Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

isla guadalupe

Patric Douglas had never thought much about great white sharks—let alone diving with them. But after his first encounter, he was hooked. “I was running a company leading people on outdoor-oriented adventures,” Patric began, “and accompanied a fellow who was taking guests on shark-viewing expeditions off the Farallon Islands, west of San Francisco. We were towing a seal decoy in the fog and cold, not quite knowing what to expect, when a magnificent eighteen-footer came blasting out of the water. It makes an impression on you. At that moment I knew that sharks, and shark diving, were going to be a huge part of my life.“Back in 1998, we began hearing reports from tuna fishermen who were encountering large numbers of sharks off Isla Guadalupe, which is roughly 210 miles southwest of San Diego,” Patric continued. “They were coming up and taking 200-pound yellowfin tuna right at the boat off anglers’ lines. An expedition with Doc Anes went there in 2001 and dropped a shark cage in the water. Two hours later, there were four great whites around the divers in water with one hundred feet of visibility. South Africa was the current hotspot for great white sharks at the time, but with the sheer numbers of animals we encountered off Isla Guadalupe, I knew we had something special.”

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico - photo 1

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

Isla Guadalupe is a volcanic island that’s ninety square miles in size. It was used as a provisioning station for Russian whalers and sealers in the early 1800s; today it’s populated by a handful of abalone and lobster fishermen, and by shark researchers from UC Davis and Cicimar (The Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas). Scientists are convinced that the sharks that return to Isla Guadalupe to feed on the abundant tuna and endemic Guadalupe fur seals each fall spend most of the year in the deep waters of the central Pacific, where they’re joined by the sharks that frequent Año Nuevo and the Farallons. Satellite tagging suggests that the same sharks return to the same feeding grounds each year.

Great white sharks are the undisputed apex predators of the ichthyological world; only killer whales, humans (albeit well-armed humans), and other white sharks pose the creatures any danger. Specimens of Carcharodon carcharias surpassing twenty-five feet have been reported, though fish of twelve to sixteen feet reaching weights ranging from 2,000 to 2,500 pounds are more typical. Great whites can eat just about whatever they wish, with the menu including large fish and whale carcasses.

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico - photo 2

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

Given their druthers, however, they seem to prefer to feed on members of the pinniped family—fur seals, sea lions, and elephant seals. (Attacks on humans—especially surfers—are often attributed to mistaken identity; from below, a surfboard or wet-suited person may resemble a sea lion.) Great whites can be found through most of the oceans of the world, sometimes swimming to depths of 4,000 feet. Satellite tagging has shown that individual fish will often range thousands of miles in the course of a year (in one study, a shark was shown to have traveled over 12,000 miles in nine months!). While Steven Spielberg’s shark menaced swimmers on fictional Amity Island (filmed on Nantucket), great whites are found in greatest concentrations in the waters off South Africa, along the southern coast of Australia, and in the Pacific off California and around Isla Guadalupe.

The cages that make Isla Guadalupe shark diving possible are designed of one-inch by one-inch aluminum bars, with a 5,000-pound crush strength; they’re built to withstand the impact of a curious great white who decides he/she needs a closer look at you. Divers are divided into teams of four, and groups will cycle through the cages all day. Shark interactions are virtually guaranteed during each dive; on some occasions, divers have been treated to as many as seven different animals on one rotation.

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico - photo 3

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

Patric Douglas and his team have helped identify 160 animals that visit their cages regularly—sometimes within a few hundred yards of shore. Many have earned names. “We call one shark Scarboard,” Patric said, “as this female has big scars along her right side. We can always identify Scarboard as she’s flanked by pilot fish that follow her everywhere; whenever the pilot fish appear, we know Scarboard is not far behind. Another frequent visitor is Shredder, who earned his name dubiously during our first season out there. I was in the wheelhouse with the boat’s captain Greg Grivetto when there was a tremendous splash off the bow. We looked down to see one of our clients looking up at us and his face was as white as a sheet. I thought someone had fallen in. The client shouted up, ‘The biggest shark I’ve ever seen just blasted out of the water and severed your anchor cable, and you’re adrift!’ Greg, who was standing next to me, said ‘No way.’ After all, the cable is as thick as your arm, designed to hold a one-hundred-foot boat in place in all kinds of weather conditions. A crew member soon appeared and pulled in what was left of that cable, absolutely shredded. A biologist who does white shark research with us has theorized that Shredder may have thought that our boat was a large whale, and that the rope was an intestine—the first morsel that sharks like to feed on when they come upon a rotting whale carcass.”

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico - photo 4

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

One of Isla Guadalupe’s regulars, “Fat Tony,” earned his moniker from what Patric described as his bullying, Mafioso ways. “Fat Tony likes to tail slap the cage from the bottom,” Patric said. “We don’t know for certain why he does this, but we believe that he understands that the creatures inside the cage do react, and he’s looking for a reaction. While some sharks don’t seem to take any interest in the divers in the cage, others do. Even more spooky, there are times when a shark seems to focus on a particular diver. The shark’s eyeball rotates; when it locks on an individual, it stays focused on that diver as the shark swims past until it’s almost halfway around in the socket. When the eye locks on you, everything else in the world disappears—it’s just you and that shark. It’s quite a feeling when a predator as fearsome as a white shark is that close and has taken an interest in you.”

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico - photo 5

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

PATRIC DOUGLAS has worked in the travel industry for the past eighteen years, leading adventure-oriented tours to Vietnam, China, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America, among other places. He launched SharkDiver.com in 2000; the company leads other shark-oriented expeditions in the Bahamas and worldwide. Shark Diver has been featured on the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel, among many other media outlets; they regularly guide film crews and private clients from around the world.

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico - photo 6

Isla Guadalupe. Mexico

IF YOU GO TO ISLA GUADALUPE

Getting There: Isla Guadalupe is roughly 210 miles southwest of San Diego.

Best Time to Visit: Great whites are present off Isla Guadalupe from August through November.

Guides/Accommodations: Trips are led by several outfitters, including Patric’s company, Shark Diver (888-405-3268; www.sharkdiver.com).

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

 

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