THE DECISION TO arrive a day early in Ensenada, 100 miles south of Tijuana on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and stay overnight in a nice hotel before embarking on my most exciting dive trip yet, would haunt me over the next few days.
Arriving to an amazing sunset over the bay, I decided on dinner in the 4* hotel’s restaurant before an early night. I ordered the chef’s special, Peasant’s Enchilladas, but couldn’t stomach any more than two mouthfuls of the oddest-tasting meal I had ever experienced.
Waking next morning to vivid blue skies but feeling a little strange, I strolled around the marina, hoping to shake off what I thought was jet-lag. I arrived at Nautilus Explorer to see it being readied for our five-day trip.
Four large shark-cages had been set on the dock so that the decks could be swabbed. Standing beside them filled me with a mixture of awe, excitement and trepidation. Was I really going to be inside one of these cages, hanging 15m down in the blue from the back of a boat?
The bars felt reassuringly sturdy, yet much thinner than I had expected, and the gaps between them seemed huge. A large viewing gap at eye level ran the width of the cage – surely a shark could fit through that?
I had always, from the moment I first saw Jaws, been fascinated by great white sharks. In a matter of hours I would be under water in their realm.
WE LEFT LATE that evening so that the captain could steam through the night while the guests slept, slowing down slightly next day as we made the 30-hour, 180-mile journey into the Pacific to Isla Guadalupe. This remote volcanic island is a known hang-out for great whites September to November.
My stomach was feeling a little odd and I passed on dinner aboard and had an early night. Barely stirring as the engines started at around 11.30, I slept for three hours or so until I was suddenly woken by a violent urge to throw up!
I had taken my normal sea-sickness medication before we left, planning on top-up doses every eight hours.
Half-asleep but feeling dreadful, I stumbled out of my cabin, which was on the top deck. A blast of warm air made me feel slightly better as I watched the moon’s reflection on the flat-calm sea.
For most of the night I lurched between my bed and the bathroom, with the odd venture into the fresh air to throw up over the side.
For the entire 30-hour journey I could barely lift my head without being violently sick. The staff were brilliant, advising me to lie on a sun-lounger on deck during the day. Apparently astronauts are advised to lie flat to combat motion-sickness.
Mid-afternoon, an excited shout woke me from a light doze. A huge pod of sperm whales had been spotted off the port side. I managed a couple of minutes of viewing a superpod of almost 100 whales swimming about half a mile from us before venting over the side!
Everybody was clambering for the RIB to get closer to the whales. Normally I would be first in the queue, but the best I could do was roll onto the lounger closest to me, feeling worse than ever.
Taking pity on me, and realising that I wasn’t just being a wimp, the crew administered an anti-sickness injection.
We arrived at Isla Guadalupe mid-evening and moored in the shelter of a small bay. I was well enough to make it into the mess for a briefing and a slice of dry toast.
Awaking early the next morning, I was so thankful that the sea-sickness had gone. I was among the first kitted up and into one of the two cages, which had been lowered into the water and fixed.
Nautilus Explorer has four cages. The two larger surface ones are fixed to the stern so that divers can use them any time of the day. The two smaller deep or sub-cages would be lowered to 10m in the morning and brought up at 5pm.
At 10m, great white sharks normally hang out naturally. The Nautilus crew try to minimise baiting for sharks.
Unfortunately that day the weather was overcast, and the surge and swell big enough to make lowering the sub-cages too dangerous.
The 35m vessel is designed to take 24 divers but on this trip there were only 17.
A schedule had been drawn up to allow each diver at least two turns in the deep cages. These take only three divers at a time plus one safety diver, so missing out one of the three days would limit each dive to 45 minutes.
All four cages are dived using a hookah system, with regulators attached to long hoses fed by the generator on the boat, and an emergency tank in the corner of the cage in case of problems.
Avoiding the need for bulky equipment in the small enclosed space of a cage allows divers to be far more agile. Fins are not worn, for the same reason.
Water temperature would be around 20° and I thought a 6mm suit with hood, boots and gloves would be sufficient, forgetting that we would be virtually motionless standing in the cage.
