Looking for a close encounter of the marine kind? Sharks, dolphins, seals, whales… Australian Traveller shows you which spots to avoid, when to dip the toe, and where it’s safe to dive right in.
By David Whitley
Snorkel 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 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
Swim with dolphins
As a famous fuzzy haired German scientist would no doubt agree, everything is relative. It would be impossible to say a flaxen-haired, hourglass-shaped woman with angular cheekbones is beautiful if you couldn’t compare her to a dumpy, sallow-faced hag. You couldn’t claim the Taj Mahal was large and grandiose without the reference point of a grimy inner-city bedsit.
Similarly, you can’t properly absorb concepts like “elegant” and “graceful” without first experiencing what it’s like to be a clunky, oafish human (for the most part, easily accomplished), then hopping into the water with a dolphin. The contrast is remarkable. In the water, the sleek, silver creatures cut through their domain effortlessly, turning in natural arcs and leaping fluidly upwards. Outside of the water, perched on the edge of the deck for this particular dolphin dive, are 15 humans in ill-fitting wetsuits, jerking away as they attempt to stretch rubber fins over their feet. After much tugging, one woman finally manages to slip hers over a heel, then promptly falls onto her back. Meanwhile, others struggle with the logistics of snorkel and mask. Resonating above the sounds of the boat and the sea is the agonising thwack of someone testing just how much slack there is in a mask strap. Another unzips his wetsuit for the third time, delves down and rearranges his board shorts so they don’t cut off his circulation under the big, black idiot costume. Eventually, bulges in all the wrong places, overly tightened masks threatening permanent scarring around the head, we’re ready to get into water with the lovely, cutesy-wutesy dolphins.
Oh, what a sight. Fin tripping over fin, John Wayne-esque legs splayed, we waddle hopelessly then half jump, half tumble into the bay. It’s at this point we begin to think the dolphins must be in absolute stitches. What are these clumsy things that have come to play with us? Do they do tricks? Do you reckon they can leap through hoops of fire or balance balls on their noses?
Bemused, the dolphins curl around gleefully in front of us as we flail hopelessly towards them. We’re the marine equivalent of an uncoordinated man attempting to do the robot in order to impress a mysterious, gorgeous, woman whose slinky, sinewy movements have the dance floor captivated.
But we do have a secret weapon, however: we can pull funny faces. Oh, yes. And according to our crew, dolphins are suckers for a rubber-featured comic. Jim Carrey would get on well with them. The reason dolphins hang around with us is that we entertain them almost as much as the other way around. They’re inherently playful critters, driven by a sense of fun. One of their favourite pastimes, as we discovered on our journey to this spot, is riding along in the wake of the boat. You’d expect this to be for a boring reason like helping them swim faster, but no, it’s purely because they enjoy it.
And this is why we’re all behaving like performing monkeys, waving our arms around and gurning. We’re trying to keep them occupied and entertained so that they’ll stay with us. Get bored and they’ll just swim off elsewhere, leaving us to flounder shamefaced and struggle to heave ourselves back on the boat. It’s probably this playfulness that makes us love them – we wish we could have that attitude in life ourselves.
Even a dolphin’s face looks inquisitive, as though there’s a wry, quizzical smile constantly sneaking across it. We’re not the ones getting the show here – they are. Eventually, of course, they decide to go their own way, and we’re not allowed to follow. We do receive a parting gift though, as one of the pair we’ve spent 20 minutes clowning around in front of leaps out of the water. Whether it’s a round of applause or a salute, we’re not quite sure, but judging by the grins on the performers’ faces, it’s been more than all right on the night.