Backed against the corner of a cold steel cage, I grip my camera gear as it threatens to be sucked through the viewing gap and out into the icy blue. My heart is pumping hard. I try not to hold my breath as I stare into the silent deep. Seconds slow to prickly moments. Beyond the bubbles that encircle my head, and out of sight, the ominous shape of a great white shark shifts in the murky gloom, a silent sentinel patrolling its blue territory. Each approach offers the shark a chance to feed – and me a chance for a picture. The score so far: 35 stolen photographs to Giovanna versus three tuna heads to the great white wonder. So far, it’s hard to tell who’s getting the most out of the experience.
Last year, I was right here in this very spot, the Neptune Islands, six hours by boat off the coast of Port Lincoln, South Australia. At the time, I was vying for the same heart-pumping action. The temperate waters around the islands serve as the breeding grounds for thousands of New Zealand fur seals, which, in turn, serve as one of the great white’s favoured menu choices. But, as any fisherman will tell you, timing is everything and my last visit was timed too close to the end of the great white season. Alas, we left with our hearts un-pumped. On this, my second chance at a once in-a-lifetime opportunity, I wanted to ensure that I would miss nothing.
The three-day trip on the 169-tonne diving vessel, Princess II was an extraordinary adventure. Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating aspects of the trip was the chance to spend time with our expedition leader, Rodney Fox. Few divers in the world are unfamiliar with Rodney Fox. Filmmaker, public speaker, guide, photographer and diver, Fox is perhaps best known as the miracle survivor of one of the worst shark attacks in history.
It was 40 years ago, as he was defending his South Australian spearfishing title off the coast of Aldinga, that Fox was attacked by a great white. As he fought to free himself, every one of the ribs on his left side was broken, his abdomen was fully exposed, his diaphragm was punctured, his lung ripped open, scapula pierced, spleen uncovered and the main artery from his heart was exposed. Amazingly, he managed to escape the shark’s jaws and was rescued by a boat. Rushed to an Adelaide hospital over 65km away, he arrived within minutes of death. A total of 462 stitches was needed to repair the damage.
Fox’s experience triggered his life-long dedication to eliminating fear of sharks through a process of education and understanding. He is now regarded as a world authority on the conservation of great white sharks. The leader of hundreds of great white expeditions, Fox was the first person in the world to start cage-diving adventures, enabling people to see these untamable wild predators in relative safety and, inevitably, come away with an admiration for their deadly perfection and breathtaking grace and beauty.
Now, before I dive, literally, into the details of my experiences on the Princess II, I must briefly mention the rest of the crew: Paddo, cook extraordinaire, dive master, photography expert; Guy, true, warm-hearted man of the seas, skipper and great dancer and Freddie, the comedic chumfeeder. My fellow guests included Lucas, who is a seasoned great white adventurer and cameraman/moviemaker; Dan, James and Andrew who all shared many watery, wide-eyed moments with Steph and I, the sweet, seasick German traveler and polo-playing hostess.
We arrived at the Neptune Islands and deployed the surface cage around 11:00am. Freddie threw some chum off the back gangplank. The chum (or as Cousteau called it, odor de corridor) was a smelly slick consisting of juicy blood and blended fish bits. It proves irresistible, and within half an hour, our first flesh-eating fish had arrived.
“Scarface” was a 4.5m male great white – 100 per cent predator and zero per cent fluff, with a scarred body that demanded respect. He started making several close passes at the tuna chunks that were tied to a piece of string and pulled away by Freddie when he closed in. “The idea,” Freddie explained, “is to get the shark to glide past the surface cage, giving the guests inside a thrilling close-up view.”
Somehow, everyone was already kitted up and ready to enter the cage, which left no room for me. So I went in last, all by myself, armed with only a new underwater camera, which was baptised that morning. As soon as I looked out through the cage, I saw the enormous shark. Immediately, I sprung up and stuck my head out and yelled, “He’s magnificent!” My outburst was curtailed by a mouthful of bloody water.
When my camera was passed to me and the cage ceiling door shut, I was faced with sensory overload. I was being swung around, in a cage, underwater, breath-snatchingly cold water, which was seeping steadily through the cracks of my neoprene amour. As I considered the fragility of the regulator delivering my air and checked to make sure my camera wasn’t flooding, there was a 4.5m, 1000-pound biting machine making passes so close to the cage I could have reached out and stroked his flank.
I emitted a boiling underwater roar as I felt the sheer monstrous power of this 350-million-yearold hunter surge through me. As Scarface headed straight for the cage, I experienced something almost spiritual; powerful on levels hard to put into words. It was electrifyingly exciting.
Over the next three days at sea, my appreciation for the crew, the sharks and the climate only grew. It gets cold under the water, and this is something that became increasingly obvious to me during the times when the sharks would disappear and I just had to still myself in the frigid waters and wait for their return. After each cage stint, it was a desperate race to the hot showers to stop the kidneys rattling.
