WHO: Tom, 40, and Michelle Kelley, 37, of Norfolk
WHEN: One week in September
WHY: To do a cage-diving expedition to view great white sharks off the coast of Isla Guadalupe on the Pacific coast west of Baja California.
EXTREME GIFT: "I gave the trip to Tom for his 40th birthday in May," Michelle said. "He's always had a fascination with great white sharks." Although Tom was thrilled with his gift, he was worried that Michelle wouldn't enjoy it because not only does she get seasick, she usually doesn't join him in his more daring activities, such as sky diving and bungee jumping. But this time, she said, "I had to make sure that no matter what, I was going to get in that cage."
NOT TRULY DIVING: "It's not as difficult as it sounds, and you're not technically diving," Tom said. "The top of the cage is at the top of the water, and you don't have to be a certified diver to go in the cage, although it does help for the comfort level. You have a regulator in your mouth but the tank is on the boat." The Kelleys are both certified divers. "I researched it for so long," Michelle said. "The only real danger is when sharks breach the cage, where their snouts get in it." She said she chose the tour operator Absolute Adventures (sharkdiver.com) because they had never had a cage breach.
RENDEZVOUS: In San Diego, the Kelleys joined 13 other adventurers from around the country. Their 89-foot boat traveled for 20 hours to reach Guadalupe, a hot spot for shark viewing. The group, which lived aboard the boat, stayed off the island for three nights and Michelle was ill only on the ride out.
TAKING THE PLUNGE: The divers take hourlong turns in two 50-square- foot cages holding four to five divers each. The water temperature ranges from mid-60s to 70 degrees and the visibility was an impressive 100 feet. "We were in the second group to go in," Michelle said. "As soon as we anchored the boat, the chumming started and you could see the sharks swimming around," she said of the practice of baiting the water with meat and blood to attract predators. "There's an opening in the cage to take pictures with no bars in the way. The shark is coming right at you and it quickly takes a turn. That's when you think, this is absolutely insane, " she said.
STUCK ON SHARKS: "You don't realize how big they are," Tom said. "They're 12 to 16 feet in length, but also the longer they get, the wider they get. The old thought about great whites is they're mindless killing machines, but they're not very aggressive. They watch you very intently and they move slow and deliberate and then all of a sudden take a fast turn and do a sneak attack." After a while, people were taking breaks from the cage, but not Tom, who figures he viewed sharks for a total of 18 hours. "I was down there every opportunity they gave me."