Thoughts of Jaws pinballing around my mind, I carefully slipped into the surface cage, expecting any second a great white to hurtle towards me, its own jaws agape.
I DESCENDED A couple of feet to the bottom of the cage and had a frenzied scan around, but all I could see was blue water and a school of fish. I had no real perception of the visibility range, with the cage butted up against the stern and no reef or feature in sight.
Hopping from foot to foot and trying not to hold onto the cage, I was sure I was about to be attacked. I had seen footage of great whites getting their snouts through the viewing gaps and into cages.
After 10 minutes of head-turning worthy of a Wimbledon final, I finally began to relax. Just because a human in a cage had entered the water, I reasoned, a shark wasn’t immediately going to attack, especially as there had been no chumming.
After 40 minutes, the cold was really starting to seep in. Constantly straining to see a shark in the shadows on the edge of my vision was surprisingly tiring, and I was starting to shiver.
I didn’t want to give up my vigil, but knew I would have to before long.
Suddenly I was aware of something – I was not alone. I looked around frantically again but could see nothing. Then I looked down.
Passing below me, almost skimming the bottom of the cage, was a huge tail-fin. Holy s–t! Was that scary or what? Where had the shark come from?
I couldn’t believe it had crept up on me so stealthily.
I waited as long as my chattering teeth would allow to see if I could spot the shark again, but after another 10 minutes I gave in to the thought of a quick dunk in the lovely warm hot tub on the back deck of the boat, and a couple of hot drinks.
Through the day, as the sea gradually calmed, I entered the cage on three more occasions, each time for nearly an hour.
By the end of the day I felt both frozen to the core and a little disheartened.
I knew that the sharks had probably been just beyond the limit of my vision, as other guests had enjoyed brief sightings.
The next day dawned spectacularly over the rocky cliffs of the barren volcanic island. A bright orange sunrise gave way to a vivid blue as I stumbled out of my cabin to check the sea conditions.
Millpond calmness greeted me. The crew were already preparing the sub cages. Yes! We would be diving into the sharks’ realm that day.
After a hearty hot breakfast to help combat cool water temperatures, our time-slots were announced. There would be a slight possibility of second dives but if there were good sightings the cage would remain down a little longer. Sven, our Swedish safety-diver, explained that each dive would last 40-60 minutes.
The time-slots had apparently been chosen by lottery, and the lucky ones with the early slots would have the best chance of a second dive in the afternoon.
I noticed that everyone who got early slots was a repeater guest – perhaps not such a lottery after all.
I waited. The first two dives produced no viewings, but by the third a large female great white had turned up and had started to swim lazily around the cages at a distance.
IT WAS MY TURN. Sven helped me into the cage and passed me my camera, and another guest followed me in. We were lucky that there were only two of us rather than three.
We took our positions at either end of the cage, with Sven in the middle. Slowly the cage was lowered. As I looked up, irrational thoughts struck me. The chain looked too flimsy and our hookah air-supply line looked to be easy to slice through with sharp teeth.
I imagined us plummeting to the depths, having to use the escape hatch and swim back up through a frenzy of sharks while out of breath.
As I watched the second cage being lowered, I noticed something just the other side of it. A massive female great white swam gently towards the other cage before heading towards us. Performing slow figures of eight around the two cages, she gradually got closer.
I was filled with awe. I didn’t feel threatened – this was a magnificent creature and probably one of the most beautiful I have seen under water.
Making eye contact with such a fabled species of shark was unbelievable. Her body language showed no sign of aggression, her fins pointing straight out rather than downwards and her body relaxed, not arched.
Sven had raised himself up and out of the escape hatch and was sitting on the top of the cage to watch her. I tugged on his foot and asked if I could do the same. He pulled me up and signalled for me to stand up, holding onto the chain.
Wow! What a feeling to watch that shark as she swam around me, curious, checking me out as I took photographs.
I felt privileged, humbled and very calm.
After around 20 minutes, Sven pointed to his wrist, then up to the surface.
I slipped back down into the cage as it was smoothly winched up.
Breaking the surface, I realised how cold I was. The excitement and adrenalin had kept me warm until that moment.
