Location: Guadalupe Island, Mexico
Duration: 3 1/2 week expedition
Type: Scientific exploration & photography assignment
Many places on earth are characterized by landmarks, cultures, certain food & music… Germany, you’ll think of beer and Octoberfest. France, you’ll think of the Eiffeltower and Wine. Whenever you look beyond these unjust superficial perceptions, you will be surprised how much they actually differ from what you imagined. Of course this depends on how you travel and experience your destination. By sittting in your hotel room, you will hardly grasp the night’s flare of a capital city. In regards to adventure travels it’s very much the same. By spending your road trip on main highways, comfortable campsites and run down tourist trails, you will rarely grasp the true nature of your environment. For that you have to leave the trail and find your own. Expose yourself. Immerse yourself. Of course, in accords to your skill level.
The ones who know the Island of Guadalupe in Mexico will immediately think of the Great White Shark. The ones who don’t know Guadalupe will see nothing but pictures of Great White Sharks on their first Google-Search of the island. Of course. It is the prime destination to Cage Dive with Great White Sharks in clear blue water. However making the island all about sharks doesn’t do the place justice at all and disregards the amazing biodiversity the waters around this rocky volcanic coast have to offer.
Nearly every ecosystem that can support large apex predators has to offer a wide diversity of fascinating wildlife that draws us in. Look at South Africa’s abundant waters of full of whales and sharks, the grizzly forests of North America or the dense South American jungles that are home to the jaguar.
With Guadalupe as our expedition destination I was about to explore a place like the above. Of course freediving in these waters is different from other colorful places. You do have to be aware of your surroundings and water conditions at all times. One of our favorite dive spots was a pinnacle off the north end. Because it was an El-Nino year in 2014 for the pacific, we encountered species you do not usually see. It was amazing to have 5 feet wahoo passing by while the agile Guadalupe Fur Seals make a fool of you underwater. Damn these guys are fast.
On one occasion we swam from the pinnacle towards the grey and red volcanic ridges, and continued to swim along the coastline to explore new hotspots of white sharks in the shallows. The tagging gun always ready in Fred’s and William’s hand, my camera shutter firing. When we arrived at the coast we encountered sea turtles and seals right away. It takes less mental energy diving at the coast, as you only have to watch out for White Sharks on one side. The rock walls are steep underwater and underneath the dropoff you can see a landscape of pinnacles and canyons. As we swam past a seal colony the light was perfect and illuminated the otherwise dark sea floor. I looked. Shape. I looked a gain. Great White Shark. I signaled William and Fred and soon we all were in awe of a giant 5 meter Shark slowly and majestically patrolling one of the canyons. Perfectly camouflaged. And you could tell she was looking up, ready for a seal to pass by. Unfortunately she didn’t show any interest in us and we were not able to get close enough to place a tag.
*** Please note that any diving without a cage at Guadalupe Island is only legal with special government and biosphere permits for scientific field work. This applies as well for setting foot on the island itself. Our team was granted all permits for their scientific work during the expedition. ***
In the shallows we soon played around with the seals. In the beginning they are always very shy and keep their distance. Once they realize how slow and incapable you are at freediving (mind that I had two world record holders with me as my dive buddies) they play around and tease you with all kinds of underwater acrobatic moves.
On our way to the shallower part of the bay we noticed bat rays and horn sharks on the egde of the rocky bottom, where the dark volcanic sand begins and stretches into the deep unknown. We stopped swimming. If you spend a lot of time in the sea or around water you may have noticed something over the years. Don’t rush! Stand still and observe! I have seen many people snorkeling too fast in the hope of catching a glimpse of something spectacular around the corner. This won’t get you anywhere. Sometimes it’s best to simply float and stay in one location. Due to the moving nature of water, after minutes you will start to see clearly. You will see groupers fins moving underneath a rock. A rays dug into the sand. Many divers underestimate the noise they make when moving, even snorkeling. Fish and other marine creatures can hear very well. Once you start slowing down most of them are less afraid.
Freediving in the shallows was an amazing experience. I entered a state of calmness. I was still extremely focused. My view sharp, looking for a big shaddow. Still, I calmed, more and more. The light rays illuminating the orange-yellow sea floor, colorful fish and a sea turlte passing by, above me hundreds of feet of rocks with the sun setting behind them.
The island’s productivity is even impressive when not underwater but watching from the boat. We saw blue whales passing through the bay, an incredibly rare and difficult to encounter species of beaked whales. One day we saw thousands of 100 pound yellowfin in a hunting frenzy jumping and chasing around the surface. The entire bay was seething!
We will return for another expedition to study Great White Sharks and hopefully document and explore these phenomena underwater. Meanwhile it is to say that Guadalupe stays a research and cage diving site. I commend the Biopshere and government for trying to regulate and enforce the diving. It is a very challenging place to dive at and inexperienced divers will quickly reach their limits. Although I am an advocate for individuals making their own decisions, I think especially when it comes to sharks it’s a different story, as the blame game is still played by the media. Sharks being at the wrong end of things. We will continue to share our experiences through photo, blog and video for everyone who may never go diving at such a remarkable place.