Dive Guides: Great White Sharks at Guadalupe Island, Mexico
Dive Trip Guide: Great White Sharks at Guadalupe Island, Mexico
Mexico’s Isla Guadalupe is widely considered the best location in the world for up close encounters with Great White Sharks – and for good reason! To start, over 700 individual great whites have been identified at Guadalupe so far. Located about 210 miles (338kms)southwest of Ensenada, and 150 miles (240kms) from the coast of Baja California, Mexico this UNESCO World Heritage Site and Marine Protected Area is breaming with life and home to a population of over 50,000 seals and sea lions. The island itself is ominous looking as it comes into view on the horizon. Almost feeling as if you are approaching Jurassic Park, and that if you keep a keen an eye out, you might just catch a glimpse of a pterodactyl flying over one of its rocky glacial ridges. Sadly, I’ve yet to spot one – but not giving up hope yet! Today we’ll check out why so many ocean lovers make the journey each year, as well as tips for getting there, shooting photos, and what gear to bring.
Why Should You Go?
Three words…Great. White. Sharks. Guadalupe is hands down the best place on earth for not only consistent encounters but also beautiful crystal clear blue waters. The visibility at Guadalupe can easily reach upwards of 40 meters (130ft). I’ve had days in the cages where I could clearly see starfish on the sand beneath the ship which was roughly 60m (180ft) below us.
Seeing large numbers of great white sharks at Guadalupe Island is also almost a given. Captain Mike Lever, founder of Nautilus Liveaboards tells me that with all the trips they run every year – typically 80 or more Guadalupe expeditions annually – they have only been skunked twice in over 17 years of operating at out there. Mike reports that “the number of sharks we see is just crazy. Every year it has gotten better and better. 20 years ago we might have seen several sharks a day. These days we see sharks on almost every dive. Often 2 or 3 more sharks per dive. Sometimes as many as 10 or 12 and once, 13 great whites around the cages at one time!” And I can actually personally attest to that. In August 2019 I was on the Nautilus Explorer when we had 10 individual great white sharks around the cages at once. Plus, the area tends to only be visited by sub-adult and adult sharks — so you can not only expect to see sharks, but you’ll definitely be seeing lots of big sharks. Some of the largest Great Whites ever recorded have been spotted here; including the infamous massive momma shark – Deep Blue. Another thing that makes a trip Isla Guadalupe awesome is that the bay where the shark diving occurs is naturally protected from any bad weather making for a comfortable few days onboard the ship – which can be clutch for those that are prone seasickness.
When to Go?
The Isla Guadalupe Great White Shark diving season runs from July through November with only minor variations between the months. The main difference being that in early season you will primarily see a lot of male sharks, where as in the late season you may see fewer sharks but they will be primarily huge females. Side note: The males are already massive animals and built like Mack trucks – so you can imagine what seeing the even bigger females is like. Personally I prefer the early season as there tends to be more sharks and action around the cages. Without the big females around the males don’t really follow as much of hierarchy and will sometimes get a bit intense as they compete for dominance. Plus the younger males are a bit more energetic and seem to not care who’s the big boss which always makes for a good show.
But with that being said the entire season is solid and seeing a 6 meter (18ft) long female apex predator up close is obviously jaw dropping. So if you’re after a chance to catch Deep Blue or one of her massive sisters then aim for October or early November. If you’re looking to try to get the best of both worlds, then aim for mid to late September. To put some perspective to it, my last trip was the last week of September and we had a few females around with a max of 5-6 individual sharks around the cages at once on one day. The rest of the days were about 1-4 sharks around the cages. My past trip before this one was in late August and we had 6-9 male sharks around the cages almost all day long every day.
How to dive it?
Due to Isla Guadalupe being a remote offshore island the only way to access it is by liveaboard, such as with Nautilus Liveaboards or on special trips with Dive Ninja Expeditions. Most of the ships that do trips to Socorro & the Revillagigedo Archipelago spend the off season running Guadalupe or Sea of Cortez trips. The primary jump point for the liveaboards is Ensenada, located in the north of Baja California, Mexico. Some of the ships include transport from both San Diego and Tijuana which makes the trip really easy. These 2 cities straddle the US / Mexico border and you can actually even cross between them walking too using the CBX as well.
So in short, you can fly into one of these 2 airports and then hop in the shuttle service provided by the ship or grab an Uber, bus, or private transfer down to Ensenada. The drive from Tijuana to Ensenada is about 1.5 hours and has some incredible views as the highway runs down the coastline. From San Diego you’ll add on an extra 30 minutes or so depending on how fast the border crossing goes.
Most of the liveaboard trips are 6 days door to door, which gives you 3 days in the water. Personally I think it’s the perfect amount of time. You’ll board the ship in the afternoon or evening the first day, set sail for Guadalupe overnight and arrive there before sunset the next day. I highly recommend going up to the sundeck or bridge when the island starts coming over the horizon – the view is something you definitely won’t forget (and don’t forget to keep an eye out for those pterodactyls). The crossing to Guadalupe from Ensenada takes about 16-18 hours. The next morning the cages open at dawn and it’s time to get wet. The surface cages are usually open from sunrise to sunset, giving everyone lots of time to play. Then on the fifth day they’ll pack up a little early to start heading back so you arrive in Ensenada in the early afternoon the next day.
