Jump into a shark cage off Neptune Islands and you’ll find it hard not to be captivated by the grace and power of the great white.
“You have to look more shocked; more terrified,” come the instructions from a young, Californian director. He’s barking orders through a megaphone at me and a small group of other volunteers from a jetty in Port Lincoln.
We’re standing on the top deck of a shark caging boat about to embark on a voyage, and I’ve foolhardily agreed to be an extra in a low-budget Hollywood horror tentatively titled The Shark Cage.
It’s no doubt gone straight to DVD, but if you do come across it, I’ll be the chap feigning horror at what will no doubt be a very messy shark caging mishap.
The irony doesn’t escape me, because I’m here to witness the beauty of the great white shark and demystify this beast of the imagination, vilified for so long thanks to another director.
As we start the three-hour journey out to Neptune Islands and their surrounding marine park, 27 kilometres off the coast of the forebodingly named Cape Catastrophe, we leave clichéd portrayals of this magnificent animal behind.
The Calypso Star Charters crew informs us of the research taking place into the great whites that pass through here to feed on the islands’ 45,000-odd New Zealand fur seals.
Great whites are true ocean-goers; one CSIRO study tagged a 3.5-metre female, named Columba, at Neptune Islands and recorded her 3600-kilometre swim all the way up to Exmouth in WA’s north and back again, a staggering six-month journey.
“Our charters give the scientific community a chance to study the animal,” says skipper and general manager Andrew Wright. “Otherwise a university team might take a boat out there to tag one, which could cost them up to $5000; wasted if no sharks turn up. Now they can hitch a ride with us.”
I’m scanning the waters off the bow for signs of Columba’s dorsal fin… nothing. But this is the best part of any thriller; the anticipation of a momentous arrival.
On the way out we learn that this time last year, a pod of orcas had hunted and killed a great white off Neptune Islands in front of guests on a caging expedition, a real clash of apex predators if ever there was one.
Following the attack, the great whites were seemingly scared off from feeding here, none appearing for 12 weeks. It threw the whole shark caging industry into doubt.
There can’t be many things that would scare a great white, but hopefully they’re feeling confident about their place in the food chain today.
My fellow cagers are a relatively young crowd, no doubt looking for the adrenalin rush that being inches from the world’s largest predatory fish will deliver. But after an hour of inactivity moored off the wind-blasted outcrops of rock that constitute Neptune Islands, a truly wild and remote place, they’re sunbathing on the top deck glued to their phones, some recovering from sea sickness.
Two of the crew pour berley (chum) into the water off the stern – a bloody, fishy mixture derived from the local tuna – in an attempt to attract nearby sharks; this is essentially fishing after all.
I stare at the opaque surface of the ocean for any sign of a dark, lethal body lurking there, but after half-an-hour I begrudgingly decide to join the millennials.
Just as I turn there’s a scream and I swivel in time to see a great white leap clean out of the water, 30 metres or so from the boat, hanging in the air for a second before crashing down.
“Shark!” come the resounding cries as people rush to the stern.
The shark was surprisingly small, a juvenile, in fact a relatively rare sight here. “You don’t normally see two-metre sharks out here,” says Andrew.
“They’re a bit like a lad who’s too young to have a beer in the local pub; you don’t turn up to Neptune until your jaws are big and strong enough to catch a seal, otherwise you could end up on the menu yourself. The largest I’ve seen was maybe 6.2 metres… a big animal. They get bigger, but they get big by being wise; they know not to go near a fishing boat.”
The juvenile great white fails to repeat its acrobatics and another couple of hours pass with nothing but the occasional yelp of a seal from the islands.
This isn’t a canned wildlife experience, out here in the Southern Ocean, three hours by boat through roiling seas from Port Lincoln, it’s a very real adventure; you could see nothing at all.
Indeed, the government, guided by CSIRO data, demands that four days per fortnight are inactivity days so that the sharks’ behaviour doesn’t become habitual.
Suddenly there’s commotion on deck, and I look to see a big great white rise up and skirt the surface before soaring beneath the boat; its huge girth surprises me. The cage has been lowered off the bow already but I have an anxious 20-minute wait for my turn to get in.
