Can the world’s best-known shark help cure cancer?
Story by and photos courtesy George C. Schellenger
When I first arrived at Mexico’s Guadalupe Island in December of 2004, I was completely in awe. It was more impressive than I could ever have imagined.
Guadalupe is a massive, 22-mile-long volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that looks somewhat like an elongated camel’s hump. The hump of the island is a 4,257-foot-tall peak called Mount Augusta. Guadalupe is stark, stoic and isolated. The rusty, rocky surface is accented by a tree line growing on the very top of the island; nature’s way of saying even in this remote-end-of-the-world-type place: “I will find a way.” One look at this place, and you realize it will stay with you the rest of your life.
Guadalupe is located about 250 miles southwest off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico (Baja, California). We’d come here all those years ago to make a film. The star would be the island’s most famous resident, or shall we say, the island’s most famous visitor: the white shark (carcharodon carcharias).
Now before you say, “You mean, great white shark.” I would tell you, technically, there is no “lesser” white shark. Great white shark is a Hollywood label made famous by Jaws, Shark Week and the media. Even so, one of the pictures I took in 2004 ended up on the cover for an IMAX Blu-ray called, The Search for the Great Sharks.
I was working a lot in New York City, and a week after the expedition to Guadalupe, I was walking from my hotel in Midtown to Rockefeller Center. As I looked at all the people around me, I realized that most would have no idea that Guadalupe Island even existed. I shook my head, haunted by what I’d seen at the island, and I knew I’d have to go back.
White sharks use Guadalupe as a stop as they migrate in this part of the Pacific. The underwater upwelling caused by the island brings rich nutrients near the surface of the water, attracting a wide variety of marine creatures, including tuna. That’s one of the reasons the white sharks are here.
More than 15 years after my film shoot in 2004, we decided to travel to Guadalupe for the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. My travel companion on this expedition was Guy Harvey’s daughter, Jessica Harvey. Despite a lifetime of adventures with her father, she’d never seen a white shark, and I was eager to show her the incredible power of this creature.
Our mission was simple, we’d arrive in Ensenada, Mexico, and depart on the Aggressor Dive Fleet’s Socorro Aggressor. The Socorro Aggressor is a big, 135-foot live-aboard yacht with accommodations that are both roomy and comfortable. (I travel with a ton of dive equipment, and I didn’t feel squeezed at all). We were joined by an international collection of wildlife enthusiasts — everyone eager to spend time with the world’s most talked about species of shark.
The trip to Guadalupe Island takes about 18 hours. The surrealness of watching Guadalupe appear on the horizon as you approach in the early morning hours is another one of those things that is seared into your brain. The light of dawn is like the curtain being pulled back on the perfect stage to meet these underwater T. rexes.
We arrive at sunrise and anchor in a protected cove. The dive master of the Socorro Aggressor gives us our dive briefing, and the crew places the cages carefully in the water behind the boat. I’m suddenly taken back in time to 2004. The island hasn’t changed at all since I was here last — and I wonder silently to myself … where did all that time go?
The blue water is a chilly 68 degrees Fahrenheit, so a 7mm wetsuit is the perfect way to stay comfortable while you wait for the sharks (depending on your ability to handle the cold). Once the sharks arrive, the water seems to warm up quickly.
The main goal of this expedition is to bring the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation some new white shark footage. This will help support Dr. Mahmood Shivji’s genomic research on the white shark at the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Sharks tend to be tumor resistant, and understanding their genetics could benefit humans when it comes to fighting cancer. This research is so groundbreaking — there’s no way to know what the full impact could be. As we prepare to dive, Jessica and I share the excitement of the GHRI’s research with the crew and our fellow passengers.
As we prepare to enter the cage, the crew puts us in a heavily weighted vest — to help keep us stable and on the bottom of the cage. We will be breathing from a hookah hose. One at a time, Jessica and I step on a small plank leading to the cage and climb down the ladder. Before we submerge we are given our cameras, and then we dive in. The water is clear, cold and invigorating. Bait is pulled in front of our cages by shark wranglers. They stand on platforms just above the surface of the water on both sides of the boat.
