Reflections: The Great White Shark of Guadalupe
by Chris Mattingly
Ever since I was a little kid I was fascinated with National Geographic and how they presented this world to their readers; unfiltered and unbiased with the hopes that someone would appreciate nature in its rawest form. I remember looking forward to the monthly issue that my parents had ordered. I’d run downstairs to the basement and sit on the worn couch that looked out the back door and browse through the pictures. I loved looking at photographs of different places that this world has to offer, seeing it through someone else’s lease and hoping that one day I may be able to visit these exotic and wild locations.
Between the stash of National Geographic magazines and the maps of National Parks within the United States that my dad used to collect I was in awe of these spectacular adventures. Growing up we moved around a lot. It really made me thirsty for more adventures since I had traveled all over the United States. Someone special gave me a shirt that says “Never stop chasing your dreams.” This has really resonated in my adult life as I’m beginning to understand that life itself is finite.
This of course brought me back to my current status, in which I was standing at the fisherman’s landing in San Diego. I laid my backpack against my suitcase and looked over at the bronze statue of a man overlooking some fish that was the centerpiece for the pier. It was 4:30 a.m. and I was a bit early for the 5am pick up for our departure to Ensenada Mexico. I was waiting for the crew of the “Islander” to pick us up on a bus for the 2 hour drive over the border and into Mexico. The chartering fishing guides and captains that ran in and out of the shops nearby reminded me of the long hours that were required for that profession.
I was on a different journey though. One I had dreamed of ever since getting a peek of it in a National Geographic Magazine. Cage diving with the infamous Great White Sharks of Guadalupe Island. This adventure was something most people heard about in a magazine or saw on TV, but not something they could make a reality because of the desolate and remote location.
Since the launch of Discovery’s “Shark Week” there has been more study and research for the conservation of these sharks. In this marina found myself at the center piece of these studies while waiting for my turn to face two of my biggest fears.
The first being “Great White Sharks.” I believe that fear came from the 1980s movie “Jaws”. It was a typical fear for most people who lived around beaches at that time. The second being in the deep ocean. There is no point of reference of up or down once you enter the abyss and the currents in the Pacific Ocean are notoriously strong. I was about to experience both.
I watched the fishermen bustle around the docks and looked down at my watch. It was a quarter to five. A couple other people had congregated around the statue with their suitcases covered in airline tags. An older man who was probably in his mid 50s walked around the corner, his baseball hat had a set of blue Costa’s over the bill and his small goatee fit his leathery face. He stood about 5 foot 7 inches and his open gait told he had spent his life on a boat.
“Islander group head out to the light and load your gear on the bus, be ready to go in five minutes” he barked before he turned around and fiddled with a bag he was carrying.
I leaned back in the red velvet seat and looked out the window as the bus headed down Highway 1 past the little city of Rosarito. I thought about the things that brought me here while taking in the sunrise.
Inevitably it was on my bucket list like many other people who love sharks. But it wasn’t really my love of sharks that brought me here. I recently saw a picture of a tall blonde woman wrapped in dark wetsuit reaching down holding the top of a monster Great White Shark. What drew my attention was how both her and this apex predator.
This picture captured my desire and curiosity to go beyond the border of the United States and into the National Geographic world I submersed myself in as a child. I started thinking about the way my father had taught me how to read topographical maps when I was younger and marveled at the possibilities that exist in this world.
The Baja Sur coast opened up to the west of us. The giant rocks and cliffs leading down to beaches were in view as were the white breaks in the waves as they crashed on the sand. There was an old rusted fishing boat that had been washed ashore. The fishing risers gave it away. It sat on its starboard side leaning back against the surf.
The two-hour drive to the port was a quiet one. Everyone was plugged in and listening to music, replying back to work emails or messages to loved ones on their smart phones. Many simply looking out of the windows at the scenery.
We pulled into the port and noticed a cruise ship had swallowed most of the real-estate in the harbor. It took a few minutes for the harbor police to check our papers and get us on our way. We looked quietly at the queen Carnival Cruise lines left in the bay. We disembarked and gathered our gear. I noticed the boat I had seen in the TV show, “The Islander”. It sat quietly at the end of the dock. A few deck hands were scurrying around waiting for us. We plodded toward “The Islander” past a sea lion who decided to claim a piece of the dock.
“The Islander” was a 90 ft-long range-double decker-charter boat based out of San Diego California. In the back of the ship sat two dive cages and one submersible cage.
