Historical Diving Society (HDS)
Annual Fundraising Trip #1
Guadalupe Island, Mexico
Since 2005, the Historical Diving Society (www.hds.org) has offered a fundraising trip to Guadalupe Island, Mexico to dive (in cages, of course) with Great White Sharks. In 2021, two back-to-back trips were offered, October 5-10 & 10-15, 2021. Each year, with the exception of the pandemic year 2020, Ed Stetson (www.stetsondiving.com) puts together trips to Guadalupe Island, Mexico to cage dive with the Great White Sharks. Ed Stetson generously donates the proceeds of these trips to the Historical Diving Society for publishing the Journal of Diving History.
Guadalupe Island, a Mexican Biosphere Reserve, is located approximately 200 nautical miles
southwest 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 380 different individual Great White Sharks that have been see and recorded around the island.
This year, the first trip was organized by Captain (ret) Frank Butler, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who is now a surgeon working with the Department of Defense’s acclaimed Joint Trauma System. This particular trip was originally scheduled for 2020 but was cancelled when the Mexican Government closed Guadalupe Island due to the pandemic. When the Mexican Government eased their restrictions for Guadalupe Island in 2021, the trip was back on. The majority of the guests on this trip were Dr. Butler’s friends and colleagues, many of whom who were retired military and civilian medical professionals and Special Operations veterans with some bringing family members. I was fortunate to be invited to join this exciting and intrepid group of divers who were visiting, arguably, the very best place in the world to see great white sharks.
Those going on these trips to Guadalupe with Nautilus Liveaboards (www.nautilusliveaboards.com) meet in San Diego, California and are shuttled down to Ensenada, Mexico to meet the Nautilus Liveaboards vessel, the Belle Amie. In pre-COVID times, guests would meet at the new Nautilus Dive Center in San Diego to be shuttled down to the marina in Ensenada onboard the Nautilus’ Shark Express. Due to COVID protocols and procedures, guests are now picked up at designated points in San Diego and are shuttled down in small groups to meet at the Hotel Coral in Ensenada.
The first stop on the journey south was the border crossing at Tijuana, Mexico. At the US/Mexico border, everything (including our luggage) was removed from the shuttle as guests proceed through Mexican customs. The bus was thoroughly inspected and X-rayed. After exiting Mexican Customs, the bus was waiting on the other side. After loading the bus once again, guests settled in for a relaxing 90-minute ride to Ensenada.
As shark diving guests arrived at the Hotel Coral in Ensenada, they met the Nautilus’ staff who checked their recent (within 7 days) negative COVID test results, passports, and Mexican tourist visa. The Mexican Tourist Visa is required for all guests going on these trips. After dinner at the hotel restaurant, guests returned to the meeting room for a required COVID rapid antigen test required by Nautilus of all guests. Once the negative results were received, all guests were shuttled to the Ensenada marina to meet the Nautilus Belle Amie. After passing through the marina security checkpoint, guests were enthusiastically greeted by the crew of the Belle Amie who took their luggage directly to their assigned staterooms.
After a welcome drink and some late evening snacks, there was a brief introduction to the Belle Amie by Captain Jon “Shep” Shepard. Following the introduction, guests were escorted to their staterooms. The gentle rocking of the boat made falling asleep easy.
The next day, while the Belle Amie made its way southwest for the 20-hour trip to Guadalupe, some guests worked on their photo equipment while other explored the Belle Amie or simply enjoyed being at sea. 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 needed an exposure suit and mask. Breathing gas is provided by surface-supplied air. Due to COVID, each guest is now issued their own regulator 2nd stage. Each 2nd stage has a lanyard for wearing around the neck. Before each cage dive, the guest pauses while a crew member attached the air supply via quick connect/disconnect coupling. In pre-COVID times, guest would share regulator 2nd stages which were disinfected by a Listerine wash before transferring the regulator 2nd stage to another guest. Weights are supplied by the Nautilus. The weights were not on weight belts but are in pouches on special DUI weight harnesses. The weight harnesses are pre-prepared and located on the dive deck with weight harnesses ranging from 30-45 pounds. Considering that cages can be moved around by surface wave action or currents, being as negatively buoyant as you can tolerate is definitely a benefit. The wide shoulder straps helped make the weight harnesses comfortable and the crew would put them on and take them off of you in the water, if necessary. The Belle Amie crew was always there to help you whatever the situation.