Dive Tips & Recommendations
With most ships you’ll have 2 options: surface cages or submersible cages. The surface cages mount right on the stern of the ship and have you a little less than 1m (3 ft) below the surface. The submersible cages are on the sides of the stern and lowered down on cranes to about 5m (15 ft) below the surface. Both options give you completely different views and experiences so I highly recommend checking them both out. The surface cages will give you the most light for photographers as well as some cool light effects. But they also can have a lot of mackerel around them sometimes making it tricky to shoot.
Since the submersible cages are to the side of the wrangling platforms it creates a really cool angle of view plus you get the sharks coming down to check out the cage. Another recommendation is to ask the guides if they can put the submersible just below the surface instead of going all the way down. You can get some really cool shots of people in the cages to show the true size of the sharks this way, plus it’s along the route the sharks travel when moving past the wranglers.
You can leave your BCD, regs, and fins at home for this trip. The cages are all surface supplied air with an incredible array of redundancies for safety. So all you need to pack is your mask, wetsuit, and booties. Maybe some gloves, a hood, or an under layer for extra warmth. You’ll most likely want a 5-7mm wetsuit, depending how easy you get cold and how long you’re planning to spend in the cages at a time. Remember you’re not really moving around to much so you’ll chill a bit faster. I prefer to go with a heavier wetsuit so I can spend more time in the water before I start getting cold. The water is around 22C (71F) on average. Personally I bring my 7mm and can usually spend about 2.5 – 3hrs in the water in one shot before I need a break from the cold.
For the photographers out there – I highly recommend against bringing a huge dome. Most of the openings in the cage can easily fit my 180mm Nauticam dome, but some of the corner openings and such the 180 starts to get a little tight. So for the most flexibility I wouldn’t go much bigger than a 180mm. Check out my friends at Backscatter for a large selection of domes for all sorts housings. I’d also recommend bringing both a fisheye and rectilinear lens, preferably one with a bit of zoom. Some times the sharks are inches from the cage you’re going to really want that fisheye. Other times they seem to stay back a little further so that rectilinear zoom becomes clutch. Every day is different, and you never really know how the action will be until you’re out there. The last trip I used my Sony 16-35 GM f2.8 the most and was jumping back and forth between 16mm and 35mm – so don’t forget your zoom gear. I only used my Sigma 15mm fisheye for a half day. The trip before I used my fisheye for almost the entire length of the trip. If you can only bring one lens, then go for the rectilinear wide angle zoom, like the Sony 16-35 GM f2.8. I’d also recommend bringing a solid topside telephoto zoom lens like the Sony 100-400mm G Master lens or the Sony 70-200 G Master II lens. The topside action can be incredible; as you’ll see below in my ninja tips section.
Should I pack lights or strobes?
Personally, I prefer to shoot the great white sharks at Guadalupe with just natural light. Between the clear water and shallow depths there is usually a lot of light to play with. Those that know me know I will almost always choose to shoot natural light over artificial. But in Guadalupe I think it really lends itself to shooting natural light. Plus with arms and strobes on the rig it makes it a bit more difficult maneuvering the camera between the cage openings. I can def see the benefit of a strobe for a bit of fill in light when the sun is casting some harder shadows. So what should you pack? I normally pack 1 strobe and shorter arms to play with one day, or just in case it’s over cast and I really need that extra light for the photos. I’d recommend either the Sea & Sea YS-D3 Lighting Mk II strobe or go for a more compact strobe like the Backscatter Mini Flash Underwater Strobe to give you more room to play in the cage.
Ninja Insider Tips
The first morning everyone is going to rush to the cages. Don’t stress if you don’t get right in, but do grab your topside lens or cell phone and hang out on the back deck. You can get some insane shots of great whites breaching. Plus the early morning sun casts a really beautiful bronze reflection of the island on the water surface. By the first afternoon people are already starting to go in the cages less and less, to the point that by the end of the trip you’ll basically have the cages to yourself quite often.
Talk to your group for the submersible cage, and if the action seems to be up top, ask one of the guides if you can put the submersible just a little bit below the surface instead of all the way down. It will give you a really nice angle to the action and makes for good shots of the surface cages on the stern to show the size of the sharks against other divers.
Also you should pack a hoodie or jacket and comfy sweatpants. This is northern Baja – not the tropics like Cabo – it can be a bit cooler than most would expect – especially in the mornings and evenings. So it’s nice to have some comfy layers you can throw on. And last one – make sure to send me some of your shots and let me know how the trip was! You’re gonna love it out there. Cheers ninjas!
Dive Trip Quick Recap – TL:DR
When to go: The season runs from July through November. Go early season for lots of males, late season for big females or mid season to roll the dice and try to get both. My personal favorite is early season.
Marine Life: Great White Sharks are the main attraction but you can also see yellowfin tuna, schools of mackerel, turtles, Guadalupe fur seals, and elephant seals.
Water Temps: 22C / 71F.
Wetsuit: 7mm, and maybe some layers if you get cold easily.
Photo/Lens Type:Bring both fish eye and wide angle zoom if you can.
Experience Level: Anyone. Technically you don’t even need to be a certified diver to get in the surface cages. You only need to be certified to enter the submersible cages.