Great White Dreams Come True on Baja Aggressor!

Author: Rachel Horsfield

When I was 12 years old and had just learned to dive, my Mother (our boss, Hilary Lee) took me on a holiday that would weave the path of my underwater dreams for years to come. We were in The Bahamas, on the island of Walker’s Cay and just about to jump in the water with almost 100 free swimming sharks. No chain mail, no cages, just the sharks, us and a block of frozen fish innards. Some of you may remember Shark Rodeo, my first ever dive as a certified diver and one I would do some twenty more times over the years.

Well that was it. I didn’t want a puppy or a kitten, a hamster, a rabbit or a gerbil. No, I wanted a pet shark to live in our garden in Lancashire. Daddy could dig a pond and it could live there. But my parents wouldn’t budge. If I wanted to see sharks I would have to travel and dive. Fortunately for me my Mother was to send me on a lot more trips where I could do just that!

Over the years I had some great encounters with numerous species of reef shark. The best ones were the humdinging dives I had off the Palau Aggressor with the White-tip Reef Sharks, but that’s a different story. It was the Aggressor Fleet who would be responsible for making my ultimate shark dream come true. So when the call came through that someone needed to check out the latest addition to the Aggressor Fleet, Baja Aggressor, my Mother put me on a plane and said, ‘Honey, you’re going to dive with the Great Whites, and please stay in the cage.’

It felt like Christmas and all my Birthdays rolled into one! I was fascinated by these beguiling creatures and just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see these things close up in clear blue water.

The Baja Aggressor is a former fishing vessel, designed for work on the high seas and a sturdy boat in order to make the 18 hour crossing from Ensenada, Mexico to Guadalupe Island, where each year Great White Sharks come to mate between July and November. The cabins have been converted into either double or twin formation, each with a private bathroom.

I spent a night in San Diego before taking the transfer to Ensenada the next morning. As the group found their way together at the Sheraton Marina Bay to wait for the transfer bus, spirits were high and the sense of excitement was palpable. It was refreshing to be with people who thought that diving with sharks was a perfectly normal exercise and not in the least bit peculiar! This was the culmination of 13 years of dreaming for me!

Once we had arrived in Ensenada and at the dock to board the Aggressor we were taken to a local restaurant for lunch and a few cervezas, after which we all settled into our cabins and made new friends with which to share our adventures! The crossing was comfortable and it’s easy to relax on Baja Aggressor, either on the very cosy sofa in front of the widescreen television in the salon, or on your own very sleep inducing bed. I had never experienced bed clothes so soft and so comforting!
The next afternoon we were ready to test out the cages for the first time! Guess who was first in?! Yes, I managed to don all three wetsuits, gloves, hood and booties before anyone else! Getting into the cages involved a brief but vital procedure. Due to the extra layers of insulation required for the cool water and the fact that one needed enough weight to be able to stay kneeling on the bottom of the cage, we wore weighted harnesses. On a typical dive in tropical waters, I might wear two or three kilograms, but here it was eighteen! Once the harness was on and my personal regulator had been attached to the hookah system, I was ready to slide elegantly into the cage. One must step off the dive deck and on to one of the two cages mounted at the stern of the vessel. When you are ready to get in – plop – in you slide!

A number of sharks congregate in a bay on the north-east side of the island and that is where we stayed moored for the next six nights. The water is incredibly clear at Guadalupe Island. It was like sitting in gin! When I landed on the bottom of the cage for the first time I immediately looked all around me for that first glimpse of a Great White shark. I would have to use patience though! My cabin mate Gail slid in next to me and her eyes were as wide as dinner plates! We settled next to each other, getting used to the suit, the hookah, the harness, trying to get into the most comfortable but practical position. We coordinated each other so that we had each side of the cage covered. A good thing too because before long Gail was whacking my shoulder as hard as she could. I whirled around and there it was! A Great White shark loomed out of the blue, it’s crooked grin directed straight at us! I was surprised by how sleek and elegant it was compared to television footage and sensationalised images in magazines. This was no killing machine, this was a truly beautiful beast. She checked us out and made a dip under our cage at the last minute, before descending into the blue beneath the boat.

