A Great White...
Photo by Ken Steil
Check out the full
"Sharks in the Mist" Photo Gallery here...
Editor's Note: This is part two of a three-part story. Click
here to read part one. The author, C.J. Bahnsen
is a freelance writer based out of Orange County, CA. Parts of this
story previously appeared in the LA Times.
Guadalupe represents an aqua Eden for researchers and shark
divers. Unlike South Africa, Australia and the Farallon Islands,
visibility is often crystalline, well over 100 feet on the best
days and, provided you chum the water, white sharks are almost
guaranteed to show up everyday during the season.
It was Benchley's first time diving at Guadalupe and his last
encore with great whites. He and Wendy were celebrating their 40th
Wedding Anniversary on the trip.
"In South Africa, they do most of the cage diving off these
monster seal colonies," said Benchley, when I asked him how
Guadalupe rated against other shark sites. “The sharks are
all over you there; 15 to 20 at a time in a given day… I've
been to South Australia half a dozen times and I've always had
pretty bad luck there. On one trip, we saw only one shark in eight
days. Guadalupe was certainly better than my experiences in
Australia. There were more great whites there and they were much
less shy. To have about three or four sharks around the clock for
four straight days was top of the scale."
I also saw sharks regularly during those same days. Although
Benchley and I were on separate boats under different
eco-operators, the drill was essentially the same on the Odyssey
and her sister vessel, the Horizon. Each one-hour dive rotation
constituted dropping into on of two 10' X 20' cages deployed over
vessel's stern, four divers per cage. Unlike everyone else on the
Odyssey, I was not a certified diver at the time—the reason
why Patric had stressed taking an introductory scuba course,
pre-trip. "Some people get claustrophobia or panic," he had warned.
"The last thing you need to worry about is breathing through a
regulator with great white sharks swimming in your face."
Non-certs are allowed on these dives since you don't go below
ten feet and breathing is done with a hookah. Odyssey divers were
each cinched in a 60-pound weight harness so we wouldn't be bobbing
around like loose corks. The water temp here averages 60-62
degrees, which constitutes coldwater diving. And because you're
standing immobile in a cage rather than swimming, your core body
temp drops like Bush's approval ratings. "I don't like coldwater
diving," said Benchley, who wore a 40-pound harness and considered
the water temp "marginal for a wetsuit."
On my first dive, I was bordering on sensory overload as I
wrestled into a 7mm wetsuit, then the head-shrinking hood, boots,
and gloves—all borrowed from Alan. The whole getup felt like
a black python had me in a goodnight squeeze. There was so much to
think about, like the rules Tracy had laid down at first dive
meeting: Never stick any part of your body outside the cage and
never make any sudden movements that might trigger a "predator-prey
reaction," she admonished. It was easy to get distracted by Tracy's
easy, Sandra Bullock looks, until she administered instructions
with disarming authority. By day she wore navy blues—pants,
collared shirt, and a tight cap, brim low slung. But at night it
was as if she stepped out of a phone booth, transformed from
serious-mannered dive ops manager into sensual hostess, wearing a
flowery sheath, her dark chestnut waves braided and no longer
stuffed under a cap.
Tracy would monitor us from the dive platform. Another sharky
would man a push-pole during rotations. "If a shark were to come in
too close to the cages, we push it off," Tracy said. "It doesn't
harm the shark. We just give them a little extra nudge to keep them
from entering the cage, because sharks don't have a reverse
Patric and crew had been tossing five-gallon buckets of tuna
parts, hang bait and powdered chum—made from dried fish and
blood meal—over both gunwales. "By using dried product, we
hope to not put anything into the environment like parasites or
bacteria," Patric told me.