For the past 14 years, the Historical Diving Society (HDS) has offered a fundraising trip to Guadalupe Island, Mexico to dive (in cages, of course) with Great White Sharks. In 2019, two back-to-back trips were offered, October 7-12 & 12-17, 2019.
Guadalupe Island, a Mexican Biosphere Reserve, is located approximately 160 nautical miles west of Ensenada, Mexico in the Pacific Ocean and has the largest identified population of Great White Sharks in the world. The dive operators visiting the island have, over the years, identified and named more than 312 different individual Great White Sharks who have been see and recorded around the island. These annual trips are organized by Ed Stetson (www.stetsondiving.com) who generously donates the proceeds to the Historical Diving Society for publishing the Journal of Diving History. Each HDS trip is hosted by a well-known personality in the diving world. Past hosts have included Ernie Brooks, Stan Waterman, Rodney Fox, David Doubilet, Bob Hollis, Chuck Nicklin, Zale Parry, Howard & Michele Hall and others. The special guest host for this year was the diver/photographer with more Skin Diver Magazine covers than any other underwater photographer in the world and member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, Geri Murphy.
Those going on these trips to Guadalupe with Nautilus Liveaboards (www.nautilusliveaboards.com), meet at the new Nautilus Dive Center in San Diego, California. At around noon on the scheduled day of departure, the guests gather at the Nautilus Dive Center awaiting the arrival of the tour bus, aka “The Shark Express”, that would take the groups to Ensenada, Mexico to meet the Nautilus Belle Amie (www.nautilusbelleamie.com).
The first trip was made up of many very experienced divers who had been to Guadalupe many times before. The second HDS Guadalupe Island trip was made up mostly of guests from Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (SBMM) that were there supporting the HDS. Many of the divers on the second trip had never seen a shark “in the wild”, before with many who had just recently been certified as divers and a few who were not certified at all. Those who were not certified divers were assigned to the surface cages only. Special guests on the second trip included Leslie Leaney, Founder of the Historical Diving Society USA, Greg Gorga, Executive Director of the SBMM, Don Barthelmiss, Vice President of the SBMM Board of Directors and Ed Stetson, organizer of these and many other exciting trips.
As guests arrive, they check in with the Nautilus staff who make sure they have their passports and Mexican Tourist Visa. If they had not previously completed the online tourist visa application, the Nautilus staff member would walk them through the process. Arriving guests introduce themselves, many of whom have been on multiple HDS fundraising trips including Leslie Leaney (Founder of the HDS USA), Monte Rook, Cindy Rhodes, Dr. Jim Holm, Dan and Roxanne Stetson, Mike Gower, Harry Rabin, Bill McDonald, Lynn Davies, Dr. Steve Genkins, Ed Stetson, Betty Orr and the guest host, Geri Murphy. There were a number of guests who we were meeting for the first time, many who were anxious for their very first Great White Shark encounter!
Around 7:30 PM, the guests board the very comfortable “Shark Express” tour bus for the nearly 2-hour trip to Ensenada, Mexico where they would meet the Nautilus Belle Amie. The first stop on the journey south was the border crossing at Tijuana, Mexico. At the US/Mexico border, guests had to remove all their belongings (including luggage and carryon bags) from the bus and proceed through Mexican Customs. As the guests go through Mexican Customs, the bus is thoroughly inspected and X-rayed.
After exiting Mexican Customs, guests met the bus on the other side. Once reloading the bus was complete, guests settle down to relax for the 1 ½ hour ride to Ensenada.
The Shark Express arrives in Ensenada around 10:30 PM. After passing through the marina security checkpoint, the guests are enthusiastically greeted by the crew of the Nautilus Belle Amie who took all the luggage directly to the assigned staterooms.
After a welcome glass of champagne and some late evening snacks, there was a brief introduction to the Belle Amie by Captain Beto after which guests are divided into groups and, as a group, escorted to the areas where their assigned staterooms were located. The crew member assigned to each group, shows the location of the nearest fire extinguisher and fire alarm. Guests are then shown the closest two (2) emergency exits to their assigned staterooms. Guests are also instructed not to charge batteries or electronics in their staterooms.
Guests then either adjourn to their staterooms for a good night sleep or return to the lounge for a late night snack. The gentle rocking of the boat makes falling asleep easy. As an added safety measure, Nautilus is installing sprinkler/fire suppression systems on all their liveaboards. Nautilus Liveaboards has impressive attention to safety and these added safety measures were both informative and comforting.
The first day at sea, while the Belle Amie made its way west for the 20-hour trip to Guadalupe, most of the guests prepare their photo equipment. Many of the guests on these two fundraising trips are avid photographers with nearly every square inch of the camera tables being used. The Belle Amie has a huge dive deck with numerous large and open camera tables each with multiple electrical outlets for charging camera batteries, strobes and video lights. For cage diving with Great White Sharks, guests only really need an exposure suit and mask as weights and breathing equipment, in the form of surface-supplied air, are supplied by the boat.
