Notes from the Road (Less Traveled)
Historical Diving Society’s
Great White Shark Trips
October 10-15 & 15-20, 2016
Guadalupe Island, Mexico
The Annual Historical Diving Society (HDS) fundraising trips to Guadalupe Island, Mexico to dive (in cages, of course) with Great White Sharks took place October 10-15 & 15-20, 2016. Guadalupe Island, a World Biosphere Reserve, is located nearly 200 nautical miles west of Ensenada, Mexico out in the Pacific Ocean and has the largest identified population of Great White Sharks in the world. The dive operators visiting Guadalupe have identified and named nearly 200 different Great White Sharks that have spent time around the island. These annual trips are organized by Ed Stetson (www.stetsondiving.com) who generously donates the proceeds to the Historical Diving Society. Each HDS trip is hosted by a well-known personality in the diving world. Past hosts have included Ernie Brooks, Stan Waterman, Rodney Fox, David Doubilet, Bob Hollis, Chuck Nicklin and Zale Parry. The special guest host for this year’s trip was world renowned black and white image maker, Ernie Brooks. This year Ed decided to offer two back-to-back trips to Guadalupe Island with Ernie being the guest host on both. I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity and signed on for both trips. These were my 11th and 12th adventures to this magnificent and wondrous island.
Week #1: October 10-15, 2016
This year, Mike Lever (owner of the Nautilus fleet), decided to change our meeting place from the Ramada Airport to the Marriott Island Palms Hotel & Marina. The Marriott is definitely more upscale than the Ramada with an excellent restaurant, bar and meeting rooms. Pat Willoughby, former student and volunteer staff instructor for the diving program I created at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, and I decided to share a room at the hotel since we both were arriving the day before our scheduled departure. While I had no flight difficulties, Pat’s travels were plagued by one delay after another (including the need for a replacement battery and a ‘minor’ fuel leak) and didn’t arrive in San Diego until after 10:00 PM that evening. The next morning, we had breakfast and went to the designated meeting room to join the other trip participants awaiting the arrival of the tour bus that would take us to Ensenada, Mexico to meet our boat, the Nautilus Belle Amie (www.nautilusbelleamie.com). Around noon, Faith Ortins (from DUI) met me at the hotel with the dry suit that DUI had offered to loan me for these trips. Faith, an incredible diver and a fabulous person, leads trips organized by DUI (www.dui-online.com/trips) to some of the most exciting places on the planet. Betty and I will be joining her June 22-29, 2017 for a DUI trip to the Arctic.
After trying on the dry suit and undergarments, Faith offered to give Pat, Ernie Brooks and me a tour of DUI Headquarters nearby in San Diego. The tour was fantastic and extremely informative with Faith showing us everything that DUI produces for the recreational, commercial and military diving communities.
After returning to the hotel, we introduced ourselves to the other guests, many of whom we’d known for years including Monty Rook, Cindy Rhodes, Dr. Jim Holm, Dan Stetson, Mike Gower, Nancy McGee along with a number of folks who were going to see Great White Sharks for the very first time!
Our tour bus arrived at 6:30 PM and unloaded the group just returning from their trip to Guadalupe Island. Once all our luggage, photographic equipment and personal items were loaded onto our bus, we headed south to the US/Mexico border to go through the sometimes-arduous border crossing process.
Surprisingly, it went very efficiently and we were on our way to Ensenada in less than an hour (not bad for a bus load of 31 people and all their diving and photography gear). We arrived in Ensenada about 10:00 PM and were met by a fantastic crew who greeted us and took our luggage directly to our assigned staterooms. I would be sharing a stateroom with good friend and co-founder of the HDS, Leslie Leaney.
After some welcome drinks and late evening snacks, there was a brief introduction after which we adjourned to our room for a good night sleep. The gentle rocking of the boat made falling asleep easy.
The next day, while the Nautilus Belle Amie made its way west for the 20-hour trip to Guadalupe, most of the guests worked on their photo equipment and inventoried their diving gear (you only needed an exposure suit and mask with weights with breathing equipment, in the form of surface-supplied air, supplied by the boat). During the day, we had the mandatory life jacket orientation and drill as well as introductions of the crew.
