Cage Match: Swimming with the Great White SharkA sea lion circles baitfish near a submersible shark cage.
Clang clang clang. The clamor of the boat’s anchor, plummeting hundreds of feet down into nothing, echoes the pounding of my heart. The blood in my ears thunders like the deep Pacific as attempt I process all that open water — and what was dwells within it. Focused on their gruesome task, the shark wranglers thread sturdy hemp rope through the gaping eye sockets of massive dismembered tuna heads, keeping their gaze trained on the water, too, where the ocean’s most feared predator lurks. My stomach churns from the stench of the coagulated blood, bone and guts crushed into a pulpy shark-luring soup that wafts from buckets on the stern. The ocean’s surface is a dark, undulating blue. This is sensory and emotional overload. I want to vomit. But I steady myself and remember why I’ve made this journey — an animal encounter second to none in the marine world.
About a quarter mile off the east coast of Isla de Guadalupe, deep in the Mexican Pacific some 160 miles off Baja, is one of just a handful of places on the planet where you can slip into steel cages and safely interact with great white sharks in their realm. I clench the regulator mouthpiece between my teeth with a dental death grip that threatens to scar the tough plastic. Forty pounds of lead in shoulder harness and strapped around my ankles keep me firmly planted on the cage floor. A 7mm wetsuit, hood, booties and gloves donned to ward off the chill, feel suffocating in collusion with the heavy weight. What if I slipped into the water, some 200 feet deep in this spot, and plummeted like a leaden anchor among them? But I am tethered to the boat for safety, so I take the leap.
The couple of feet between the boat’s stern and the edge of the cage feel like a gulf between continents. The space between the bars I’m meant to push myself over, sliding on my bum into the cage, seems inadequate, vulnerable. I struggle to wrap my head around what I am about to do, but there is no turning back now.
I eye the water around me — looking for a fin.
Moments earlier, we’d had our first indicator that the pool was open. The hulking shadow of a great white shark hangs in the water several feet below the surface. It’s the size of the dinghy, at least — a good 17 feet long. This is it. In a way, it feel like my whole diving career has led to this moment. But this is like no place I’ve ever dived before.
Who among us can’t instantly conjure an image of the ocean’s top predator in their mind? My version is probably a lot like yours — steely, machine-like, with flat black eyes. And teeth — splayed in bloody gums, jaws agape and extended — always, the teeth.
I shuffle across the bars and drop with a clunk into the cage, relieved that the yellow hose attached to the regulator is delivering air from an endless hookah supply — I am sucking the stuff in like a Hoover. Four others join me in the cage, with another four in the cage right next door, suspended off the back of the boat. We aren’t looking at each other, however. All eyes are fixated on the blue. Entertainment never felt so much like survival. I do everything in my power to stay as far from the bars as possible, balancing my now cumbersome body in the middle of the tightly contained space. The purpose-built gap in the cage through which photographers stick their cameras seems too large — at least 12 inches from top to bottom — wide enough to invite a shark’s maw inside. A large swell rolls overhead, raising the boat and the cages with it, then slams us back into the water and shaking us around like flurries in a snow globe. I tumble to the floor, seize the bars and thrust myself back up in panic, scanning right and left frantically to see if anything has sensed the flourish of movement and risen from the deep to inspect.
A cloud of silvery mackerel school around the boat’s engines lured by the greasy trail of fish entrails and fragrant tuna heads bobbing at the surface. The fish resemble a giant cloud of gnats, swarming around us. I’m dizzy with fear and anticipation. But there are no sharks to be seen — only a bottomless, featureless expanse of ocean the color and clarity of the mouthwash I’d gargled that morning.
Then, from out of nowhere, a large female at least 16 feet long materializes, steaming steady and straight from just below the cage. She’s on a direct course for the tuna head on the surface. Her ambush is utterly silent. I don’t see her coming until she is 20 feet away in water that easily pushes 100 feet of viz. The shark wrangler tugs the tuna out of reach at the last moment, and the shark points her nose back down and, seemingly moving without moving, vanishes into the depths.
Aching minutes tick by before she returns — minutes during which I strain to rotate my head in the thick hood to check every possible angle of attack. Finally, just behind the cages in the shadow of the boat, she rockets from the deep. Her intent is clear. The events unfold in slow motion. I feel something greater than fear — it is pure, primal awe. I grip the cage bars to steady myself. In the seconds before she strikes the tuna head just a few feet from where I stand, her body ignites with energy — a brutal burst of speed, mouth unhinged, water churned white with bubbles as she thrashes, ripping the bait from the rope. The cage shudders and groans in the shark’s wake, and from the four of us jostling cameras into position to capture the kill. The shark swims within inches of the bars, gulping the giant fish head in one powerful convulsion. A puff of blood bursts like a cloud from her phalanx of teeth. And I can very nearly taste it in the water.