Cage Diving with Sharks in Guadalupe Island, Mexico & South Africa

Another adventure bucket list item of mine was to swim with sharks. I have been obsessed with them ever since seeing Jaws as a kid. Instead of fear, Jaws instilled within me a deep admiration for sharks.  I am drawn to nature’s monsters. They have the ability to humble humans and remind our species that we are not always at the top of the food chain. In the water, sharks definitely have the evolutionary edge over us, and they are as close to a modern-day monster as you can still find on this planet. They can grow up to 21 feet long, 2,500 lbs. and have no natural predators except for the occasional killer whale. They are ambush predators and can detect blood in the ocean from miles away. 

I had observed some lesser sharks such as nurse, black tip…when scuba diving, but these types of sharks were not fearsome enough for me.  In order to satisfy my obsession, I needed to swim with the boss of all sharks-the Great White. 

Places to Swim with Great White Sharks

Despite the fact that great White Sharks are found in every ocean of the world except for the Arctic Ocean, there are only a few places where you can consistently swim with them. Generally, it is considered safest to swim with them in cages, however many divers have demonstrated that you can also swim with them safely outside of a cage.  

The best places to cage dive with them are:

  • Neptune Islands, Australia
  • Farallon Islands, California
  • Gansbaai, South Africa
  • Isla Guadalupe, Mexico

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to cage dive with them in two of the above places; Gansbaai and Isla Guadalupe.

 

Gansbaai, South Africa

La Isla Guadalupe, Mexico

Gansbaai, South Africa

September 2006: I went to Gansbaai as part of a larger African trip that included a canoe safari down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe that ended with a hippo capsizing my canoe. I chose Gansbaai to cage dive with Great Whites because it had almost guaranteed sightings and it was cheap in comparison to the other locations.

Great Whites are drawn to Gansbaa because of the large populations of Fur seals-60,000 of them.  The drawback to Gansbaai, is that it is prone to big swells that can cancel boat trips, and the water visibility is very poor. So, poor that to allow divers to see the sharks, most cage diving boats use surface cages instead of submersible ones.

My friend Matt and I started the trip by flying into Cape town, South Africa. The next morning, the cage diving company transferred us a few hours from Capetown to Gansbaai. The drive was along spectacular, rugged shorelines reminded me more of northern California than the traditional images of Africa. Along the way we saw Southern Right whales near the shore.

 

 

 

 

Tabletop Mountains

Tabletop Mountains

Gansbaai, a small fishing village, had capitalized on the presence of the Great White sharks. It had become a big business and many fishermen were now working in the shark tourism business. Yes, there is controversy over cage diving. There are some that think that cage diving is disrupting the natural behavior of sharks and helping them to associate humans with food.

But on the flipside shark tourism is creates incentive to protect and conserve shark populations. In a world where sharks do not have many friends and Hundreds of millions of sharks are killed every year for their fins upsetting marine ecosystems, if shark diving can save a few of them, then I look at it as a good thing. Our boat was approx. 40′ with two large surface cages and a crazy crew of white South African fisherman. We motored out to sea for an hour and laid the cages into the water. The crew then started cutting up bloody fish heads and throwing them into the water in order to attract sharks. We were instructed to get into the cages and wait. Adorned in wet suits and hoods, we didn’t have an air hose, just a snorkel. We were told to dive underwater and hold our breath when told to do so. We were also told that if we didn’t want any body parts to stick them out of the cage. The bars of the cage where 2-3 feet apart from each other and these would be the only thing separating us from a feeding frenzied shark beast from us.

When the scout yelled down, we immediately went down holding our breath. The visibility was terrible. The visibility was poor, and I could only see a few feet in front of me. I figured it was a false alarm. Then the Great White appeared out of nowhere. it was everything I hoped for. The great beast’s jaws were gaping open, exposing its rows of sharp teeth.

Matt and I In the cage waiting to dive under for a shark 

Great white attacking my cage

Its beady lifeless doll eyes were rolled back as it came in for what it thought was the kill as it tried to chomp down on a fish head that was being hung in front of our cage by a rope from one of the crewmen.  The shark in ambush mode, crashed into our cage sending us flying backwards and sprawling to protect our feet and hands which now didn’t have the cage to hold on to for balance. This scene repeated itself multiple times and I would switch from watching the shark both below and above water as it leapt out of the water, gnashing its teeth trying to grab hold of one of the two-pound tuna head dangled in front of it from a rope.

 Great White shark next to me in the cage

 Great White shark next to me in the cage

Guadalupe Island, Mexico 

Great white from 30′ feet deep in a cage

October 2019: South Africa was great, but the Mecca of Great White shark diving is in La isle Guadalupe, Mexico. The downside is that it is expensive and to visit you need to join a weeklong liveaboard boat trip. But it is worth it and this protected and very isolated island 200 miles southwest of San Diego off of the coast of Baja Mexico is easily the best place in the world to observe Great Whites. Like South Africa they are attracted by a food source-fur seals and sea lions on the island. What make Isla Guadalupe the best? It’s desolate location, 200′ visibility, calm waters, and it brings in the largest Great Whites in the world-the big females. In October and November, the large females arrive and some of them easily top 20′ and 2000 lbs. It was the big females that I came here to see.