Late that afternoon, we sighted the island on the horizon. After sunset, we approached Spanish Cove finally dropping anchor at about 9:30 PM. Once we were securely anchored, the crew went about putting the five (5) specially-designed steel shark cages in the water. Two cages were secured at the surface while three (3) others were submersible going to a depth of approximately 33’ and were staggered descending 10 minutes apart and staying submerged for approximately 40 minutes. The two surface cages were on a first-come basis and could accommodate 4 divers each while places in the submersible cages were assigned by Ed and the crew giving each diver 3 scheduled submersible trips per day. The submersible cages could accommodate 3 divers each with a designated divemaster assigned to each. All the divers breathed through regulators with hoses coming from the surface. Just in case there would be a problem with that air supply, each cage has an independent emergency air supply that can be activated by the divemaster and, as a secondary back up, there are 3 filled scuba cylinders in each submersible cage each with multiple second stages. The two fixed cages were open on a first-come basis from 6:30 AM to 5:00 PM while the submersible cages began scheduled descents beginning at 8:00 AM and ending at 4:00 PM.
As the sun rose on Guadalupe Island, there was a flurry of activity as divers queued up for the fixed surface cages and teams of divers readied themselves and their camera gear for the trips in the submersible cages. Things got off to an exciting start the first day with the first divers in the surface cages reported seeing three (3) Great Whites. That was a true harbinger of great things to come as there were multiple shark sightings on each and every dive for the remainder of the trip.
One thing that was different about these trips was active ‘wrangling’ from the surface. Wrangling is when you have bait (frozen tuna sections) tied with piece of hemp rope (biodegradable and easily broken if grabbed by a shark) to a float and polypropylene rope that is thrown out into the water by a crew member standing on an elevated platform, to bring sharks to the surface. This practice has not been allowed until recently and, with the proper permits from the Mexican Government, is conducted in such a way that it increases the possibility of shark sightings for guests in all the cages as well as those standing on the boat deck. All wrangling was conducted by the Belle Amie crew with the safety of the sharks and the guests firmly in mind.
The photo opportunities on this trip from all the cages as well as on the surface were some of the very best any of us had ever seen. We got some “up close and personal” photos of Great Whites exhibiting different kinds of behavior. Most often the sharks were in pairs with regular sighting of 3, 4 or even 5 sharks coming within visual range. Regularly there would be so much action going on around the submersible cages that you would literally get dizzy spinning around trying to look at all the sharks swimming around the cages!
As they do on each trip, we had “Great White Shark 101” conducted by Rodolfo the onboard marine biologist that helped us understand the biology and behavior of Great White Sharks. We also had “Shark ID” sessions where we worked with the crew to identify the sharks we were seeing and possibly identify any that may not have been identified or named. A few of us submitted photos of sharks to be identified and we did identify one from a photo I took that has simply been given a designation of “198” but no name. Since, I had taken its photo and if it is confirmed as “198”, I may have the opportunity to name it. I won’t know for a few weeks if I will be given that privilege.
During our time at Guadalupe Island, we were lucky to have Guadalupe Island Shark expert, Mauricio Hoyo come onboard to give us a phenomenal lecture of the biology of Great White Sharks with emphasis on those found in the water around Guadalupe Island.
One evening, there was a raffle to raise money for funds organized by Mike Lever to support conservation efforts in both Guadalupe and the Revillagigedo Islands (Socorro). The guest who won the raffle collected over $400 with approximately $1,500 going to the conservation fund (a record for any one trip!). The guest who won the raffle was also given the opportunity to select an ACE from a deck of cards. If the guest selects an ACE, they receive an accumulating jackpot, in this case, of over $3,000! Unfortunately, for the guest, they did not draw an ACE.
We also had the good fortune to have Ernie Brooks conduct a special presentation that he had created especially for the Belle Amie. His stunning black and white images were accompanied by music specially written by his favorite composer. Afterwards, there were very few dry eyes in the lounge. Ernie had donated a selection of his printed note cards to the Belle Amie with the stipulation that the money go directly to the conservation fund. He also offered a selection of his prints for sale with the same stipulation, encouraging the guests to support these causes.
Nancy McGee and her brother were working on a way to broadcast from the shark cages using Skype to bring the undersea world and Great White Sharks directly into classrooms across North America. There were a number of issues with this type of broadcast not the least of which was the available bandwidth. Unfortunately, they were unable to successfully broadcast live from the cages.
Each day proved to be as exciting as the last with constant shark activity on the surface and below. Everyone was clamoring to get in the surface and submersible cages. Whenever there was an open spot, it was taken almost immediately. I had the good fortune and good timing to be able to make 26 submersible and surface cage dives during our three days on site taking almost 4,000 images with my new camera and housing. Just before departing on the trip, I purchased a new Canon 80D camera and new Ikelite housing. The housing was significantly different than the Ikelite housing I had for my other camera (an older Canon T1i). It was more compact and ergonomically superior to the older housing.
