Bucket List Adventure: Diving With Great White Sharks
By Rowena Mynott
Everyone has a bucket list. It may not be a formal written list, but we all have dreams in life that we hope to fulfill; be it high adventure, personal development or that once-in-a-lifetime experience before we kick the proverbial bucket.
Jaws is one of those iconic movies that had a profound impact on many back in the 1970s; an impact that was to continue for almost 30 years. For most this came in the form of fear: fear of the ocean, fear of sharks, fear of the unknown. For me, watching this movie as a young child, it installed in me a passion for all things oceanic – especially sharks, and it was in that moment watching Jaws I decided that I wanted to dive with great whites. Twenty something years on and I can now tick it off my own bucket list.
Upon landing at sunset in Port Lincoln, a 30-minute flight from Adelaide in South Australia, we were greeted by ‘Frank’, our taxi driver. Frank was a small, frail looking old man with a wit of steel. During the short cab ride from the airport to the marina, we soon became experts on the history of Port Lincoln, the current state of affairs in the town, found the best drinking spots and even had the opportunity to buy a bookshop – albeit his own failing one! We would not have the opportunity to enjoy the local watering holes for long, or visit Frank’s bookstore, as we were here to dive with some of the biggest fish in the sea: great white sharks.
Upon arrival, our destination – The Marina Hotel – enveloped us in the warmth of its outdoor heaters. As a gaggle of ten divers with multiple large bags, we raised more than one eyebrow amongst the locals, and I chuckled to myself watching a scene reminiscent of a western movie just before the big shoot out, as the entire room stopped what they were doing to turn and look as we walked through the front doors. It was here we met our fellow divers for the first time: a group of seven from our local dive shop, a photographer on assignment for a Japanese dive magazine and two brand new squeaky clean divers who had chosen this, the pinnacle of diving for some, as their first dive after their open water course. After a lovely meal, some musings on the journey ahead of us, and a few beers, it was time to head to the boat, meet the crew, crawl into bed and hope that the terrible weather we had arrived to find would clear up very soon. It didn’t!
The big seas and strong winds that greeted us the next morning weren’t really compatible with diving in a cage and so in order to avoid the four-metre swells and 50 kilometre per hour winds out to sea, we spent our first day of the trip diving under a jetty in Tumby Bay with leafy sea dragons. With skins that radiated the colours of the rainbow you could be forgiven for thinking that they would be an easy find. It took all ten pairs of eyes to spot the four individuals lurking amongst the kelp. Not possessing the flamboyant nature of some beauties, it turned out that leafy sea dragons are a little camera shy, turning their heads each time a diver approached to capture their dainty faces. There was other life here under the jetty too. Amongst the carpet of beer bottles, the car tyres and fishing line, large crabs could be seen possessively snapping their claws at anything that swam by and the occasional fish would lazily swim through this rubbish dump they called home. After we had acclimatized to the 14-degree water temperature, it was time to pack up and start our eight-hour journey out to the North Neptune Islands, next stop Antarctica!
It turns out that, if you are a fan, diving with a great white shark is a little like meeting your favourite celebrity for the first time. It was a very surreal experience. After all, these animals are in the news on a fairly regular basis, in movies, books and magazines. Seeing them in the flesh was magnificent. I was starstruck! The journey out had been a little rough with both divers and crew alike enduring some heavy seasickness. Seas were still rolling but the excitement of finally achieving what we had come all this way to do wiped any residual sickness away. The boat preparations only served to build the anticipation. There was chum to prepare and release, the cages had to be winched off the decks and secured for diving and divers needed to suit up.
The Neptune Islands consist of two main groups of islands, North and South Neptunes. Together they make up a remote conservation area at the mouth of Spencer Gulf in South Australia. The surrounding low-lying islands reveal why the sharks are so partial to this area. Numerous seals bask on the shoreline whilst the pups frolic in the waves still within sight of the adults. In fact, this group of islands is home to Australia’s largest colony of New Zealand fur seals. The carefree behaviour of the abundant wildlife, the wild seas and the mounting anticipation started to put our senses on high alert.
It wasn’t long before the first shark was spotted and I received my first reality check on great whites. Often dramatically described as black shadows surging up from the deep, the animals I was observing were anything but. Their skin glowed gold as the Sun’s rays stroked their bodies just beneath the ocean surface, and their graceful swimming style could put any synchronized swimmer to shame. Whilst the dive preparations continued, our curious onlookers would occasionally come forth for a closer look, only one or two at a time, slowly swimming the length of the boat before disappearing into the depths again.
