The Great White Shark Experience

Guadalupe Cage Diving

There is nothing quite as exciting as seeing a great white shark underwater for the first time. They can be confused with no other fish, and you know at a single glance this is a serious predator. They will seem to be moving slowly, effortlessly, but something will give away just how much territory they cover with a single swish of a tail. You'll notice the countershading of gray above and white below, the black and empty eyes, the impressive girth, and of course, the teeth. The unmistakable teeth.

But as a photographer, it is all about proximity. How do you get that beautiful animal close enough while in the safe confines of the cage? Even if you are a highly skilled photographer, without safe proximity, the shot can't happen. To that end, the first step in your quest is to go where the white sharks are. White sharks permit their image to be taken only grudgingly, and that's what keeps us coming back time after time, wherever white sharks may be found.

One of the newest favorite destinations for white shark photography is Guadalupe Island, a 22-hour boat ride into Mexican waters south of San Diego, Calif. Noted for its stunningly clear water and a large, albeit seasonal, population of white sharks, there may be as many as 100 white sharks around the island in August through November. Guadalupe is no longer a closely held secret among the serious white shark community. For underwater shots of white sharks in clear water, Guadalupe is all the buzz these days.

Here is a glimpse into the adventure:

Day 1 - A 22-hour steam lies ahead, so bring a good book or take a nap. Actually, it's the perfect time to settle into the cabin, assemble cameras and charge batteries. Preparation is crucial, for the shark action can happen very soon after arrival.

We had an exceptionally calm crossing, the highlight of which was an encounter with a playful pod of Pacific common dolphins cavorting in our bow wake. There were easily 100 dolphins in the pod - sleek, acrobatic and very fast. We amused them for a short while, and then they were gone. Otherwise it was uneventful, as well it should be.

Day 2 - We got to the island about 7 a.m., and since we had been well-briefed the day before, we were all schooled in the safe-donning procedures for the weight system and had our cameras well-organized. The first dive is kind of a check-out dive to acquaint us with the cage-diving routine, but we are cautioned that there could be shark action even then. For those accustomed to the routine of working a chumline for several days before the first white sharks appears (if at all), Guadalupe is a revelation. The crew saw a breaching shark when they were setting the anchor, and we saw our first shark no more than 15 minutes into the first dive.

They were a little timid at the start, but more sharks showed up over the course of the day and the action got progressively better by mid-day. We finally had as many as six sharks around the cage, although I doubt any of us saw more than three at a time. The big females ruled when it came to access to the food, but the smaller males would dart in and try for the bait as the opportunity presented.

The daily routine varies from boat-to-boat but may be similar to what I experienced. First, there is your personal shark rotation, which lasts precisely one hour. There are two cages with room for four people in each. So each group of eight has one hour in the water, followed by an hour surface interval. This runs with great punctuality, so in the off-hour we had to download memory cards, charge batteries and take care of any personal issues. Plus, during the dry time there were occasional opportunities for topside photos or polecam work outside of the cages; however, the topside photo-ops are minimal. This is an in-water, cage-dive shark adventure for sure.

Water clarity in Guadalupe is normally extraordinary, but the near shore water is rather turbid, as you might expect with thousands of pinnipeds eliminating waste. When the prevailing currents bring the shallows past the cage, visibility degrades. Whatever the cause of what they call "the mung," when it is upon us, it does step on the visibility in a very real and substantial manner. Gratefully, the current blows it by as quickly as it arrives, and rarely does it seem to last more than 30 to 45 minutes. Of course, that's unfortunate when it is your hour in the cage and sharks are there!

The axiom of shark encounters is that typically one cage seems to get more action than the other: naturally my cage was not the center of the action. In any group photography effort there is the frustration of seeing closer/better shots appear on someone else's computer. In the old days of film, you could always be content with thinking you had wonderful shark images in the can, but with digital, you know who has what right away. So, image-envy is part of this new age, and like any competitive shooter, I wanted my images to be the objects of desire. When the action is in the other cage, it is pretty hard to be competitive, for this is not telephoto work. Ideally, you should be there with a wide-angle lens while the action happens no more than four feet away from the cage. The morning was a bit exasperating for me, but in the afternoon my luck changed, and I was getting reasonably close encounters as well.

A few quick observations after viewing the results of the first day's shoot:

  • The water is very clear, usually. Sometimes there is a layer of detritus from the island, which can seriously hamper water clarity; it comes and goes pretty quickly, enough so that the visibility can go from 80 feet to 15 feet pretty rapidly, and back again just as fast. Overall, we probably averaged 60 to 80-foot visibility, unless we drifted directly into the chum being ladled into the ocean from above.

  • The cages are fine for four people, unless one of the four has giant strobe arms. You don't need lots of arms or dual strobes; although a single quick-recycling strobe is a good idea, especially for the early morning or late afternoon cage rotations.

  • Even though we might have seen a half dozen sharks around the cage this day, rarely would more than two ever appear in the same frame.

  • Most of the shots I was taking were more at the 35mm end of my 16 to 35mm zoom. So, from where I was in the cage, the sharks weren't usually all that close. But sometimes they did come within two feet, and those were my best shots of the day. Even in crystalline visibility, a shark photo 8 to 10 feet away will suffer in terms of resolution and color. As with any other underwater photographic subject, closer is better.