With a diving regulator lowered in so as to breathe a couple of metres below the surface, and a wetsuit on, I finally have time to appreciate the sharks in their cold, blue world.
These are surely evolution’s most efficiently designed predators; slick torpedoes powered by scarily muscled tails, with mouths of some 300 or so serrated teeth, and dark grey on top so hapless prey can’t see them coming.
Another adult shark arrives and the pair cruise past, peering at us with their opaque black circled eyes. While others are busy capturing all this on GoPros, I sit on the bottom of the cage and observe the sharks as they change the direction of their approach; my fellow divers oblivious to them coming up from beneath us.
They’re inquisitive, elegant powerful animals, and it’s fascinating to have my human sense of superiority reduced to nothing in their presence.
Before we leave, our boat reverses into a cove so we can get a better look at the prey. Fur seals bask in the sun, while others take to the water to hunt fish, seemingly oblivious to the apex predators lying in wait.
Who would’ve thought this small outpost of rock here in the Southern Ocean could support such a thriving ecosystem? It’s a far more interesting proposition than any film could ever hope to match.
Both sides of the berley
Using berley can be divisive, but there are benefits that come from shark tourism, too.
Shark caging is somewhat controversial, with claims that the use of berley (chum) can affect the behaviour of great whites. On one side of the debate are fears that sharks will associate berley with people and that their migration and hunting patterns could be disrupted by the presence of tourist boats.
“Nothing beats watching nature up close, acting naturally in its natural habitat. But a shark acting naturally does not fit our schedules and itineraries, thus shark cage diving operators must resort to the only thing that will get sharks to overcome their apprehension and swim extremely close to boats and humans: blood,” says National Geographic writer Andrew Evans.
“As sophisticated predators, sharks can follow the scent of blood and fish oils in the water… When chum is dumped into the water, humans are triggering a response from all the sharks in the area, without delivering the payload that sharks would expect in the wild.”
The other side focuses on the benefits that a greater understanding of the animal brings due to the scientific research that the caging boats assist with, and a chance to educate the public of this much-maligned animal, not to mention the economic gains to the wider Port Lincoln community.
“Shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity a lot of the time – they pass through here and hang around Neptune Islands for seals – they’re not congregating off Bondi are they?” says Andrew Wright of Calypso Star Charters.
“They’re opportunistic hunters and when there is an attack it’s absolutely tragic, but there are no fences in the ocean and these predators can go as they please. It’s easy to blame the shark cage diving industry when there’s a tragedy – but fishermen attract sharks with bait, so if you’re looking at it like that there are many factors. We operate in one location, 40 nautical miles from the nearest town. There are many surf breaks literally around the corner from identified seal colonies.
“The SA government, acting on a report by CSIRO, has restricted the use of berley and we continue to try and limit it, having reduced its use by 30 per cent. This is the only spot in the country where this is allowed, and it’s a big country. None of the sharks live here, they pass through, spending on average 12–14 days here; they’re not sticking around because of us, there are 45,000 seals here.
“Having enforced non-activity days obviously restricts business, but at the end of the day it’s in our interests to work with CSIRO and the government to preserve the natural order of things, which will in turn lead to a sustainable business. Shark cage diving helps research, without it this science will be lost (or a lot more expensive) and attacks will still occur. Jobs would also be lost; cage diving brings more than $14 million to the region annually.”
Shark caging in Australia is a tightly controlled industry, but in the end it’s up to the individual to decide for themselves whether or not to come face to face with the great white.
The Details: Getting to Neptune Islands
Getting there: Qantas flies regularly to Port Lincoln via Adelaide.
Staying there: Port Lincoln Hotel: This modern hotel looking out to the Southern Ocean is a fine place to unwind before heading out to Neptune Islands. Calypso Star Charters will pick you up from here in the early morning. From $155.
Playing there: Calypso Star Charters: There are two daily departures on permitted activity days; $495 per adult diver. When there’s a no-show divers get a $100 refund (back to the spectator price) and receive $200 off the next tour.