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Ghosts Beneath Guadalupe

A brush with white death and a Jaws legend

 “Peter Benchley is on The Horizon,” our dive ops manager, Tracy Andrew, announced as she disembarked from the panga boat and climbed aboard our 85-foot charter dive vessel, The Ocean Odyssey. I was among the 16 shark divers and 10 crewmembers who stood bunched and excited on the afterdeck upon hearing the news. Hard as I tried to keep a dignified aura behooving a journalist on assignment, I found myself hip-checking through the small crowd and, with overeager impatience, asking, “Did you talk to him!?” 

It was November of 2004. Our vessel sat anchored in the northeast leeward side of Isle de Guadalupe, some 300 yards off an area known as “Shark Heaven.” The Horizon, sister boat of The Odyssey, sat at anchor not far off, also loaded with shark divers, led by ecotour operator, Paul “Doc” Anes. I was signed on with Patric Douglas, youthful swarthy-tanned CEO of Absolute Adventures-Shark Diver, for a five-day live-aboard package. Tracy had been tooling around on a panga with the shipboard shark researcher, Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, who was tracking acoustic transmitter signals from tagged sharks with a hydrophone. When they motored past The Horizon, there was Peter Benchley and his wife, Wendy, among the dive party. “We just waved a ‘Hello’ to him,” she said to my disappointment.

Guadalupe breaks open the sea 160 miles offshore of Baja California Norte. Cinder cones, geological folds, and vermillion striations of lava rock are evidence of the island’s volcanic birthing. It is a rugged, 22-hour, stomach-churning steam, 220 miles due south from San Diego Harbor to get there. As far as weather during the journey, we had drawn the short straw. And Patric hadn’t minced words amid his welcoming orientation, forewarning us that seas were not ideal for the long crossing as the boat pulled out of H & M Landing. “I hope you’re all ready,” he said, “because this isn’t going to be a trip, it’s going to be an expedition.”

To further send that message home, Cory Grodske, head chef, emerged from the galley in apron and a white paper hat and said, “Since we’ll be traveling due south, we’ll be in a trough.” To illustrate, he held one hand up as a makeshift boat, rocking it side to side. He warned us to pour our own hot liquids. Trying to find someone else’s cup with a pot of scorching coffee in rough seas would be an act of scalding stupidity. He demonstrated how we should brace a shoulder and hip against the center serving island, while keeping one foot spread out, braced against the base molding during the act of pouring. Cory also requested that, as the seas deteriorated, the male divers (there were four women among us) sit down when using one of two heads to relax our bladders. “The women will love you for it,” he said, smiling serene through his reddish beard stubble. My first thought was, Geezus, are we going thru a typhoon? 

When we hit 10-foot swells about five hours into the trip, I realized my chewable bonine pills, ginger root capsules, and Queaz-Away wrist bracelets weren’t doing jack to ease the barf knell. “As we travel farther south, we’ll be getting into more unprotected waters,” Cory said, when I had discreetly asked how bad the seas would get. Also a scuba instructor with a 100-ton captain’s license, Cory struck me as a nurturing soul gifted with steel nerves. He looked out the starboard galley window at the sugar-topped rollers then back at me: “This is calm... So can I set you up with a little bucket to have in your bunk?” 

Alan DeHerrera, my dive bud from Fullerton, California, gave me a knowing look as we sat in the salon, being aware that my main concern wasn’t great white sharks on this trip as much as it was seasickness which dotted my past. Especially the deep sea fishing trip as a preteen off Miami Beach, when I ended up doing “the big spit” (as Hunter S. Thompson called it) over the starboard rail, my dad bracing me with his arms and body saying, “Let ‘er rip, kid!”—which is how I ruined his brand new Sperry deck shoes.

I went down below, amidships, to my bunk. The berth was split by a bulkhead with five sets of bunks—floor, middle, and upper—on each side. I had chosen my upper bunk carefully. It ran parallel with the centerline of the boat, starboard side, where there was less wave motion, and it had an escape chute, at foot end, that led up to the salon deck in case the aft stairwell exit became inaccessible. There was also a crawl opening in the bulkhead so passengers in the port side of the berth could use the chute in an emergency. Alan’s bunk was just on the other side of the opening. I could see him lying face down, asleep and enviably free of worries about capsizing.     

I laid there falling in and out of a disturbed nauseous doze, getting bashed silly, wondering when I’d upchuck or if I’d get thrown from my bunk as the seas grew angrier.

