Photographs by Richard Stevens and Hailey Elizabeth / Black Manta Photography.
There’s such a strong temptation to start this article with that famous music score from John Williams, you know, the one that first hit the silver screen in the Summer of 1975, but that would just be far too much of a cliché…wouldn’t it?
Great white sharks – the ‘El Jefe’ of the shark world, the pinnacle of many scuba divers’ hit list of things to see, the largely unchanged prehistoric creature that has dominated our oceans since a time long forgotten, but also a creature now feared thanks to the events in the fictitious town of Amity.
The film Jaws has a lot to answer for – it’s the reason as kids we were so obsessed with sharks, but also takes the blame for a large majority of the world population being too scared to enter the water, even in waters that are impossible to support great whites.
Going Cage Diving With Great White Sharks!
Hardly surprising that when we told our family and friends we were going to Guadalupe to cage dive with great white sharks, their first question was ‘aren’t you scared they will eat you?’ Our answer was simply planting our head firmly in the palm of our hands!
The opportunity to get in the water with great white sharks, and to stay on board the Socorro Vortex liveaboard, was just too good an opportunity to pass up! Combining a bucket-list dive destination with the crème de la crème liveaboard of the moment was not to be missed.
There are some trips that get you good. That take-your-breath-away, mind-blowing type of good! A perfect combination of location, marine life, crew, guests, accommodation and weather – this had all in abundance.
Prior to travel we really had to engage the mindset of managing expectations. We had no real idea how many sharks we would see, how often or close they would come, what the visibility would be like – and there’s always that niggle in the back of your mind that you are travelling halfway around the world for just three days in the water. Would we get the shots and footage we wanted?
After two flights from London, via LAX, we landed in San Diego, and with only one night to explore we ventured out for dinner in an area called Little Italy. It took eight hours before we were trying to work out how we could move there! The city is vibrant, full of culture, blazed in sunshine and surrounded by water – what's not to love?
The following morning the guys from the Pelagic Fleet sent the most-amazing ‘shark bus’ to pick us up, which took us over the Mexican border to the port of Ensenada, where the Socorro Vortex awaited our arrival. The journey down gave us the chance to meet the other guests who we would be sharing the next few days with, and man did we luck out!
Our group was ten strong and consisted mainly of Americans, including the reservations manager from the Pelagic Fleet on vacation, a shark-mad couple from Texas, two brothers-in-law from Arizona, and two professional photographers, one from Croatia and the other a surf dude from Venice Beach. We were also joined by ‘sharkman’ Andy Dellios, who had been to Guadalupe eight times and knew all of the recorded sharks off by heart.
The Socorro Vortex – Where Adventure Meets Luxury
The Socorro Vortex is huge – 138 feet long – and really stood out from other boats in the marina. In a previous life, the Vortex was named the Lestralaur, formerly James Sinclair, and lived its life as a Canadian Coastguard vessel, so speed was already in her DNA. Her maiden voyage as the Vortex was in April 2019, making her the new flagship for the Pelagic Fleet company, and sister ship to the already well-established Solmar V.
The motto of the Vortex is ‘Where Adventure Meets Luxury’, and the mastermind behind her creation was Jorge Cervera Hauser. He wanted to create a liveaboard experience for the discerning diver that sat in the upper echelon of dive experiences.
But how do you create that experience? Well, you ensure everything is custom made and handpicked to the highest of standards. You design a boat that caters to only 14 divers, providing everyone on board will oodles of space, huge rooms, add a jacuzzi, and ensure the lens aficionados on board have plenty of room to work with their camera rigs. Oh, and complimentary nitrox!
Just to clarify – yes, we did say 14 divers only! The result of this gives you the feeling you’re visiting a wealthy friend on their luxury yacht, and not on a liveaboard with a bunch of strangers!
