Or: rocking out with Jaws
Distance Travelled: 40,573 km
Date: 29th April 2012
[Now that I’m up to date on New Zealand, I’m going to try to fill in some of the blanks for what I’ve been doing up to now. First up: Sharks of SA]
I was halfway into my road trip from the East Coast of Australia up into the Great Red Desert in the heart of the country, and stuck in Adelaide for a few days.
I’ve spoken to a lot of friends that really like the city. I don’t share their view. Adelaide is, quite aside from being the murder capital of Australia, an absolute hole. The main thing I remember about the city now is going to a food festival and taking tons of free samples of delicious foods, and then getting a glass of wine which cost about the same as a decent meal in a restaurant. There are a couple of nice parks, and a cool museum, but the city is dull, soul-less, and ugly.
On the other hand, it’s the jumping off point for Port Lincoln, one of the highlights of my exploration of Australia. The town itself isn’t really worth visiting – an out of the way rural bogan spot – but there is real excitement lying just under the surface of the surrounding sea.
For a change of pace, I actually planned ahead and booked these few days. I jumped on a plane across the Australian Bight to the southern extremity of the Eyre peninsular as easily as getting on a bus (with correspondingly crappy and provincial terminals at either end), and jumped into a taxi that I’d arranged to pick me up. I though I was doing well until
“Where to then?”
“Er… I… Damn… Can you recommend somewhere to stay in town? Preferably somewhere cheap? I seem to have not planned as thoroughly as I thought.”
Which is how I ended up in the Hotel Boston.
There are three main trips you can take from Port Lincoln; Swimming with Sea lions, Tuna, or the big draw- Great White Sharks. Naturally I wanted to try all three, but sadly the sea lions were all booked out the weekend I was around. Which leaves the sharks and… Swimming with Tuna.
I’ve got to admit, it does sound inherently ridiculous. I’ve watched Attenborough. Hell, I’ve personally watched wild tuna feeding on a shoal of sardines in the Philippines, and yet there’s still a part of me that when I hear ‘tuna’, thinks ‘small, fishy smelling, and in a can’. I was about to be massively disabused of that.
I jumped on a boat with Adventure Bay Charters (ABC) and headed out to one of their tuna pens. If you imagine a huge sieve floating in the sea, containing a few dozen pet fish, you won’t be too far off the reality. The fish in question though are giant, dead-eyed torpedoes, shooting through the water in constant search of food. Which we were about to offer them.
There’s a knack to feeding tuna, which roughly boils down to this: don’t allow them anywhere near your fingers if at all possible. Either just throw the dead sardines into the water or, if feeling particularly brave, hold out a fist with sardines dangling from the bottom, thus allowing them to snatch the bait without inadvertently attacking you.
Or, jump in the water, and just hold the bait out in outstretched fingers. If you attempt this method, you won’t see it coming, but you will essentially get mugged by a fish. Which will have a go at those extended digits, on the basis that they might be food.
That moment before you hop into the water, watching a seething mass of fish all lunging for a couple of sardines is a moment that even the best of us will start to doubt our sanity. These aren’t small fish- they can grow up to 2.5m, and 400kg, although thankfully none of the captive ones here reach that size, and none were bigger than me. But they aren’t much smaller either, and jumping straight into a maelstrom of huge hungry fish seems like utter madness.
Of course, after a moment of hesitation, I did jump in and snorkel with them, and I’m glad I did. Tuna are huge, soulless, blisteringly fast fish. And incredibly solid. Every time you get nudged or knocked by one it’s like being barged out of the way by a streamlined truck. This doesn’t happen often though- mostly when you are somewhere close to food. For the rest of the time, the net teems with the darting fish, and you start to appreciate their beauty. They are perfectly evolved for their pelagic life, and are really impressive when you get to see them close up, and in their element. Swimming with them is a bizarre and exhilarating experience, and great fun.
The following day I came back aboard the boat, in search of one of the worlds most fearsome predators, the Great White Shark.
It takes a couple of hours to get to the seal colony, our most likely spot to find the often elusive sharks. Setting off at first light, we passed the ominously named Coffin Bay and Cape Catastrophe. The latter is surrounded by small islands bearing the names of crewmen lost in 1802, when the area was first visited by Europeans. Watching the blood-red dawn, I fervently hoped this wasn’t some sort of omen.
The trip was actually quite pleasant, with sightings of dolphins, white bellied sea eagles and, as we approached our destination, young fur seals. On the way I got chatting to Matt Waller, the owner of Adventure Bay Charters. He started the company a few years back, largely as something to do with his tuna. Matt was a fisherman first, primarily of tuna for the Japanese market. The way tuna fishing works in this part of the world is that you tow a massive net (much like the one I jumped into the day before, but without the tourist friendly infrastructure) out to sea, where you catch masses of the fish with rods, then throw them into the net. The tuna you catch this way tend to be relatively small, but here’s the clever bit; you tow the net back to a sheltered bay (very slowly- it takes weeks), then fatten them up for market.