I prayed that I would be able to do a second dive, but the swells started to pick up again at around 3pm. No more deep-diving would be done that day.
Very early the next morning, with beautiful flat-calm seas again, I watched an unusual phenomenon – a bank of mist seemingly rolling backwards over the top of the cliffs.
THE CREW WERE ABOUT TO lower the sub-cages to give the guests maximum time in the water before our scheduled departure early that evening. They wanted to ensure that everyone had at least one dive in the sub-cages, because several guests had missed their opportunity the previous day.
I watched the first two groups descend before heading for breakfast. I returned to the dive-deck afterwards, as the cages were being pulled back up. A small female shark was down there, tentative and not coming too close.
While the next two groups went down, I went out in the RIB to see the coastline. The rocky shore and small volcanic beaches are part of the marine reserve around Isla Guadalupe. It is illegal to go ashore without permission.
Skimming close to the rocks we saw many Guadalupe fur seals and a couple of northern elephant seals, thought to have become extinct in 1884 after being ruthlessly hunted for their blubber. A few survived and have been protected by the Mexican government since 1922.
Back on Nautilus we were entertained by one of the seals somersaulting and swimming back and forth under the hull.
At 2pm it was my turn for the deep cage. I had spent more than an hour in the surface cages that day without a sighting, so hoped to see the small female that had been hanging around the deeper cages.
I was much more relaxed on the descent this time, and took in the beauty of the sun-rays slicing through the vivid blue sea as schools of fish swam around us. We could also see the fur seal that had been entertaining us at the surface – it followed us down and swam around the cages with curiosity.
Suddenly the school of fish separated. The female great white was swimming through them near the surface. Keeping her distance, she would check us out then swim off into the blue, returning a few minutes later.
The fur seal seemed to want to play with her, acting kamikaze-like by biting on her fins, then swimming away quickly.
AFTER 15 MINUTES, something changed. There was a sudden tension, an almost-tangible feeling of electricity in the water. The small female came back, but this time she was accompanied by the huge female from the day before, recognisable by her markings.
With a much more aggressive stance they were both swimming erratically, coming in fast from different directions, vanishing only to reappear suddenly from somewhere unexpected.
Sven dropped back into the cage from his position halfway through the escape hatch. This wasn’t the time to be outside.
As I wondered why the atmosphere felt charged and the sharks were acting so differently, another one caught my eye – a male. He was obviously making the females uncomfortable.
We watched this interaction for several minutes before all three swam off into the blue, not to return. Sven signalled the Nautilus to winch us up. I had been lucky – there were no further sightings on the remaining dives.
At 5pm the last cages were winched onto the deck along with the RIB and we started our long journey home.
Dosed up on sea-sickness tablets and having only a light dinner, I slept through a third of the journey and didn’t have the slightest feeling of queasiness.
The day at sea was beautiful and very relaxing, with calm seas and blue skies.
I prayed for another whale sighting, but they steered clear of us.
Back in Ensenada by mid-afternoon, I reflected on what had been one of the most exciting, emotional, nauseating and incredible dive-trips of my life.
GETTING THERE: Nautilus now runs trips leaving from San Diego in California. Fly from the UK with BA via Los Angeles or Virgin, American or United Airlines via San Francisco.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: A number of boats visit Isla Guadalupe including Nautilus Explorer and Nautilus Belle Amie, which both leave from San Diego, www.nautilus explorer.com. Solmar V runs trips from San Diego by bus to Ensenada, from where the boat departs, www.solmarv.com
WHEN TO GO: Nautilus runs trips to Isla Guadalupe from the end of July to the end of October. Younger male great whites are seen in July and August and there is more chance of larger females September and October. Water temperatures from 18 to 24°C, 5-7mm wetsuit is recommended. Vis 15-50m.
PRICES: Tour operators including Dive Quest, Dive Worldwide, Scuba Travel and The Scuba Place can arrange packages. For individual bookings, flights cost around £750 direct and £695 with one stop. Six-day trips aboard a Nautilus liveaboard cost from US $2995pp (two sharing).