Diving with Great White Sharks
January 14, 2015
Locked in a cage, dangling in the cold seas off southern Australia, diving daredevils can come face to face with great white sharks. This is one man's account of what it's like to stare directly into the jaws of death. Story and photos by Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
Published on Jan 14, 2015
EVERYONE IN PORT LINCOLN HAS A STORY ABOUT SHARKS.
The taxi driver I hail outside the airport servicing this small but affluent fishing town on Australia's south coast tells me abalone divers now spot great whites every month, though there used to be only one sighting a year. The bartender who serves me a Coopers Ale at the Marina Hotel at the mouth of Boston Bay tells me he was mates with the father of 18-year-old Nick Peterson, a water skier who was eaten during a rare attack by two great whites in 2004.
Yet of all the shark stories true and tall, none compares to that of old Rodney Fox. In 1963, he survived one of the worst non-fatal shark attacks in history when a great white nearly bit him in half during a spearfishing competition. Hauled into a boat, his insides spilling out of his body, Fox was rushed to the hospital, where it took surgeons 462 stitches to put him back together again.
The attack on Fox rocketed him to stardom—and down the road of revenge. In the 1971 documentary Blue Water White Death, one of 70 shark films (including the 1975 classic Jaws) he's worked on over the years, Fox used an explosive-tipped spear gun to kill sharks. But the more time Fox spent observing his old nemeses, the more he came to appreciate them. So much so that, in time, he became the macro-predator's most valiant defender and is now regarded by the National Geographic Society as one of the world's foremost authorities on the great white. "Sharks get a raw deal because most people don't understand them, and fear them," Fox says. "But I love to see them flying and gliding through the water."
In the early 1980's, Fox launched the world's first commercial shark-watching expedition. Now run by his eldest son, marine biologist Andrew Fox, they use refurbished shrimp boat to take groups of 12 to the Neptune Islands, a marine sanctuary pockmarked by treeless, uninhabited islets a five-hour sail southeast of Port Lincoln. Proceeds from these upscale expeditions, which include hearty chef-cooked meals like lamb shanks and mash along with South Australian wine and apple crumble, support the Fox Foundation's research on great whites. The sharks are an International Union for Conservation of Nature-listed vulnerable species now being hunted by the Western Australia government, as part of a controversial public safety campaign instigated this year after a spate of fatal sharks attacks that can be attributed in part to the rise of tasty watersports enthusiasts and humpback whale calves in those seas.
The Neptunes are home to one of Australia's largest breeding population of New Zealand fur seals, which in turn support a migratory population of great whites. It's there I find myself on a wet, dreary winter's morning—conditions Andrew describes as "sharky" because of the cover they provide for predators to ambush prey. I'm pondering the protective capabilities of the aluminum shark cage, a Rodney Fox invention allowing you to meet great whites without getting eaten alive, when a deckhand calls out: "There's already one here."
Readying to greet sharks
We all go dead quiet. Off the side of the boat, there's a 4-meter white pointer circling a large tuna head at the end of a length a rope. It's Fox's policy not to feed sharks lest they become conditioned, so whenever the shark gets close, the lure bait is yanked away. It's not a foolproof policy. Without warning, a second great white even larger than the first explodes from the water, jaws agape, swallowing the tuna head whole. I've got to get in that water.
Rodney Fox's cage
After struggling for 15 minutes to squeeze into a women's wetsuit, I'm handed a men's version that I then put on inside out. When I finally get it on the right way around, I'm fitted with a cumbersome 25-kilogram weight vest to prevent my head from butting the top of the cage, a neoprene balaclava, diving boots, diving gloves and a mask. I waddle like one of the seals great whites love to eat onto the rear platform and dangle my feet in the frigid water inside the cage.