Then there’s the water on the boat – it’s all filtered. We’re not talking about specific drinking taps, oh no, every single tap/hose/shower head is fully filtered drinking water, from the shower and toilet in your cabin to the hot shower on the back of the dive deck, and the water in the camera rinse tank. Luxury personified, or an extreme – regardless, we were very grateful for not having to leave our cabin to get a drink of water during the night!
Oh, and did we mention the top deck doubles up as a heli-pad? Another nod to her past life.
The Vortex has four luxury staterooms that are entry-level (San Benedicto, Clipperton, Clarion and Cerralvo), two junior suites (Socorro and Guadalupe) and one master suite (Roca). Roca provides you with panoramic windows and a shower as large as most bathrooms, but even the entry-level accommodation comfortably fits a huge king-size bed, and all have high-end showers inside.
On boarding the Vortex, we were met by the friendly crew and our leaders and Divemasters for the trip – Matias and Luke. After the introductions and mandatory paperwork, guests were then treated to cocktails and an abundance of Mexican snacks with a huge bowl of freshly made guacamole and chips giving a taster of the amazing food to come. The remainder of the first evening was spent on the top sun deck, chatting away to the other guests and watching the sun go down as we set off across the Pacific to our final destination 165 miles away – Isla de Guadalupe.
Meeting Guadalupe's Great White Sharks
The first morning we arrived in Guadalupe around 6.30am to the sun rising on the horizon, casting the most-beautiful hues of oranges and pinks across the sky, and the weird bellows and grunts of the fur and elephant seals that litter the shoreline of the island – otherwise known as shark food!
Freshly made cappuccinos and pancakes filled our bellies to sit alongside the butterflies as we waited for the first sightings of the sharks. The crew got to work lowering the cages into the water and securing them in place, and even before the bait touched the water we spotted our first great whites swimming alongside the boat. Even from above, their size and beauty was clear and we were even more desperate to get in the water and see them up close.
Each of the two surface cages allow for three people at a time, so we were straight in there, kitting ourselves up as fast as we could! This is easier than diving as you don't wear a BCD or fins, and there is no need to travel with regulators either, making packing for the trip a doddle!
Instead, you have a weighted harness and ankle weights that help keep you on the bottom of the cage as you are just inches below the surface with a regulator called a ‘hookah’ fed through the bars from the boat supplying your nitrox mix. It’s an exhilarating experience getting into the cage for the first time – they take great care to keep you steady as you step down, only closing the cage when you are firmly down and safe. The first thing that hits you is the water temp, as it’s a little on the chilly side at around 68 degrees F, but a good thermal rash vest and a 7mm wetsuit meant you could easily manage over an hour in the water no problem.
In the cage, you are solely focused on the gap between the bars and the bait line in front of you. We needn’t have worried about how often and close the sharks would come, as from the moment we hit the water they were just there – continually swimming by, between the cages, chasing the baited lines, back and forth in a continual movement and breaking the surface for the people on the boat to enjoy.
That famous face is all too apparent, making you almost drop your regulator as your mouth hangs open in awe.
“These sharks truly are striking and surprisingly. When face on, they give the impression they are smiling at you as their mouths curve upwards.”
But let’s not fool ourselves, those smiles are surrounding the most deadly mouth on the planet, with rows of razor-sharp teeth.
One thing that really surprised us was the size – I mean, yes we know how big they can grow to in length, and we’ve all seen them on TV, but seeing one for the first time with your own eyes is one of those milestones-logged-on-your-brain kinda moments! However, it’s the sheer girth of this 16-feet-plus-long living missile with huge teeth that just makes you skip a heartbeat or two…
There’s a misconceived idea that these sharks are monsters, and out to eat anything and anyone they come across, yet, when in the water with these creatures, this doesn’t cross your mind at all. The only thing they are really interested in is the severed head of the fish floating in the water in front of them. The water around the cages is filled with mackerel and even hungry tunas, all wanting a taste of the action as they teem back and forth, but the sharks don’t even seem to notice them. It’s also interesting to see how they try to catch the bait as they change their approach each time and sometimes swim up from below so as to evade the eyes of the wranglers. That’s not to say they weren't curious of us in the cage – the sharks look you dead in the eye as they swim past, paying close attention to your movements and how you might interfere with their game of cat and mouse.
