Cage divers see sharks "up close and personal" in marine wildlife reserve off Mexican island

Great white shark population on the rise
Great white shark population on the rise 05:40

The great white shark is making a comeback in Mexico thanks to stronger environmental protections. The species' population has plunged by more than 70% in some places, but not off the coast of Mexico's Isla Guadalupe, where people pay thousands of dollars to cage dive with them.

"We are in one of the most pristine, incredible hotspots for great white sharks anywhere on the planet," said Andy Casagrande, an Emmy-winning filmmaker famous for his work on Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

Casagrande is also the leader of an expedition to a marine wildlife reserve protected by the Mexican government. Generations of great white sharks have been feeding there for millions of years.

"There's everything in the world they could ever want to eat here: dolphins, seals, turtles, tuna, cage divers — just kidding," Casagrande told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti.

Cage diving allows people to see the sharks "up close and personal," he said.

"The nice thing here is you get to really get insight on some of their behaviors, how they interact, their hierarchy amongst the size groups and also just how they interact with their prey," he said. "The visibility allows you to see some amazing things that you would never see anywhere else."

But the thrill is only the beginning. While divers marvel at the ocean's apex predators, Casagrande is gathering field data to share with scientists.

Casagrande calls himself a "cine-scientist." Explaining why, he said, "Cinema science is this idea I came up with ... it's the utilization of cinematography, cutting edge technology to help illustrate and perpetuate science and conservation."

"It basically makes science palatable for the masses," he added.

Marine conservationist Michael Scholl says that's the best weapon he has in the battle against what he feels is an unfair cultural stereotype.

"Obviously that's the shark that pops into everybody's head, the moment you mention the name shark, the shark from 'Jaws,'" Scholl said. "Sharks are not the monster that they've been made out to be ... It's probably one of the smallest mortality causes for human beings there is."

Asked to respond to critics of cage diving, who say it's not natural for sharks to be around humans in that way, Casagrande said, "Eco-tourism does often catch flack from skeptics that will say, well, you're throwing bait to these animals, these are wild animals, you shouldn't be feeding them ... the reality is, if these eco-tourist boats weren't out here, the people that would be feeding them would be poachers and fisherman that would be harvesting these white sharks."

Eco-tourism, he said, is "also a way that's garnered this area protection. There's big money in eco-tourism."  

Cage diving can also change people's minds about sharks, Scholl said.

"You see this beauty, you see this gracefulness," he said. "Getting people to see the sharks for what they are, basically, is a huge education." Then when people share their experiences with their friends, there is a "kind of a snowball effect" in changing perspectives, Scholl said.

Florida elementary school teacher Lauren Chesrown hopes to do just that.

"This was like the ultimate opportunity to bring science in the real world to my students," she said.

She shared her positive experience with her students, teaching them that sharks don't want to hurt people and that the health of the planet's oceans depends on them.