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Swimming With Sharks

I’ve dived with hundreds of different sharks, and many different species. But nothing quite compares to this. The apex predator known as the great white, widely feared because of movies like Jaws is both alluring and elusive. They’re curious the way a dog might be, but understandably, a 15 foot great white shark swimming toward you might get your adrenaline pumping a little harder. 

Our language doesn’t have words to describe the wonder. When you come eye to eye with them, you are looking back in time. These creatures are pre-historic, they’ve survived millions of years, yet humans have decimated their populations in the last century. We kill 100 MILLION sharks every year. That’s not a typo. Google it! It’s heinous. Why? Mostly, for shark fin soup, a major delicacy in Asia.

I embarked on a week-long excursion of a lifetime to Guadalupe Island to get a closer look at these creatures. This is the same dive spot where the famous shark known as Deep Blue was spotted, the largest white on record at more than 20 feet long. I interviewed marine biologist David Valencia, who describes how the shark fins are mercilessly chopped off sharks. The animal then sinks to the bottom of the sea in a slow, painful, and cruel death. Valencia says, “It’s quite wasteful, and it continues because the shark fins are worth more than gold. It can get upwards of $800 dollars a pound.”  

By the time you finish reading this, hundreds more will be ruthlessly slaughtered. Yet we fear them. I had to understand the animal I believe to be the most misunderstood in the ocean.  And I wanted to share the experience with my viewers to broaden their perspective as well. As the media seemed to focus on covering shark attacks, and in my opinion manifesting the culture of fear of sharks, I felt compelled to show the other side. 

What was it like to swim deep beneath the surface with the most feared predator, in its own environment? This was a dream assignment that was years in the making, and it took months to convince my TV news station. But after relentless persistence, several bad weather delays, and layers of red tape, my boss finally let me do it through an amazing company we found called Nautilus Explorer.

My cameraman and I embarked on a five day diving trip to Guadalupe Island. It’s a biosphere reserve off the coast of Baja California. We took a bus from San Diego to the Port of Ensenada, boarded the Belle Amie, and made the 22 hour trek through choppy, 12 foot swells to the isolated island. Many of the nearly 30 people on the boat started puking. We came prepared with sea sickness medication patches we put behind our ears and drank cerveza to endure the queasiness.

After 160 miles, success!  When we anchored down it was a sunny, beautiful, relatively warm November day around 70 degrees fahrenheit. We found a spot on one end of the island that was protected from the weather and wind. Because the Mexican government protects the island, we couldn’t step foot on it. Only a select few fishermen are allowed to call Guadalupe Island home. We arrived early morning, and started diving right away. This is great white mating ground.

There were five cages at the back end of the boat. Three are lowered about 30 feet deep, that’s as far as you can go. They all have a top and lower deck, and the top deck is pretty much open.  There are steel bars, but there’s about a 3 foot gap between each one. Another cage was a surface cage for non-divers, and the last one was attached to the boat and allowed divers to go roughly 10 feet below the surface. That one was perhaps the most daunting, as you had to climb down encaged metal stairs into the water and jump into the cage itself as fast as you could, as there was an open gap between the stairs and the cage. This would end up seeming like no big deal after what I did in the 30 foot deep cage…

It’s go time. Along with my cameraman, Matt Spinelli, and a dive master, I submerged myself down into the cage. The first mate started lowering us deeper and deeper into the 200-foot-deep water. We reached 30 feet and within minutes, there she is. Our first white. My heart starts pumping harder. I am ecstatic. I want the shark to come as close as possible to us. And she does. You can tell between the females and males by the claspers or lack thereof near their pelvic fin. The female comes toward us, knocks her nose against the cage, and swims away.  There is a gap between bars on the bottom level of the cage and the divers on that level duck to the bottom in case the shark’s nose comes through the bars. It’s invigorating.  

We do about 15 dives over the next three days. We see at least one, and as many as seven, great whites sharks every single dive. Some are juveniles, some are big females, as big as 16 to 18 feet. They circle us, check us out, bite at the tuna head dangling from the bottom of the cage. The 45 minute dives go quickly, though the water is cold in my 3mm wetsuit. The guide stomped on the tuna to create a stronger scent (they avoid any major chumming of the water, which I feel better about compared to what I see in South Africa), and the sharks circle again.

I never felt threatened. In fact, as one shark approached, I ventured up to the top level of the cage, the part less protected. I swam partially out through the gap and as I held onto the cage with one hand, I left my body fully exposed to the feared predator (whose only natural predator by the way, is the killer whale). I will never forget that moment. Many might think I should’ve been terrified, but I wasn’t. It was surreal. Beautiful. Even meditative. My respect for great whites deepened.  We were two living beings, at the same place at a moment in time, floating in co-existence. Next stop: free diving with tiger sharks?

You can watch my story and find out how to help sharks on my conservationist tab.

 

These creatures are pre-historic, they’ve survived millions of years, yet humans have decimated their populations in the last century. We kill 100 MILLION sharks every year.
–Christina Pascucci