March 27, 2009 -- Isla Guadalupe is a volcanic island rising about 4,200 feet out of the Pacific Ocean. It's a stark, forbidding setting, more than 20 hours by boat from the California coast. Yet for some, it's a destination, perhaps the best place in the world for an up-close experience with great white sharks.
"We're 140 miles off Baja, 225 miles south of San Diego," Capt. Lawrence Groth of Shark Diving International says. "It's completely pristine environment here. There's nobody out here but us and the sharks."
They're some of the biggest white sharks on the planet. They hunt in the large Northern elephant seal colony on the northeast shore of Guadalupe; Prison Beach, named for an old federal prison colony whose stony, scorpion-ridden remnants can still be seen on the cliffs. Its waters are some of the clearest in the world, with visibility exceeding 100 feet on most days.
The Mexican island is both a National Biosphere Reserve (since 1928) and a pinniped sanctuary, home to not only the elephant seals but also the last refuge on earth for highly endangered Northern fur seals and Guadalupe fur seals. Seals and sea lions are protected under Mexican law, from all but the white sharks. They feed heartily here, and grow as large as 21½ feet and 7,300 pounds.
This is where the 95-foot Searcher lays anchored, well within earshot of the anxious cacophony of seals ashore. On board are 16 crew members and nine divers, gearing up to get into stainless steel cages and face-to-face with sharks, most for the first time.
And they will see white sharks. Groth has a 100 percent success rate in the six years he has been taking divers to Isla Guadalupe.
Trip of a Lifetime
Philip Cohen of Phoenix, Ariz., says the experience was on his life list. The trip was a gift from his wife. He even took his dad, Stuart.
"It's amazing," says Cohen, coming out of the cage on his first dive. "The shark is getting real close to the cage and just looking at us, but not really interested in us, except just to kind of see what we're doing."
Emma Warlfriesson, visiting from Sweden, says, "When I saw the great white shark for the first time, I couldn't breathe. They're so huge and so beautiful. And they're swimming often quite mellow. Quite gracious, beautiful."
Among the white shark faithful, there are basically four great pilgrimage locations; the southern coast of Australia between January and May, South Africa between December and February, the Farallon Islands off San Francisco between August and November, and Isla Guadalupe between June and January.
But something very special happens in Guadalupe.
Scientists know great white sharks as solitary, wide-ranging predators. But at Guadalupe, they often congregate in large numbers, sometimes even working cooperatively on a kill. It's a cutting-edge classroom for shark research, and a cage diver's candy store.
"It's hugely populated by white sharks," Groth says. "Very dynamic, lots of males, lots of females of different ages and sizes. They come here to feed. They're here from June through January. And it's just fantastic clear blue water. It's the best place to see great white sharks."
Over the years, divers have identified more than 100 individual sharks at Guadalupe, giving them names such as Cal Ripfin (he has a tear in his dorsal fin), Patches, Top Notch, even a particularly nasty young 14-foot male they call Psycho, known for biting other sharks, the boat and the cages.
But cage diving in great white shark country is remarkably safe. Divers don't even need to be scuba-certified. They breathe through a regulator, which for most people is easy.
Great Whites Are Extraordinary Predators
After the first few dives, people begin to lose their fear. But they never become complacent. That's largely the result of preparation and cautionary tales of the crew. "It's easy to be brave in a cage," crew member Kat Fisher says, "but you soon learn who the boss is down there."
Even the most experienced divers are reminded why great white sharks are such extraordinary predators, specifically, their propensity to suddenly appear seemingly anywhere at anytime, often from directly below, completely surprising their prey. And the divers.
They glide slowly through the clear blue expanse, like torpedoes in slow motion, but can accelerate in an instant to more than 20 miles per hour.
To Groth, every excursion is a revelation. And every new diver he introduces to great white sharks adds to a growing constituency for their conservation.
"You get in the water and it's this pretty, gorgeous blue," he says. "It's very, very exhilarating. When you see that first white shark approach the boat, it's a feeling you'll never forget. That big giant smile coming straight at you. It's beautiful, majestic, comes swimming and gliding by and you're just thrilled."
Contributing to the "Good Morning America" Weekend Adventure is renowned National Geographic cinematographer Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, a big-predator specialist who has spent a good part of his life on assignment in the undersea world, logging thousands of hours with rebreathers and EX1 HD cameras, capturing stunning, incredibly intimate images of Carcharodon carcharias.
Casagrande's also a musician, with a video now gone viral on the Web, "If I Was a Great White, I Wouldn't Bite You," a Jack Johnson-like ditty in which Casagrande appears in a free dive, outside the cage, strumming his guitar underwater, serenading encircling white sharks. And not being bitten.
An Infectious Love for Great Whites
Casagrande's love for the animals is infectious. And the 32-year-old photographer's greatest hope is that his work, and the dive tours, will engender a better understanding of great white sharks, the most feared but perhaps least understood predator in the sea.
"People's perception of sharks is based on what you see in movies and television, and it's really not the case," Casagrande says. "So it's nice that people can come out here and see sharks for what they really are.