In 2005, I began filming what was to become Island of the Great White Shark, a documentary on the white sharks of Isla Guadalupe, Baja and the important working relationship that exists between the shark diving operators and Mexican researchers. It took several seasons of filming at Isla Guadalupe, returning year after year, looking to grab one more shot that was needed for editing - at least that was always the excuse. Actually, any chance I got to see these amazing predators first hand and up close, eye to eye - well, I took it.
During one particular trip to the island, during the second season of filming, I had one of those special encounters, the memory of which has stuck in my mind and I hope I never give it up. We had been seeing sharks all day and, as is the case at Isla Guadalupe in the latter part of the season, they were mostly large females. Due to the rough and tumble nature of shark mating, mature females are often badly scarred. This comes from amorous males who secure their grip on the female prior to mating by biting her around the head and gills.
On this trip, I was filming within the cage - although I use that term rather loosely. Professionally, I tend to not use a cage but in my earlier years working with white sharks I would at least use the cage as a secure platform from which I would lean out into open water to get striking close-ups of the sharks as they pass by. Familiar and, for the most part, totally disinterested in the cages or the divers inside, the sharks, however, would become curious about this large protrusion (me!) extending from the cage into their domain.
Following a lull in shark activity, I was about to surface when out of the depths below a large female rose up to see what was going on. Attracted by the scent of fish (this was before restrictions were imposed on chumming), this 16-foot leviathan came into view and she was truly magnificent. At around 3,000 pounds, she was fully mature and perfect in shape and proportions, with hardly a scratch on her - absolutely stunning. I started to roll tape, hoping I would get a shot or two before she moved on.
Her name was "Mystery", given to her by researchers who have studied and cataloged the great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe. Sharks can be easily identified by various body markings and scars. Even the pattern of gray above and white below that runs along the side of the shark's body acts like a lasting fingerprint.
Mystery was quite curious with me and provided me with a wonderful close pass right in front of my lens before sniffing the bait floating in the water and then gliding off into the gloom, out of sight. "That was a really great shot," I thought.
And then she returned. Another close pass, another swing by the bait, and then you could see her cruise just along the edge of visibility. I was beginning to get a feel for her whereabouts, her preferred movement patterns, so I could anticipate her approach and ready myself for when she either approached the bait and then swung by to take another look at me, or vice versa.
Each encounter I expected to be the last and she would then move on to more interesting opportunities. But she stayed. And for the next hour and a half, I had an ongoing love affair with a gorgeous animal, the likes of which I have never seen since. When I returned home, I had marvelous new footage to add to my documentary. Mystery became the leading lady of Island of the Great White Shark and much of the natural beauty of these animals that I was able to convey to the viewer I owe all to her.
Mystery appeared the following season at Isla Guadalupe but, sadly, I have not seen her since nor have I heard of any reports of her being seen by other divers. The great white sharks of Isla Guadalupe are pretty regular in their migrations - from the island to the mid-Pacific and back again, over and over. It's been several years since I have last seen her and I worry that she may have met her end, perhaps at the hands of poachers or illegal shark fishing operations. White sharks are protected at Isla Guadalupe and within U.S. territorial waters, but their annual migrations take them well into unprotected waters.
Mystery. She may truly be a mystery now, but the memory of our brief time together - not as predator and prey, but as two intensively curious fellow creatures - will always remain as one of the highlights of my underwater filming career.
Island of the Great White Shark is available on DVD at Amazon.com and in gift shops at several major aquariums across the country. Learn more about the film and the white sharks of Isla Guadalupe at www.islandofthegreatwhiteshark.com.