Annals of Former Times: White Sharks in the Neptune Islands
Updated: Jun 2
Life comes at you hard and fast and one must be ready for unexpected opportunities.
A magnificent Great white shark near North Neptune Island, South Australia
In the fall of 2014, as the white shark research field season was winding down here on Cape Cod, I was planning an extended trip to Australia for the following spring of 2015 with an extensive 6 week itinerary covering a good bit of the country. My hope was to end the trip in South Australia in Port Lincoln and get out to the Neptune Islands with Andrew Fox’s operation and hopefully dive with white sharks during a prime time in early May. Unhappily I had learned from the Fox schedulers that their dive vessel, the Princess II, had recently been booked exclusively for a private charter on the exact week we would have arrived. With the balance of our itinerary already planned and not easily changed we had a problem.
Remarkably, a couple of weeks later, I had a chance conversation with National Geographic photographer and explorer Brian Skerry who was on the Cape working on a large shark story at the time. We had been interacting with his team throughout the Cape Cod summer and fall. Brian mentioned that he was headed to Australia to get additional images of white sharks in the (our) spring. Hmmm….. I politely inquired about his dates and discovered that he was the private party engaged on the Princess II for the dates I wanted. His party was to be small, just he and an assistant and he was kind enough to invite Pam and me to join him for an incredible eight days in the Neptune Islands with the areas resident white shark guru and cage diving operator, Andrew Fox. This was incredibly good fortune for us.
The Princess II on station in the Neptune Islands.
Our original 2015 report from the trip titled “Finding the Last Dragons: Great Whites in South Australia” is here: https://www.wildcapecod.com/post/2018/04/22/finding-the-last-dragons-great-whites-in-south-australia But now, exactly eight years later and since a White Shark Global Conference https://whitesharksglobal.com/ is planned in Port Lincoln for later this year I decided to revisit our 2015 South Australia White Shark adventure with new perspective and provide a little back story.
Sailing on the Princess II with Andrew Fox and his crew was truly an adventure in itself. Andrew is a burly, welcoming, chap, a pleasure to be around and possesses an encyclopedic mind when it comes to the biology and natural history of sharks in Australia especially white sharks. He has been observing and studying these animals for decades with his father and alongside a host of marine biologists over the years with whom he has co-authored a good number of scientific publications on the natural history of white sharks in Australia.
But Andrew is first and foremost a gifted photographer/artist. Throughout his career he has found incredibly creative ways to photograph white sharks especially taking advantage of the deep bottom cage his company uniquely offers in the world. He has made some of the most beautiful images of this species in the world. It is fair to say many of his techniques would be considered very dangerous and should not be attempted by novices. So it was in this spirit that Andrew welcomed the legendary Brian Skerry aboard and was very keen to make sure Brian and his sponsors from National Geographic were able to achieve their goals for images suitable for the magazine and other media.
The crew acting as shark wranglers keep score as they lure sharks into the boat with chunks of tuna on a string taking care not to actually let the shark get the bait. This is considered a no no. But it can happen....
A favorite diving spot at North Neptune Island for the bottom cage.
The salon inside the Princess II. Usually a jumble of camera gear and laptops after a day of diving in the Neptunes.
Headed down to the bottom at 70 ft.
Michael and me debriefing after our "adventure dive" experience while Brian Skerry and Justin listen in amazement before their next dive.
Brian is notoriously meticulous about planning his time in the field owing to his own vast experience around the world in challenging environments he knew that making amazing images that tell compelling stories takes a great deal of patience and not a small amount of luck. This 8 day trip in the Neptunes was in fact the second of two excursions Brian had booked to make sure he could take advantage of different weather and shark sightings with the second trip booked to commence two weeks after the end of the first trip.. The first week had produced some good results but Brian was not quite satisfied with the shots he would need to turn over to his editors at the end of the voyage. The pressure was on.
