Shark Week

Bucket list. Everyone has one. And one of the problems you get from flying in space is that your bucket list gets WAY too long. Before my spaceflights, I was content with seeing Europe and Hawaii and maybe an occasional trip to Asia. But, having spent over 7 months in space, I’ve now seen places like Namibia and Patagonia and Kamchatka and New Zealand and Baikal and Mongolia and the Southern lights from orbit. Places I’d never heard of before I went to space. And now I want to visit them! Hence my problem. The bucket list is just too long. However, one thing I recently experienced was actually not on my list, but after doing it, I was blown away, and would highly recommend it! Diving with Great White Sharks.

The organization that runs these trips, Pelagic Fleet, wanted to film the experience of taking a cruise to Guadalupe Island in Mexico, to dive with great whites. And they wanted to film it in 360, including all aspects of the cruise- capturing our boat’s departure from Ensenada and arrival to the Island, accommodations while at sea, flying high above the vessel to see the Island and sharks and boat from the sky, and of course and most importantly, capturing the sharks from underwater. This required multiple types of cameras and filming techniques- from the air, surface, and below the ocean. My role in this project would be as the drone pilot and “assistant cameraman.” I had to work for my food….

Photo credit: Terry Virts
Solmar V, the vessel that took us on a 5 day adventure to Guadalupe Island, diving with great white sharks.  Photo credit: Terry Virts

In order to do this we strapped a baseball-sized 360 camera called a “Fly 360” to a commercially available drone (Mavic Pro). This system worked pretty well, although the drone was a little wobbly. A company called Adrenaline Films provided the modifications necessary to attach this special camera to the off-the-shelf drone.

One of the big surprises for me was trying to fly the drone from a ship. Which meant taking off and landing from a moving target. Modern drones like the Mavic are exceptionally easy to fly from land, but they aren’t designed to fly from moving platforms. Added to that, the 360 camera attached to the bottom of the drone meant that it had to takeoff and land from a person’s hand, since the landing gear wouldn’t reach the ground. Takeoff was pretty simple- they would put on some work gloves (just in case…..) and hold the drone out, and off it would fly. But landing was a little trickier. I’d maneuver the drone to match the boat’s motion and slowly bring in down to within reach of the “landing helper,” wearing those same gloves. At which time they’d reach up and grab it. However- the drone’s proximity sensors would mistake the person’s hand for the ground, and the propellers would spin up as it furiously tried to avoid what it thought was about to be a crash. It took the system about three seconds to shut the motors off, while the poor landing helper held on to the flailing and lurching drone while I tried to cut power.

The drone video was surprising- climbing high above the Pacific, seeing the magnificent mountains of Guadalupe island, with a constant river of clouds spilling over the north end, and the sun rising or setting in the distance. It was beautiful. Flying low alongside the boat- seeing massive grey shadows lurking and gliding just below the surface of the water. I remember thinking that if I had just come to this island and didn’t know any better I would have gladly just gone swimming- not knowing just how many great whites were sharing the same waters with me. Being at that amazing island made me realize- when you go swimming, especially at a place like that, you are just another link in the “food chain.”

The really spectacular part of the trip was, of course, diving with the great whites. There were two ways for us to do this. First was in a surface cage. We dove with no fins, just a weight belt and 7mm (i.e. very thick) wetsuit, to help keep us warm in the cool Pacific waters. We had a normal SCUBA mask, but our breathing was done via hose (i.e. no tanks), and you climbed in the cage and usually within seconds there was a massive shark circling nearby. The sharks were never aggressive towards us, they were attracted to the chum that our two expert “shark wranglers” cast into the water. They seemed to not even notice us, just a few feet from them, and it ALMOST seemed like it would be OK to open the gate on the cage and stray outside. I stayed in the cage, in case you were wondering. And though these cages looked perfectly normal and safe from topside, once you were in them underwater the bars did seem to be rather widely spaced.

Photo credit: Terry Virts
A diver photographs a great white. Thankfully he did not eat the camera.  Photo credit: Terry Virts

Our boat, Solmar V had two surface cages, each one having a four-person capacity. She also had a submersible cage, that would go down to about 9m (30’) of depth. It was lowered by crane, and two divers went down with a dive instructor. This one gave you the perspective of looking up at sharks, and seeing them circle around the people in the surface cages, sunlight shining through and sparkling in the blue waters.

Photo credit: Terry Virts
A ghostly apparition out of the deep below.  Photo credit: Terry Virts

While these details of how a cruise to Guadalupe Island to dive with sharks may be interesting, the actual experience of diving with them is sublime. To be underwater, out of our natural land domain, in the presence of one (or often several) of Earth’s most magnificent and deadly creatures is just impossible to put into words. I saw them slowly emerge from the deep, starting as shadows, then slivering and gliding up from the darkness directly at us, swerving to the right or left before they got too close. A great white coming up out of the deep looks more like a ghost or spectre, this small, dark grey shadow. Looking directly down on one surprised me, because I didn’t realize they had that rectangular shape. But when they swim alongside you there is no doubt that you are in the presence of a Great White. Apex predator. The distinctive massive, sharp, snaggly teeth. The big eyes that are always watching you. Tall widely spaced gills that usually had battle scars on them. The distinctive, no-doubt-it’s-a-great-white dorsal fin. And the white underbelly. No, you did not have to be a marine biologist to identify one.

I said this about the eclipse a few weeks ago, and I will say it again about diving with Great Whites. It may have been my first time but it will not be my last. I went to Guadalupe Island more as a work project than as a bucket-list adventure. But I came away amazed and really glad that I went. If you get a chance I highly recommend going. But first, make sure the cage bars aren’t too widely spaced. And bring a friend that you can out-swim.

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