Standing on the starboard side was a young man wearing Costas and a dark shirt that had a cage with a shark swimming around it.
“Welcome to the Islander, are you ready to see some sharks?” he asked with thick accent accompanied by a smirk.
Jimi Partington was the lead dive master and renowned international shark expert. He introduced the crew as we boarded the ship. Getting acquainted with the crew was quick as they ushered us into the galley. There they addressed bedroom assignments and other little administration details as we pushed off the dock.
The galley had three square tables that sat 8 clients a piece. A round table sat below a tv mounted on the wall at the front of the boat. The sleeping quarters below provided us a place to put our gear and suitcases. While we unloaded and grabbed our cameras the twin engines started revving up.
Most of us gathered up front as the boat headed out of the port around the rock levy that was being built. The waves crashed into the hull as we churned out on a 210 degree heading with the sun over our shoulders. We would be on this heading for the next 12 hours at a measly 9 knots. We passed an island to our north and “Buzz”, our Captain, informed me that the island was “Todos Santos”. His eyes were intently on the horizon while I leaned against the wooden doorway of the bridge.
The island is small and flat with a little lighthouse on it overlooking the western ocean. I took note of the large outcropping on the beach and saw the size of the waves.
Big wave riding was brought to the world spotlight when a young surfer made a descent off a 60 ft wall on a break called “Killers”. He was towed in by a Jet Ski. This island is where all the professionals come for the “Todos Santos Challenge”. I sat back in awe and respect with my new understanding of what kind of technical skills are required to surf such conditions in a place that boasts the reputation of being one of the most dangerous places to catch a set.
The sun started to go down while some of us fiddled around on the upper deck with our GoPro’s and cameras telling stories. There was a large pod of bottlenose dolphins that were swimming back towards the coast. They caught our attention and allowed for practice shots with our cameras.
A big container ship headed south passed our stern. It would be the last ship I would see for the next few days. Dinnertime came around faster than I anticipated. I wasn’t hungry. I was more excited to see what the next day held for us.
We gathered in the galley for a formal introduction and dive instructions for the upcoming few days before dinner was served. I gobbled down the pasta and salad with little consideration that the chef had tried to formalize the dinner. I ate the chocolate in two bites and washed it down with a Coors Light.
I looked around at the galley and noticed the age of the ship. It isn’t outfitted with Wifi, or some of the other comforts other boats may have. To be perfectly honest I really enjoyed being disconnected from the outside world.
Jimi Partington was the familiar face but once everyone on the crew was introduced the biggest thing that stood out was the fact the crew had a lot more experience than most of the boats that offer this service.
Jimi (34) was from England and started out as a dive instructor. He also did a lot of studying and working with marine life in Thailand and in Australia at the Sydney Aquarium as well as off the Great Barrier Reef. Jimi had the most experience with Great White Sharks. He was the epitome of someone who is passionate about their occupation and being out on the ocean. He noted that “Guadalupe Island” is the home of the mega sharks. Jimi had been all over the world and this was the best place to see big sharks due to the visibility underneath the waters surface. With over 15 years in the tourism industry and another 9 with the “Islander” as the Dive Captain, I felt that there was a level of expertise I would not get with any other charter company. “Buzz” the captain had more than 40 years on ships and was a master at his craft. The dive brief consisted of safety considerations and rules that needed to be followed. We were the clients and safety is paramount in these conditions. Then Jimi jumped in with an introduction to mega sharks and his encounters at Guadalupe Island.
“The chances are that one of the big females is down there, you can’t see her but the other sharks see her. What often happens is everyone gets out of the cages when they don’t see anything. Stay in the cages. I can assure you that they will come up. They will come up and make a few passes at the tuna heads and say that isn’t for me. I want the real deal. Then head to the beach for one of the elephant seals. They are in this kinda of elite club of mega sharks. To be in the elite club of mega sharks we often say that the sharks have to be over 17ft. Over the 9 years I have been doing this I have only met about 7 of these sharks. As of now this season we have not spotted any mega sharks. However one of the other boats has seen “Lucy” and she was here last week. So she is at the Island. She probably is one of the mega sharks. She is around 17ft. Possibly 18ft now, but she is very very girthy, but she does belong in the club, she is a huge shark. She is really easy to see because her tail is broken.”