Besides the photographic opportunities underwater, those guests on the surface were treated to some spectacular displays of Great White activity. Dan Stetson got one memorable photo while standing on the dive deck of a Great White with its head and tail completely out of the water. Probably one of the best photos of the trip!
Trips on the Belle Amie are always exciting. The captain and crew define professionalism and are always finding new ways to make the experiences onboard second to none. The staterooms are large and very comfortable each with its own air conditioning and the meals are a delight. The food was so good that I truly looked forward to each and every meal. One evening, the chef prepared a special treat to celebrate Monty Rook’s birthday. A special flaming drink and cake made the birthday extra special.
On our return trip, we asked the guests to meet in the lounge for a special presentation. After an introduction from Leslie and Ernie, we unveiled a check printed on 3’ X 5’ canvas representing a restricted donation of $100,000 Ernie was making to the HDS. On behalf of the HDS Board of Directors I gladly accepted the check and vowed that it would be used to help secure the future of the HDS and its mission to preserve and protect the history of diving. Details on exactly how the money is to be used, will be forthcoming. A wonderful gift from a most generous man. Thank you, Ernie!
Ernie Brooks’ Gift to the HDS
We adjourned to the upper deck for a group photo just before docking in Ensenada. After saying our goodbyes, those returning to San Diego boarded the return bus along with all their luggage. I decided to return to San Diego rather than remain onboard in order to help Ed and both the returning and departing guests. At the border crossing, there were significant delays that I can only attribute to staffing issues on the US side of the border. Rather than the crossing taking the usual 30-45 minutes, we were at the end of a very long line taking more than 1 ½ hours to clear customs. We pleaded with the border officials to help those with flights that evening to move ahead but with little result. We were, however, able to get one of the guests to the head of the line who had a flight home to Europe that evening. Two others missed their scheduled flights but, luckily, were able to reschedule onto other flights later that evening. On top of the issues at the border, the bus we were using had a broken air conditioner with the only temperature being ‘frigid’. There were lots of jokes about ‘cryogenics’ and ‘not aging during the bus trip’ but it certainly could have been worse.
We had some great times not only with the sharks but with the guests as well. It was wonderful to spend time with Pat Willoughby and Ernie certainly enjoyed Pat’s presence. They had met on a previous trip when Ernie found out there was a connection between Ernie and Pat’s Father dating back to the days when Ernie was in the US Air Force. This was truly another wonderful and memorable trip on the Belle Amie.
Week #2: October 15-20, 2016
After finally making it back to San Diego (and not aging while on the bus or mobile freezer), we met the second group for their trip to Guadalupe Island. There were also some familiar faces on this trip including Alex Rose and Andrea Stockert or “Drey” as she likes to be called. We had been on previous HDS trips together, always enjoying time with them both. There were many people of this trip who were “first-timers” both in terms of an Ed Stetson trip and seeing a Great White Shark.
The return trip to Ensenada went well with very few issues other than the continued “cryogenics” onboard the bus. Because of the delay at the border on the trip back to San Diego, we arrived late in Ensenada and after the luggage was onboard most everyone headed directly to their staterooms.
After having such a spectacular time on the previous trip, we were wondering if it could possibly be duplicated. Well, the next 3 days on site in Guadalupe would prove to be equally good and, in some cases, even surpassing those previous exceptional circumstances. During the second trip, we had a full breech (a large Great White leaped completely out of the water within a few feet of the starboard side of the Belle Amie splashing many of us with water). Unfortunately, no one was able to capture a photo of it. One guest, using his cellphone, was able to capture a video of a Great White coming almost completely out of the water during wrangling by the Captain. This same guest also used his cellphone underwater (in a housing) to capture video of some unusual Great White behavior (shaking and yawning).
Each day seemed to be better than the next. We did have to cancel diving for a short time on the second day due to some very strong winds that caused the cages to swing violently back and forth as the Belle Amie was pushed by the winds. Those of us in the cages at that time, were brought up immediately and it was decided to pull anchor moving to a more sheltered location before resuming diving.
Something else occurred that was different on this second trip. The evening we had the raffle, Ernie discussed with Ed Stetson, Leslie Leaney and me ways of increasing donations to both the Nautilus Environmental Fund as well as the work of Shark Biologist Mauricio Hoyo. We came up with the idea of giving an incentive for those buying raffle tickets. The plan was this: Any person who made a donation of $100 would receive $100 worth of raffle tickets and a personally autographed Ernie Brooks’ note card. Anyone who made a $500 donation would receive $100 worth of raffle tickets plus, they would have their choice of one of Ernie’s black and white photos printed on canvas! From the $500 donations, $200 would be designated for the Nautilus Environmental Fund and $200 would go directly to Mauricio Hoyo to further his work on Great White Sharks. Needless to say, this plan was a success and we set another record raising over $2,500!!
