Around 18 months ago I booked up a unique trip that only occurs once a year and is usually booked up. This is the Guadelupe, San Benitos and Socorro Combo trip aboard the vessel Nautilus Explorer, which I have travelled on twice before.
It was a bit of a challenge packing for this one as I anticipated a mix of cold and warm water diving, so really needed to take my big, heavy 5mm neoprene drysuit for the cold, plus a lighter wetsuit for the warmer stuff. Getting those suits plus my usual dive kit in a 23kg hold bag allowance meant I was maxed out....almost to the gram!
As for photography kit, well, I wanted to maximise underwater photography opportunities, so took the Canon S110 in its dive housing, plus a new GoPro Hero 4 Silver edition. For normal shooting it was the Fuji X-E1, plus 18-55, 35 and 14mm lenses. I needed my Macbook Air and 3 external HDDs, one for Time Machine backup of the Macbook and the other 2 for master and backup of the video footage I expected to shoot. Then there was batteries, chargers, cables and dive computers. Bag size was very clearly specified by the airline and the depth of 23cm was actually under that of most airline compatible bags. To cut a long story short, here is all the kit in a Thinktank Photo Airport Essentials backpack. These bags are amazing for maximising interior space in a given size bag, while protecting kit well and allowing comfortable carrying. The bag size paid off as it fitted in the overhead bin of a small commuter jet by a hairs breadth while flying the LA to San Diego outbound leg....else it would have had to go in the hold....not what you want with expensive kit!
I met up with my mates in San Diego where we enjoyed a 3-day acclimatisation to the time change before boarding the boat in Ensenada, just into Mexico. One of the highlights of San Diego was touring the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier in service from the end of WW2 to the Gulf war. It was wonderfully old fashioned and claustrophobic inside and there were lots of veteran volunteers giving talks and guided access. Also, hats off to the Americans for brewing some stunning proper beers now....I was amazed!
One from the GoPro, which takes pretty useful stills, showing the vast flight deck.
Then it was all aboard the Nautilus Explorer for the 186 Nautical mile (NM) run to Isla Guadelupe.
Isla Guadelupe is famous as perhaps the best place to dive with great white sharks due to clear water and a reasonable abundance of them loitering around the seal colony with intent. Hence the 2 cages perched on the stern and one on the sun deck.
Once on station, the 2 deep cages were lowered off the stern corners to a depth of around 11 metres for 45 minutes at a time and a single shallow cage was fixed off the stern at around 4.8 metres, with access via a ladder and cage tunnel. Air supply was by surface-supplied hookup and 2nd stage scuba reg, so it was a case of donning some heavy weights and dropping into the cage...easy as that. There were 4 days of intensive cage diving with the sharks attracted in by chunks of tuna in hessian bags but then allowed to just check out the divers and cages calmly without any circus acts of wrangling them in to collide with the bars. Being wild animals, they just came and went at will, meaning periods of great action and periods of hanging about with little or nothing going on except swarms of small yellowtail jacks attracted by the bait. I was glad of my drysuit for the cages as the water was around 21 Celsius, which gets cold after 4-5 hours a day. An El Nino, meant water temperatures were around 3 degrees higher than normal.
I have seen thousands of sharks in my diving career and have even dived with whites before in South Africa, without cages, but in rather gruesome conditions. The white shark really is a jaw-droppingly magnificent animal, a real super predator, with a body built for speed, super senses and sophisticated social and hunting behaviour. Its the sheer size that amazes even an experienced shark observer, with the older females especially having a striking bulk and mass. To most people the shark's lack of expression is unnerving, with a constant gape and black eyes that give nothing away, but that is just because we are used to a different kind of body language. What caught my attention most was the eyes. One always imagines them as being tiny little black piggy eyes, but when a shark slid by at arms length, the eye was huge, the size of a tennis ball with a visible pupil, moving and watching you. Neither was it black, but a deep blue like the old blue-black ink colour we used to write with in our fountain pens. I am very confident that these sharks have not evolved to consider humans to be prey, as we are very recent visitors to the sea and are only items of curiosity. I had mixed feelings as to whether I would feel comfortable diving outside the cages with them (not allowed by the way). While I knew it would most probably be fine, it would ultimately be taking a chance with such a powerful animal. If one was having a bad day or you somehow inspired a feeding, competitive or aggressive response, even a test bite or bump could mean "game over". It was interesting to see the damage they inflict on each other during social disputes, with many having big bite or impact marks and missing bits of fins!
I was treated to the sight of one shark breaching, when it passed under the cage, looked briefly up, then aligned its body upward with a couple of tail flicks. It then accelerated to the surface like a missile, reaching at least 25mph by the time it jumped clear. Ihey may be big, but they can really shift! No idea why it did this as there was no prey at the surface. Maybe a practice run, but it was a "wow" moment and any seal on the end of it would have been very dead.
Guadelupe is an attractive location and it drops off very steeply above and under the water. Although close to shore we were anchored in around 220 feet of water, which got deeper depending on how the boat swung at anchor.
After 4 days it was off to San Benitos for the kelp and seal diving. Free of cages it was time to just dive normally. The water temperature was very much drysuit territory for me at around 18-23 Celsius, although it was warmer than normal. Some big Pacific rollers and a stiff breeze limited access to some sites but made diving others just fine. The diving was fun with plenty of seal pups out to play and even some shark action, though of a rather different kind....little horn sharks.