Somehow overnight, after holing up in my coffin-sized bunk for 10 hours, I had acquired my sea legs. Alan rousted me at 6 a.m., chanting my name until I pulled the privacy curtain aside and was met by his chipper dark featured countenance. He had already worked in his calisthenics on the bow to a Mexican sunrise and was much too awake for my morning sensibilities. But I had made it to Guadalupe without letting my stomach fly the coop and was able to enjoy Cory’s chow from that moment forward.

Nineteen miles long and five miles across at its widest point, Guadalupe Island is a bio-diverse pinniped sanctuary: Northern elephant seals, Guadalupe fur seals, and California sea lions congregate at rookery and haul-out points around its perimeter. There is also an excess of big game fish that attracts sport fishermen, especially yellowfin tuna and yellowtail. In 1998 long-range fishing boats out of San Diego began reporting great whites making shock-and-awe attacks on their catch. Word spread like chum. The island has since became infamous for hosting one of the largest aggregations of white sharks in the world, making it part of what’s known as the “Grand Slam” shark circuit that includes South Africa and Australia.

We weren’t long at anchor when we learned of Benchley’s presence on The Horizon.

It burned me that I was never able to get close enough to speak with him during the four days we were both at Guadalupe, being that our vessels remained about 600 feet apart. So when I returned to my bungalow in Orange County, I sought Benchley out via his publisher. I wanted to include him in the travel story I was working on at the time. More importantly, I had to know what he thought about the shark experience we’d both shared, albeit from different boats.

His first email reply to me revealed he was closely following the shark poaching issues at Guadalupe. On January 5, 2005, he wrote:  “Did you hear that not long before we were [at Guadalupe], local fishermen had come upon a sportfishing boat with anglers hooked up to two great whites? The fishermen asked the captain of the boat to release the sharks but were told to bugger off. So the fishermen cut the anglers’ lines. The boat, they said, had covered up its name, home port, and I.D. numbers.”

I had heard about the shark harvesting going on in Mexican waters which are prowled by trophy hunters and fin raiders—whose practice is slicing the fins off a shark and discarding the still-writhing body to sea.

“Sharks are sold as food by the pound, so the value is that they’re big,” Benchley told me on Friday morning, January 28, 2005, after inviting me to phone his East Coast residence. There is a bursting demand for shark-fin soup (equated with status and virility) in Japan, China, and other Asia nations where a single bowl can fetch over a hundred dollars. “I’ve heard a big white shark jaw brings in 10K. I bought a fabulous fiberglass reproduction of a jaw in Florida,” he said. “You don’t have to kill a shark anymore to get great jaws... And the shed teeth of white sharks are no longer something people wear as jewelry, although my wife still wears an old shark tooth.”

Patric had mentioned a recent run-in with poachers. “Four trips ago, a 40-foot fishing vessel pulled up on our chum site and threw a huge hook over the side with braided wire and a big piece of meat on it,” he said, as we waited for the roguish seas to abate enough to dive on the first day. “Sure enough, they hooked one of our sharks with the intention of killing it.” Patric and his sharky crew were able to talk them into releasing the animal. But another great white was harvested not long after this incident; probably the one Benchley was referring to.

“One set of great white fins on the open market today is worth upwards of $25,000—$5,000 a fin, plus jaw. Outsider Mexican fishermen have picked up on that,” Patric said. “Something truly special is happening at this island, and I believe it’s absolutely incumbent for any ecotour operator to give back or channel funds into any sort of research going on. But without direct engagement with the Mexicans, we will lose this site.”     

Patric has been an ardent sponsor and ally, both financially and logistically, to research efforts at Guadalupe by such renowned shark scientists as Dr. Felipe Galvan, from the Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias del Mar (CICIMAR), and Dr. Peter Klimley, from University of California, Davis, who has been featured on Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” Mauricio, a 29-year-old doctorate student at CICIMAR and frequent presence on Patric’s shark expeditions, is working under the advisement of both scientists in studying the fine-scale movements of great whites around this island. He seems to maintain a perpetual state of bliss from doing exactly what he was born to do. During our trip when a diver asked him how long he has wanted to study sharks, his Spanish-accented reply was, “Ever since I was a sperm.” 

Guadalupe represents an aqua Eden for researchers and shark divers. Unlike South Africa, Australia, and the Farallon Islands, visibility is often crystalline, well over 100 feet on best days and, provided you chum the water, white sharks are almost guaranteed to show up every day during the season.

It was Benchley’s first time diving at Guadalupe, and his last encore with great whites. He and Wendy were celebrating their 40th Wedding Anniversary on the trip.

