A Dream Come True

Like many I have been fascinated with sharks from a very early age.  When the book Jaws came out I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.  My mother found out there was a “seduction” scene and insisted on reading the book first.  She proceeded to tear out the “naughty” pages before allowing me to read it.  At age 11 all I really cared about was she left the pages with people getting bitten in half! 


Getting There

Most arrive in San Diego the day before departure as the boat leaves the dock about 9am for the 220 mile, 22-23hr trip out to the island of Guadalupe.  It is a 5-day trip; one day to the island, 3 days of diving, and another 22hrs back to San Diego.  On arrival we stayed at the Vagabond Inn, which is only minutes from the airport and literally at the end of the dock the Horizon departs from.  It is a very basic motel but was clean and the staff was very accommodating. PS: it felt like the Four Seasons on our return.


The MV Horizon/General

The Horizon is an 80ft “working boat”.  Quite seaworthy and plenty of room for all.  There is a crew of about 7 and a total of 16 divers.  Sleeping quarter’s range from single bunks with privacy curtains to small “rooms” with two twin bunks and just enough room for one person to get dressed.  They have a sliding door and there is plenty of storage under the bottom bunk for all your gear.  My Pelican 1620 fit under there along with our duffel.  We had cabin F and it was very comfortable and the room was made up every day.  Since it was located in the stern of the boat we did not get as much rocking as those bunking in the bow.  You have about 23 people sharing two heads and two showers but as Doc Anes says “we don’t give you mints on your pillows we give you Great White Sharks!”  


The food was plentiful and quite good.   There is a 6:30am continental breakfast with eggs, pancakes or french toast available at 7am.  Everyone is out of the water by 11:30 for lunch and dinner is served around 7pm.  Our trip had been chartered by a dive shop out of Miami, Underwater Unlimited.  Julie and I were the only ones not diving via the shop.  It was a great group with a wide mix of ages and experience.  Bring books or DVDs as you have +44hours to kill on the way out and back.  The weather was warm, in the 70s.  We had 6-10 foot swells throughout the trip and I would strongly recommend scopolamine patches and/or Dramamine.  Several people were ill, even some new crew members. 


The Daily Routine

The Horizon arrives at Guadalupe around 8am in the morning.  After a briefing, cages go in and rotations start.  We had 2 sharks show up within 10minutes.  16 divers are divided into 4 groups of four.  Two four man cages hang off the stern of the boat.  So eight people are in cages for one-hour stints.  Regs are on a hookah system.  The cage has a ladder and as you drop in you reach down take your reg from a bracket and take your position.  With 4 people in the cage all have just enough room to turn a 360.  The advantage of having cage mates is they point out the shark you would have never seen. The following days the cages go in at about 7am and “Shark Watch” starts.  If you volunteer for “Shark Watch” your group will follow you in the cage and your cage time does not start until you tell the crew you spotted a shark.  1-hour rotations continue to about 11:30am when everyone is pulled out and lunch is served.  Rotations continue till sundown.


In The Cage

Note: Our group were great people but they were not a super gung ho, max time in the cage crowd.  After the 1st day I often had a cage to myself for 2-4 hour stretches.  Very rarely did we have more than three people in a cage.  So our experience might be a little different.


Overall we saw about 8-9 different sharks, an even mix of males and females.  The smallest was in the 8-9ft range with 2-3 well over 13ft.  There were several occasions when 3-4 were circling the cage.  It was very common to have 2 around the cage at a time.  I only had maybe one rotation were no shark showed and maybe two where sharks made passes but did not stay more than a 2-3 minutes. 


I was very happy I brought my drysuit.  Sure I was sweating by the time I got in the cage since I typically wore shorts, thermal short-sleeved shirt, heavy wool socks, my Dive Concepts Thinsulate freezer suit under my DC trilam w/drygloves.  Given I had the opportunity to spend up to 4 hours in the cage at a time it turned out to be a great decision.  The water temp was typically around 66 degrees. 


It was fascinating to see the different personalities of the sharks.  We had two males and two females that consistently visited.  They would stay 10-20 minutes circling the cages and going after the hang baits.  You could see them change their tactics as other sharks arrived or if they were not having success coming from a specific direction.  You are specifically told to “not to lean out of the cage, it’s the shark that you don’t see that is the danger”.  I learned this on one of my solo stints in the cage I was trying to capture pictures of a small female that had a habit of attacking the bait by launching from under the cages where the deckhands could not see her.  As I was leaning out to get shots of her vertical attack a large male came out of nowhere and went flashing horizontally by the front of the cage, WOW!

For the Photographer

Inevitably the action always seems to be happening at the other cage.  If you have an opportunity to pick what cage you want look to see how the current is running.  The sharks typically hit the bait that is farther out from cage.  Without a doubt the outside positions are preferable and this must be worked out with your cage mates.  I brought my 10.5mm, 12-24mm, and 17-35mm.  70% of the time I used the 17-35mm.  On reflection I regret not getting more people+cage+shark going by shots, for scale.  The sharks would come in tight to the cages but the majority of time they would be 7-15ft out sizing up the baits.  You only need one strobe, two would be just too awkward to use in the cage.  In essence you are mainly shooting natural light using the strobe as fill when the sharks come screaming in.  I often would turn the strobe off and just shoot natural light.  I also played with the new Magic Filter and the SWCY Pro filter.  Unfortunately the conditions were not conducive to great results as you are typically shooting up into the light and the often-milky hue to the water turned everything very red.  Due to the bumpy nature of our trip you really had to protect your domeport.  During one action packed session I knocked my dome shade off and did not even notice until I got out of the cage. Viz ranged from 80ft to 15ft.  The captain said southerly swell was stirring up the bottom. 


In the End

If you are fascinated with sharks this is a must do trip.  The crew mentioned next year there will be 8-9 boats doing this trip.  There were two others boats on site when we where there.  I am curious to see how this will affect the number of interactions.  Will the sharks be so overfed they will just come in on rare occasions or will it attract more sharks to the area?  Some of the sharks migrate all the way to Hawaii!   To see these creatures in their natural element, casually swimming about then in an instant streaking after baits in full attack mode is truly an overwhelming experience!!


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