The Cage Diving Experience and Photo Tips
Mexico’s Isla de Guadalupe is located off Baja about 400km (250 miles) southwest of Ensenada. During the autumn months, the island is home to a variety of natural prey for white sharks, including yellowfin tuna, Guadalupe fur seals, California sea lions, and northern elephant seals.
The abundance of these food sources draws large numbers of white sharks to Guadalupe from August through December. The earlier months of August and September tend to see the arrival of smaller male sharks, while the females and some of the bigger males are more prevalent in October and November. Deciding on when to go depends on what you’re hoping to see. One of the disadvantages of waiting for the bigger sharks is that their presence often results in the absence of smaller sharks. The exceptional visibility at the island, which can be upwards of 30m (100’), coupled with the large white shark population, make Guadalupe one of the best places in the world to photograph the species.
Trips to Guadalupe are on a live-aboard basis, as the boat trek from Ensenada to Guadalupe can take 20 hours or more. So, when you’re not diving, be prepared to be stuck on the boat. The volcanic island is a biosphere reserve, and while you might be anchored close to shore, don’t expect to set foot on the island.
A white shark opens his jaws at the surface. While sharks are often depicted with their jaws open, these moments are generally the exception and not the norm.
An ambush predator, the great white shark relies on stealth and attacks unsuspecting prey by charging vertically from below.
A Little Bit About Cage Diving
Cage diving is significantly different than open water scuba or free diving, in the sense that you are somewhat in a fixed position. And rather than being neutrally buoyant, the goal is to be significantly negatively buoyant when in the cage, so that your feet are firmly on the cage floor. I typically have a 50lbs. vest and 5lbs. ankle weights on each leg when I get in a cage. Continuous air is supplied via hookah attached to an air compressor on-board the boat.
Depending on the dive operator, you might have two different cage options. Surface cages are the standard type of cage that most operators employ. These are typically attached to the back of the boat and the tops of the cages float on the surface. Some dive operators also offer submersible cages, which are boarded at the surface and then lowered via winch to deeper water.
Activity at the surface is often almost circus-like when bait is employed to attract the sharks, whereas the behavior of the sharks down deeper can often be much more “laid-back.” Dive duration in the submersible cage is dependent on your depth, just as would be the case with an open water dive. Dive time in the surface cage (max depth of about 3m at the bottom of the cage) is limited only by available space, and demand based on the number of divers aboard. If cage space is available, you can practically spend all day in the water at the surface.
“Tzitzimitl,” a large female great white who is missing the upper portion of her caudal fin (tail), is another well-known shark who has visited the island for many years. This shot was taken from about 10m down and gives you a good look at the two surface cages above.
When the sharks are just below the surface, you can sometimes get an interesting reflection above the shark, depending on the light and surface conditions.
Getting the Shot
Being stuck in a cage presents a set of limitations that you don’t typically have when open water diving. It’s basically like the underwater equivalent of shooting from a blind (used in topside wildlife photography) - you’re stuck in a stationary spot. That being said, there is a little bit of wiggle room in the cages to move around, and there are openings in the cages to allow even larger rigs through, so you’re not limited to shooting in single direction.
I shoot entirely with natural light at Guadalupe, though I have seen others shoot with strobes from both the surface and submersible cages. Strobes tend to get in the way if you have a cage-full of photographers, so that is something to bear in mind. There is generally more room in the submersible cages at the lower depth, so strobes are a good idea since they’re more practical here, but at the surface I feel like they’re more of a hassle than they’re worth.
My best shots are generally achieved when the sharks are in close, so I recommend shooting with a wide or ultra-wide angle lens. I tend to shoot between 17-24mm for almost all of my shots. I prefer shooting rectilinear, though I know plenty of underwater shooters who are partial to fisheye lenses. So, go with your instinct and preference.
The curious and camera-friendly “Cal Ripfin” was the most well-known shark documented at the island from 2001-2011. When he was around, you could pretty much guarantee that your camera would get a workout.
“Lucy” is well-known female great white shark who has been visiting Isla de Guadalupe for years. He uniquely damaged caudal fin (tail), along with her generally curious nature, make her an easy individual to identify.
Some shark are more curious than others. Having a wide-angle lens is a must when shooting the sharks who like to get up-close and personal (shot at 17mm).
I tend to use spot metering and try to meter on the upper-grey part of the shark. I always shoot RAW, which makes dealing with white balance (among other things) a lot easier in post. At the surface, the light is generally quite good, allowing for low ISO settings. I’m not hard-core about having to shoot completely in manual mode when underwater, so I opt for aperture-priority mode. Depending on what direction a shark is coming from and its depth, exposure might vary tremendously. I dial in my aperture and leave the exposure up to the camera – this way I’m ready for sharks coming in from any direction.
Once you’ve got the technical aspects down, I really feel like the most important aspects to capturing images of wildlife are persistence and patience, and that holds true when shooting white sharks. Every once in a while you might get that lucky shot, but most of the great shots are the ones that you work for. The more time that you spend in the water with the sharks, the more likely you are to get the shots that really stand out. Each individual white shark has its own unique traits and behaviors. Spend some time paying attention to how the sharks move and behave. Certain aspects of the individual sharks’ behavior can become predictable. For example, some sharks tend to come in from the port side of the boat more often than the starboard side, and vice versa. Some sharks are shy, while others are very curious about camera equipment. If you have multiple sharks around and you know one of them is more curious, you can get set up for a good close-up and just wait for the curious shark to come in. While there is always a level of unpredictably when dealing with wild animals, there are some behaviors that can be reasonably anticipated. You won’t pick up on these immediately, but if you spend a little time studying the individual sharks you might get a sense of when the ideal photo opportunity is going to present itself. It’s not a coincidence that some of the same individual sharks appear in so many of my photos.
Also, be prepared to spend some time staring at empty blue water. As photographers, we’re on the schedule of the wildlife we’re photographing, not vice versa. The shark action can go from non-existent to crazy in a moment’s notice. A lot of people tend to give up on the day when there is long lull in the action. This is where patience and persistence can really pay off. I’ve had plenty of dives in which I was the only one left in the water on slow days when sharks decided to show up and give me my own personal photo shoot with them.
Last but not least, remember that you’re sharing the water with a wild predatory species. These sharks aren’t out to get you like the shark from Jaws, but they do have the capacity inflict serious harm. Treat them with the caution and respect that they deserve. No shot is worth risking the well being of yourself or your subject matter.
Getting to know the individual sharks can help with anticipating the shot. This particular individual (nicknamed “Cal Ripfin” due to his damaged dorsal fin) was one of the most curious and camera-friendly sharks to ever visit Isla de Guadalupe.
The position of the sun and the calmness of the surface can created a varied array of light patterns on the sharks. This male white shark is illuminated by an ever-changing pattern of light as he passes by just below the surface.
A male white shark swims gracefully through the blue depths below. The bottom drops to depths of 60-90m (200-300’) not far from shore at Guadalupe, creating a visibly bottomless view from above.
Book Your Trip to Guadalupe
- September 24 - 29, 2016. Group trip led by Bluewater Travel's Tim Yeo.
About the Author
George Probst has been fascinated with sharks ever since he can remember. He has been diving with and photographing sharks since 2006, and hopes that his photography will help to promote responsible wildlife conservation through education and awareness. A hobbyist photographer and diver, George spends his working days as a digital media specialist and user experience (UX) advocate.
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