Shark Bait! A Great White Adventure

I have realised I don’t travel enough to really crack on with the Travel page of this blog, so I am going to get you caught up on a couple of previous trips that were just awesome.

Now, strictly speaking I am doing this in the wrong order as this was the final week of a 3-week trip across the U.S, but it was probably the more significant for me. So…

September 2015 and the end of 2 weeks driving across America and 2 nights in San Diego and myself and my mate had got back to our ‘hotel’ after what felt like a final meal to the sight and sound of random people being organised ready for a Great White Shark diving adventure.

Yep, no bullshit, Great White Shark diving.

The Idea

Let’s rewind about 18 months before that and me and my mate are back home from one of our “couple of beers” nights out – you know the ones where you say “fancy a couple of beers” with the good intention of buying just a round each then going home but after just a few sips get the taste for more than just 2 and you get home about 1am. So, it was one of those, we’d gotten home and with a fridge full of beers continued chatting bollocks and planning holidays.  We had all but verbally outlined our driving element of the holiday and my mate said “then we can go shark diving” – “like fuck we can” I thought.

Now, I’m not a great swimmer and I much prefer being on the ocean than in it, so the prospect of being underwater with sharks wasn’t appealing.  However, I did get worn down on the idea and came around the that fact it was a bucket list thing to do, but that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much as my housemate.

We’d got to the point where we were ready to book our adventure and looking for providers. It wasn’t just going to be about cost, it was also going to be about the experience as well.  We looked to see what the vessels would be like, examples of the equipment they used, what was included, and more importantly excluded from any costs and the general itinerary.

We found Great White Adventurers on board the Nautilus Belle Amie, the newest of the fleet and at 140 feet, the longest of the fleet as well.  The vessel also boasted a hot tub and sun deck as well as modern living quarters and new equipment on board.

The adventure would start in San Diego with pick-up where we would be driven to Ensenada in Mexico to the Belle Amie where we would sail out over night to the Isle of Guadalupe where our diving would take place. Sorted. Crapping myself, but sorted!

The Pick-up

So, we had returned from a good bite to eat to a collection of random people, a coach and a few people with clipboards stood outside our hotel. “You here for the shark diving?”, it was suddenly becoming very real.

We’d agreed to chill by our luggage in a room set aside for early arriving divers luggage and met Scott and Tommy, two guys well beered up from Michigan who were all about diving and enjoying themselves doing it.  My mate and I couldn’t get if it was a father and son combination or just mates, turned out they were diving buddies that had met through diving and it was probably the only reason they really spoke to each other.  But it went beyond that, from chatting to them during the trip they just liked diving, not any pretentiousness about diving, just the diving.  Then once the diving had ended for the day they could both settle down and just plough beers – apparently, a rare trait to find in divers it seemed.

Safe in the knowledge that anyone who enjoyed sinking beers were probably our kind of people we stuck with them for the rest of the evening on our coach ride down.

After a while we reached the Mexican border where we had to disembark with our luggage, complete their immigration cards, go through security and then wait for our bus to come through separately. Yes, it was a ball-ache having to get off the coach and go through it all after having settled in for the evening, but in truth it was a lot worse coming back dealing with the American’s.  I am still not 100% convinced we, as Briton’s were allowed to go back and forth over the boarder the way we did, but we did do it, and it was all fine.

The coach was inspected thoroughly for drugs and other contraband and we were back on our way, with Ensenada our final destination. I could bullshit you in trying to guess how long the coach journey was, but I can’t remember.  A combination of the beers, sleep and heightened anticipation and it sort of flew by relatively quickly.

We arrived at the port, passed through port security and embarked our new home for the next 5 nights. Welcome drinks were offered as well as the news that we would not be departing port that night as the tail end of a storm would have made the voyage almost impossible.

The Nautilus Explorer, Belle Amie
The rear of the Belle Amie, with our dive cages on the dive deck
One more shot of the Belle Amie


So, we settled in for the evening with a few drinks getting to know our diving companions, crew and ship.