The diving conditions around Guadalupe Island make it the ideal place to see the ocean’s apex predator. The water temperature hovers around 70 degrees Fahrenheit/21 degrees Celcius with visibility that often exceeds 100 feet/30 meters. Good exposure protection (wet suits or dry suits) is a must, especially for those who intend to spend as much time as they can underwater.
During the first day at sea, guests participate in a mandatory life jacket orientation and drill as well as introductions of the crew. During that day, the crew conduct a regular fire drill where they deploy and pressurize fire hoses and practice putting out a fire in one of the areas of the ship.
The extremely knowledgeable and versatile crew conducted lectures such as “Cage Diving 101” and “Marine Life 101.” These superb presentations helped guests understand the biology and behavior of marine life, especially the great white sharks. The only shark species seen around Guadalupe are the great white sharks. It is, however, not uncommon to see turtles, schools of yellow fin tuna and pinnipeds (sea lions and elephant seals) in Guadalupe waters.
Part of the Cage Diving 101 lecture includes new rules for cage diving in Guadalupe waters. These rules include no cameras or body parts being allowed outside the cage. The divers/photographers in the submersible cages are monitored by the divemaster assigned to each cage. For the surface cages, anyone violating these rules will be given a chance to correct their behavior before being asked to exit the cages. If there are repeated offenses, the diver/ photographer risks losing their cage privileges.
Late in the afternoon on the first day, Guadalupe Island comes into view looming on the horizon. This is always an exciting time for Isla Guadalupe looks tailor made 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 approached the shelter of Guadalupe’s Spanish Cove finally dropping anchor at about 8:00 PM. Shortly after dropping anchor, the crew went about putting the five specially designed stainless steel shark cages in the water. Two cages are secured at the surface while three submersible cages (one starboard, one port and one in the center of the stern) are prepared. These submersible cages take three guests to a depth of 24 feet.
Ed Stetson works with the Belle Amie divemasters to divide guests into groups of three for dives in the submersible cages. Only certified divers are permitted to make dives in the submersible cages. Non-certified divers are restricted to time in the two surface cages. That does not present a problem for the non-certified divers since there is more than enough surface action to keep anyone happy. Places in the two surface cages are on a first-come basis and each surface cage can accommodate four divers each.
Each certified diver has three scheduled submersible trips per day.
All divers breathe through regulators with hoses coming from the surface. In the highly unlikely event that there would be a problem with breathing gas from the surface, each submersible 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 at least two filled scuba cylinders in each submersible cage each with multiple second stages. Along with preparing the five 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 6:00 PM while the submersible cages began scheduled descents at 8:00 AM and end at 4:00 PM.
Before sunrise (5:00 AM) on the first diving day, guests are invited to watch what the crew refers to as the “Tuna Massacre.” This is where the crew prepares approximately 600 lbs./273 kg of frozen yellowfin tuna that they purchase locally in Ensenada. This is done in assembly line fashion. One crew member uses a chain saw to cut the frozen tuna into sections while another drills holes in the tuna section while yet another attaches a section of hemp rope to the tuna section. These tuna sections will be attached to a polypropylene rope and float to be used during “shark wrangling.”
As the sun rose on Guadalupe Island on the first day of diving, there was a flurry of activity as divers queued 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 were opened, the crew started “shark wrangling.” Wrangling is when you have frozen tuna sections tied with pieces 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 one of two elevated wrangling platforms. 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 welfare of the shark.
