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Isla Guadalupe-Island of the Great White Sharks

Listed under Extreme Challenge in Mexico.

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The red rocks of Isla Guadalupe blazed in the morning sun, a clear sky welcoming us after a stomach-churning 14-hour crossing. Lapping waves and the cries of fur seals on the nearby shore were the only sounds to be heard one hundred fifty miles from the mainland. The water roiled as foot-high fins sliced the surface like a knife through cerulean silk. It was a perfect day for a dive.

"We've got a 16-footer," announced Patric Douglas, CEO of Shark Diver at www.sharkdiver.com, the outfit leading our expedition. From beneath his shades, Douglas beamed like a proud papa as he pointed out the great white circling the cages. Not wanting to miss the action, I hustled to join the other divers, who had already scurried to squeeze themselves into wetsuits before the great white disappeared back into the cobalt depths.

Moments later, after almost getting thrown into the water by the surge, I was safe within the 100-square-foot cage, the hookah regulator looping from between my clamped teeth to the deck above. The current tossed the cage -- and us -- only slightly more gently than a washing machine.

And then it appeared. Like a phantom shadow, the shark approached from below, slowly swishing its massive tail side to side as if it had all the time in the world. This was nothing like spotting a shark confined in an aquarium's tank. With our cage dangling over the side of the 88-foot MV Islander, my cagemates and I were well aware that we were but visitors in the shark's domain.

As the behemoth approached, we determined it was a female, and as she glided past just inches from our cage, her length was so great it seemed forever before she passed. I'd heard that great whites could reach such lengths -- and longer -- and for better perspective, I'd told myself I'd be seeing creatures roughly the length of a VW bus. What I hadn't counted on was the girth. I'd joked to landlubber friends that I was going to ride a shark, but after seeing how wide a female could grow, there was no conceivable way I could have saddled one, even had I been suicidal enough to try such a ridiculous (and illegal) feat. The six-foot-wide creature slid past, her black eye so close we could see the pupil, which made the shark even eerier than when she appeared to have two black, unseeing orbs.

When I emerged 45 minutes later, I had a grin as toothy as a great white's. Douglas slapped me on the back after helping me out of the cage and back on deck. "Pretty boring, eh?" He guffawed at his own joke as I racked my brain for an appropriate adjective. What emerged from my mouth cannot be printed in most publications of repute.

Only in the last few years have these waters, under the jurisdiction of the Mexican state of Baja California del Norte, earned fame for its white shark population. Other locations around the globe -- Australia's Great Barrier Reef, South Africa's notorious Shark Alley, and even San Francisco's Farallon Islands -- have long been renowned for their notorious aquatic residents, but Isla Guadalupe has quickly become a favorite, as much for its convenient location (an overnight sail from San Diego) as for its warm waters and astounding visibility, which can reach up to 100 feet. Such ideal conditions attract not only adventure-seeking divers such as my shipmates but also scientists in search of primo research conditions.

During shark season (September through November), at least 50 white sharks -- and possibly as many as 100 -- patrol the waters, estimates marine biologist Mauricio Hoyos, who spends several months a year camped out in a tin shack a couple yards away from a fragrant fur seal colony. He and a couple dozen lobster and abalone fisherman comprise the whole of the population of the island, a desolate red rock long since made devoid of vegetation by a marauding pack of abandoned goats.

After dinner our second night, Hoyos presented his most recent findings to a galley of rapt shark aficionados. We felt special, privileged even. Not only were we among an elite few -- a couple hundred a year at most -- to visit these waters, but we were getting a first-hand account with the most up-to-date information on sharks available.

Shark Diver provides a great deal of aid -- both financial and practical -- to Hoyos and his project. The crew has provided almost all of the research photos of the sharks, duplicates of which exist in a massive binder in the ship's galley, each labeled with the shark's name and distinguishable markings so that passengers can identify underwater visitors. Divers, inspired by Hoyos' shipboard stopovers, often go on to send donations or even specifically requested equipment. Shark Trust Wines, which has graced the table of many a Shark Diver meal, donates a portion of its profits to both shark conservation and research. The combination of first-hand encounters, freshly caught scientific knowledge, and cultured respect for the creatures we came to visit was but one of the many aspects of the trip that made it unique.

As we entered the galley our final night at Guadalupe, we did so solemnly, well aware that our once-in-a-lifetime experience was drawing to a close. It was then we discovered that our congenial chefs had taken it upon themselves to whip up a farewell meal we wouldn't forget, which included the 60-pound yellowfin tuna that had been caught the day before. Divers and crew retold the tale of how we'd almost had two such tuna on our tables that night, and those who’d had the good fortune to be in the cages at the time shared their photos and video.

Unlike the tuna caught earlier that last day, the dinner yellowfin had been landed whole, without a shark-sized chunk missing. There had been quite a ruckus onboard -- and below -- as Melanie Marks, founder of Shark Trust Wines, began reeling in a yellowfin, much to the excitement of a patrolling white just below the boat. The occupants of the cages had a spectacular view as the great white circled slowly toward the fish struggling on the line then zipped towards its prey with astonishing speed. With a single chomp, the fish was severed just behind the gills, and Marks had no problem reeling in what remained of her catch. She shrugged, well aware that's what you get when you fish at the "sharkiest place on Earth."