Coastline of Isla Guadalupe

On Halloween weekend, October 2019 we set off from Ensenada, Mexico to see real life monsters. We motored through Mexican waters for 20 some hours before we arrived at Isla Guadalupe. The waters were calm and azure. We were only a few hundred feet away from the shoreline and thousands of loud barking sealions and groaning fur seals. 

But in those few hundred feet of water is one of the largest concentrations of Great White sharks in the world. The island sits on top of a deep-water canyon and the water immediately off of the island’s shoreline is thousands of feet deep.  On Halloween weekend, October 2019 we set off from Ensenada, Mexico to see real life monsters. We motored through Mexican waters for 20 some hours before we arrived at Isla Guadalupe. The waters were calm and azure. We were only a few hundred feet away from the shoreline and thousands of loud barking sealions and groaning fur seals. But in those few hundred feet of water is one of the largest concentrations of Great White sharks in the world. The island sits on top of a deep-water canyon and the water immediately off of the island’s shoreline is thousands of feet deep.

For the next three days, we spent all day diving with sharks in the surface and submersible cages and then relaxing in the hot tub on the top deck drinking margaritas at the end of each day. One of the main differences between Isla Guadalupe and South Africa, is that Mexican regulations doesn’t allow the shark wrangler on top to dangle the fish chunks in front of the cage. This is to protect the sharks and the divers. Previously there was a shark that was chasing a tuna head and crashed into the cage somehow fitting between the bars and giving the divers inside the fright of their life. Luckily everyone including the shark survived the ordeal.

Great White Attacking a Bait Fish Pulled on a Rope

For the next three days, we spent all day diving with sharks in the surface and submersible cages and then relaxing in the hot tub on the top deck drinking margaritas at the end of each day. One of the main difference between Isla Guadalupe and South Africa, is that Mexican regulations doesn’t allow the shark wrangler on top to dangle the fish chunks in front of the cage. This is to protect the sharks and the divers. Previously there was a shark that was chasing a tuna head and crashed into the cage somehow fitting between the bars and giving the divers inside the fright of their life. Luckily everyone including the shark survived the ordeal.

Submersible Cage

Submersible Cage

Me in the Submersible Cage 

The surface cages were great because that is where all of the action is with the sharks, but my favorite was the submersible cages. To go into the submersible cages at 30′ you need to be diver certified. A mechanical wince system lowered the cage to 30′ where you would stay for an hour dangling from two iron chains. In the cage surrounded by endless ocean you definitely felt like shark bait. The bottom of the ocean wasn’t visible since there were thousands of feet of water beneath you. Above you even though the boat was only 30′ feet away it appeared to be much farther than this. The advantage of the cage is you really feel like you are in the shark’s realm. it is a whole new perspective. Also down deep is the lair of the largest sharks. The smaller males typically are the ones that go for the bait on the surface. The huge menacing females are the ones stay deeper keeping an eye on the activities above. They often get really close to the submersible cage and circle around it with curiosity. 

 

Great white from the cage

At one point in the submersible, we had three 20′ female sharks circling our cage. The cage fits four people-3 divers and 1 dive master. Our airhoses ran along the chain connecting us to the boat to an air compressor on deck. I asked one of the dive masters what would happen of one of the air hoses was severed by a shark and they informed that it wouldn’t happen. I later did find out that it could, and it did. During the old days, fish would be attached to the submersible cage to attract sharks closer to it. One shark went after the fish and the air hoses. With severed air hoses the divers had no choice but to exit the cage with the shark nearby and swim to the boat. Tp prevent this from happening again, a oxygen tank is placed in the cage during each dive.

Big 3′ foot long tunas on the hunt

Aside from the sharks, the huge tuna was amazing to watch too. Up above the boat served as a refuge from thousands of minnow sized fish and huge clouds of them would enshroud the bow of the boat often impeding our visibility of the sharks. The tuna, speed hunters that they are, would take advantage of this and would zig zag through the clouds of fish feasting on the, the submersible was the perfect vantage point to watch this show. We also saw a sea turtle, jellyfish and Calico Bass.

 

Calico Bass

Clouds of Minnow size fish 

Of course, the star of the show was the Great White and there was never a dull moment. The Great Whites were very curious and always seemed to be nearby even when not seeking the bait being dangled across the surface of the water.

 

Menacing Looking Great White

Megalodon Looking Shark Looking Extra Scary. Stupid small fish ruined my camera focus.

View from a surface cage

Surface Cage

Monster Great White

At the end of the day after all dives were completed, we relaxed in the hot tub to a few margaritas/beers and recapped our amazing dives and Great White experiences.

 

Jimmie and Richard relaxing at the hot tub at the end of the day

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