Finding the Last Dragons: Great Whites in South Australia
Apologies to those of you who regularly check in on this blog. We have been remiss in posting for many weeks. Lots to catch up on. For most of the last few months we were exploring some of the wilder and remote parts of Australia by car, ship and plane in their autumn. In total we were among the wonderful Aussies for about six weeks. Because the experience is fresh and now back on Cape Cod will post some impressions of our last stop in South Australia at small but prosperous fishing village called Port Lincoln.
This town of less than 15,000 boasts one of the most successful fishing fleets in all of Australia targeting such high value species like blue fin tuna, yellowtail kingfish, abalone, mussels, oysters and experimental farming in seahorses and spiny lobsters. It is also the jumping off point to the Neptune Islands a few rocky islets about 15 miles off the coast a seasonal home to a population of New Zealand fur seals and for much of the year, feeding great white sharks. We teamed up with the people at Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions for an eight day expedition aboard their live aboard dive boat the Princess II to attempt to find and photograph great whites from the relative safety of a cage at the ocean floor. Owner and fellow shark conservationist Andrew Fox led the expedition and has been diving in these waters for over thirty five years together with his father, Rodney Fox.
Together Rodney and Andrew have more experience observing white sharks underwater than anyone else in the world. Rodney was featured in the legendary documentary Blue Water, White Death made by Peter Gimbel and others in 1971. Andrew is active in white shark research projects in Australia and a renown underwater photographer. The Neptune Islands are the only location in all of Australia where cage diving and related chumming is allowed. A strict code of conduct is in force and only two operators have permits. Fox, however has a unique permit which allows he an his clients to plunge a cage down 60 - 70+ feet to the bottom to observe a habitat of sand, kelp and rock formations where white sharks often forage on abundant resident sting rays. This is the only place in the world where one can see white sharks at significant bottom depths and we were keen to try it. Weather conditions in the late fall are often a challenge and we climbed on board the Princess II just after a major storm had passed through leaving behind significant ocean swell and some turbidity making excellent photography a challenge bt nothing could have prepared us for the kind of action we were to experience among these massive predators who Andrew Fox calls - the earth's last dragons. In 7 1/2 days among the islands we made 15 dives to the bottom in freezing a** cold water (about 50 degrees F) in wetsuits. Each dive lasting about 45 - 50 minutes depending on depth and conditions. What we witnessed was absolutely incredible. Heart stopping action watching the earth's last dragons in their winter lairs Down Under.
This massive female (below) was estimated to be over 5 meters in length and weigh in excess of 3,000 lbs.
TThis 14 foot male (1300 lbs) below, was one of several very aggressive sharks that resolutely tried to invade our cage through openings that were too small for them and caused us to keep the sliding doors for photography closed during this dive. We literally had three sharks with their heads in the cage all at once! Adrenalin was flowing.
12 O'clock high..This fellow came in hard and with my spotter's help just barely able to turn him away with a push from my camera dome. Yikes!
Strobes failed to fire but you get the idea. ....Camera door open.
After several days one of the very large females that sometime visit the area at this time of year made an appearance at the bottom. At 65 feet she boldly approached the cage at the top lodging herself between the bridle harnessing the cage to the surface and the roof of the cage. Unable to move forward this behemoth started to thrash its body violently in an attempt to back out of her predicament. In the process she tossed the cage with four of us inside in scuba with the force of a centrifuge turning the cage completely on one side then the otherÂ side causing us to divers to pile up inside like cord wood in tanks.. A truly scary moment. The shark eventually freed herself and swam away only to return to investigate the bait we were carrying inside. Once we returned to the surface we realized that the cage's emergency assent tank had been damaged in the process by the shark's violence and had our surface cable severed we would have been in very deep doo doo.
Baby fur seals barely 4 moths old and just learning to swim are the main attraction for the sharks at this time of year.
Some incredible looks at seabirds including this Black browed Albatross.
A dramatic setting sun as we headed in after an amazing week. Wow!