It turns out that “Lucy” is the most famous shark on the island as well. With the 2 year migration runs she was due back this year. Another shark that took social media by storm was “Deep Blue.” This was a 22ft female that came so close there is a picture of a diver pushing her off the top of the cage. As he passed through the pictures of the sharks spotted throughout the years it became obvious that I had chosen the right boat and the right crew for this adventure.
When we wrapped up the dive brief “Buzz” mentioned we needed to be up at 6am to see the approach into the island. I was curious to see this spectacle so I made a note and set my alarm for 530am. At this point I leaned back in my chair and took in the other passengers that made up this little bunch of shark enthusiast.
There was a pair of young French guys, one who lived in Paris, and the other in Las Vegas as a realtor.
There was an older couple from the Midwest that seemed like they were on a mission to check off one more item on their bucket list. As the older couple on the boat they had no worries and were full of laughs while they were catered to and enjoying living life at the retirement age.
There was a Canadian who had recently taken a trip to the Bahamas and went free diving with the Hammerheads and Bull sharks. He showed us videos from his Go Pro and helped us get our underwater cameras going. His enthusiasm wore off on other people by the end of the night.
There was a younger couple in their mid 30s who resembled people taking their time off from their careers. She was a hairdresser and he was a full bird Colonel, an officer with the United States Army.
Two more women came back from the season before. One lived in Charleston, South Carolina working as a medical professional and the other in Cincinnati, Ohio. They also brought another returning client who also was a huge shark enthusiast. She was an account manager for a medical company.
There was a scientist aboard who described his work as “diagnostics” for blood pathogens. This was his 6th trip with the Islander. The crew was familiar with his face as well.
As we began to retire to our rooms the waves were picking up. The 10 ft swells knocked plates and cups off the tables. I began to realize it might be a rough ride and I took some motion sickness pills.
My alarm went off sending a vibration with the little siren that was horribly annoying on a Monday morning. But this morning I hopped up without any hesitation.
The swells that were bearing down on us the night before were still hitting the hull. I didn’t sleep a wink being I am semi claustrophobic when it comes to sleeping in tight quarters. I shimmied into some “Huk” shorts and threw on my marine blue fishing shirt and hobbled up the stairs.
I noticed that the galley was empty. I was the first one awake. I decided to go out on the deck and walked around to the port side. I leaned over taking a deep breath looking at the sun breaking the black noose on the earth. As I walked up the stair on to the second level, I started noticing that there was a dark shape protruding from the shadows in front of the ship.
The movie “Jurassic Park” came out when I was a freshman in high school. I will never forget the opening scene when the island comes into view. I got goosebumps when the feelings from that memory rushed over me as the Isla of Guadalupe came into view.
This island was a monster, standing at over 4,000 ft above the ocean, most of it vertical cliffs and shale rocks going straight into the ocean. Estimating the depths on the semi white screen in the bridge, I looked and saw that we were at 2900 fathoms, which equaled out to about 17,000 feet of water. This mountain was 9 miles across and protruded 4,000 vertical feet out of the water. It stood out like a giant.
The fog was eerie as it lifted off the bay during our eastern approach. The island showed off it’s castle rock on the northern side of the island. The waves pounded into the cliffs. We made our way around the horn of the southern tip of the island and into the bay which would protected us from the northern wind and the currents while we approached our dive site.
While breakfast was served the crew made anchor and started dropping the dive cages. Most of us scarfed our eggs and bacon with pure excitement. The atphosmohere had changed and everyone was pulling out their gear, cameras, masks, go pros and wet suits.
We anchored in a little place east of the “twin canyons,” a notoriously deep part of the bay, where the underwater currents were extremely strong. This morning proved to be no different. Jimi let us know that we were only going to be using the rear dive cages because of the situation under the water posing as a safety consideration. We broke up into little groups of four and made our way around the boat. The bait was getting chucked and hooked on lines. Tuna heads are the best meal for a hungry shark before they decide to slide in closer to the beach for a better meal.
An hour later I found myself tightly grabbing the rails on the side of the cage as it rocked back and forth with the waves. The weight belt loaded with 40lbs extra pounds instantly submerged me. I was left alone and silent with my own thoughts as I sunk to the bottom of the cage.
Immediately hitting the floor I levered myself with both legs. The wet suit kept my body dry and protected me from cold during the long periods I would be under water. My regulator provided me with an unlimited amount of oxygen provided by the tube which ran over my shoulder to the surface. The cage itself was made from the same low density-high impact resistant-metal that can be found on aircraft. The floor had an escape hatch and the outside wall was designed to release in case of a major breach by a Great White. The ocean rocked the cages against each other and pushed us around erratically. Gaining balance on my feet was tough so I went to my knees, grabbed the bars of the cage and peered out in to the abyss.
