Sharks make me happy. They are the most beautiful, fascinating, graceful fish in the ocean and I am completely and utterly obsessed. This obsession was created by your regular reef, grey nurse, port jackson and wobbegong sharks so the thought of getting to dive with the daddy of them all made me very excited! I had an upcoming work trip to Adelaide, and I could see a window of opportunity, so I took it.
From Adelaide I flew to Port Lincoln, a sleepy little fishing village on the wild South Australian coast. I was greeted at the airport by Debi, the owner operator of the brand spanking new Port Lincoln YHA. Debi and her husband Robert are also involved with a swim with the tuna operation that looks amazing, but I had a date with a bigger type of fish! Along with a couple of other YHA guests I was taken down to the port the following day ready for the adventure of a lifetime!
My home for the next 3 days was the ‘Princess II’ and already I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. For those who don’t know, Rodney Fox is a bit of an Australian legend. He was the unfortunate victim of a great white shark attack back in 1963. The attack resulted in life saving surgery that left him with over 450 stiches and a household name. From there Rodney constructed the original shark cage and went onto work with Steven Spielberg on the making of the movie Jaws. In hindsight this was a move that Rodney went on to regret as global public perception of sharks took a turn for the worse and shark culling followed in many countries. Now he is one of the world’s leading marine conservationists and along with his son Andrew, a marine scientist, make it their business to not only protect sharks but try and educate people about this beautiful animal too.
Once on board I met with Andrew and also Sam Cahir. Sam is a very well renowned and highly awarded underwater photographer and not technically staff the Princess II, but on board so often taking pictures that he may as well be. The stage was set and we were off, motoring south bound for the Neptune Islands. Once the wavers were signed and insurance details collected, we set up our gear and waited. There is nothing on the itinerary about how many dives are included on a 3 day trip; it all just depends on the sharks. If they are around, we get in; if not then we don’t bother braving the 14 degree water for no reason.
Oh and there were sharks, many many great big white sharks. From the first second I saw a dark shadow approaching the boat I could help but let out a shriek resembling a small child. Then there was another, and another. Then Andrew began to get the cage ready for the first group to descend. This dive boat is the only one in the world that has a special license to drop the cage at the bottom of the ocean. This is controlled by a crane on the upper deck and a series of hydraulic controls to move around once the cage is submerged. We had four pre arranged cage teams, each of four people on a roster. Andrew and Sam were the designated cage masters and went on every other dive. As one cage descended the next group began to get ready. 2 wetsuits, socks, boots, gloves, a hood, a harness with 20kg of weight to keep you from floating in the cage and a back plate with a single regulator.
As the first group got out of the cage there were high fives and laughter all around, a sense of adrenalin and elation knowing that something amazing was about to happen. As I clambered in the cage suspended above the water I felt like a child about to go on an amusement ride. The crane slowly lowered us in and the cold water gradually seeped through to my skin, but I didn’t feel it because I was instantly surrounded by 6 great white sharks between 3 and 5 meters in length and weighing up to 2 ton. Ahhhhhh – mazing!!! I may have cried with a mixture of happiness and excitement. Seeing the curious big guys come right up to the cage to have a look and rub their body along the metal to see what it feels like, but not in an aggressive way at all. Then the little guys with such attitude being all flighty and darting around, trying to show off in front of their superiors. Just witnessing Andy and Sam practically get out of the cage to get ‘that’ photo and gently nudge the sharks away if they got a little too close was an experience within itself.
My Matrix dive computer is ultra conservative, so it was always my deco levels that signalled the end of the dive, even then I spent most of the dive with my arm sticking out the top of the cage just to get a few extra minutes with my new friends. Upon assent, we’d eat, make a bathroom stop and wait for our turn to go down again, and so on for 3 days. It was certainly the sharks who eventually got sick of us rather than the other way around.
All in all a life changing trip. The group was small, the vessel was comfortable and warm, the food was restaurant quality and plentiful and Andrew provided a wealth of information about their conservation efforts and why sharks are such an integral part of the marine eco system. Perhaps they should extend an invite to certain ministers of Western Australia’s government and teach them a thing or two about the environment the are so called protecting.