For those who either don’t own their own equipment or don’t want to bring it with them, wet suit and mask rentals are available. The weights are not on weight belts but are in pouches on special DUI weight harnesses that had from 30-45 pounds of lead in them. Considering the type of diving being done, having excess weight was definitely a benefit. The wide shoulder straps help make the weight harnesses comfortable and the crew will put them on and take them off of guests in the water, if requested. The Belle Amie crew are always there to help you whatever the situation.
As in past years, I was using a DUI drysuit loaned to me by Diving Unlimited International (DUI). This year, the founder of DUI, Dick Long, loaned me his personal dry suit but not before I had to solemnly swear, more than once, to control my bladder while wearing his dry suit!
During that first day at sea, all guests participate in the mandatory life jacket orientation and drill. Guest are also introduced to the crew who explain their respective roles onboard. During that day, the crew conducts their regular fire drills where they deploy and pressurize fire hoses and practice putting out a fire in one of the areas of the ship.
During the transit to Guadalupe Island, there are lectures such as “Cage Diving 101” and “Marine Life 101” conducted by an experienced and knowledgeable crew member. The crew member helps guests understand the biology and behavior of marine life, especially the Great White Sharks.
Part of the Cage Diving 101 lecture includes new rules for cage diving in the waters around Guadalupe Island. These rules include no cameras or body parts are to be outside the cage. The divers/photographers in the submersible cages are monitored by the divemaster assigned to each cage or crew members on the wrangling platform of boat deck. For the surface cages, anyone violating these rules gets the “broom.” If you violate the rule of no cameras or body parts outside the cage, a crew member holds a broom down in front of the offending diver/photographer letting them know the error of their ways. If there are repeated offenses, the diver/photographer risks losing their cage diving privileges.
Late in the afternoon, Guadalupe Island comes into view on the horizon. This is always an exciting time as Isla Guadalupe looks tailormade for Great White Sharks. Shrouded in mist with a spit of land at the end of the island looking just like a shark fin!!
As the sun sets, the Belle Amie approaches the shelter of Guadalupe’s Spanish Cove finally dropping anchor at around 8:00 PM. Shortly after dropping anchor, the crew goes about putting the five (5) specially designed stainless steel shark cages in the water. Two cages are secured to the dive deck at the surface while three (3) others are submersible (one starboard, one port and one in the center of the stern) going to a depth of approximately 24 feet.
Places in the two surface cages are on a first-come basis and could accommodate 4 divers each while the 3 spots in each submersible cage are assigned by Ed Stetson and a member of the crew. Each diver has 3 scheduled submersible trips per day. All the divers breathe through regulators with hoses coming from the surface. Just in case there would be a problem with that air supply, each cage has an independent emergency air supply that can be activated by the divemaster assigned to each submersible cage and, as a secondary back up, there are 2 filled scuba cylinders in each submersible cage each with multiple second stages. Along with preparing the 5 cages for diving, the crew places the two wrangling platforms at the corners of the dive deck. These wrangling platforms allow a crew member on each to cast a large piece of frozen tuna tied to a float by a short piece of hemp rope. The crew members cast and retrieve these pieces of tuna throughout the day in order to attract the attention of Great White Sharks helping to bring them in closer to the stern of the Belle Amie and the cages.
The two surface cages are open from 6:30 AM to 5:00 PM while the submersible cages begin scheduled descents at 8:00 AM and ending at 4:00 PM.
As the sun rises on Guadalupe Island the first day of diving, there is always a flurry of activity as divers queue up for the surface cages and teams of divers readied themselves and their camera gear for descent in the submersible cages.
Just before the surface cages open, the crew starts “wrangling.” Wrangling is when you have frozen tuna sections tied with piece of hemp rope (biodegradable and easily broken if grabbed by a shark) to a float and polypropylene rope that is thrown out into the water by a crewmember standing on the elevated wrangling platform. This practice was not allowed until recently and, with the proper permits from the Mexican Government, is conducted in such a way that it increases the possibility of shark sightings for guests in all the cages as well as those standing on the boat deck without endangering the shark.
As the first divers scramble to get into the surface cages, there are always reports of seeing Great Whites below and behind the boat. The 3 submersible cages are on a staggered schedule descending in rotation about 10 minutes apart. This means that there are cages ascending and descending almost constantly. Cage movement seems to have a positive effect on the Great Whites, especially when they return to the surface, giving the divers more opportunities to see these apex predators in action.
Photo opportunities on these trips from all the cages as well as from the boat deck were some of the very best any of us had ever seen. As the days of diving and shark sightings progressed, the mantra seemed to be, “Every cage, every diver, every dive.” Everyone had some “up close and personal” photo opportunities of Great Whites exhibiting different kinds of behavior. Most often the sharks were in twos or threes with regular sighting of 4 or more sharks coming within visual range of the cages. Sometimes, there would be so much action going on around the submersible cages that divers would literally get dizzy spinning around trying not to miss any of the sharks swimming around the cages! There were also a couple of occasions where curious Great Whites would bump, slap their tails against the cages or stick their noses into the cages.