I couldn’t believe my eyes! The clarity of the water here was beyond what I could imagine. I could see the chain attached to the anchor 40ft past the 90 ft “Islander.” The water was a deep dark blue whose shade became deeper as you looked down and almost turned a grey in direct sunlight. This phenomenal unrestricted view provided clear sight under the boat and below the cages.
Yellow fin tuna (which I never saw before) swam up with speed and precision. Right before we could get a good look at them they would dart back down to the depths. Their sides exposing the florescent yellow fin against their blue bodies. They were very beautiful and graceful. They came in to the dive area with a purpose and left the same way. The smaller fish formed into schools and would attack the bait as it was thrown into the water then hide out under the boat, moving back and forth with the motion.
I turned towards the diver next to me and saw that he was pointing to something below. That is when I saw the shape come into view, swimming slowly and methodical, the shape of that of the Great White Shark coming up from the deep to investigate.
My heart skipped a beat! I flushed into excitement as I pushed my face between the bars of the cage and looked down. The smile on my face never left from that moment on. Like a little kid in a candy store I watched this anomaly come into view below me as the shark swam circles. The movements were slow yet very graceful. The shark majestically crept higher and higher through the depths and closer to the cage. I was disappointed when he turned to the direction of the hull and swam under the boat then disappeared into the darkness. I couldn’t believe I just caught my first glimpse of this man eater. “They are so calm, they aren’t anything like how I perceived them to be, and almost too gentle,” I thought.
A small school of fish that had formed under the boat grabbed my attention. While I looked beyond hoping to get another look at this giant shark I felt another grasp on my elbow. My attention had been focused on the shark disappearing under the boat I’d had my back turned to the bait. I let my guard down. I whipped around in the cage. A huge white shark swam into view with the stereotypical frontal approach right before he made his vertical movement for a breach on the bait.
The mouth of these sharks are amazing. They expand larger than what you may realize with the actual teeth coming out of the jaw and expand past their lip showing their real size as they bite down on their prey. The skin around their teeth looks like it retracts giving the shark more of an angle to use leverage as the bite comes down allowing them to tear off massive chunks of meat. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I grasped the bars on the cage and peered out as the shark took the bait and swam down with it in its mouth. My breathing was fast paced. I probably would have ran out of oxygen if I was on a tank.
Being under the surface of the crystal clear seas, watching these sharks come up and swim around us then hit the bait in coordinated attacks left me in awe and I lost track of time. They would come up behind the cages from the bow or the hull of the ship and swim right under or next to us then hit the bait. If the bait were a Sea Lion or Elephant Seal they would have had minimal time to react to the attack.
The knock on the cage from Jimi told us that our hour was over. I patiently watched the sharks disappear into the darkness as I waited for my turn to climb out. I grabbed the rails and took a step up on to the side of the cage bringing my head above water spitting my regulator out and handing it to the crew. I had the biggest smile on my face I’ve had in a long time.
I crawled out of the cage, turned around, sat down and the crew helped me out of my weight belt. I didn’t want to take it off! I wanted to put it back on and get back in the water. I regretfully stood up knowing we had to take turns. The look on the other divers faces told me that they had the same feeling and experience. I leaned over the side of the boat and watched as the shapes would come into view and then swim under the boat.
Guadalupe Island is a volcanic island that is relatively young in a geological sense. The sharp exposed cliffs and steep hills come to a crest at the peak. Surprisingly enough there is vegetation on the top of this island. From what crew was saying there are goats, dogs and cats that were brought on to the island with the first inhabits and this changed the entire ecosystem since the goats had eaten all the flora taking away a natural habitat for the bird migrations that came to the island.
Elephant Seals and Sea Lions littered the small beaches and the coastal rocks. The crew was talking about how there would be thousands of them that would eventually end up on the island in the coming weeks. On the north side of the island the seals were known to feast on the abalone in the kelp, which is exposed to the currents, waves and weather creating its own sub surface ecosystem that was quite different in contrast to than the one we were diving in.
My next two days would be spent on the boat in the bay taking turns getting in and out of the cages. One of the distinct things I’d like to reiterate is the fact these sharks, as graceful and peaceful as they seemed next to us, were extremely hard to detect sometimes.
