The Elf has been documenting her plight with unemployment here for awhile now in her Bureaucracy for Breakfast series (read previous posts HERE), and since Day One she’s been trying everything from auditioning for Jerry Springer because it paid $500 to speaking gibberish in a meditation class. Well last month she traveled to Guadelupe Island, Mexico to confront her greatest fear: Great White Sharks. This is her story. Above image courtesy of Matt Wallace.
In the ominous weeks leading up to my dive with Great White sharks, I spent a lot of time wandering around Los Angeles wide-eyed like your garden-variety blow up doll and wondering things like: “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” and “What if I throw up underwater? Or worse…” Then I made the executive decision to stop being a wimpy baby, blare some Wolfmother, and get into the mindset of a girlie Neanderthal so I could stop worrying and be more like our friend from Point Break: Sir Adrenaline Junky, Bodhi. “All you gotta do is jump,” he’d told Johnny Utah. Bodhi made it all sound so simple.
A 70-something year-old lady at Samy’s camera said she was jealous that I was about to get in the water with 15-foot great whites. “You’re gonna have fuuuuun!” she cooed as she rang up my disposable underwater cameras. Her voice was scratchy. I imagined her smoking menthol cigarettes in her apartment and playing Pinochle. Hell, if granny thinks shark diving sounds fun not scary then surely I can lose the blow up doll routine and kick some ass! It was on. I packed as little as possible. Just the essentials: wetsuit, cameras, toothbrush, shoes, seasickness meds. I was going off the grid. Living on a boat for four nights, seeing creatures up close that normally I could barely glance at on TV. With a bunch of strangers. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Hit the Jump to read The Elf’s tale of her encounter with Megalodon…
“Who did I think I was? This is how I deal with unemployment and student loans and an unknown future – by jumping in the water with sharks?!”
So I cranked up the Wolfmother, Bodhi’s sage advice swirling around my head like a mantra. Then I got an email from a shark enthusiast I’d written to with some questions. In it he wrote: “Just think, you’re about to go meet apex predators probably descended from Megalodon.” I quickly morphed from girlie Neanderthal back into wimpy blow-up doll. The words “apex” and “predator” alone and in combination sounded scary. And Megalodon? What the hell was that? For a brief second I thought maybe this shark enthusiast was a Scientologist and Megalodon was some sort of alien shark god. My imagination went straight into nightmare mode until I asked Lord Google about Megalodon and learned it’s basically like a Woolly Mammoth, but the shark version.
I finished packing and took a deep breath. I know many people out there think of cage diving with Great Whites as a bad ass, fun-not-scary adventure, like the time they bungee jumped into an active volcano or got their arm stuck beneath a boulder and had to saw the pesky thing off with a tiny, dull knife to survive. But in the hours leading up to setting foot in the cage, I started to question my sanity. Who did I think I was? This is how I deal with unemployment and student loans and an unknown future and no health insurance — by jumping in the water with sharks? All I knew was I had to finish what I’d started, no matter how wimpy and mentally unstable I felt.
I started popping the “less drowsy” seasickness med Bonine the night before the adventure, just like I’m sure Magellan and Ponce de Leon did. People kept saying, “Oh, once you get seasick it doesn’t go away,” so I had another worry to add to my list. I knew I wouldn’t be touching land for four days, so the thought of getting sick and giving Megalodon a reason to devour me wasn’t a happy thought. I imagined throwing up underwater, either from seasickness or nerves or both. A giant shark would smell it, glare at me with those beady soulless eyes, and come eat me since my vomit would undoubtedly be so irresistible to this crazed predator, like Sookie’s fairy blood is to the vamp’rs on True Blood. Besides seasickness and being torn apart by rows of razor sharp teeth, another worry crept into my noggin: stepping onto a boat and co-existing with ten complete strangers plus crew for four nights and five days. Claustrophobia and social anxiety muscled their way into my psyche, which was quickly becoming a crowded Beetlejuice-type waiting room.
Sunday morning my boyfriend drove me to the bus in San Diego and I tried to speak in intelligible sentences even though I felt like a monosyllabic ball of exposed nerves. “You kind of have a journey ahead of you,” he said. Yep. We found the meeting spot at the Pearl Hotel and all the passengers introduced themselves and waited to board the bus into Baja. Silly me somehow thought the actual boat ride from Ensenada to the spot we’d be anchoring in for three days would take about three hours. Like on Gilligan’s Island.
