Harrowing ordeal for divers as great white shark gets stuck inside their cage

Four divers at a remote island off Mexico are fortunate to be alive after a great white shark severed the air hose leading to their submersed cage, then jammed its massive body inside the cage through its open top.

The nightmarish scenario played out last month at Guadalupe Island, 160 miles west of the Baja California port of Ensenada. "The first minute or so felt like a horrific earthquake underwater, and I kept thinking, 'We just need to wait this out,' " writes Katie Yonker, operations director for Bluewater Dive Travel, in a trip report. "But in the back of my head I feared the cage would break apart and this would be the end for me."

The Nautilus Explorer divers had entered a tall, open-topped cage with an upper viewing platform called a balcony, and were lowered to what was considered an ideal depth at which to view sharks.

Air was supplied via a hose on the vessel. An emergency air supply valve was fixed inside the cage.

Yonker was inside the cage with a diver master named Yann, and passengers named David and Katie B. A chum bag was attached to the cage to provide scent for nearby sharks.

The shark, measuring 13 to 15 feet, approached Yann and Katie B., who were exposed on the balcony.

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Cage divers at Guadalupe Island keep an eye on a great white shark. Photo (generic): Courtesy of Dmitry Vasyanovich

Yann pushed the shark away, and moments later the shark bit through the air hose, "creating an explosion of air bubbles."

Yann quickly turned on the emergency air valve, so the divers seemed to be OK. But then, in what can be described as a freak occurrence, the shark entered the balcony area and swam vertically into the cage, becoming hopelessly stuck.

Yann managed to stay above the shark but the other three divers hunkered beneath the shark, as it began to thrash in an attempt to free itself.

"We stood, gripping the cage in an attempt to stay upright, while the cage circled back and forth and at one point was at a 45-degree angle," Yonker writes. "Yann's regulator had been knocked out of his mouth by the shark, so he retreated to the surface to catch a breath and to tell the crew to bring up the cage."

After the cage was hauled to the surface, there remained the problem of exiting with the shark still lodged inside. (Note: A similar incident occurred last year at Guadalupe Island; Facebook video is embedded below and the cage breach begins at -1:02.)

Katie B. made it safely, and David followed. Yonker states that when she tried to ascend, "it was nearly impossible to see anything because the shark was blocking much of the exit and visibility was limited by all the air bubbles and blood [from the chum bag] in the water…. I could see the boat, but had no idea how I would get around the shark.”

She eventually made it onto the boat, however, and the crew freed the shark after an arduous process that involved tying a rope around its tail. It’s not clear how severely the shark was injured during the ordeal.

RELATED: Diver risks losing arm by touching great white shark

Yonker states that afterward she was sad for the shark:

“To be clear, this was in no way a shark attack. It was a shark enticed by the scent of tuna, not humans. I suspect (and hope) that this incident prompts some changes in the operations, mainly to the design of the cages so that this cannot happen again."

Commercial dive operators at Guadalupe Island began by using only surface cages with protective bars all around. Over time, they began to experiment with submersible cages and those that that offer far less protection, to enhance viewing and photographic opportunities for passengers.

It could be only a matter of time before somebody pays the ultimate price for diving without adequate protection.

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