24 - I should have stayed in the water! Had my body not quit on me from exhaustion, I would have. Although... it was also the crappy visibility that drifted in, and the complete lack of activity for two hours that prevented me from going in again. Near the end of the day's diving, activity picked up considerably. A male sea lion was swimming around with a 10-13' male white shark in close proximity. At one point, the shark missed the bait, turned around, and bit Harry (Harry is our carpet seal cut-out). Sharks can't swim backwards, and this one didn't have much room to maneuver. He rammed into the cage where Douglas was positioned (who had luckily just pulled his camera in to delete images out of his full compact flash card) and broke one of the welded joints! Sounds like fun, huh? I'm sorry I missed it. We have two more days for more shark/cage contact.
Thursday, September 4, 2003
21:47 - Best day of white shark action so far! We had four to five individuals, all from 10-12' in length. I saw four, but only have photographs of two. A large male with a satellite tag and mouth wound (shark #008) played with us all morning, going for bait repeatedly. The sea lion that was here yesterday was also around, sometimes swimming within just a few feet of the great white. Shark #008 banged into the cages twice, and took multiple test bites at a surfboard that Darren and Ron brought with them. The board was covered with carpet to make it look like a seal or a turtle, and it hangs off of the back of the boat along with Harry. Interestingly, the sharks tend only to bite at Harry and the surfboard after missing bait (we have good wranglers, and the sharks are rarely able to get bait off of the line). The shark with the claw marks above its left-hand gills (#001) was back as well, displaying its characteristic behavior. He only ventured above the bottom of the cage a few times, prefering to stay deep, and tended to move off when larger sharks appeared.
The action really picked up in the afternoon. A large shark (shark #009) with multiple bite marks near its face (circular, on the left-hand side) appeared just after 4:30pm. He had a small yellow/brown tag, and moved differently than did the other sharks we have seen so far. Shark #009 had attitude. He swam directly towards us, looked us in the eye, and was not afraid to come in really, really close. All of us felt that he might take a bite at us were we not enclosed in metal. The water turned green and murky just as the light started to fail, and when the visibility dropped to less than 30', I noticed the mood in the cages change dramatically. All of the white sharks were easily able to sneak up on us, and we were often oblivious to their presence until they were literally only a few feet away. I would definitely not like to be in murky water with a white shark. But it was fun to have shark #009 around the cages in those conditions. He swam more quickly than the other sharks and made passes very close to the cages, coming directly towards us and veering off at the last minute. I wish we could have stayed in the water with him longer, but 6pm quickly arrived, and we had a delicious dinner waiting for us in the galley.
Friday, September 5, 2003
23:40 - Kaz, Mike (Dukes) and I are the only non-crew awake; we're sitting the galley watching everything rock back and forth with the mild swell we're motoring through. Having left Guadalupe a bit late, we are anticipating a 4-6pm arrival time in San Diego.
We moved to a different location during the night, a bit closer to the lighthouse, where the white shark action has traditionally been very good. I spent most of the day manning my pole-cam, looking for a close-up shot of a gaping great white. The morning was very quiet; in fact, it was the first day a white shark didn't show up within half an hour of the beginning of shark watch. By early afternoon, we had four sharks circling the cages. We saw at least five individuals today, including our first female, who was quite large, weighing in at somewhere between 12-13' in length. She clearly was at the top of the social ladder (in this group, I mean), and was considerably larger in girth than the males were. Most of our sharks today were interested in everything floating on the surface of the water; bait was readily pursued, Harry was literally ingested and regurgitated (and later on torn into several pieces), and Don's surfboard is now adorned with two semi-circular holes and several teeth marks. One of the white sharks bit into the surfboard, picked it up, and shook it back and forth until it had ripped a section out of it! More bars in Doc's cages were bent by sharks coming in too close, and in a spectacular display of misplaced aggression, the left-hand cage's air supply hoses were bitten in half, along with the rope securing that side of the cage. It's not that white sharks are out to destroy equipment. It's that they have just come in on some bait and are likely to bite the next thing they see after our wranglers pull food out from right under their noses. In any case, the four divers in the cage came up pretty quickly after their air supply was cut short. :)
The shark action continued until the end of the last dive, at 6pm. It ended spectacularly, with five sharks circling the cages in low light. My camera was almost taken by a great white three times, but I narrowly escapes bad fortune, ending up with some dramatic down-the-gullet shots. Joe from Brooklyn was hit in the knee by a great white after he missed my camera. Not many people can say that they were injured by a great white shark without having scars from the encounter. :)
Initially, I was a bit disappointed that I decided not to shoot from inside the cage today. Tthe action was amazing, and the visibility was the best we have had so far -- probably over 100'. However, I ended up being pleased with my decision because I managed to get photographs that would not have been possible without a pole-cam.
I've really enjoyed being on the boat with this group of divers. The crew and guests on board were a "meat and potatoes" sort of crowd -- almost 100% different than the crowd I had been with on the Sky Dancer just a week before (who were an "afternoon tea" sort of crowd, with a bit of Dutch madness thrown in). Obviously, everyone here likes to be in the water with sharks, and it was great to finally meet Kaz, whom I have heard about for a long time now. The Horizon has a very San Diegan feel to it, and being here for a week reminded me a lot of how I felt when I lived here.
Special thanks to Dave Haas for organizing the trip, to Doc Anes for keeping us on schedule by yelling at us every fifteen minutes, to Mark and Monica for the wonderful food, to Captains Ron and Chris for keeping us afloat, and to Patti, Sterling, Dave, and Jessie for keeping our shark encounters exciting and safe.