Looking for a close encounter of the marine kind? Sharks, dolphins, seals, whales . . . AT shows you which spots to avoid, when to dip the toe, and where it’s safe to dive right in. 
By David Whitley

SNORKELLING WITH SEA LIONS

We have a curious mental image of seals. As a general rule, they’re thought of in two contexts. The first is dying. Let’s face it – when we’re talking about mass culls, is there any other animal for which we get into specific detail by naming the particular instrument used to kill them? Try sitting on a therapist’s couch and free-associating the word “seal.” It’s not unlikely that the next word to spring to mind will be “clubbing.” If seals aren’t having their skulls bludgeoned in or getting scooped right off the shore by surfing Orcas, they’re being covered in oil and slowly poisoned in the wake of yet another tanker run aground on a rocky coastline.

The second way we look at seals is a little more pleasant. They are, whenever the monkey is taking its annual leave, the clowns of the animal kingdom. They honk like car horns, clap their fins together like primary school children trying to see who and clap the loudest, and balance beach balls on their noses with utmost precision.

In short, therefore, we don’t actually know much about seals. Sure, there are the fuzzy, stereotyped images imprinted from an early age, but most of us have never even got slightly close to these endearingly huggable beasts. 
The good news is that they’re very playful, and more than happy to give you the time of day if you pop by to say hello. Baird Bay, on the western side of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, is home to a large colony of Australian sea lions. Now, to the nitpicking zoologist these are completely different entities to seals. However, they look very much like seals and don’t bear even the faintest resemblance to lions, so let’s embrace both common sense and categorical inaccuracy at the same time, shall we?

The Australian sea lion is a rare specimen. There are thought to be only 12,000 of them in the entire world. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the population of a town like Lithgow, Nambour or, tourists kicked out, Broome. 
To be able to leap off the edge of a tub and splash around with seals in their front room is an incredible privilege. Barring a few stern elder males looking on in the background, seals – like their notoriously lark-loving dolphin soul mates – find humans fantastic fun. You dive to the bottom, they’ll watch, then copy. You splash around on the surface, they’ll give that a bash as well. After all, it wouldn’t be right to miss out on the fun, now, would it?

In a big theme park, you can probably expect this kind of behaviour, especially since they’re probably being bribed or bullied into doing it. But in the wild it’s a whole different thing. If they don’t feel like humouring you for a while, they can easily just toddle off around the corner and be generally antisocial. 
The Baird Bay seals are quite used to sharing, though. Dolphins also live in these waters, and it’s possible to swim with them as well. The odds of getting both of them next to you at the same time posing for a photo are a little slim, but both in one morning isn’t a problem.

Ocean Eco Experience Details
Baird Bay, South Australia 
www.bairdbay.com.au or (08) 8626 5017 
Guided tours can be arranged. The length of trip, vessel used and price vary depending on circumstances and number of passengers.
 

DIVE WITH GREAT WHITE SHARKS

There can be few practices as health-endangeringly dubious as dropping into the ocean and offering yourself up as bait for a Great White Shark. Whilst Jaws may have been a somewhat vilifying representation, let’s not beat around the bush here; Great Whites find humanity’s claim to the top spot on the food chain entirely risible. Those teeth are clearly not designed for ruminating on large amounts of grass, and if we’re offered up on a plate they’re not going to turn the feed down because we don’t come with a nice rocket salad.

Consequently, for buttock-tightening fear it’s almost impossible to top climbing into a dive cage as one of these hungry, ancient rulers of the sea prowls, waiting to pounce.

Unless you’re the carefree type who considers surfing around the seal colony at Philip Island, Victoria (the shark equivalent of McDonalds) a good idea, the only place you’ll get to see the daddy of sharks up close in this country is off the South Australian coast.

Four to eight-day expeditions are led by Rodney Fox and his son Andrew, and few people have more experience with the toothy apex predators than Mr Fox senior. For a start, half of him is still inside one.

In December 1963, Rodney got into one of those fights he was never going to win. A Great White attacked him, leaving him with a punctured diaphragm, ripped lung and a fully exposed abdomen and spleen. His veins were minutes away from collapsing and all the ribs on his left side were broken. Under the circumstances it seems a mite churlish to say he was lucky, but he survived – and came out with some excellent war wounds which will kill any pub boasting competition stone dead.

Since then, Fox has devoted his life to the creature that nearly took it, and not in a Hollywood-style “I must have my vengeance” manner, either. With the sort of immodesty that perhaps comes with surviving what he has, Fox boasts that he invented the very first shark diving cage, and has led more than 100 documentary filming sorties, running his nature-heavy tours from Adelaide. These take in the birdlife, sea lions and dolphins of the Neptune Islands, as well as the headlining act of the cage dives.

At a minimum $2995 per person, these expeditions are undeniably expensive. In fact, if all you want to do is tick shark-diving off your list, it’d be considerably cheaper to catch a return flight to Cape Town in South Africa and do a day trip. However, the Australian version is really a unique experience, allowing you to live aboard the good ship Falie on almost untouched waters, with restaurant-quality food and hotel-quality service.

Whether it’s good for the sharks (or ourselves) to encourage them to attack the cages by putting fresh meat in there is a sticky topic for debate. What’s certain is the intense difficulty of mulling over that particular ethical dilemma whilst one of nature’s most efficient killing machines pounds the bars inches from your face.

Rodney Fox Shark Experience Details 
(08) 8224 0042 
www.rodneyfox.com.au
From $2995