For more info:

Shark Diver www.sharkdiver.com

Shark Trust Wines www.sharkstrustwines.com

Jenna Rose Robbins is a freelance writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area. She can be reached via e-mail at jenna@jennarobbins.com.

Written by  Shark Diver.

Comments, reviews and questions by other travellers

Guadalupe Island (Mexico) is the top destination for great white shark encounters. This small volcanic island located in the Pacific 240 kilometers (150 miles) off the west coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula outperforms both South Africa and Australia with shark-seeing consistency and watching conditions. Only Guadalupe Island can boast shark viewing in beautiful clear blue water with 125 - 150 foot visibility. We recently identified 172 unique great white sharks in the bay where we stage our double decker submersible cage diving operations which guarantees unforgettable encounters.http://topspinningreels.com/

Isla Guadalupe-Island of the Great White Sharks

Oct. 1-5 2007: Great White Shark Diving with SharkDiver.com

Christie Fisher

Let me start off by saying that this is the third trip I have taken with Shark Diver.com to Isla Guadalupe. My first trip in Oct. of 2005 was so amazing that I immediately started counting down the days until I could return again and signed up for the following year. My Oct. 2006 trip was even better and, once again, I signed up for another tour at Guadalupe. I thought I knew what to expect this third time around and was even worried that I might not have as good of a time going back again. I was WRONG.

The first difference on this trip was plan for departure. Due to the new passports requirements, instead of boarding the boat in San Diego, we took a bus down to Ensenada and boarded the boat there. The bus ride went by pretty quickly as I took the time to get to know some of the people I would be sharing small spaces with for the next week. We also had a little sight-seeing along the way including a great view of one of the largest's tuna fisheries around.

Once all the gear was loaded and we were assigned our cabins, the boat headed out for the long ride across the Pacific. I had my first inclination that this trip might be a little special when we had the pleasure of cruising with a huge pod of pilot whales. I had only seen one in the wild before and there must have been 50 in this pod. They actually swam with us for a while and seemed to be playing with the wake of the boat.

After a nice day of getting to know my shipmates and watching the pilot whales, we sat down to our first dinner on board. The meal was the equivalent of anything served at some of the finer restaurants in the Bay area – a far cry from the greasy burgers one might expect to eat on a typical fishing vessel. With a fantastic meal and some red wine performing an elegant dance in my belly, I descended down into my bunk to let the boat gently rock me into my oceanic slumber.

The next morning, we arrived at the island, anchored and the crews immediately began to prepare for three days of diving. The first shark showed up before the cages were even completely setup - yet another sign that we could be in for an unbelievable week.

There are two cages that comfortably hold four divers each so there are hourly rotations with eight divers. With only 16 divers max, that means you are in the cage for an hour and topside for the next hour all day - plenty of dive time for everyone! I ended up in the second rotation which gave me time to get my camera gear setup and let my breakfast settle a bit. That was the start of three solid days of non-stop action and excitement!

There were sharks on every single rotation and when I say sharks plural, I mean it. There were multiple sharks each time and several times, I counted five different sharks circling the cage during one rotation. Sometimes they took turns coming up for a close look at us in the cages. Other times they ambushed us in pairs. The "slow" times were when sharks just circled the cages below - still in sight, but not close enough to see the pupils of their eyes!

As if multiple Great Whites on the cage at a time wasn't enough, the next thing that happened caused my jaw to drop to the bottom of the cage. I was watching one large female (named Chica) slowly cruising around with an entourage of three smaller males following her around. They were swimming faster, circling each other, facing off, darting up to the cages and then back down to follow her again. That is when the unexpected happened. One of the young males abruptly turned his head up, got completely vertical and then put on the speed - straight up and OUT - he just DISAPPEARED! We had just witnessed a Great White breach and we had a front row, underwater seat to that amazing spectacle! I couldn't believe my eyes!!

And that was STILL not all that was going to make this the most amazing trip I have been on to date! Not only did we witness more breaches, but my cabin-mate actually caught the first one on camera!! She was supposed to be in the cage with me and would have seen it from underneath, but she had been feeling ill that morning and was sitting on the top deck trying to get some fresh air. She had her camera in her lap, heard the splash, looked up and raised the camera just in time to snap the shot! I have to admit that I was a little (ok, maybe a LOT) jealous that she was able to get the shot, but I was more excited than "green" .

You think I'm done, right?? Well, not quite yet!! On the third day of diving, I dropped in the cage for another rotation and still hoping to get "the shot". About 10 mins. into the rotation, there was a strange "vibe" in the water and I saw tons of bubbles from the panga boat circling above. I wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew it was BIG. Then the cage was pulled over to the boat and the divemaster was knocking rapidly on the cage. I looked over and my cagemates were starting to exit. All kinds of reasons started going through my head about why we had to be pulled out of the cage so rapidly. However, NONE of them were correct!!