In practice this means you have a couple of tuna farms sitting just offshore without having to breed the fish yourself. Matt saw an opportunity here, started charging people to swim with them, and ABC was born. The boat was only being used to get to the tuna in the afternoon, so phase two was using the free time in the morning to take people off to see the sea lions. Diving with the sharks, arguably the best part of the business, only came later.
There’s a twist to the cage diving though. Standard practice is to chuck a load of berley into the water to attract them. Berley is buckets of blood and bits of fish, often big fish heads. The sharks are attracted to the scent, and come to feed. This has a couple of particularly undesirable side effects; sharks learn to associate people with the smell and promise of food, and they are aggressive once they find the cages, often causing injuries as they try to get at the tasty food inside. I think it’s pretty obvious why these are bad things. Adventure Bay Charters have developed a different method.
We moored up and the crew got to work, dropping the cage overboard, as well as a couple of buoys and a strange metal crate. Quickly putting on a wetsuit, I was one of the first to get to clamber into the open topped cage. Diving regulators hung down from a tank on the surface, allowing us to breathe without having to worry about bulky equipment. The cage itself is fairly roomy, allowing four of us to stand in it, looking out in opposite directions at a wall of impenetrable blue.
Then they switched on the floating crate.
“Dun, dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, dununundundunun, BACK IN BLACK…..”
The ocean reverberates to classic Aussie rockers AC/DC, and the group of us in the cage share grins, a few headbangs, and some air guitar (water guitar?) before breaking off to scan the water expectantly.
The guys at ABC have figured out that the low frequency tones used in AC/DC music seems to attract the sharks. The hypothesis is that it is something to do with potential prey making similar noises, but no one seems to know for sure. ABC are the only commercial company in the world to use sound to attract the sharks, and it seems to be working out surprisingly well for them. Although their boat is often moored close to competitors using berley, they say that they are careful not to get ‘down current’ of the other boat’s scent trail.
The upshot of using this method is that sharks come to investigate the music, and we get to see them. But when they turn up, they are curious more than actively coming in for the kill, so we get to see them in a much more natural state and they don’t come to associate people with berley.
It’s a uniquely surreal experience standing in a cage and peering into the gloom in the hope of seeing the approach of a huge predator, while Highway to Hell can be heard filtering through the water.
As it happened, I didn’t see the approach of a huge predator. It just turned up, feet from my body, gliding past and nosing at the suddenly flimsy looking cage that separated us. It was shocking and exciting, but not all that scary. Firstly because the first shark to turn up was a relatively small bronze whaler, at a touch over two meters long, and secondly because the shark seemed curious rather than aggressive, trying to work out what this weird cage was, and where that weird noise was coming from. After a couple of passes around the cage the shark disappeared, and I clambered out of the cage to try to warm up for a bit.
Before long, a Great White was spotted, and I jumped straight back into the cage. It seems silly to say it, but the sharks were perfectly silent. It’s an obvious point that we can’t hear underwater, but it means that they can easily sneak up on you. They appear and disappear with such suddenness that it only adds to their mystique and power. You keep looking around for any sign, until you turn your head to a spot that was empty blue a moment ago and suddenly there’s a four and a half meter shark gliding towards you.
Huge, slow, and with immense power, the shark drifted across in front of the cage, and was gone in seconds. It was absolutely magnificent. We saw a number of Great Whites that day (I counted at least three distinct animals, but it could have been more), and they just swam peacefully past. None attacked the cage, speakers, buoys or decoys. They were just there to have a look at us, the same as I was there to have a look at them.
One of the sharks broke the pattern, and came at us head on, swimming straight for the cage. For a moment it felt as if it was coming straight for me, and for a couple of seconds, I felt the huge menace that this fish can represent- all cold eyes, razor teeth and dread power. Then it simply broke off and swam to the side. The moment was broken, and I watched, rapt, as it vanished into the endless blue.
It was time for us to go too. Getting to see these phenomenal animals up close was an incredible experience, allowing you to start to see past the teeth and Jaws references, and become overawed by their beauty and majesty.Adventure Bay Charters operates out of Port Lincoln. The tuna swim was $95, Shark cage diving was $395. There was also a $50 discount applied when doing more than one tour when I went with them, although it’s unclear if this still applies. The tuna swim appears to have been discontinued since I visited, and I’m not sure if it will be started up again.