As we had tried on a previous trip, Drey Stockert attempted to do a live streaming broadcast from inside a shark cage which was to be live streamed to select classrooms around the US. Drey’s work was supported with the help of Dan Stetson by a grant from the Nicholas Foundation. After a number of tries, she was able to do a limited broadcast to a few classrooms. This brought us closer to being able to conduct interactive broadcasts with classrooms all over the US and, eventually, the world.
We also had a shark biologist that was there to measure sharks using a device that included a GoPro and two green lasers. She would shine the lasers at the side of a shark taking a photo or video. Knowing the distance between the lasers, she could then calculate the size of the shark. I was able to capture a few images of the shark measuring for her research.
As you may remember, in 2013, I had a close encounter with a large Great White Shark when my camera dome port accidently went into the mouth of a large male shark leaving some scratches and tooth marks on my camera housing. This time, it was at the end of the day and I was in the starboard submersible cage which was secured at the surface. During some active ‘wrangling’, a very large and very pregnant female Great White went after a piece of tuna. Missing the tuna, she came directly at me and then veered away at the last second. She turned quickly and her right pectoral fin swept close to the cage hitting my left wrist hard enough to knock my camera out of my hands! As she swept past, my camera, seemingly in slow motion, tumbled along her side until I was able to reach out and grab it. A few seconds later, she came back at me again, this time putting her left pectoral fin inside the cage right in front of me. In those fleeting few seconds, I grabbed her fin and shook her ‘hand’ as a thank you for the memorable encounter and for allowing me to get my camera back. It was captured on video by Drey Stockert (attached) with screen captures below.
As with the previous trip, Ernie did his special presentation about the Belle Amie. This time, it was accompanied by Alex Rose on the violin. A wonderful combination of Ernie’s one of a kind presentation and Alex Rose’s truly moving music. Again, there was not a dry eye in the house. We also did the presentation of Ernie’s wonderful donation to the HDS, again, promising that these funds would go to preserve and protect the history of diving. I was just as nearly speechless this time as I was previously at the magnitude of Ernie’s generosity. He is truly a special human being who uses his resources to help those causes he truly believes in. Thank you, once again, Ernie Brooks!!
The final dive of the trip (#50 for both trips!) was in the starboard cage that had been secured at the surface to be positioned for good photos of the shark wrangling. The sun was setting and as I looked around. Ed Stetson and I were the only divers still in the water. A huge female Great White came up from the darkening blue depths and swam in close proximity to our cages. As she swam by, you could see her deep blue eye looking at us. She paid no attention to the chunk of prime tuna floating above her but was intent on watching us. I rarely get chills from anything but I did then. Her lidless eyes watching my every movement behind those steel bars was a reminder that here and now, I was no where near the top of the food chain. Every dive in Guadalupe is memorable but this one had an effect on me that will not soon fade.
After returning to San Diego, I had the privilege of having dinner with Ernie where we talked about a variety of things including how to support the organizations we both love, the Historical Diving Society and the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences.
Plans are already afoot for next year’s trip(s). I’m sure they will be exciting but it will truly be hard to beat the experiences and photo opportunities from this year’s trips. The sharing of truly magical experiences with one of the world’s most awe-inspiring creatures . . . the Great White Shark make these trips a must do for any diver!
For those concerned about what Betty was doing during my trips into the jaws of those denizens of the deep, take heart. She was doing her own traveling to Las Vegas, Nevada spending time with our dear friend, Geri Murphy. They were both taking a tactical handgun course from the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in nearby Pahrump, Nevada. As you may remember, Betty and I were given Front Sight lifetime memberships by Geri allowing us to take their courses for free. In April, we spent a week with her taking the tactical handgun course for the first time. We had a great time then and vowed to do it again as soon as we could. Betty was making good on that promise and we intend to do it again just before the upcoming DEMA Show in November. While there, Geri and Betty spent time with good friend, Carl Roessler, enjoying one of his famous grilled steak dinners.
We both had exceptional times on our trips and are now sitting here in our home watching the snow fall on the Tetons trying to out do each other with tales from our respective adventures (many of which are true!). Regardless, we both have memories that will last us until our next adventure!
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This post was written by Dan Orr