“Three hours?” a guy who’d done this trip before replied. “It’s more like eighteen to twenty.” I tried to remain calm. “Oh, OK I thought it was three but twenty hours… That’s. Cool.” I made a mental note of where I’d stored my Bonine tablets. We hopped on the bus and took off toward Mexico. Some Four Loko was being passed around but since my stomach felt like it was hanging out with my esophagus I said no thanks. “Turn your phones off,” we were told as soon as we crossed the border. And that was it — off the grid. No phone, no internet, no Google+ Skype iPad Blackberry iPhone or Words With Friends. That was the easy part.
“We made it to Ensenada without getting kidnapped by armed bandits, boarded the boat and took off into the ocean. I popped another Bonine…”
We made it to Ensenada without getting kidnapped by armed bandits, boarded the boat and took off into the ocean. I popped another Bonine. Our fearless leader told us about two jock triathlon chicks that full on freaked out two hours into their boat journey a few years back and had to be taken back to Ensenada. It was probably either severe claustrophobia or steroids or something, but I made it my mission to be tougher than those female jocks. We all started to slowly but surely get to know each other. A few hours in, a pod of about two hundred dolphins (this isn’t an exaggeration — dolphins as far as the eye could see, like in a Disney movie) swam, jumped and twirled around the boat leading us out. So this is what happens when you say bye-bye to routine, and bureaucracy, and your iPhone. A sea of dolphins saying, “Hi! Glad you’re here; come on in and let us just dance around and make you feel right at home for a bit…”
That night our fearless leader said to me, “I know you’ve never done this so do you want to see the sharks from the boat first in the morning, or do you want to just get into the cage?” Feeling tougher than those wimpy ‘roid ladies I confidently said, “I want to see them from the boat first!” I headed to bed and crawled into my bunk to sleep.
I didn’t sleep at all. Literally. No “dozing off” or “resting my eyes” or whatever. The boat pounded across the bumpy waves across the dark Pacific and I pretty much rolled from side to side wide awake and stunned and praying we didn’t sink like in Titanic. In the morning we had about two more hours until dropping anchor, so we sat around and had breakfast and got briefed on the actual cage diving. My churning stomach made it hard to eat, and as the details of cage diving were explained, and as I heard the sound of the anchor finally lowering, the reality hit, just as the anchor THUDDED to the ocean floor! Just kidding, you can’t hear the anchor hit the ocean floor, that’s only in movies. Anyhoo, I decided that seeing Great Whites cruising around in the water first would probably keep me from ever, ever setting foot in the cage, so that pretty much meant I had to just stop thinking, put on the wetsuit, and get in the damn water. So, like a shark that can’t stop swimming or it’ll die, I started moving. I just focused on the action of getting geared up, pushed away any thought at all of the insanity I was about to experience, tossed away all feelings of puking/fainting/dying a horrible death, and moved in the direction I needed to go to do what I had to do.
Here’s the drill. You pull on your wetsuit, hood, booties and gloves and someone puts weight belts around your waist and ankles so you don’t float around the cage like Tinker Bell. They help you adjust your mask, clip the regulator hose to your weight vest, and hand you the regulator so you can put it in your mouth. The air supply comes from a hookah system on the boat so no need to deal with a heavy-ass oxygen tank. There are two cages already in the clear blue water, attached to the boat, waiting for you. Off the side of the boat, flanking each cage, a shark wrangler stands and tosses out chum to attract the sharks. These guys are actually really skilled at what they’re doing — they’re not just randomly tossing chum out. It’s kind of like a rodeo in the ocean. They’re the cowboys.
When you’re ready you walk out towards a horizontal metal ladder looking thing that’s bobbing in the water. You careful sit down. You have a lot of weight on and toppling to the right or left into the water ain’t a good move. My style of sitting resembled a clumsy, weighted down, ugly as hell Southern debutant curtsey – if the deb landed on her ass. Then you scoot on your ass across the metal bars to the cage and pray. Next you flip around (again, awkwardly since it’s tough to look graceful with weights and a mask and abject terror in your way) and face the boat so you can climb down the ladder into the cage. The guy who has been standing there making sure you don’t fall into the water with the sharks hands you your camera, you give a nervous wave, and then… you climb down. You hear the top of the cage clink shut.
My adrenaline surged and my eyeballs darted in all directions, kind of like a meth addict just hitting their peak of paranoia. I climbed down, wide-eyed and full of fear. Since you have the weights on you kind of thud to the bottom of the cage if you’re not careful. I gave a wave to the two people in the cage, poorly feigning calmness. You obviously can’t talk underwater so you’re alone with your thoughts and a few hand signals you maybe picked up from SCUBA. All I could hear was the regulator and bubbles and my breathing, which I tried to keep as smooth and steady as possible, no matter what…
Click here to READ PART TWO!
All photos taken at Guadelupe Island, August 2011