It’s not long before the first white shark arrives.
I’ve seen all types of sharks in different oceans all around the world, but seeing a white shark here is like seeing the queen in Buckingham Palace. These animals are the royalty of the underwater world — the stuff of our imagination and dreams. What I always tend to notice first are the white shark’s irises, indigo in color — a brilliant indigo — they’re a far cry from the “lifeless doll’s eyes” described in the movie Jaws.
The wranglers at the surface continue to pull the tuna back and forth in front of the cages. The white shark follows — sometimes swimming at full speed, sometimes just playing the game and following the bait. The crew tells us that one white shark has learned exactly how to steal the bait from the wranglers — and they keep an eye out for that renegade shark. Occasionally, one of the sharks looks us over. Likewise, as a diver, you are trying to take in every inch of the creature. Everything is condensed into what I call “Shark Time” — every 45 minutes underwater with a big shark, feels like only 5 minutes. I can tell that Jessica is in her element and enjoying every single second.
It’s not long before we are called out of our cage (the crew knocks loudly on the bars to announce it’s time to come back to reality), and we rotate with the other guests. Jessica and I give each other high fives and climb the ladder and walk across the plank back to the boat.
As we enjoy a lunch on the top deck, I think about the history of the island of Guadalupe. At one time, it was a major destination for fur hunters from Russia and the United States. The northern elephant seal population was almost wiped out due to over hunting, but the Mexican Government moved in to protect seals in 1922. One of the reasons the island looks so desolate is that the tens of thousands of feral goats that once inhabited the island devastated the plant population.
Guadalupe has been protected for almost 100 years, making it one of the oldest nature reserves in Mexico. Only 150 people live here year-round, but you can’t really see any settlements from the shark anchorage.
After a quick, hearty lunch, we hop back in the cage for more encounters, but this time we enter a submersible cage for a different kind of view. This cage is connected to a small crane on top of the boat, and we are dropped to a depth of about 40 feet. We are investigated by another shark as it passes in front of us.
After a while, you really start to see the details on each shark, and it becomes easier to identify the various individuals passing by. There’s even a detailed, $85 book you can buy online called White Sharks of Guadalupe Island Photo Identification Guide. Inside the book, there are more than 300 identified sharks, and the tour operators ask for pictures from each expedition to keep track of any potential new sharks. Since it’s easy to remember a name, most of the sharks have names, including Nacho (the white shark who has learned to steal the bait), Cal Ripfin (because of its torn fin), and the world famous Deep Blue (estimated to be the largest white shark ever seen at Guadalupe).
The live-aboard experience at Guadalupe is picture perfect on the Socorro Aggressor, with bight days and beautiful star-filled nights punctuated only by the sound of the fur seals on shore crying out in the darkness.
Part of the joy of seeing a white shark is sharing the experience with a friend. Taking Jessica Harvey here this time to see the white sharks was an absolute pleasure. It will be up to her generation to continue to protect them.
Of all of the places I’ve been to see sharks, Guadalupe is at the top (with Tiger Beach in the Bahamas being a close second). You never forget your first time in the water with a white shark. Being there in person is something Shark Week and shark documentaries try to capture, but there is something completely visceral about this animal, and it has to be seen in person.
I’ve been to Guadalupe three times, and one day, I’ll be back again.
It’s just one of those things you’ve got to do.
As I wrote this story, I thought a lot about Wayne Hasson, friend to Guy Harvey, mentor to Jessica and a friend to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. I’m honored to have called him a friend as well. He was supposed to be with us on this expedition, but he was fighting cancer. A few months after we came back, he passed away. Wayne started the Aggressor Fleet, and in doing so opened up the wonders of the oceans to generations. Maybe one of those wonders, like the white shark, will even teach us how to beat cancer. Wayne, we won’t forget you.