One particularly curious 11 ft male white shark makes a beeline for our cage as we are at 70 ft below the surface just off the bottom.
The Princess II had a Skipper/Engineer (Mark) to keep the vessel operating and safely anchored as conditions changed. And the all-important Chef (Jade) did a remarkable job of producing hearty and tasty repast around the clock. Several experienced crew members (Jodi, Ben (a Rolex fellow & intern) & Sammy) were also on hand to organize equipment, fill tanks and provide safety protocols during dives. This left Andrew mainly free to work with Brian to help facilitate and “art direct” different desired shots be they on the surface or created from the bottom cage which could descend to 70+ ft. if conditions were right. Dives to the bottom lasted 40 – 50 minutes. During each dive a designated Divemaster was in charge of the dive which included a role as safety diver, communication with the surface and gatekeeper for opening the specially designed sliding cage doors to facilitate photography outside the cage. It seemed that, owing to the private charter by NatGeo and the extended time on the grounds (normal trips are 3 – 5 days) and the presence of experienced divers, many of the normal precautions were set to the side. These facts were of course unknown to us. We are experienced divers and had been in cages observing white sharks many time in South Africa and in Isla Guadalupe, Mexico but none of these experiences matched the drama and potential hazards of the Bottom cage on the Princess II.
Michael (rt) and me with Joni and Sammy back on the surface after our hair raising "adventure" dive experience.
Sammy helps get me out of the weight harness and scuba tank after a trip to the bottom. I am emotionally spent!
There are a number of preferred dive sites in the Neptune Island group that Andrew likes to try. Each depends on wind and swell conditions to allow safe anchorage and also varied bottom conditions. One shot that Brian was very keen to get was a white shark in seagrass near the bottom hunting stingrays which are common in the area. A major challenge was to find these subjects in clear water minus the particulate that gets into suspension when the conditions are rougher and clouds the shot.
We got into a routine of alternating dives with Brian and his assistant who usually went down with Andrew. When they came up there was a natural period of rest and download of images and to plan for the next dive. During this time Pam and I along with Michael (another thrill seeker/supporter) would match up with Ben or Sammy as divemaster and head down to the bottom to see what might be there. Standard procedure was to trickle a slurry of tuna guts off of the stern to create a chum slick and attract white sharks near the area to the boat. Should there be any responses the attracted sharks were then encouraged down to the bottom with still another chum bucket that oozed out scent at the direction of the cage divemaster onboard the cage.
All hell starts to break loose at 70 ft. Several very aggressive male sharks repeatedly attempted to enter our cage through the bars on our "Adventure" dive.
This was standard for a couple of days. Fortunately there were sharks in the area and in particular the surface action using a wrangling technique of pitching a tuna head or tail attached to a line repeatedly out into the surface slick. Sharks attracted to the slick are drawn in with the splash of the bait and are coaxed toward the stern ramp for closer observation and photography. The idea is to keep the shark hungry and therefore interested in pursuing the bait without actually letting the shark gain the bait. It takes experience (and fortitude) to pull this off as the wrangler usually stands at water level on a stern platform designed for this purpose. An overly aggressive shark can charge and actually launch onto the platform with its jaw agape sending the wrangler to scramble for a higher perch quickly. But this was child’s play compared to the chances that were to be attempted on the bottom.
On the 4th day we were getting suited up in wet suits and fitted for tanks while waiting for Brian and Justin to come up Sammy looked over at us and with a “Cheshire cat” grin on his face asked, “Are you guys interested in a “Photo dive” (meaning looking for shots of the kind Brian was seeking with an emphasis on composition and light). “Or would you be interested in an “Adventure dive?” (These were code words I did not understand but true form I took the bait an insisted on Adventure all the way). “Got it”, Sammy said with a hint of excitement in his voice and continued to get his own kit ready. Two things should have caught my eye and given me a heads up as to what was going to occur but I missed them. First, Sammy filled his chum bucket stuffed full of gooey, smelly tuna guts and meat and added a second bucket of equal size jammed to the brim with fresh chum. He also slung a burlap bag with long handles of yet more chum over his shoulder just before he entered the cage. In addition he carted his own camera with strobes into the cage meaning he would the second primary shooter inside. As divemaster he should have been one of the designated spotters for someone else.