Things got off to an exciting start with large great white sharks taking the frozen tuna from the “wranglers” and breaching before the first diver got into a cage. This was a sure indication that this was going to be a great trip! By 8:00 AM, there had been multiple great white shark breaches!
As the first divers scrambled to get into the surface cages, they reported seeing two great whites below and behind the boat. The three submersible cages are on a staggered schedule descending in rotation about 10 minutes apart. This meant that there were cages ascending and descending almost constantly. Cage movement may have a positive effect on the great whites giving the divers more opportunities to see these apex predators in action.
I had the good fortune to be partnered in the cage with Colonel (ret) Kevin O’Connor and Charleston attorney Bill Rusher. We were very compatible cage buddies, helping each other see sharks coming from different directions and giving each other lots of space to maneuver around in the cages. Dr. O’Connor, the former Command Surgeon for the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force, is now President Joe Biden’s personal physician and has an office in the White House. He received a call from the President one evening asking how the trip was going.
The photo opportunities on this trip from all the cages, as well as from the boat deck, were some of the very best any of the guests had ever seen. It’s hard to believe that the experiences could be getting better each year. This trip was my 21st trip to Guadalupe with Nautilus Liveaboards and it can be said that the Great White Shark experiences ranked with the best any of the guests had ever experienced. As the days of diving and shark sightings of five or more 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 types of behavior. Most often the sharks were in twos or threes with regular sighting of 5 or more sharks coming within visual range of the cages. Sometimes, there would be so much action going on around the submersible cages that guests 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 or slap their tails against the cages.
Days Two and Three continued to have exceptional great white shark activity with even more breaches and close encounters.
During our evenings in Guadalupe, guests thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company as they told stories about their great white shark encounters that day and showed spectacular images (still and video) taken from both the cages and the dive deck. Guests sharing their images and talking about photography gave all of us an opportunity to learn how to improve our underwater photography and videography. Guests also shared their non-diving experiences and expertise making this one of the most informative trip any of us could remember. One notable guest, retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark McGinnis, told us about his founding of the SEAL Legacy Foundation (www.seallegacy.org) and the fantastic work they do for members of the Navy SEAL community and their families.
Each new day at Guadalupe Island proved to be just as exciting as the last with constant shark activity both on the surface and below. From sunup to sundown, everyone was clamoring to get 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 throughout this trip. Besides the photographic opportunities underwater, those guests on the surface were treated to some spectacular displays of great white activity. On past trips, there would be an occasional partial breach by a great white intent on getting the frozen tuna. On this trip, 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 and all other Nautilus Liveaboards vessels are always memorable. 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.
One night, they even had a special dessert birthday cake to celebrate Dr. Sherry Wren’s birthday!
During the return to Ensenada, the crew put together a video presentation with photographs and video clips taken by guests. This video was shared with the guests with each guest able to download it on a USB drive.
Once we docked at Ensenada, the port officials inspected the boat and guest documentation before the crew was allowed to move all guest luggage to the awaiting bus. After saying our goodbyes to the crew, those returning to San Diego boarded the bus. The bus made a stop at the Hotel Coral in Ensenada to drop off the Nautilus representative meeting the incoming guests and those of us staying for the next trip. While the incoming guests began to arrive, I was there to help check their documentation and get them organized for the next trip to Guadalupe Island.
The outgoing guests returned to San Diego with Ed Stetson who had a previous obligation that did not allow him to remain onboard for the second HDS fundraising trip. He asked me to help with this group along with his brother, also a Dan, who was part of the incoming group.
I looked forward to returning to Guadalupe with the next trip but I honestly not imagine how it could compare with this trip in terms, not only shark activity, but the good times and fun that was had by everyone. I don’t believe that I had enjoyed myself so much on any other trip. I will borrow a term from the outlaw Cole Younger who would comment on anything that was truly unique and memorable, “this trip was a WONDERMENT!”
Betty and I have been working for the past 9 months on a book project, 101 Tips for Recreational Divers. Today is its