Now, my mate and I didn’t book in a single booking, neither of us could afford the single outlay and paying using 2 cards wasn’t an option.  But we did specify that we be cabined together for our stay as we were both repelled by the idea of spending any time alone confined with someone we’d just met.  This request had seemed to be forgotten. My friend was paired with some quiet American dude, not a clue to his name, but I was paired with another Englishman.  This guy was a proper knob! He’d already identified himself to me at our border crossing, informing me that we were “roomies” and I kindly informed him I was going to be sharing with my mate.  He seemed alright with this and said he would be flexible if we needed to switch rooms. Turns out that was a lie. He kicked up a right stink when we asked to do the old switcheroo. He was an odd sort, kind of there on his own, but already knew this married couple and seemed to be cracking on to the wife the whole trip it was just odd.  I am very glad we got our way in the end and I barely spoke to the guy again.

Anyway, we had spent the night on board and the following morning we were told we were not going to be able to set sail until late afternoon and that if we wanted to go and explore Ensenada we were allowed to go and wonder as long as we were back by 2pm.

Surrounded by all on board, one of the Dive Masters, Sten – a huge Scandinavian that seemed part Viking part pirate joked we should go to Hussong’s if we wanted to experience the real Ensenada.

Ensenada

Ensenada is a strange old place.  Historically a fishing port, there wasn’t a lot going on in Ensenada, however, over the last few years Ensenada has become a tourist stop for passing cruise liners. Consequently, the town centre is a blast of colour and tourist tat shops that seem to be thriving with the new trade.  But these cruise ships are not continuous in their presence.  There wasn’t one docked at any stage whilst we were in town.  This has created serious touting on the streets for passing trade and it can be irritating walking from A to B.

However, with the advice (of sorts) from Sten still ringing on our ears my mate and I sloped off to try and find Hussong’s bar and a real slice of local life in Ensenada.

After sticking with the group through the local market and into town and with the heat of the day starting to takes its toll we decided to go it alone in search for the bar.  We walked around for a fair old while and managed to find the bar – closed.  But it opened shortly, so we went a few doors down into a bar that appeared open but empty.

Now, compared to Cantina Hussong’s Papas & Beers seemed positively western.  Unfortunately, the local staff were less than friendly and my mate and I hurried through our gringo tourist priced beer (not the menu price) and made a beeline for Hussong’s.

Hussong’s was a world away from where we had just been, despite it being just 15 metres down the road.  We walked in to peanut shells on the floor, a couple of local Mexican old boys one end of the bar, sort of working but mostly not.  It was a dive bar, Mexican style and it was simply fabulous.  My mate and I decided to try as many of the local beers as we could see and ended on a couple of local tequilas for the road. Sten was right. If you ever go to Ensenada, you have to go to Hussong’s!

My view of the bar in Hussong’s
Hussong’s Bar with the peanut shells on the floor


We got back to the boat to the news that we would be setting sail later that night, 24 hours after we were originally scheduled to depart.  There wasn’t mutiny in the air, but people were not happy and suggestions were flying around the cabin “extend the trip” – no don’t otherwise my mate and I would miss our flights. Mostly people were just annoyed that they would be missing a day’s diving, which is fair enough.  The trip itself wasn’t cheap and you want to get your monies worth.

Dipping My Toe

We woke up to our first morning anchored off the Isle of Guadalupe – the premier place to catch Great Whites in their natural habitat. The BBC even filmed their episode on Great Whites for the series ‘Shark’ here. There was a buzz on deck, a hive of activity of people getting their gear ready, getting into their wet suits (packing themselves in if you were me).  My stomach had started to knot up the way it does when my nerves are getting the better of me.

I was nervous because of the whole Great White Shark thing, I was nervous because I had never dived before, I was nervous as I dislike being in the ocean, I was nervous about whether or not I could physically handle getting in and out the cage, I was nervous about whether or not I could do this at all and would have wasted £3,200 on just a boat trip.