A deckhand passes me a respirator that I fit into my mouth before easing myself into the cage. At around 1.5 square meters and forged of dull aluminum, it has the look and feel of a Harry Houdini prop, with a small entry hatch in the top that doesn't close. With next to no diving experience, I struggle to remain upright in the weightless environ, repeatedly toppling onto my backside until I figure out how to wedge my feet into the bars welded to the bottom of the cage—there's no way I want to float up and out of this thing, after all. Other challenges: waves that constantly bash the cage into the ship, my mask fogging up, my respirator tube getting tangled, and jellyfish floating into my face. Worse, I steal only passing glimpses of great whites because my view is blocked by large schools of kingfish and the three other divers in the cage. In fact, I feel more like we're the animals on display here, comical entertainment for the sharks. After a cold and frustrating half hour, I opt out. This obviously is going to take some getting used to.
Great whites sense the cage, boat and coccupants as one object—luckily
The next morning, Andrew takes me alone into the cage. He's a swimming encyclopedia of the Fox Foundation's massive database, recounting everything from genetic studies to shark repellents, from acoustic telemetry to satellite tagging to the impact of the cage-diving industry. In moments, a super-giant female he's nicknamed Jumbo 747—"I know and love these sharks individually the same way people treat their dogs," he says—cruises past. She is 5 meters long, though it's her body mass, two tonnes with a midriff wide as a kombi van, that makes a lasting impression. Being this close to her, this awesome manifestation of death itself, is an honor. It's like falling in love; it is the single-most stomachchurning, adrenaline-inducing, life-affirming experience I've ever had. I can already hear myself boasting about it to my grandchildren.
Despite her heft, Jumbo 747 is the epitome of grace: a sleek, aerodynamic, muscle-bound avenging angel stratified with rhinoceros-like armor. It's difficult not to anthropomorphize. Her facial expression seems brooding, though at times it becomes mischievous, while her cold, dark eyes give new meaning to the term thousandyard stare. The grey dorsal area contrasts starkly with her white underside after which her species is named. And like every detail of her tank of a body, the discoloration is designed to make her a more efficient killer. From above, the darker shade blends with the ocean. From below, the white underbelly exposes minimal silhouette against the sunlight, making her difficult to see.
A kombi-van-sized manifestation of death
Yet the most impressive fact I learn about sharks is their sixth sense: they don't need their eyes to see us. They sense us by writ of their Ampullae of Lorenzini, a network of pores that lets them detect the electromagnetic field emitted by the movement or even the heartbeat of a living animal.
But the sharks' high-tech genetic engineering never fathomed the industrialization of its primary predator: humans. So, Jumbo 747 perceives our ship, the cage and the people inside as one large object—an islet or perhaps an inedible whale. For this reason Andrew is able to open the cage door and hang half his body outside as she glides a few centimeters from his camera lens. However, should Andrew let go for a moment, his separate electromagnetic field would give him away. He'd become the second Fox to taste the thrill of swimming freely with a great white shark. He'd also be the second to be tasted by one.
During my third cage dive of the day, I see another giant female make a pass at the bait. Breaching the surface with the force of a torpedo, the beautiful monster latches on, shakes her head madly and then swallows it with immense, full-body-spasming gulps. It's this capacity to make mince meat out of just about any living creature that caused nearly every generation before ours to consider great whites to be demons. But here in the Neptunes, after having the rare privilege to see them up close, I think I may have looked into the beady, black eyes of god.
The Neptune Islands speckle a shark-filled marine sanctuary.
The Marina Hotel Marina-and bay-view rooms with spacious balconies. 13 Jubilee Dr., Lincoln Cove Marina, Port Lincoln; +61 8 8682 6141; marinahotel.com.au.
Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions Two- to fivenight voyages from Port Lincoln to the Neptune Islands include chef-cooked meals, wine with dinner and national park fees. 73 Ninth Ave., Joslin; +61 8 8363 1788; rodneyfox.com.au.
Calypso Star Charters Day-trips to the Neptunes include three-hour sailing via motorized boat, breakfast and lunch. 10 S. Quay Blvd., Port Lincoln; +61 8 8682 3939; sharkcagediving.com.au.
T+L Tip The best time to see great whites at the Neptune Islands is during the Austral winter, from May to October.