Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Being able to swim with big animals is one of the great pleasures of being a Diver.  Humpback Whales, Whale Sharks, Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks, Manta Rays, Sea Lions, Sea Turtles and Manatees are all a thrill to dive with.   Obviously, the Great White Shark presents some challenges since they are the apex predator.

is one of several reliable locations around the globe where you can predictably and safely dive with Great White Sharks.  A population of about 120 sharks visit the island from about July to year end.  Diving operations end around November.  The sharks migrate to Hawaii and other locations during the rest of the year.   Surprisingly, there is much more to shoot there. 

Guadalupe island is about 22 x 6 miles and is mountainous, being composed of two extinct volcanos.   It has a very low population being declared a biosphere reserve. Guadalupe Island has a microclimate that tends to burn off clouds that are around the island.   Visability at Guadalupe, perhaps 190 feet (calculated via boat length and anchor line to 60’) and water temp 64 to 70 degrees F.

Not being reckless or a daredevil by nature, the idea of diving and photographing Great White Sharks from the safety of a strong cage was very appealing.

BOAT SPECIFIC – This article is based on experience on the Nautilus Explorer.  The tips will be most useful for shooting at Guadalupe Island.   The Baja Aggressor and other boats diving these waters appear to offer similar cage logistics.  Other Great White destinations such as Australia or South Africa, will require modifications to the techniques and equipment needed as the animals, local customs, visibility and cage configurations vary.

Fly to San Diego – meet at the Ramada Airport hotel via shuttle bus.  At the hotel, store your equipment and have lunch / dinner (no dinner on the boat this night). Photograph the shore birds at the extensive Marina area.

San Diego to Ensenada Bus Ride
Meet the bus around 7pm ish for the 2-3 hour ride through customs stop in Tijuana to Ensenada.  Board the boat around 11pm in Ensenada for the 20 hour ride to Guadalupe Island, about 200 miles off shore.

Theere are two SUBMERSIBLE cages are maybe 15 feet tall, double decker affairs.  Very well constructed out of 2 inch diameter aluminum tubes and strong (steel?) grates on the bottom of the cage.  There are backup SCUBA units to supplement the surface supplied air.  The cages are winched up and down to 40' via lines and there are backup ballast tanks for independent ascents. 

Getting into the cages requires a little, easily learned maneuvering wearing a 40 lb harness.  Divemasters assist entry and use of the Hookah.   Divemasters also control the ascending and descending of the cages and generally ride in a semi exposed position on the top of the cages.

There are two cages attached to the stern of the boat that do not change position.  They have surface supply and can fit three people.  One is about 7-8 feet deep and the other is about 15’ deep with a semi-exposed entry “tunnel / ladder.”    These are great for testing equipment and settings and getting more action in-between submersible cage dives.  These are really the only place you can attempt Over/ Under shots.  I was not at all comfortable with the idea of doing this with the 15’ Cage. 

You should have some situational awareness that you need to keep your arms and legs inside the cage for obvious reasons.  These are the “big hungrys” and are not as docile as Reef White Tip Sharks.  Can a shark stick its snout between some of the bars?  The answer is yes, but they are too big to enter the cages.

There are two man and four man Submersible cages.   The two man cage is the better to be in from a logistic standpoint.  You will be rotated around and have opportunites in all the cages.  Try to ask the divemasters on the departure night to schedule you with non-photographers or small camera/video folks.   Four photographers in the same cage with big cameras and strobes would not be a comfortable situation.

 When the action gets active, you may be joined by the divemaster from the top.  Using surface supplied air, the lines can get tangled and you may want to use a free hand to hold the regulators to avoid tugging or pulling out of your mouth. 

Situational awareness is needed when moving around the cages.  You don’t want to hit the other divers with your housing or strobes.  On our trip, we found that sharks tended to circle in a clockwise fashion around the cages, so you need to be aware of coiling your hose.  Circle back and turn the opposite direction when the action cools down to be sure you are keeping your lines free and not coiled.

There are four dives offered each day with the activity and numbers increasing toward the end of the day.  The earliest dive may have one shark from a distance, and the last dive have multiple sharks making close passes.  You never know, this is the ocean and not a zoo but there are trends.  Yes, that is an upside down Sea Lion taunting the shark in the photo below.


Over three days, the sharks were window shopping on the first day and more cautious, on day two, they were taking test bites of the cages and ramming the cages on day 3.  You never know, this is the ocean and not a zoo.

LENSES – Get close, but not too close
Get close, then  closer is the U/W photographer’s mantra.  Lens choice is a challenge given the behaviors described above.  Be prepared to change lenses or zoom settings frequently.  On earlier dives and earlier in the morning, you may want to go with longer focal lengths like a 35mm equivalent of a 35mm lens.  On an APS-C size sensor, this is the equivalent of about 22mm on a Canon 10-22 lens or about 54 degrees when using a dome port. 

You will want to vary this if your controls allow depending on the behavior of the sharks.  You may start the day at 22mm and as the sharks get bolder, you may use 15mm in the middle of the day and 10mm at the end of day when they are very close to the cage.  Maybe too close.

I used a Tamron 11-18 at 18mm half the time and a Tokina Fisheye set at 17mm half the time.

Click here for more shots from the trip.

Click here for the Trip Logistics,

In the next post, Part 2, we'll discuss using strobes, "Hail Mary" shots, Going "Up Top," Video Opportunities, Developing the Shot List, Diving Equipment and the Cast of Sharks.


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