Searching for Great Whites

I landed in Adelaide on a wintry June morning, leaving my comfortable Qantas seat to scurry across the tarmac in the icy rain, to a waiting light aircraft that would take me the last 650 km to my destination. We took off across a rough sea and soon landed in a bland airport that looked more like a field: Port Lincoln. I waited under a small tin shelter for my bag, wind nipping at my cheeks.

Named after the English village in Lincolnshire, by Matthew Flinders, who reached its shores in 1802, while charting our Southern coastline, Port Lincoln still seems remote.

In 1839, settlers made the trip from England, bringing sheep and farming skills with them. Today, agriculture has been surpassed by fishing. The locals catch prawns, abalone and crayfish. The ‘others’, the so-called ‘millionaires’, are catching great southern blue fin tuna. This highly sort- after loot is hunted, gutted and frozen, and placed on waiting Japanese vessels in a matter of hours. Tuna not processed immediately is brought in by purse seine nets, to be kept in holding pens where they are fattened up before being sold.

So, why was I there?

Not for the tuna, as I don’t eat it, due to its exploitation by fisheries, and would never go to a tuna farm to swim with a wild pelagic fish for ‘fun’. I am there for the tunas’ original predator – the great white shark.

I was driven by taxi, a good 20 minutes along the rugged coastline, to the marina, where rows of tuna boats sit, ready to leave before next daybreak. Wedged in among them I found ‘Princess 2’, my ride, looking more like an old Duchess.

I came not for the usual tourist trip, but to join five scientists who were on a mission to tag great whites and deploy buoys with acoustic tracking systems, in an area that sharks frequent.

On board, I was surrounded by laptops, tags, batteries, tape and beer. These guys like a drink. I met the chum boy, Craig, the cheerful hostess, Jennifer, and Andrew, son of legendary Rodney Fox, who started the business 20 years ago after he was attacked by a great white in the 1960’s.

We went to bed late and I woke at 3 am to the gentle rocking of our boat on its way out to sea. I smiled and went back to sleep, until I was woken again, this time with violent rolling and the crashing of waves. This must be the passage they were warning me to take seasickness tablets for. I just made it to the bathroom to throw up. I managed to get dressed and staggered up the stairs to the deck, and while wishing I could be airlifted out, and making one last purge over the side, I looked up to an amazing view. I was hit by a blast of fresh salt air and a spray of waves, and smiled. The rolling waves were raw and wild. A pod of dolphins came past and rode at our bow, until they moved effortlessly away. The shark cages, held tightly by thick rope, rattled in the surge, as if promising me for things to come. Scuba gear was placed neatly along the seats, and defrosting tuna were tied to the rails, bait no doubt.

We arrived in a cove of the Neptune Islands, truck stop for the great white shark. Our chum boy started slapping a tuna head across the waters surface. We waited. Then it came. I think I said ‘holy shit’ out loud. I couldn’t help it. The most enormous grey shape, up to seven metres long, had just breached the surface. My heart was racing. This is it. This is a great white, the most feared yet misunderstood creature on the planet, right below me. It rolled, trying to get hold of the tuna, and missed. As if angry, it slapped its tail as it headed back down.

“Right, who is going down in the cages, “ Andrew called out.

More and more sharks were arriving, some taking a bite at the edge of the dive step. It was like living in my favourite film, as a kid, Jaws. Two of the scientists told me to come with them in the rubber boat to fix the computer on the island for the tracking systems, and my smile faded.

Large sharks, rubber inflatable boat, I thought, but when he said the island is off-limits to the public and a one-off experience, I jumped in.

After trying for several tense minutes to get the engine started, we roared off.

“There is no landing step, only slippery rocks, so don’t fall in,” I was told.

I managed to leap across to the rocks, my life depended on it, and then the most amazing thing happened. A baby seal came up, curious and wide eyed. I went for my camera and was told, “You can’t take photos.” Disappointed, I put the camera away and watched the scientists get closer to the gorgeous seal and wished I had done better at maths and chemistry at school, for that opportunity.

Then we trudged up a hill covered in scrub, seals darting left and right from their sleepy nests.

“Be careful of snakes, they bite,” I was told this time.

The scientists reached their computer, which was in an airtight esky with a satellite dish over it.

“Make sure ants don’t get in the esky,” I was instructed and proceeded to brush them away.

When that was done, we sat on the white sand and watched the brown fur seals around us. Some played with each other in the small surf, while others sunbaked. I imaged this to be what it would have been like for Darwin, when he came ashore to various untouched lands. One scientist pointed out a magnificent white sea lion. He was concerned it was the only one. The fur seals are abundant because they stay and fish close to shore. Their only predator is the great white. The sea lions however, go out far and deep to fish, and get caught in commercial tuna nets.

I was saddened looking at this lone creature, under threat from an industry that would be unlikely to be troubled for its survival.

We sat on the tranquil island and watched another tourist boat arrive with shark cages. I wondered how the sharks could entertain both boats. I was told three or four more operators were trying to gain licences and access to the area. I felt uneasy about that, not only for the sharks’ welfare, but for the future of the island. Would it remain untouched once the tourists got bored with not enough sharks to go around, and head to land for some seal encounters, and upset their tranquil home.

Back on the Fox boat it was time to deploy the buoys that held the acoustic receivers. That was difficult, and took a while. It was dark when the scientists were done and we had a meal and went to bed.

In the morning, it was time to tag the sharks, and seven were identified successfully, with the tag attached to a spear, which they thrust into the sharks back.

Regular white sharks came past and the scientists would call out their names in delight.

Moo was a confident large female. Marina a sweet tempered girl. A newcomer came along with a rope wrapped around its neck, cutting into its gills. Several attempts were made to get the rope off. When that was achieved, everyone cheered. It was felt to be better than the tagging efforts.

Time to jump in the cages. Underwater, I found it wasn’t dark and gloomy, with killer creatures taking a swing at you. It was surprisingly light, majestic with schools of fish swimming past and rays cruising along. I saw a great white swim toward me and open its mouth. I felt privileged to be so close and to see it in its natural environment, doing what it does best, chasing tuna. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but thought better.

I came to the surface exhilarated. I was now in love with a creature that can’t be tamed, can’t be kept, but that is in danger from man.

We cruised home and I sat in the dark on the back of the boat, watching the black waves and thinking of the sea lion and the sharks. I had come close to a creature that has roamed the oceans for 20 million years. It started to rain again. I didn’t care. I was moved.

Harriet Jones

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