“In South Africa, they do most of the cage diving off these monster seal colonies,” said Benchley, when I asked him how Guadalupe rated against other shark sites. “The sharks are all over you there; fifteen to twenty at a time in a given day... I’ve been to South Australia half a dozen times, and I’ve always had pretty bad luck there. On one trip, we saw only one shark in eight days. Guadalupe was certainly better than my experiences in Australia. There were more great whites there, and they were much less shy. To have about three or four sharks around the clock for four straight days was top of the scale.”

I also saw sharks regularly during those same days. Although Benchley and I were on separate boats under different eco-operators, the drill was essentially the same on The Odyssey and her sister vessel, The Horizon. Each one-hour dive rotation constituted dropping into one of two 10’ X 20’ cages deployed over vessel’s stern, four divers per cage. Unlike everyone else on The Odyssey, I was not a certified diver at the time—the reason why Patric had stressed taking an introductory scuba course, pre-trip. “Some people get claustrophobia or panic,” he had warned. “The last thing you need to worry about is breathing through a regulator with great white sharks swimming in your face.”

Non-certs are allowed on these dives since you don’t go below ten feet and breathing is done with a hookah. Odyssey divers were each cinched in a 60-lb weight harness so we wouldn’t be bobbing around like loose corks. The water temp here in the fall averages 60-62 degrees which constitutes coldwater diving. And because you’re standing immobile in a cage rather than swimming, your core body temp drops like Bush’s approval ratings. “I don’t like coldwater diving,” said Benchley, who wore a 40-lb harness and considered the water temp “marginal for a wetsuit” versus a dry one.

On my first dive, I was bordering on sensory overload as I wrestled into a 7mm wetsuit, then the head-shrinking hood, boots, and gloves—all borrowed from Alan. The whole getup felt like a black python had me in a goodnight squeeze. There was so much to think about, like the rules Tracy had laid down at first dive meeting: Never stick any part of your body outside the cage, and never make any sudden movements that might trigger a “predator-prey reaction,” she admonished. It was easy to get distracted by Tracy’s wholesome Sandra Bullock looks, until she administered instructions with disarming authority. By day she wore navy blues—pants, collared shirt, and a tight cap, brim low slung. But at night it was as if she stepped out of a phone booth, transformed from serious-mannered dive ops manager into sensual hostess, wearing a flowery sheath, her dark chestnut waves braided and no longer stuffed under a cap.

Tracy would monitor us from the dive platform. Another sharky would man a push-pole during rotations. “If a shark were to come in too close to the cages, we push it off,” Tracy said. “It doesn’t harm the shark. We just give them a little extra nudge to keep them from entering the cage, because sharks don’t have a reverse mode.”

Patric and crew had been tossing five-gallon buckets of tuna parts, hang bait, and powdered chum—made from dried fish and blood meal—over both gunwales. “By using dried product, we hope to not put anything into the environment like parasites or bacteria,” Patric told me.

Down on the dive platform, a sharky threw the weight harness on my shoulders, cinching the belt snug while, sure enough, I fought off waves of claustrophobia. “Show me how to purge your mask,” Tracy said, making sure I was ready for my first open water dive. I obliged then sat on the dive platform. Each diver’s entry had to be carefully timed in between wicked surges so we wouldn’t smash loose limbs between the 325-lb cage and the platform, or fall in between, vulnerable to patrolling sharks. I thrust the reg in my mouth, threw my legs into the lurching cage, and ... KER-PLOOSH!

When the bubbles cleared, I was standing on the cage floor. Tracy’s blurred face peered down at me. Her hand was underwater giving me the OK sign that I returned. I got tossed around a bit, trying to fight the currents until I realized the idea was to stay loose, knees bent in a boxer’s stance. Visibility was at 25 feet, well shy of the usual 80-plus feet. A plankton bloom was turning the blue water green and dusky, caused by deepwater upwelling that comes from the submarine canyons here.

The rest of my dive team already stood in shark-watching position, camera-wielding sentries each facing a different direction. There was James Mott, an ink-laden guitarist in a punk band called Casket Gasket from Farmington Hills, Michigan; Ken Steil, a young Detroit police officer; and my dive bud, Alan, a nature filmmaker here for the second consecutive year. His footage of Guadalupe’s great whites—featured in the Rio Films documentary, California Sea Lions, narrated by Sean Astin—had convinced me to come along and see these animals in 3D.

More Stories By C.J. Bahnsen

C.J. Bahnsen is a freelance writer based in Newport Beach, California. His stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Scuba Diving Magazine. He is currently working on the screenplay for a theatrical nature documentary, Island of the Seals, to be released next year by Rio Films.

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