Seals are not particularly small (or slow) creatures and, not surprisingly, given the necessity to hunt down said seals and as a result of consuming all that blubber, the great whites that visit this area are not small either. These sharks are the big boys and girls of the shark world ranging from 2.5 metres to over 5.5 metres in length. Keeping this in mind, I was in for reality check number two as I climbed carefully into the cage that was now bouncing off (and into) the rear dive platform of our vessel, Princess II. Fingers still intact, breathing air supplied from the surface and weighted to the cage floor with enough weights to sink a small elephant, I started to scan the ocean. I have to admit to a moment’s disappointment at not seeing multiple behemoths cruising the cage eyeing us up for their next meal. After berating myself for being so naively brainwashed when I should have known better, I settled in and waited.
The surface cage is tied to the stern of the boat and sits level with the ocean surface, making it very convenient for entry and exit and for those without a dive ticket as sharks can be viewed from this cage on snorkel. There is a downside however, as a surface position means also being subjected to the worst swell, currents and surges the ocean has to offer. The first surface cage dive certainly was rocking and rolling and gave us a better work out than any gym could. Toes hooked under the foot bar, arms wrapped around the steel upright bars and with cameras poised ready and waiting, the sharks slowly started to appear before our eyes.
Cruising slowly on the outskirts of the curtains of trevally that, whilst waiting for scraps of burley, risked becoming lunch themselves, were our sharks. Beautiful, majestic, big sharks! Although I was surprised at the small amount of burley being used on the trip, sitting in the cage watching fresh blood wafting towards us took a bit of getting used to. Of course these whites are most commonly found at depth and so most of the burley is reserved for the surface dives to tempt them in for a look. Despite fresh blood in the water and tuna gills attached to a rope, these sharks did not present as the thrashing, wild, monstrous creatures that most of the images used in the media show them to be. Rarely did an individual come in and take the bait and when they did most of the time there was very little thrashing and gnashing. Their comfortable cruise mode well enabled me to imagine their hunting speed and I could understand the hesitancy of the seals, on the surrounding islands, to enter the water.
The subject of baited dives is a contentious one. Those that may not be so passionate about sharks are of the opinion that they contribute to shark bites, while some conservationists believe it’s not good practice to introduce a false feeding strategy and potential shark/boat collisions could endanger the sharks. Before diving on this trip I have to admit I was leaning towards the anti-shark baiting argument, but observing this practice in action and the reactions of the sharks, there is little doubt in my mind that on the whole, the sharks bear no ill effects from this practice when it is used responsibly; that last word being a key one.
Seeing great whites on the surface is one thing, they were visiting us, but to descend to the ocean depths, away from the safety of the boat, we truly start to enter their world, and the sharks seem to know it too. Descending in the bottom cage was a very strange experience. Even having no fear of these animals I couldn’t shake the comparisons of feeling like a worm on a hook as we were lowered into the depths. Ocean swells meant that as we were lowered the cage took on a tilt of 45 degrees – an interesting experience reminiscent of an underwater rollercoaster! Sitting just above the ocean floor allows the bottom cage to swing with the boat rather than bounce and jar. The trevally were less down here but still quite abundant making it difficult to see the sharks that patrolled just beyond – I never thought I’d be saying a 5.5-metre shark was difficult to see!
Playing voyeur to the great whites’ everyday life gave us a couple of interesting encounters. Every time I recount my trip to the sharks, I think twice about describing this first encounter, purely because of preconceived ideas that the reader might have. But then I realise that if I don’t tell it, those ideas will remain, unchallenged. It was my one potentially sensationalist image from the trip. We had not been down in the bottom cage for long when a large shark appeared and started circling. She seemed to be pretty interested in this strange underwater phenomenon and eyed us up cautiously. After a while she was brave enough to come closer for a more detailed investigation, which was done by mouthing at the cage. Now I could call this ‘chewing’, or ‘biting’ or ‘attacking’ but that really would be misleading. Being a fish, sharks obviously have no hands with which to investigate objects, and with so many sensory nerve endings around their snout, their mouth is the next best thing to a hand. There was no malice in her investigations, the cage did not shake, none of us were fearful (or injured) and she was not hurt by her actions at all. After a few mouthings, she had figured us out and resumed her leisurely swim under the hull of the boat. It turned out that she was a new shark to the area – an exciting revelation. The second encounter was reminiscent of something more commonly seen when observing dolphins at play. The sea floor of the Neptune Islands is fairly barren, comprised of sand and the occasional rock and bit of seaweed. This particular shark had been cruising around for a while when it passed over a small rocky outcrop, gently snatching up a piece of seaweed as it passed. It held it in its mouth for a short time before releasing it again, revealing what curious creatures these great whites actually are.
All in all we saw 16 sharks, an incredible amount for such endangered creatures. The Rodney Fox Shark Dive crew were fantastic. Andrew’s knowledge and passion for the sharks really shone through and each night he regaled us with tales of sharks, educational sessions or photo slideshows of some of his favourite individuals. Jen was the perfect host, catering to our every need, and her wonderful cooking caused most of our wetsuits to shrink during the trip! Cap’n Ned kept us safe on board whilst the team of volunteers were there to assist in any way possible. I look forward to diving with the crew and the sharks again very soon.