For many divers the opportunity to safely view an apex predator at close range is the ultimate experience. Sport divers have been traveling to South Australia and South Africa for over two decades to see and film the great white shark. Although it has been known for some time that there are many white sharks in California waters, until recently no one has offered the experience to the public. Now California divers can experience big sharks close to home–at Guadalupe and the Farallon Islands.
Guadalupe Island lies about 200 miles offshore and 250 miles south of San Diego in Mexican waters. There are currently no Mexican dive operators there, and shark divers use American boats departing from San Diego. The island is remote, surrounded by deep water, and is home to large numbers of elephant seals, Guadalupe fur seals, and California sea lions. Offshore is some of the best tuna fishing anywhere. Shark divers were initially drawn to Guadalupe by reports of white sharks stealing tuna from the lines of fishers.
Typically, this is a five day trip, one day each way to and from San Diego and three days at the island. At Guadalupe white sharks are attracted to caged divers with the use of chum. Typically the sharks show up shortly after the chumming begins and stick around for the remainder of the day. White sharks here are generally small, 10 to 12 feet, with the occasional 14 footer. With visibility in the 70 to 100 foot range, this is the place to photograph white sharks.
White sharks at Guadalupe are mellow and cautious. They slowly investigate cages and hang baits, and willingly pose for portraits. These are not the monsters depicted in the movie “Jaws.” Rather, they exhibit a powerful grace and beauty, and divers are amazed at their, strong, muscular bodies. They never attacked the cage as they do in the movies, and never did they behave aggressively towards caged divers.
The shark experience is quite different at the Farallons. The Farallon Islands are a chain of small islets and assorted rocks about 30 miles west of San Francisco, where a number of BBC and National Geographic films have been shot. In 1999 Captain Lawrence Groth of Golden Gate Expeditions beginning offering cage diving there.
It’s only an hour and a half boat ride from the Bay Area, so there is no need for a live aboard boat. A once in a lifetime experience can be had with only a day’s investment. White sharks are not attracted by chumming at the Farallons, rather Styrofoam cutouts that look like seals are used to lure sharks to the cage. Visibility at the Farallons can be over 100 feet, but it can also be less than 20.
The sharks at the Farallons are big! The smallest are around 13 feet long and the biggest was at least 19. Length alone does not give you an idea of the size of these sharks, their girth is much more impressive than length. Farallon sharks are fast and nervous. They often exhibit a hit and run behavior, so unlike the mellow approach at Guadalupe.
Their boldness leads to spectacular encounters. These sharks regularly attack decoys with such speed that the entire shark flies completely out of the water. Occasionally divers get to view the attack from below. Contrary to the description in the recent BBC video “Air Jaws,” South Africa is not the only place where white sharks put on spectacular aerial displays.
At the Farallons, divers may be fortunate to observe natural predation. Elephant seals come onshore in the fall, and the sharks are there waiting for them. It is difficult to describe the extreme violence of a white shark attack. First you see a 1200 pound elephant seal catapulted from the water, then you see the blood slick, then the birds move in, finally the shark returns to take huge bites out of the carcass.
As Captain Groth puts it, “It’s like the Serengeti out here. You experience the complete circle of life.” So now California have two ways to get close to one of the ocean’s apex predators. Get out there and see “the landlord” yourself, if you dare.