I didn’t have a PADI, so I was limited to the surface cage and the cage that is just below the surface. A quick confession, I never made it to the one below, but it is not a regret in any way.

So, I’m somehow crammed into my wetsuit. I have my weights belt on, mask is on and now it’s time to get wet! … Shit! Sten was there, advising me of what to do, how to breathe and ready to wipe away my tears when I breakdown in fear! I grab a regulator and think “fuck this, you can do this you loser” and decide to whole body and head drop below the surface – big mistake! The cold water hit my chest and remembering to breathe through my mouth and not my nose went right out the window!

It was strange, as an asthmatic, and one who poorly manages his asthma too, I mostly breathe through my mouth anyway.  Diving should have come naturally to me, but the moment I got into the water, with that regulator in my mouth I suddenly decided that I should breathe like a normal human being through my nose – which is very much not cool!

Needless to say, my first couple of dips were a struggle.  In truth, I struggled for the first 10 minutes or so.  I was gripped to the cage ladder tightly; my feet hadn’t even felt the cage floor and I couldn’t get the hang of breathing.  Slowly but surely I was getting the hang of it, but I’d felt like I’d already had enough.  I started to make my way up with the idea of getting out, brushing my hands together and saying “well at least I tried”.  Sten wasn’t having any of it. Stood above my cage he said “why don’t you give it 5 more minutes, come out then have a think about it”.  Well, I wasn’t going to argue with the man, if I had said no he would have either trodden on my head to keep me under or threatened me with a battle axe I’m sure he must own.

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Me, in my surface cage, packed tightly into my wetsuit

So, I went back down for 5 more minutes, to get used to it, my first diving experience. 45 minutes later I come up for air having gotten use to the environment and breathing requirements. I strode up the ladder and Sten came across the deck to help me out and said to me “I said 5 minutes, not 45!” like a proud father watching their offspring master a new skill. In that moment, I am not sure I have felt more proud of myself. I stripped myself of my weight belt, whipped off my mask and charged towards the urns of hot chocolate that had been laid on to help warm divers up – fuck, I’m a diver now! Not a proper, lets swim underwater and in and out of wrecks, but I’m a fucking diver!

First Sight

So, I had successfully mastered the surface level cage.  Feeling as proud as punch, and having warmed my cockles on hot chocolate and freshly made cookies (not good for squeezing into the wet-suit I can tell you) I readied myself for another trip to the cage.

It was odd, the fear I had before it all began had disappeared. Hell, I’d even forgotten about the fear of seeing a shark.  I was just buzzing to be going diving again.

Down I went, carefully but eagerly entering the cage where I settled in to having a look around the ocean.  Judging by the feeling I had when I first saw one of these beasts I clearly wasn’t prepared to actually come across a shark on this trip.

I’m not sure how long had passed, but I remember seeing a number of people facing the opposite direction to the way I was look – as though these sharks would just be cruising passed me like on TV.  I turned round and there it was! A Great White Shark.

My heart started to race, I suddenly felt incredibly unsafe and hugely nervous.  This shark was very slowly swimming in my direction. I thought it had singled me out as the weakest one among the underwater buffet that was us divers. We were looking right at each other (it seemed).

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Water visibility wasn’t brilliant as the water was still recovering from the storm that we had avoided, so things were not as clear as they could have been down there, which just added to the eeriness of it all.

I managed to get my feelings in check as it was getting closer and the shark started to dip, trying to avoid my cage as it wanted to get by.  The shark’s dorsal fin grazing the underside of my cage I’d had my first Great White encounter!

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My fellow divers and I watched on as the shark swam by for the next half an hour or so.  I began to stop fearing these animals and started to admire them for their beauty, grace and power. It was not mammoth Jaws like shark, about 12ft was the general consensus of those on board.  Don’t get me wrong, it was plenty big enough as a first encounter but it wasn’t a big mumma. Fingers crossed!

