The great white sharks have a persona, a stigma that fascinates most people. In all the dives I have ever been on, I had seen many sharks of various types but the infamous great white had not been one of them.
These sharks are ancient predators. Their cold black eyes and jagged smiles set them apart from most other things in the oceans. The ones that we saw ranged from 9~15 feet long and ~4.5 foot in diameter (3~4.5m long and 1.5m diameter).
They have a hierarchy based on size and strength, not age or gender. And sometimes to establish this pecking order, they will physically battle it out. These giant apex hunters are covered in scars and cuts, given by their very own kind. We even saw one shark that still had the teeth from another great white embedded in its skin.
They also have an uncanny ability to find the blind spot of what ever is watching. Despite having 3 people in the cage, looking in all directions, the sharks still managed to almost always come up unannounced without being seen and just magically appeared in front of us. Their keen smell was proven when they took tuna from right in front of us in water that was so murky we could hardly see 6ft (2m).
They swim slow and deliberate, yet have a quick strike and ability to always be in the right place. But it was interesting to disprove the stereotype of being the coldblooded methodical killer by the way they would circle a dozen times, investigating the situation and cautiously moving in. If something did not seem right or if someone in the cage startled them, they would retreat for sometimes up to hours.
Obviously if you come this far and have the nerve to get in the water, you will most likely want to take some photographs as mementos of your experience. Here are a couple quick tips for photographers and divers in general:
- the cages are typically small, particularly when you have ~3 people in the cage with you. Do not bother with external strobes. The arms will not fit in the cage, will interfere with the other divers, will whitewash the shark's bellies, will show scatter if the visibility is low and typically will not have the recharge/refresh rate to take rapid shots.
- the cages are typically either floating on the surface or submerged about 20ft / 6m. Therefore the ambient light is generally adequate such that external filters and strobes are not required.
- The sharks, however big they may be, are surprisingly agile and strike quickly. It is best if you program your settings such that you can take rapid fire shots. Lower ISO or even auto ISO would probably work best.
- It is expected and required that you are standing on the bottom of the cage. To that end, you will be heavily weighed down to avoid bouncing with the waves or floating with the buoyancy of the thick suits.
- The water temperature was 60~65F (15~18C). Many people will opt for dry suits, but if you are in the surface cage, there is not sufficient weight/buoyancy to inflate the dry suit, therefore most people complained of the cold since the dry suit was in direct contact with the skin without that nice insulating layer of air. I personally found a 7mil wetsuit more than comfortable and wish I had maybe even a 5mil to try.
It is forbidden for unauthorized people to set foot on the island. And due to the presence of the apex predator of the seas calling these waters home, it is not advisable to swim or kayak in the waters either.
Therefore if you are not diving, about the only thing you can do is take the small tender boat for a tour up and down the coast. You will encounter lots of adult seals (California seals, Guadalupe fur seals and elephant seals) sleeping on the beaches or the pups playing.
Also, near the northwest point, there is a small abandoned building, with a nonfunctional radio antenna and the remains of tiny church. The building is used from time to time by researchers who study the area.
While technically Isla Guadalupe does have an air strip, it is not in service, particularly not to civilians. The nearest port city is Ensenada, which is approximately an 18 hour journey (one way).
There are only 2~3 vessels which make this chartered trip, with varying itineraries and amenities. The crossing can be choppy, so bring seasickness medicines if you are prone to problems.
Also, keep your eyes on the horizon because during our journey, we spotted many dolphins and a whale.
The island does have a very small fishing village on the south side, but the island is a protected bio-reserve so it is prohibited for any unauthorized people to set foot on the island. During our dives, we anchored in the northwest bay since it was the most protected and spent every night on the boat.
The reason the island is protected is so that it can rejuvenate this indigenous flora. All vegetation on the island was nearly wiped clean from thousands of hungry goats left on the island by Russian whalers so they could restock on food when passing though.
There is a healthy population of seals, which coupled together with the large tunas found in these cold waters, make the fundamental diet of the great white sharks.
There are three places in the world reputed to have the highest concentration of great white sharks, this being the closest to North America and arguably having the best visibility. The other two locations are south of South Africa and southwest of Australia.