As the great white shark swims slowly past my cage, my heart feels as if it's up near my tonsils. My head is light, and my breathing is fast. Despite the regulator jammed in my mouth, I manage to yell "Wow!" (and a few less wholesome exclamations).
I've traveled 18 hours by boat to Guadalupe Island, Mexico, for just this moment. About 180 miles west of Baja California, Guadalupe is one of the best places in the world to see great whites. They migrate to the warm, clear water here after spending the summer feeding off the coast of California.
In his six years of organizing these trips, Paul "Doc" Anes says he's never had an expedition in which he didn't spot any sharks. Over a dinner of seared tuna and Land Shark Lager on his boat, he shares stories of seeing an 18-foot female great white that "looked like a school bus" and smaller, acrobatic males that caused huge splashes by leaping out of the water and landing on their backs or bellies. Indeed, the first shark that we see is a male--nicknamed Scar because of his mangled dorsal fin--who once jumped out of the water to bite off a boat's anchor.
I'm proof that anyone can go swimming with great whites, even if not everyone would. I've been scuba diving only once before, but participants don't need to be certified, because the cage doesn't descend much below the surface and the breathing apparatus is attached to an air tank that's on the boat instead of on the diver's back. I climb into the cage after just one short lesson.
Anes uses the heads and tails of the tuna we ate for dinner as shark bait. But the sharks don't devour the leftovers right away; they inspect them carefully first, as if they're foodies in a trendy restaurant. After determining that the bait is edible, the great whites attack it with explosive, slashing movements.
Though the length of the sharks is impressive, their girth astounds me even more. The great whites are as big around as minivans and look like submarines with teeth. But it's their eyes that leave the deepest impression. They aren't black, as they appear in photos and on TV. The irises are midnight blue, and the pupils glow orange like coals in a fire. As the mighty creatures cruise by, their eyes track you, watching you just as closely as you're watching them.
Where to see great whites
Neptune Islands, Australia
Champion spear fisherman Rodney Fox was attacked by a great white shark in the 1960s and spent the next 40 years taking folks to dive with sharks. His company, Great White Shark Expeditions, runs year-round boat tours from Port Lincoln, 175 miles west of Adelaide, to the Neptune Islands, about four hours away. Meals and diving gear are provided; wet suits can be rented. 011-61/8-8363-1788, rodneyfox.com.au, $1,750 per person (three days), $2,635 (five days). Shorter tours can be chartered.
Farallon Islands, California
The Farallon Islands, near San Francisco, have been a shark-diving destination since the late 1990s, when the BBC produced a documentary about great whites there. Incredible Adventures runs daylong shark-diving trips out of San Francisco on weekends from September through November. Meals and gear are provided. 800/644-7382, incredible-adventures.com/sharks_farallons.html, $875 per person (divers), $375 (topside watchers).
Cape Town, South Africa
Apex Predators, run by documentary filmmakers Chris and Monique Fallows, operates shark-diving trips from mid-April through mid-September. Tours depart from Simon's Town, just outside Cape Town, and range in length. Gear and meals are provided. 011-27/82-364-2738, apexpredators.com, $220 per person (one day), $1,100 (five days).
Guadalupe Island, Mexico
San Diego Shark Diving Expeditions runs tours from late August to November. Divers board the boat in Ensenada after a three-hour bus trip from San Diego. Meals are provided; gear must be rented. 619/299-8560, sdsharkdiving.com, $2,750 per person, double occupancy (five days), $3,150 (seven days).