Conditions at Guadalupe are perfect for seeing the sharks well. The excellent visibility allows the sun to penetrate the water with striking clarity. Not only does this lend itself to enhanced photographic opportunities, but when the sharks swim by you can see a lot of detail on their heads and bodies. Years of mating and battle scars can be seen clearly and the sun brings out a silver sheen to their pale grey upper bodies.

Baja Aggressor has three cages, all of which can be utilised at the same time. Two surface cages can take up to four divers and one submersible cage takes three or four divers depending on the group on board. Divers are allowed up to an hour in each cage before letting a fellow shark lover have their turn. Cages were open from 0800 to 1700 for four days and 0800 to 1100 on the final day before we sailed back to Ensenada. The sharks are ever present in the bay, though on windy days they tend not to venture up to sniff out the divers. Nor do the sharks spend all their time at the cages, you wont necessarily see sharks the moment you drop into the water. On some rotations you may not see any but when they do come out to play it is more than worth the effort and the wait! It is an immense privilege to be able to see these remarkable creatures up close.

It is a good idea to build some team work in the cage, then you can have all angles covered. Mostly the sharks come from below and you can stick your head right out of the cage to peer into the abyss to watch them come up. The sharks will then make several passes of the cages, sometimes passes are in quick succession and other times the shark will circle once before dropping back into the blue and returning some ten or so minutes later to keep you on your toes! Time really flies when you are waiting for that next photograph!

My favourite views of the sharks were when they swam directly at the cage from a distance. You could see their smile get ever closer, their large diamond shaped heads approaching, hiding the muscular body behind it until as it was almost upon the cage when it would suddenly divert from its course and disappear back under the boat again, leaving us shrieking for joy and exhilaration!

I was also lucky enough to have possibly the best shower of my lifetime! The Baja Aggressor has a very good hot freshwater shower on the dive platform. On our final morning we had to pull the cages out at 1100, but a large and beautiful female was circling our boat all the while! As I stood under the shower, stripping off my suit and washing my hair, she kept on coming around and around. And there I was just standing about one meter away from her whilst showering myself in the open air with Guadalupe Island as my backdrop!

The length of time spent in the cage depended on how long you could handle the temperature. It was 19 C and I needed 13mm of wetsuit plus hood and booties before I felt that I could sit in the water comfortably! I am however, of rather slender build and do not carry much natural insulation so don’t worry about your own abilities to stay warm! The crew were extremely helpful in getting us all geared up effectively. I had to have my vest ‘tucked in’ before each dive by a willing crew member, and have someone put on and do up my gloves for me! It was like being a child again!

After the diving day and in between dives, the crew looked after us perfectly. Inter-cage time snacks were very welcome, as was hot chocolate passed to you the second you took your gloves off! Meals were lovely, freshly prepared daily and with lots of Mexican specialities! In true Aggressor Fleet style we were all made to feel very safe and welcome from the moment we stepped on board until the moment we were dropped back at our hotels in San Diego.

Diving with the Great Whites of Guadalupe can certainly slot into the ‘Trip of a Lifetime’ category. Anyone with an interest in wildlife, be they divers or non-divers is certain to get something out of seeing Great Whites up close and in the wild.

A Great White stifles a yawn. (Rachel Horsfield)

Watching the sharks rise from the deep is truly exhilarating (Rachel Horsfield)

Dinner time! (Rachel Horsfield)

A Great White takes a pass at one of the cages. (Rachel Horsfield)

The conditions at Gauadalupe are very favourable for photography. (Rachel Horsfield)

Here comes the toothy grin! (Brandon Shannon - Baja Aggressor)

Splitfin comes out to play. (Brandon Shanoon - Baja Aggressor)

The sharks come very close to the cages! (Brandon Shannon - Baja Aggressor)

Guadalupe is home to some very brave sealions! (Brandon Shannon - Baja Aggressor)

Guadalupe Island (Rachel Horsfield)

A fish out of water! No that's not my beer belly, it is the three layers of wetsuit! (Brandon Shannon - Baja Aggressor)

Baja Aggressor - formerly the Andrea Lynn fishing vessel. (Brandon Shannon - Baja Aggressor)

All three cages in action! Brandon Shannon - Baja Aggressor)

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