We were extremely lucky each diving day of each trip to have near perfect conditions with flat calm seas at our anchorage and water temperatures hovering around 68 degrees. Visibility was outstanding, often exceeding 100 feet. Besides underwater and deck photographic opportunities, there were drones launched by guests that gave an entirely different perspective of the shark activity. On the first trip, Harry Rabin (www.onthewaveproductions.com), had a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), essentially a tethered underwater drone, used to get a “shark’s eye view” of the cages. On one occasion, Harry’s bright yellow underwater drone was focusing on the divers in the surface cages when a very large male Great White came at (or for) the drone. The drone turned away from the cages with the shark in hot pursuit until they were both beyond visibility range. A few minutes later, Harry was bringing the drone back to the Belle Amie intact! As it turned out, the drone had been bitten at least three (3) times by the shark even leaving part of a tooth in the drone. The video from the drone showed a view from inside the shark’s mouth!!
Harry deployed his drone a second time and this time, a Great White severed the fiberoptic cable but, as luck would have it, the drone was close enough the stern of the boat that it was able to retrieved with a boat hook.
On another dive in the surface cage, we noticed something odd in the water in front of one of the surface cages. It had a gray body with four slowly moving pink propellers, and it was sinking out of sight. It was an a real drone that, due to a malfunctioning sensor, actually landed in the water rather than returning to the deck of the Belle Amie.
Drones are becoming more popular on these trips and provide video opportunities not available through other photographic means. On the second HDS trip, there was a professional videographer onboard working for Nautilus Liveaboards, Adil. He was able to get some absolutely spectacular video of Great Whites approaching the bait from below and, ultimately, breaching. Adil’s video included all aspects of the second trip and was made available for sale to the guests.
On some evenings, crew members conduct “Shark ID” sessions, where they try to identify some of the sharks that were seen during the days of diving. The crew and guests use the shark identification books that contain images of 312 previously identified and named Great White Sharks that had been seen and photographed in the waters around Guadalupe. These sharks are numbered and named. Guests are asked to submit photos of sharks for these sessions hoping to have photographed a shark that had yet to be identified or named. If a guest photographs both sides of a Great White that had not been previously identified, they just might be given the privilege of naming that particular shark. On a previous trip, two friends of our guest host Geri Murphy, identified and name a new shark after Geri! What an honor!
During the evenings in Guadalupe, whenever possible guests are entertained by videos done by other guests such as, Monte Rook. Whenever Monte is on a trip, he produces a video that he shares with all the guests and crew. Having so much underwater photographic expertise on these trips gives everyone an opportunity to improve their underwater photography and videography.
On these two trips, each day at Guadalupe Island proved to be just as exciting as the last with constant shark activity on the surface and below. From sun up to sun down, guests eagerly await their turn in the surface and submersible cages. Whenever there was an open spot, it was taken almost immediately. The mantra, “Every cage, every diver, every dive” continued throughput this trip.
Besides the photographic opportunities underwater, those guests on the surface were often treated to spectacular displays of partial breaches by a Great Whites intent on getting the frozen tuna. On these trips, there were multiple partial breaches every single day! Guests had to make a tough choice, whether to take photos underwater or on the surface. Exciting photo opportunities were everywhere!!
Trips on the Belle Amie are always exciting. The captain and crew define professionalism and are always finding new ways to make the experiences onboard second to none. The staterooms are large and very comfortable each with its own air conditioning and the meals are a delight. The food was so good that guests truly looked forward to each and every meal. And it was common for the guests to erupt in applause when the chef entered the dining room.
On our return trips to Ensenada, a member of the crew puts together a video presentation with photographs and video clips taken and submitted by guests. This video is shown to the guests and then each guest receives a copy of the video on a DVD or they could get a download on a USB drive.
As we near the port of Ensenada, guests gather on the upper deck of the Belle Amie for a group photo just before docking. The photos we took on each of these trips include a copy of Dive Training Magazine. These photos are sent to Dive Training Magazine for inclusion in the “Say Cheez” section of the magazine.
After saying goodbyes to the crew, those returning to San Diego board the “Shark Express” along with all their luggage. A few guests stayed for both trips (Leslie Leaney, Ed Stetson, Dr. Steve Genkins, Geri Murphy, Dan Orr).
Crossing the U.S./Mexico border is also a relatively easy process. Most guests are through U.S. Customs in less than 15 minutes. After leaving U.S. Customs, there is just a short walk to the parking lot to meet the Shark Express for our return to the Nautilus Dive Center in San Diego. The Shark Express does make stops at the San Diego International Airport for those guests with scheduled flights out that evening.
Once back at the Nautilus Dive Center, guests say their goodbyes to old and new friends who will forever share a common bond of having an experience of their lifetime with one of the most magnificent creatures ever to swim the seas of planet earth.
We had some great times — not only with the sharks but with the guests as well. This was truly another wonderful and memorable trip on the Belle Amie.