When you take away a sense like hearing, for example, your body naturally will increase the other senses allowing your body to know when it is in danger. Even with my head on a swivel looking around I would find myself getting caught up in watching a shark hit the bait or move out of eye sight only to look down and within inches of our metal box another shark would swim up from the depths. The sharks are top feeders. They like to make their attacks from the bottom, so the top of their back is a greyish blue with the distinct white underbelly.
They would pass the cage so close you could see the blacks of their eyes, only turning white when they roll their eyes to back when they bite. Their scars gave way to the fine lines in their leathery skin which is made up of pure muscle. Pushing them off the cages with a go pro attached to the wand was normal. They would get so close that even though they looked mean they also showed a bit of curiosity. I noticed at times as the sun would move it was more difficult to see them close under water. And when it got darker I could watch them swim more than 100 feet away, their shapes giving away their location.
It was unusually quiet underwater as we wrapped up our third and final day. The day prior we had sharks on us the entire time. I was exhausted from the lack of sleep and the constant enjoyment of the sharks. So I pulled out of my last rotation in the cage and decided to take a shower and change into some fresh clothes. I decided to get my drone out and take some more video and pictures of the island before our 1200 departure. I was flying the drone over the beach catching some seals sleeping on the rocks when “Shark here!” was shouted on the port side. It was about 11:30 and the group had entered the water about 30 minutes prior. The deck hand shouted, “its coming to your side and she is big!” The crew and passengers rushed to the starboard side of the ship and peered over.
“Its Lucy! Its Lucy,” Jimi yelled out with a big smile on his face knowing this was one of the big mega sharks that Guadalupe is known for. My drone was over the beach as I turned it towards the boat and put it in sport mode, getting up to 39 mph and closed the distance of ½ mile in relatively short time.
As fast as she came up to the surface she disappeared under the boat again. The divers in the cage were turned around facing the hull. You could tell they still had her in their sights. I brought the drone overhead and waited while the crew rushed around and passengers and jumped in to wet suits being this would be a very small opportunity to see a mega shark up close. Looking down over the ledge on the second level I saw her come up on the port side. She was Huge! She moved a lot slower than the other sharks and looked pregnant. A shark that would be gone for more than 24 months would come back to the island to feed on the seals prior to giving birth to pups.
I moved my drone over head as she scraped by a cage and headed towards the bait. She disengaged and turned back towards a tuna head further out. I caught her breaching not once but twice with my drone. This is one of those spectacular sights in nature.
Something like this rarely happens with bigger sharks. To see “Lucy” breach the surface was amazing. To call the sight spectacular is an understatement considering she is as wide as the dive cages. Understanding this was a small window, the divers rotated in and out fast for the next 15 minutes catching their time seeing her cruise by the boat. I spent that time filming and taking pictures of the mega shark while she took small and direct angles hitting the bait. The diver’s were all smiles as they exited the cages.
As fast as she came up she slowly disappeared out of the divers view and the drones reach. I just witnessed something special. This was a new world for me in which I would take home memories that many other shark enthusiasts wish they could have seen.
While we pulled the cages out of the water and pulled up the anchor there was a pleather of smaller sharks circling the boat and at one time I had counted 5 different ones. ”Lucy” had been waiting in the depths the whole time and kept the other sharks at bay while she inspected our bait and divers. Jimi was right, “stay in the cages!”
My experience was coming to an end. I want to express my new love of our oceans and marine life that live in these depths. We must preserve our oceans and study more of these animals. The conservation efforts here at Guadalupe are beyond reproach. They have helped build awareness on a global scale to save sharks. If you want this lifetime experience I highly recommend Islander Charters as the premier service. Their knowledge and expertise are beyond their peers when it comes to the “Great White Shark” adventure.
Chris Mattingly is from Spokane Washington and the oldest of nine siblings. He graduated from Mead Senior High school in 1998 and enlisted into the United States Army. He graduated from basic combat training at Ft Benning Georgia, and immediately was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, which he later was selected to the Pathfinder Detachment which specialized in long range reconnaissance, Airborne operations, insertions, extractions, pilot recovery missions. After watched the attacks on the world Trade Center he immediately reenlisted and deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. His last tour was in Afghanistan in 2012 and he received a purple heart for sustaining injuries during a combat operation and later medically retired. Chris is now living in Texas and working in the Oil and Gas industry, He has two daughters that he considers his saving grace. He is also attending the University Of Texas, with a focus on Business Management.
© 2020 The Havok Journal