It was a predation!!! The topside group had actually witnessed a Great White kill a seal and they were pulling us all out of the cages so we could join in and watch the feeding. I had never seen so much bright red blood in the water. I was mesmerized by the scene that was unfolding in front of us.

Talk about ending the trip with an exclamation point!!! WOW! It just can't get better than that...or CAN it? Well, for me, there was one more event that was the icing on the cake. It was the final rotation of the final day and I was still snapping off pictures of the sharks who had been visiting all week long. There were only about 15 or 20 minutes left before we would have to return to our normal lives when my favorite shark of all time decided to pay us a visit - the infamous SHREDDER!!! I was so excited, that I actually screamed out his name through my regulator and tried telling all my cagemates that THIS was the shark I had been talking about all week. He came at the bait on my side of the cage and opened wide so I could get the shot I had been waiting for - mouth open wide with gill slits showing!

If you are looking for a trip to take or are one of those people who have always wanted to see a Great White, but just haven't made it happen, I would highly suggest you put this trip on the list. It is truly an amazing adventure!!

Great White Dreaming

From the time I was a starry-eyed elementary school student with grandiose dreams and an optimistic outlook on life, I have dreamed of one day seeing a Great White Shark in person. Like the majority of people however, the life I had mapped out for myself as a child and the reality I found myself living were somehow vastly different. That realization hit me hard last year. I had somehow found myself trapped inside an office all day working with computers instead of gallivanting around the world as a famous marine biologist and swimming with every possible shark variety known to man. My only glimpse of the childhood dream remained on the TV screen during Discovery’s Shark Week. How could I have ended up here, staring at the four walls in my cubicle prison instead of exploring the deep blue sea? Fortunately, there are places for cubicle dwellers to make their dreams come true - if only for a moment in time. My fantasy became reality about 220 miles southwest of San Diego near the beautiful island of Isla Guadalupe, Mexico. The adventure began at Fisherman’s Landing Marina in San Diego, where I hopped on board the 88’ Islander with much anticipation about making a lifelong dream come true. I could hardly contain my excitement as the boat puttered out of the marina and began its 22-hour journey to the island. After a nice day of getting to know my shipmates, looking for whales and watching dolphins play off the bow of the boat, we sat down to our first dinner on board. The meal was the equivalent of anything served at some of the finer restaurants in the Bay area – a far cry from the greasy burgers one might expect to eat on a typical fishing vessel. With a fantastic meal and some red wine performing an elegant dance in my belly, I descended down into my bunk to let the boat gently rock me into my oceanic slumber. Early the next morning, I crawled out of my seafaring cocoon and ascended to the hustle and bustle of the crew preparing for the first dive of the trip. I could barely eat any breakfast as the butterflies in my stomach seemed to be competing in the winged-insects Olympics. The cages were dropped, dive rotations began and it wasn’t long before the first shark appeared from the depths. I found myself in the cage in somewhat of a daze. Was I dreaming? No, this was for real. The extra shot of adrenaline in my system put a quick stop to the butterfly Olympics and there I was looking at the famous Great White Shark - out in the wild and up close and very personal. Words cannot express the elation and pure awe I felt at that moment. I also have to admit that somewhere in the depths of my brain; I heard a very distant, yet familiar tune. Maybe it was something from a movie (duh duh….duh duh…ring a bell, anyone?). The first surprise in seeing these magnificent creatures in person was their sheer size. Everything I had ever read or seen about these sharks stated that they were very large fish, but nothing prepared me for how immense they truly are. When you see something the size of a small bus with rows and rows of teeth coming at you, it can literally leave you breathless. As if size alone isn’t enough to make you take an extra hit from your regulator, there is the little matter of the way the sharks look at you with their almost lifeless, coal-black eyes. It is almost as if they are looking THROUGH you. By far however, the biggest shock for me was how graceful, cautious and almost timid these behemoths seemed to be. They didn’t violently attack every ounce of bait that was dropped in the water and they certainly didn’t appear to be the mindless, man-eating hunters that famous filmmakers had made them out to be. Instead, they seemed to approach everything with curiosity and hesitation - sometimes circling the bait several times before actually trying to taste it. That particular reaction just didn’t register properly in my brain. How could one of the world’s top predators have a cautious bone (or cartilage as the case would be here) in its body? That question is still burning in the back of my brain. All bewilderment aside, this trip turned out to be proof that reality can be better than fantasy. These creatures are truly spectacular and definitely a sight to behold. Maybe the true secret to remaining young is to tap into your inner child by grabbing on to some of those childhood dreams and turning them into reality. Perhaps it is time to put aside all doubts and inhibitions and pursue a lifelong dream. You’ll be glad you did. I know I am. For more information about diving with Great White Sharks at Isla Guadalupe, check out Shark Diver’s website at www.sharkdiver.com. Christy Fisher is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in California. You can see some of her underwater work at: marketplace.kodakgallery.com/fisher7/nature

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