Later in the day as we were winding down one of the other crew members, Ben revealed to me a bit about Sammy. A longtime friend of Andrew's, he was invited along because of his experience and to have a chance to work around the NatGeo team. A retired policeman, Sammy loves to dive with white sharks and frequently joins Andrew while they continue to find new and creative ways to photograph them. Apparently a few weeks before our trip Sammy had a close call with a white shark who approached him (Sammy's torso) from behind and slightly overhead while he was hanging outside of the cage's open gate shooting another shark. The approaching shark, with jaw open, narrowly missed taking Sammy’s head off as he ducked his head at the very last second leaving the shark to take a piece of his hood and a chunk of his scalp away as a souvenir.
We felt like we were inside a tuna "chumsicle" as bits of flesh and tuna oil saturated the entire space inside and just outside our cage. These two males were extremely fired up.
On one dive a larger female got wedged into the harness of the cage wreaking havoc on the divers inside. No way to tell the surface what was going on. Eventually we were hauled up but had sustained damage to the emergency ascent tank and were scared s***less. (This incident is described in detail in our 2015 post mentioned earlier)
A pair of young male white sharks become interested in the bottom cage.
Naturally, none of this was known while we descended to the bottom in 70 ft and waited. We did not have to wait long – in a manner of a few minutes all hell broke loose. A number of juvenile male sharks began to circle the cage. These were animals in the 10 – 11 foot range and were aggressive. At first I was excited by the action and eager to get shots with multiple white sharks in the frame. I was able to slide the cage door open for 30 – 45 seconds and get images of sharks approaching at eye level. Using a wide angle the animals needed to be close to fill the frame. But then I began to notice that the water was filling with particulate matter such that it was starting to affect the images by reflecting the strobe. I looked around and noticed a chimney of tuna juice an guts were filling the cage and slowly enveloping us from the outside as well. We were becoming one giant chumsicle and these young males were really starting to amp up.
Andrew Fox, Joni and Jade pull frozen bait out of the freezer to thaw for the day's efforts at attracting white sharks
Also it quickly became clear that there was no way we were able to slide open the cage doors on either side without inviting one of the 5 – 7 juvenile males that were frantically now trying to figure a way into the cage. At one point I felt a stout push from behind which pinned me up against the side of the cage forcing me to drop my camera to keep from injury against the bars. When I turned to find the source I found Michael had jumped back into me to escape a shark’s jaws that had wedged into the cage bars far enough to touch him but not to bite. That was the signal. We went into survival mode. I kept a gopro running but made no attempt to take photos with my DSLR from then on. Sammy kept firing way for a bit but even he realized he may have overloaded the prime for the “Adventure cannon”. Here are a few images to consider. As you can see the viz is not great but the action certainly was.
Heading back down to the bottom. Note the green line hanging off to the right of the cage. This is the all important "communication" link from the bottom to the crane operator and spotter. However the messages to be transmittable are limited. One pull means descend and two pulls means bring the cage up a bit. What could go wrong?
White sharks routinely hunt several species of rays at the Neptune Islands
Poor visibility but you can make out the ray in the foreground
A pair of white sharks circled the cage late in the afternoon in poor visibility (but nice light) as we worked toward the surface.
It was very difficult to wipe this grin off of my face for the entire eight days aboard the Princess II. ANdrew and partners have since transferred their operation to a different vessel the Rodney Fox and they are still running trips throughout the year out of Port Lincoln. There is absolutely no white shark cage diving experience like it anywhere in the world.
Note: Adult supervision for this voyage and many photos by Pam King!