The Fearsome Great Whites of Port Lincoln
January 1, 1970
by Amelia Winter
Chasing one of nature’s most awe-inspiring predators in country South Australia
Where I live, you can drive for eight hours and not even leave the state. You could drive for 18 hours and the same would be true. But this journey, well, it took eight hours and that was enough.
We were travelling to Port Lincoln, a town (or city, if you’re Wikipedia, but I’d call it a town) on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. Port Lincoln is famous for many things – incredible seafood, champion racehorses, the most millionaires per capita in Australia and, of course, its beautiful scenery – but we were heading into town for one thing: to dive with Great White Sharks.
My fiancé (now husband) is an adrenaline junkie and I, the eager-to-please partner, had made the mistake of gifting him the shark cage dive experience for his birthday. I had bought the voucher in September and it was now May, so I’d chalked the whole thing up to a “future me problem” and forgotten all about it until now. But it was time to pay the piper.
The day of the dive
We were up before dawn to meet the boat that would take us two-and-a-half hours into the open ocean – to the Neptune Islands – to meet our fate.
The Neptune Islands are a tiny group of islands that are home to huge colonies of seals and sea lions – a favourite food of Great White Sharks. Obviously, this is why the Neptunes are such a great location for shark spotting but, also, why I was hesitant to get in the water in my SCUBA gear (read: somewhat resembling a seal).
Our dive was with an operator called Adventure Bay Charters. The primary reason for booking with them was the fact they don’t use burley; that is, they don’t dump meat and blood into the water to attract sharks. This means the sharks are peaceful rather than aggressive and don’t equate us with food. Rather, they attract the sharks by playing music underwater, particularly songs heavy on the bass, and the sharks come to investigate the noise. Aside from the obvious concern that I have no desire to be shark bait, I believe this is a much more responsible way to interact with wildlife.
The crew were fantastic. Thanks to the choppy seas, my husband and I were the only two on the boat not to be sick by the end of the day (and even then I was looking pretty green on the journey home); the crew kept us perky with hot tea and coffee, amazing food, and plenty of good humour; a beer or two may have been imbibed on the journey home! The guys had so many stories from their time on the boat that they were eager to share, and their knowledge of the local wildlife and environmental issues was second to none. Aside from the sharks, we encountered seals, many different types of birds, and even a couple of dolphins; the boat crew were always pointing these out to us, helping us take pictures, and providing us with information.
I decided I wanted to get in the cage first; the sooner it was done, the sooner I could get out and have a beer (no alcohol could be consumed until you decided you no longer wanted to go back in the water). So in I went, in a tiny cage in the middle of the ocean in the dead of winter, to see a shark, fulfil a promise to my betrothed and, well, prove to everyone I wasn’t a wimp. But the shark didn’t come. After 20 minutes I had to get out to let someone else in and I was disappointed.
The sharks stayed away for a while until, after lunch, there they were! One guy kept going into the cage and when he got in, the sharks would come and when he climbed out, they were gone again. The second time I went in I stayed in for 45 minutes; I was determined that once I got out I wasn’t going back in again. I was freezing and starting to feel sorry for myself. At the 45-minute mark, I called it. No sharks for me; I was done. As soon as I hopped out, the other guy got back in and there were the sharks!
That was it – I was getting back in the cage with the other guy and clinging to him; I was going to see the sharks. In the cage, my heart felt like it was in my mouth the whole time but when a shark finally appeared, it was incredible – a sudden peacefulness came over me as I watched in awe. A beautiful 6 metre (20 feet) female just showed up out of nowhere and gracefully circled us, intrigued. She was calm, curious and, honestly, one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever encountered. There I was, in her home, dressed like her favourite meal, and she just swam by and back again to have a look. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life. My husband often muses about that moment: that there was a distinct lack of ominous background music but instead, pure silence.
The big downside to the trip was coming home with a rip-roaring inner ear infection. I’m what one might call ‘vertically challenged’ and this meant, when standing on the bottom of the cage, I was under more water than the others diving with me. The result was more water pressure in my ears and they suffered badly. I didn’t know how to equalise the pressure properly and, when the instructor gave me some tips, I didn’t follow them correctly leading to a nasty case of swimmers ear which then turned into something else. I was walking into door frames and the like for quite a while afterwards!
That night we rewarded ourselves with dinner at the Port Lincoln Hotel. I must say, the ‘surf and turf’ was to die for and completely worth the price tag – especially for a celebration such as this (not being shark food is definitely a cause to celebrate in my book!) The meat was incredibly
tender and juicy while the prawns were huge and perfectly done with a garlic sauce. To this day, this meal is one of the best I’ve had (no joke).
“But I’m not so keen on sharks”
If diving with Great White Sharks isn’t your cup of tea, Port Lincoln has so much more to offer. You can swim with Sea Lions instead (not near the sharks) or with Bluefin Tuna (yes, really). For those who prefer to keep their land-legs on the seafood is often touted The Best In Australia and there are several National Parks to explore. My pick is Coffin Bay, an hour west – this one is best experienced by four-wheel drive. Oyster fans will not be disappointed here.
The Eyre Peninsula is a remote destination, but one packed with wonder. It takes a bit of time and effort to get here, but you will never regret it.