The bottom dives are even colder due to the thermocline, which had to be passed through before the cage hit the sand 10 metres down. Seeing the sharks from the perspective of the sea floor was amazing. The sea floor offers a thorough look at the sharks’ perfect torpedo-like form. Their caudal keels (base of the tail) are as thick as small tree trunks and their overall shape is deadly efficient. The powerful, streamlined form is perfect for delivering short bursts of high speed and power; just the ingredients needed to take an unsuspecting seal (or diver) by surprise. As I peered through the bars, a tiny, mortal human, I understood that I was really just a tourist in the home of the great white wonder.
In between dives, King Paddo prepared an array of meals that consistently humbled my own culinary skills. At night, Freddie would trace various star constellations across the sky. Meteorites fell through the darkness, and the fur seals delivered eerie, wind-broken hymns, as if sung by the lonely, desperate spirits of the many sailors lost to the wild and savage oceans. The wind chill brought the night temperature down to about 3 or 4 degrees onboard, but despite this, I was filled with a vivid sense of being alive.
Over dinner one night, I asked Rodney about his views on the devastating effects that the Jaws movie had on great whites and shark populations as a whole. “Peter Benchley had no idea that he was to hit a major nerve in the human psyche when he conceived the story,” he said. “We have a deep-down, ancestral fear of being eaten alive, and the few species of shark that actually do attack humans represent this. We can tame lions and elephants and silver back gorillas, but there is no taming the shark. It was born of the beginning of the age of animals and it has survived by being the ultimate predator.”
Over the years, Fox has become a committed advocate for his nemesis, believing that great whites need to be left alone to continue on as they have for millions of years, keeping order in the kingdom of the seas. As he says, “who are we to catch and kill them and shave off their fins to make soup for rich businessmen?”
All too soon, our three-day trip was nearing an end. We had to head home, but not before we had an encounter with the rare Australian sea lions about three hours from port. As we approached the beach on our tender, dozens of white heads popped up from the sand. Fox yelled out at them, “Come on, come on and say hello!” And obediently, they all jumped up and lumbered down towards the shore as fast as they could and headed straight for us. They were like a collection of cute puppies. They just wanted to play and pose for my camera. I followed them as they lay down gently in the seaweed and waited for me to take their photo, the expressions on their browneyed faces, inches away, were adorable. They even posed for group shots.
Dolphins brought us home, serenely surfing the bow waves of the Princess II as we relaxed and allowed our adrenalin levels to slowly subside. Out came the last bottles of wine and on went the stereo. Guy kicked off his shoes and showed us how it was done.
Our time was up and though we left the ship with little but memories and photographs, the experience had enriched us all. It was another rare encounter with the mysteries of the deep, leaving us to appreciate that the biggest mystery of all was how to reconcile a deeply human fear of the great whites with an equally powerful need to protect them.
For your own close encounter with these magnificent creatures, contact the Rodney Fox Foundation (www.rodneyfox.com.au).
The Great white story
Carcharodon carcharias is a coastal and open ocean shark, now understood to migrate great distances (a recent satellite tracking project revealed one specimen, “Nicole”, to have traveled from South Africa to Exmouth in NW Australia and back again, a distance of over 20,000km, in under 9 months). They are also reported to dive to impressive depths (up to 1300m). They prefer temperate waters ranging from 12 to 24°C, but have been seen in tropical areas, too. Great whites are found all around the world, with some of the largest numbers in southern Africa.
The great white reaches maturity at roughly 9 years of age (males) or 12-18 years (females). Females are believed to produce around 2-14 pups per litter, only giving birth every 2 or 3 years. The pups are born at about 1.5m in length and grow approximately 30cm per year, reaching maximum size of around 6m (speculation suggests 7m specimens may exist, although this has never been confirmed). Weight estimates of adult sharks range from 680 to 1500kg and possibly much greater – perhaps as much as 2 tonnes. No definitive estimate can be given for their life span, sources suggesting 30-40 years, but quite possibly up to 100. Very little is known about their mating habits.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) predicts the likely extinction of the great white. Populations are rapidly declining around the globe. In certain parts of the world, these great fish have been targeted for their jaws, teeth, cartilage, fins and flesh. They have also been a favourite game fish species and are under threat due to accidental capture caused by commercial fishing methods such as netting and drop-lining. It has been declared an endangered species, whilst the World Conservation Union states it is gvulnerable to extinctionh. Millions of sharks are believed to be slaughtered each year to feed the Asian fin-soup trade, which is largely driven by a booming Chinese economy.
True survivors of the ages, sharks, as a group, have been around for 350 million years and have remained relatively unchanged throughout. They boast some marvelous adaptations, which justify their status as ‘apex predators’. An extraordinarily sensitive electromagnetic sensory system (Ampullae of Lorenzini) enables the detection of minute (1 billionth of a volt) electromagnetic fields produced by the movement of potential prey. Coupled with this is a truly remarkable sense of smell (reportedly as minute as one drop of blood in 100 litres of water). White sharks are also regarded as endotherms, which means they are able to keep certain parts of their body, such as their swimming muscles, running at temperatures notably higher than that of the surrounding water. This facilitates high-speed swimming and good muscle function in very cold waters and during long journeys.