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Sten Vs Shark

The much shorter trip had been going nicely. Diving in the day, beers in the evening.  Life was pretty sweet.  I even managed to wangle a slightly more submersed dive with the aid of one of the Dive Masters, Sam – a proper Londoner, who when he wasn’t diving supposedly does a spot of security work for a mate. We went down to a level just below the lower of the 2 no PADI cages to try and see some sharks.  We didn’t, but Sam tried with all his might to attract some sharks, banging on the cage with a head of tuna – hoping the sound, smell and discarded fish bits would work.

I did get to see 2 more Great Whites swimming about my regular cage, a pair of small males, about 8ft-9ft.  Interested in only the tuna hanging on the end of the lines attached to the other cages.

The time was nearing the end, the vis was nearly perfect, the weather was absolutely spot on but it was nearly time to go.

“What that?”

This large female, about 15ft-16ft of pure Great White muscle came onto the scene from nowhere.  This was a BIG shark.

Now, I was all alone in my surface cage and as it was the end of the trip a dive master had attached a line to my cage with a huge chunk of tuna on the end in an effort to get one last experience.  It had clearly worked.

This female had spent a little time sniffing around the tuna at the lower levels when she clearly eyed up the bit at the end of my line.  She made her move.

BANG!

She took a bite and tried going with it, almost taking my cage with it. She let go.

She slowly circled back.

BANG, BANG!

With 2 yanks she tried taking the bait again, and again my cage shifted. Now, I didn’t think too much of it and I wasn’t scared, although my mate reckons the look on my face from his cage was priceless. But I was enjoying my most interactive experience with a shark yet.

Sten clearly identified the danger from above and seemed to drop into my cage from nowhere! He got into the cage in such a hurry he didn’t even bother putting on a wetsuit. A mask, a regulator and some speedo trunks were all he needed to get involved! Utter legend!

He was able to bring in the shark closer to my cage using the bait on the line.  The shark was all too keen to keep trying for the bait and there were several times I could see right down the sharks mouth, her jaws open so wide, exposing her rows of razor sharp teeth.

We watched that shark for what seemed like ages.  I felt privileged to have seen such activity close up.  When I got to the surface I was absolutely buzzing.  Added to that was the fact that most of the others on board had already shut up shop for the day thinking they had seen everything that was on offer but they missed the best, the biggest and entertaining encounter of the trip.  I fucking didn’t.

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That’s what made it all the more satisfying.  From where I began – not even wanting to go on the trip, to the fear of my first dip, to being one of the few that hung in there underwater for long enough to witness that final bit of majesty these awesome creatures were able to show us. My personal journey made this whole thing worthwhile.

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Homeward Bound

Everyone came up, all the cages and equipment were brought up and on deck, all dive equipment was returned to its rightful place and everyone got changed out of their wet stuff for the final time of the trip.

The anchor came up and we started to depart. Standing on the sun deck, beer in hand, sun setting, and marine life putting on a show I felt pretty smug. It was a proper bucket list thing to do, and I can’t say I have done many in my lifetime.

That night many beers were drunk and jokes were shared with the people we’d come to call friends on the trip.  The rest of the voyage back to Ensenada happened at night.

We returned to shore the following day, got our belongings on the bus and proceeded to wait for half an hour whilst a group of divers (all from the same dive club) decided to rant at the crew and owners.  About what, I have no clue.  I couldn’t care. From the moment the anchor went up my mate and I were effectively on our journey back home and journey’s home from holiday are always shit.

Anyway, this group finally made it onto the bus, and we were on our way back to San Diego via a horrendous excuse for a US border crossing.

We got dropped off at our pick-up point to the next group of lucky souls eagerly waiting to depart for Ensenada.  We said goodbye to the folks we hung out with, went for a bite to eat before getting our cab back to San Diego airport for our internal flight to Chicago.

Amazing memories I will treasure for a lifetime, thank you Great White Shark Adventures!

p.s. all photo’s were captured by either myself or my mate, no stock images here! Also, I wanted to upload 3 videos we captured on the GoPro to show you Sten Vs Shark but I can’t seem to add them, sorry!

 

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