  • A fast shutter speed is a good idea. At least 1/125th second because the shark is moving, but so is the cage. There are four shooters jockeying for the right angle, and their in-cage movements can make it tough to hold steady; I lost several shots that first day to camera shake. Images looked great on camera LCD, but when blown up to 100 percent in Lightroom, some were just too soft to use. It hurt to pitch them in the recycle bin, but the bar for white shark photography has been raised very high these days, and marginal images have no future. At least digital images allowed me an early diagnosis.

Cage Diving Tips: On our trip the water was about 69°F, although it can be as cool as 66°F during the white shark season. Most of our guests wore either a drysuit or a 6 to 7mm conventional wetsuit. I prefer a semi-dry 7mm. Even though the water is relatively warm (by white shark standards), you tend not to move much inside the cage, and it can get cold. A hood, hooded vest, gloves, and booties are critical accessories. Our boat's weight systems are typically set up with 40 pounds each, so we were able to weight ourselves very heavily and still be comfortable.

Calm seas make cages far more comfortable. If it is rough, you'll get tossed about and it is tough to shoot. The boat anchors in a protected bay, so the seas normally remain pretty calm. Since the boat is rigged for hookah, there's no need to pack a BCD, regulator, dive computer or fins. Bring your favorite mask, plenty of thermal protection and perhaps some ankle weights.

Day 3 - One of our guests volunteered for shark watch early this morning. These sharks are pretty sneaky, and a set of eyes in the water is more efficient than watching from above. Sure enough, a shark was spotted about 15 minutes into the shark watch dive, but in the next hour we saw only fleeting glimpses of a cautious predator. In fact, this would remain the pattern all week - very light activity on the first couple of cage rotations, and then good action before and after lunch; our most productive images happened between 9:30 and 3:30 daily. One of the guests said it best: "I'll put days of preparation, travel and cage time into white shark photography, but find it all comes down to 10 good minutes a day." You just need to be ready when those 10 minutes happen to you.

This day we had eight different sharks swim by the cages, two were impressively large females in the 12 to 14-foot range. It always seems that the best shark action happens five minutes before the end of your rotation. Everybody knows the logic behind the one-hour shifts, and everyone recognizes if they were the one on the deck waiting, they'd be angry to lose even five minutes of their allotted cage time. But when you wait around watching sharks in the distance (if at all) for 52 minutes, and they get close finally in the last eight minutes of your shift, you know you'd better make it count. There is no overtime, only sudden death. When they bang on your cage signaling the end of your shift, you are done for another hour.

My prime 10 minutes happened late in the day. There were two sharks circling the bait, while anglers on the boat were fishing for tuna. It was my good fortune to have a tuna caught on 30-pound test near my cage, and the tuna's misfortune to attract the attention of a white shark. It happened so quickly, all I could do was to shove my camera out of the cage and snap in the direction of the white shark biting the tuna in half. When I brought the camera back inside the cage and reviewed the LCD, I saw I'd captured the decisive moment when the shark hit the fish; the blood bursting out of the fish proved this was a live fish and not bait. This was my hot shot for the day. Good for the shark, great for me, but very bad for the tuna - and, possibly the angler with sashimi in mind.

Day 4 – The clock was ticking, and it was time to nail some more shark shots. This is the last opportunity, and we had only until about 4p.m. before starting the long journey home. The Santa Ana winds were gusting hot and powerful, even way out here. They said it was 100°F in El Cajon, Calif., on that day in late October, and while I wouldn't normally worry about the climate in El Cajon, any breeze strong enough to blow hot wind over 150 miles of ocean is bound to make the ride in the cage a bit more challenging (and the ride home a bit bumpier). Oddly enough, in our protected bay it was not bad, and the cages have enough spots to wedge into for stability.

Like the two days previously, the first hour in the cage was an exercise in futility. The 10 a.m. rotation finally generated some good images for most of the shooters in both cages. By now, we were treating any images we get as bonus shots. I think we all had our "white shark ID" photo, and, truthfully, many of the ones I've thrown away this week are better than the best shots I had ever taken previously. So, the expedition was already significant, indeed.

For in-water shots of white sharks, Guadalupe exceeds expectations. Yet I was still looking for the definitive "bite shot." Something to define the power and predatory force of the great white shark, and it was the cage dive after lunch this day that proved to be the best underwater shark action I've ever had the privilege to view.

For the first 45 minutes of this cage ride I don't think I snapped a shot, unless it was of the little fish feeding on the chum bag, taken out of sheer boredom and destined for immediate deletion. But that all changed when Ms. Attitude swam into the scene. First, she turned her attention to a "bait-cam" the boat had deployed.

This was a small video mounted to a floating PVC contraption so the camera was prefocused on the bait, the theory being it would catch a close shot of the shark hitting the bait; however, this shark missed that memo. She came in from off-camera to the rear, trashed the PVC frame and cut through the video lead in a single gnarly attack. Then, amped up in attack mode, or maybe lightly jolted from just biting through an electrical cable, she came to within a few feet in front of the cage.

We had two very active sharks, so each cage got a great show, but, fortunately, my luck remained strong. For this performance, I was situated in the hot spot - the outside slot on the starboard cage. This had offered the most consistently propitious camera angles all week, but it had never been my turn to be in that spot. This was my one and only chance for that spot, and to get the right real estate and a brazen shark made my day. Those 10 minutes justified the entire trip.

The action continued for maybe another half-hour, so those in the next rotation did well, too. By then the winds were howling, the anchor dragging, and it was time to go. An overall melancholy swept our boat as we watched the cages get winched back on deck, but knowing we all had some pretty cool shots in the can made it easier to weigh anchor on this particular adventure.

Read about diving Guadalupe, beyond the cage
See more photos of Guadalupe Island