Diving Deeper With The Great White Sharks
There is an endless list of positives to mention about cage diving with sharks on the Socorro Vortex, one being that because the surface cages are literally under the surface, there is no requirement for a scuba qualification, making the opportunity open to everyone. However, if you want a different perspective then the submersible cage is an absolute must for you. The submersible cage is lowered to a depth of 32ft, is larger than the surface cages, but only houses two divers and a guide, who is kitted in a full-face mask for constant communication with the team on the surface. Weirdly, you notice the gaps in the bars are that much bigger, and again, your regulator is surface-fed.
“This exhilarating dive gives you 360-degree views of the sharks at depth, and in most instances, we had anything up to five in view at a time.”
We also found that the larger sharks were the ones hanging around down here, although the water was definitely a little chillier! However, for this, you do need to hold a minimum of an Open Water qualification.
Discovering Guadalupe's Local Wildlife
As much as we would love to fill this article with just sharks, we have to touch on the ‘Panga’ boat ride. The Pelagic Fleet are the only operator in Guadalupe with the license to operate boat trips to the shore of Guadalupe Island to see the fur and elephant seals up close, and this was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip! To see them lazing around on the rocks while the tiny pups jumped around playing is a memory we will never forget. We’d rebook on the Vortex just to this alone!
As you would expect with any luxury holiday, the food onboard the Vortex is outstanding! Lunchtime is by far and away the best meal of the day and is when chef Savine really comes into his own – our first day consisted of paninis, squash soup, mac & cheese, cookies and chocolates. Yes folks, that’s just one meal! The second day consisted of the biggest burger we had ever seen, with equally huge potato wedges served on the side, and then the third day we were treated to a ramen noodle soup and poke bowls… I mean come on, what liveaboard covers three cuisines in as many days? As well as breakfast and dinner, the team make afternoon snacks to keep you going, as well as fruit-infused water out on the dive deck with as many nuts/crisps as you want. When the diving is done for the day, they then make you the most-amazing cocktails with the best mojitos and margaritas you will ever find!
It just so happened that we had a government official onboard our trip from the Mexican Conservation Team. Rodrigo Pérez Weil is an analyst ensuring practices in Guadalupe are as they should be, and to monitor the sharks for research. In the three days we were at Guadalupe, Rodrigo identified 11 of the 34 different great white sharks we saw. Yes, 34 sharks in three days – guess we needn’t have worried if we were going to see any or not!
The service, accommodation, quality of the boat, the food, the set up of the cage diving – everything was just simply first-class and delivered to the highest of standards. The huge TV on the wall in the lounge isn’t just for show – there’s a full multimedia library of hundreds of films and documentaries, as well as dozens of books and shark-related reading material.
You’re constantly being asked if there is anything they can get you, and there is always a crew member on duty 24 hours a day.
If you are like us and always wanted to go to Guadalupe for the great white sharks but are put off by the potential long travel for what might only be three days in a cage, then let us tell you, it’s totally worth it and will hands down be one of the greatest things you’ve ever done in your life! Go to Guadalupe, see what’s going on – you will be utterly amazed in every sense! Between the two of us, we spent close to 30 hours in the cages over the three days, and hand on heart have it down as the most-exhilarating experience ever! Would we go back to Guadalupe now that we have done the ‘shark thing’? Yes, in a heartbeat, but it would have to be on the Socorro Vortex!
Guadalupe – Did you know?
The Guadalupe fur seal is one of six fur seal species in the world. It was once pushed close to extinction by commercial sealers in the 19th century, but now its numbers are in excess of 10,000.
Not just sharks…There are a number of endemic species that call Guadalupe home, including birds such as the Guadalupe rock wren, house finch and junco, and fish like the Guadalupe pipefish.