Shark Diving in San Diego

(his article first appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Dive Log)

Man feeding shark
When you tell people that you’re going on a shark dive, you usually get one of three reactions:

  1. Disbelief from people who think you’re making the whole thing up and ignore you or worse, start watching you warily, thinking you’re going to do something foolish and upset their routine.
  2. Incredulousness, somewhat similar to the disbelief of the above item, but thinking you’re serious, and crazy. These people tend to be big fans of the Jaws series of movies and books. Then they get nonchalant when you tell them there’s a shark cage involved.
  3. Excitement, usually only if the other people you’re sharing your plans with are divers, or don’t believe in the hysteria Jaws caused.

In my case, I was excited when I discovered that a recent trip to San Diego, and more particularly, a free Saturday at the end of my conference there, would coincide with the first shark dive of the season with San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions, and its proprietor, Paul Anes.

Several friends of mine had recommended checking out his operation, and at a recent dive conference I helped out at, Marty Snyderman (a well known underwater photographer and videographer) echoed that sentiment.

I called Paul, reserved a spot on the dive (at a cost of $250), and anxiously waited six weeks until I actually made it to San Diego.

The author’s conference I attended in San Diego was interesting, but nothing truly exciting. I was hoping the shark dive would turn out better.

April 27th
The night before the dive, I checked out my gear, lubed the O-rings on my camera housing (I wasn’t about to do the dive without proof I was there), and packed my now heavy  gear case. I had brought my only cold water dive protection with me, namely my Viking dry suit, and had already faced derision from folks who said that was overkill for California waters.

On the morning of April 27th, I put my gear case on a pair of luggage wheels and made my way to the hotel lobby. As it turned out, my hotel was less than a half mile from the  harbor where the boat we’d be on was docked, and since there was no taxi in sight, I decided to hoof it. Upon making it out onto the path to the harbor, I was faced with an ill omen – thousands of people walking right towards me. There I was, a sole person, facing an on-rushing tide of humanity. I struggled my way through the human cattle herds only to discover the harbor I had found was the wrong one, and that I needed to go another half mile with wheeled cart and case dragging behind me. I finally made it to the  boat, the HydroDiver, and finally discovered that the mindless lemmings I had to fight my way through were sacrificing themselves for a Walk for Life charity event.

Picture of the HydroDiver, with shark cage mounted on the rear of the boat

The HydroDiver
Upon arriving at the scene of our imminent departure, I found a large cage (with no discernable shark tooth marks) attached to the back end of the HydroDiver, and everyone waiting for me, as usual.

After being introduced to my “bait-mates”, and loading my gear on board, we departed under the care of Capt. Jim Stickler.

The place where we would start chumming the waters with fish blood and guts was about 12 miles out from shore. It didn’t take long to get there, and our first course of business was to get suited up for a trial run at getting in and out of the cage and making sure we were properly weighted, before any sharks actually showed up.

The Cage
The shark cage is designed to float about 10 to 15 feet below the water, about 20 to 30 feet from the boat. Unlike many east coast shark cages, where you have to hop in the top, the opening on this cage is in the “back”. The cage has a maximum capacity of three divers.

Now, you may be wondering why anyone in their right mind would swim 25+ feet in shark infested waters to get to a cage underwater, when sharp teeth lurk everywhere. Well, San Diego Shark Divers has added a new twist to the whole experience – they offer trained handlers who wear an extra piece of insurance, namely a chain mail suit, impervious to the penetration of shark teeth, but not necessarily a way to prevent bruises and small scrapes. The handler escorts each diver to and from the cage, keeping sharks away until the diver is safely secured.

Paul Anes preparing fish for bait and hand feeding of sharks

Getting Chummy
Anyhow, after we made sure all we knew the proper cage commuting procedure, and were properly weighted (a little heavy to avoid spending much time on the surface), it was time to start chumming the waters. While Paul prepared some whole fish for hand feeding the sharks, all the chum used to create blood slicks to attract the sharks was actually preprocessed and frozen. I was surprised to learn that there are three companies in the San Diego area that specialize in making buckets of chum just for shark diving and fishing. Being told that the first sharks usually appear an hour or two after chumming commences, we entered a pool, selecting 15 minute chunks of time in which we thought the first shark would come up and play. We were all wrong. The first shark showed up barely 15 minutes after the first ladle full of blood and gore was showered upon the surface of the water. Mind you, it wasn’t a big one, just a two and a half foot blue shark. A three footer joined him minutes later.

A small Blue Shark takes the bait.

Paul putting on his chain mail suit

Soon thereafter it was time to get suited up. Watching Paul don his chainmail was quite fascinating. His company owns two of the $7,000 chainmail suits, and while they’re custom made, they still don’t fit all that well. Paul, and his fellow handler Dennis Alba, had quite a time getting him into the 18 pound suit. Ultimately, the tried and true remedy of duct tape was used to force a snug fit. By the time he and the rest of us were dive-ready, a half dozen more blue sharks had appeared.

Yours truly (in center) in the cage, with sharks all around.

Sharks Ahoy!
After Paul got in the water, I was quick to follow, escorted by him, of course. The water was a balmy 66 degrees, and visibility was well over 60 feet. I felt overdressed in my dry suit, but was later thankful for not being wet or cold. A couple more divers followed, and we were in the midst of shark soup.

First Paul, and later Dennis, started hand feeding sharks right in front of us. We had been warned that if a shark tried to get into the cage with us, that we should bonk them on the nose, and they’d back right out. They were right.

I was amazed by the voracity of the sharks. One moment, they’d slowly be circling around the cage and the handler, the next they’d lunge in at the fish in his hand, attempting to swallow the fish whole, including the handler’s hand. My first time in the cage passed quickly, taking a mere 50 minutes and one roll of film. An hour later I popped down for another 40 minutes, and another roll of film. Time seemed to stop while I watched the sharks lazily swim by, circling the cage in the apparent hope that the yummy treats inside might come out and feed them. They tested the cage with their noses. The metal of the cage disrupts their sensory equipment, located in their noses.

Dennis Alba hand feeding a hungry shark

Toward the end of the second dive, I counted 16 sharks circling the cage, with the smallest at just over two feet, and the largest a sizable 7 footer. When I left the cage under Dennis’s capable guidance, I had to bonk several sharks on the nose to keep them away from me. What fun!

My biggest regret during the shark dives was that I couldn’t go outside the cage to get better pictures – the opening in front of me wasn’t large enough to comfortably fit my housing and strobe through and still be able to look in the viewfinder.

The Fish Story
Perhaps the greatest irony of the day was that as soon as we had gotten out of the water, a pod of dolphins showed up to play with the sharks, and not long after, a bunch of seals joined the fray. If we had only stayed in the water a few minutes more, and I had not run out of film… In any event, the appearance of these mammals certainly gave us a great topic for conversation over Mexican food and margaritas that night.

I’ve been told that later in the summer, the more aggressive Mako sharks turn up, and occasionally they’ll also see Mola-Molas (also known as ocean sunfish).

Would I do this again? Absolutely – it was worth every penny.

I think the dives I did were a spectacular way to interact with and observe these natural predators. And San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions really runs a safe and eminently enjoyable operation. I give San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions, and the whole shark diving experience an earth shattering 9.5 out of 10 on my Richter Scale! If you find yourself in the San Diego area, give Paul Anes a call at 619-299-8560, FAX: 619-299-1088. (His address is: San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions, P.O. Box 881037, San Diego, CA 92168-1037.)