After 2 days at San Benitos it was a very long haul of 64 hours and 592 NM to the Socorro islands much further south. First stop was the incredible Roca Partida, which is literally a needle remnant of an old volcano, that drops precipitously to ultimately some 11000 feet. It is subject to wild currents and exposed to the open sea. This is one site that is very much on or off. When on, such as my last visit here, it is awesome with some of the best pelagic diving in the world. When off, it is still spectacular but aside from the swarms of resident whitetip sharks, there is little else. Due to the El Nino, most probably, it was somewhat off this time.
This image gives a decent idea of the underwater vastness and steepness of the rock and as is often the case, the divers are hanging on in a stonking current! The rocks are very sharp and lacerate your hands easily.
Here, on a large ledge at about 15 metres depth, a load of whitetips are stacked together with a large green moray and one of the huge lobsters that live on the rock.
On the northwest corner there was an almost constant procession of whitetips. Usually there are lots of silvertips and galapagos sharks too, but only one or two silvertips showed up. I think the water was too warm at around 27 Celsius, which is around 3-4 Celsius more than normal. I was really warm in a 3mm wetsuit with underskin.
Here is a nice sunset at Roca.
One of my favourite still images of the trip was this one captured on the GoPro, while my buddy, Andy was doing a safety stop close to the rock. As is usual, there was a lot of surge and waves crashing against the rock, which made it look like he was about to get swallowed.
Roca is very isolated and it was a pretty rough overnight crossing to get to Socorro Island for the next day, where the weather was initially wet and overcast. The Island was unusually very green, a testament to the very severe hurricane season in 2014. Rather than diving the usual sites we were forced to try a site I have never dived before called Roca O'Neil. Due to the weather and it not being first choice, expectations were not high, but wow, were we in for a treat! Upon descending the line there were Dolphins straight away and the visibility was perhaps the most impressive I have ever seen. It was a bit grainy and colours were monotone, but wow. I recall being a long way from the boat at around 20 metres down and being easily able to see to the boat and the whole length of the boat, which is 115 feet! The vista was amazing, with a rocky bottom at around 25 metres, scooped out of which was a big hollow with a natural arch over it! There was then a drop-off into much deeper water. A couple of big mantas and a few silky sharks showed up soon so it was a full action dive. I only took movie clips here so there are no photos to show. However, I took a couple of grabs from the HD GoPro footage to give an idea of what we saw.
On the second dive at this site visibility was again stunning, but this time the big animals had disappeared and there was a monstrous current that made divers hanging on the line look like washing out to dry in the wind. It was like diving in a river and hard work.
From there we moved to a sheltered cove called Cabo Henslow for a late dive. it was actually quite a nice potter about in shallow water finding small animals and a few small patches of coral beginning to grow.
Next day and it was The Canyon at San Benedictos Island. Some decent currents made it quite hard work getting to the cleaning station at 25 metres but get there we did. We patiently waited for hammerheads and any other big pelagics but nothing much came in. On the second dive I stayed shallower on a big rock but it was the same story. Getting to the anchor chain was a hard swim but we made it back to the boat ok without needing a pickup.
The boat tentatively made its way to The Boiler dive site, which is one of the most famous sites to dive with giant mantas anywhere in the world. The weather had been too rough and as the site catches big swells badly, the crew have to be certain of the conditions before diving there. Well, we did and it was awesome. Up to 4 big mantas coming in to see and interact with the divers on the first dive and 2 or 3 a bit less frequently on the second dive and last dive of the trip.
Then it was off at dawn on the way back to Cabo San Lucas, leaving San Benedictos behind.
After a day and a night of steaming we arrived at Cabo just before dawn and were greeted with the dawn glow then the first rays of sun striking the windows of buildings on shore orange.
Seeing the cages glowing in the rising sun reminded me of the precious experiences I had had on the trip.
The officials waiting to check us into the Port of Cabo San Lucas didn't look too stressed by our arrival! I think its was a slow day. Maybe every day is!?
I was really impressed by the little GoPro camera on this trip. For such a tiny thing its ease of use and performance are remarkable. Yes, its a small sensor camera and so ultimately it is limited by low light, but its truly amazing how well it works. the above manta shots were taken with the GoPro. The files are 12 megapixels and take a bit of editing with no issues, but they cannot be pushed much. Fortunately, the camera tends to overexpose a bit, so bringing back exposure in post-processing tends to hide rather than enhance any noise and artefacts. I made best use of the settings available to get the best and most easily adjusted footage I could, which meant setting "protune" for stills and video. This gives a flat file with minimal applied contrast and colour and less compression, so the files are more amenable to post-capture editing. The camera coped well with the loss of light and loss of reds in particular when underwater. I did try using a red filter some of the time, but found that the loss of light was significant and caused some noise and vignetting in the corners. These issues were not really justified by the improvement in colour. The little GoPro is a masterpiece of design with the just the right balance of simplicity and sophistication to allow amateurs and pros to get great results.
The Canon S110 did ok as usual. Its not a bad little underwater camera at all for a small compact unit. My main frustration with it is that I cannot set auto ISO in manual mode....why!? This means using shutter speed priority, which tends to cause the lens to shoot at wide open aperture of f2 in the low light conditions underwater, so there is a loss in corner acuity and depth of field. Why not use aperture priority you say? Well, I would but the auto ISO cannot be customised to push the shutter speed up and tends to select a speed that is simply too slow for any moving subject. Try telling a fish to stay still!
The Fuji had a secondary role on this trip but performed brilliantly as always taking punchy, colourful jpg files that needed minimal processing. Of all the kit I took, the only thing I never used was the 35mm lens. Its a great lens but there were not many subjects for it on such a trip and the 18-55 did what was needed.