Diving with the Great Whites

A zoological experience where you are the one in the cage.

The seas off Port Lincoln are the only place in Australia where you can cage dive with Great White Sharks, and people travel from all over the world to do it here. After spending many summers in this relaxed town swimming in the deep blue Boston Bay waters, we finally decided to take the plunge to see what the fuss is all about.

This particular sunny Sunday in January I am overconfident (forgetting how easily I succumb to seasickness) and join Johanna and Sebastian for lunch at KFC before we drive out to the Lincoln Marina for the Calypso Star Charters Twilight Shark Cage Tour. We are met by the ebullient Captain David and co-pilot Jack. A bloke fresh off the plane from the UK and a father and two sons join us, so quite a small party.

It takes two and a half hours to reach Neptune Island, where the sharks hang out. I’m fine for the first half of the trip, while we are still in Boston Bay’s sheltered waters. But once we head out past the tip of Lincoln National Park the sea state gets lively and our boat starts to lurch up and down*. I try to watch the horizon, that’s the trick I’ve been told. But pretty soon the horizon is disappearing as we rise then fall, rise then fall. Our Captain smiles and assures us that this is a relatively calm two metre swell; he’s had tours out in eight metre swells.

Just off the aptly named Cape Catastrophe we pass the islands named by Matthew Flinders in memory of his eight crew who lost their lives when the Investigator’s landing cutter sank. It really is beautiful scenery, foliage down to the sandy beaches and aquamarine waters. I just wish I could enjoy it, but by the time we get to our destination I am as sick as a dog. This is despite my doctor prescribing me the strongest anti-nausea drugs on offer (used by chemotherapy patients). Surprisingly Johanna and Sebastian are also sick and we vomit into the well-designed bags furnished by our Captain.

Throwing out (and up) some berley

Dave throws out some berley to attract the fish in the first instance. Calypso is the only one-day shark cage diving operation permitted to use natural fish berley to attract the Great White Sharks. Sebastian and I also deposit our own version of berley over the side of the boat, causing a feeding frenzy below us. The crew and other passengers seem fine, and eager to get into the cage.

We squeeze into full body wet suits and don the heavy boots. These boots are made for sinking (to ensure that we stay underwater in the cage) and I get nervous imagining tumbling into the sea as I approach the cage, and sinking straight to the bottom. We listen to the safety instructions on how to use the cage and breathing apparatus, to ensure that horror situation doesn’t unfold.

The cage, attached to the back of the boat, is lowered into the water so that the top of the cage and the entry hatch is just above the surface. The boat and the cage are bobbing gently now that we are parked just off the island.  Dave grabs a large piece of meat on a rope, and starts casting it out, pulling it back in, and throwing it out again. It’s a signal to the sharks that tasty meat is entering the water. So that the sharks don’t modify their behaviour because of this type of feeding, our government designates four days per fortnight as Non Activity Days and all one-day operators adhere to the same schedule. If you’re booking flights to Port Lincoln for this activity, check the shark dive schedule first.

The cage on this vessel can take six people at a time but being such a small group there are only three or four of us in at a time. It’s not squeezy and we can enter and exit as we please. On a full capacity tour you can expect about 45 minutes in the cage.

As we approach the cage we each take an oxygen mouthpiece which is attached to the pressurised mainline. No need for individual tanks as we will just be floating in the cage alongside the boat. Calypso advise that no diver qualification or previous experience required, and that’s good because we’ve only ever snorkelled before. We don’t experience any problems breathing underwater, and soon we are floating a metre below the surface alongside schools of sparkling fish.

Nature’s awesome wonder

It’s cool but not uncomfortable down here. For now I’m stable and the seasickness vanishes. From below we watch the chunk of meat continue to hit the surface of the water. The fish, gathered here for the berley, are interesting enough, but where is the main attraction?

Of course, seeing a Great White is not guaranteed, but Calypso has an 85% sighting success rate since 2011. They publish recent sighting results on their website.

Then, ten minutes after the initial berley, a grey-white creature appears from one side through the emerald green. It’s a beautiful, graceful 4.5 metre long Great White shark. There are three others out there also, according to our Captain, who is attaching a fresh piece of meat after the last piece was snatched away. We feel safe as the enormous killer exits, then reappears seconds later slowly slicing through the water only metres from us.

The view from the cage as the Great White beauty cruised past. Captain Dave estimated it to be 4.5m in length.
The view from the cage as the Great White beauty cruised past. Captain Dave estimated it to be 4.5m in length.

 

Sebastian and I continue to watch in awe, nudging each other and pointing out the sharks as they appear from different angles. I’m recording it all with a small video camera through the cage-free slot about half-way down. You can hire a Go Pro video camera on the boat, and the crew also take photos to document your big day (which you can purchase or view some of them on Facebook). At one stage the meat gets too close and a shark makes contact with the cage, that’s not supposed to happen.

It’s a privilege to experience this awesome creature in its natural environment, and all too soon an hour and a half has passed and it’s time to pull up the cage and head home. We shuffle out of our wetsuits and enjoy the warmth of the afternoon sun. Then we are out in the choppy waters again. Woe is me, again.

Too soon our time underwater is up and we must depart, one last shot of a Great White Shark.
Too soon our time underwater is up and we must depart, one last shot of a Great White Shark.

Co-pilot Jack cooks us all a tasty meal on the way home. Well, it is apparently tasty. I can’t even think of food, and sit alone at the back of the boat holding my stomach and howling to the rising moon. It’s a picturesque sunset, one you’re likely to witness in this part of the world even more than a Great White shark on a cage dive tour.

The lights are going on in Port Lincoln as we glide into the marina. I’m glad to be back on land at 9.30pm and crawl into my bed at the Limani Hotel.

Late the next day my insides have recovered and I can heartily recommend diving with the Great Whites. Having taken the plunge, we can now understand what all the fuss is about. If you are prone to seasickness seek out a cure, but be resigned to the fact that it may not work. A tour like this is not cheap, but it’s a unique experience and you can also rest assured that if you chose Calypso you are spending money in an eco-friendly way (Calypso Star Charters recently achieved Climate Action Leader status from Eco Tourism Australia, the organisation’s highest level of climate action certification!)

Calypso Star Charters Twilight Tour from Port Lincoln, South Australia – Adults $495, Children (16 and under) $395. (@CalypsoStarCharters)

 

*Being a small party and a Twilight Tour we took the smaller Calypso boat. The much larger main shark diving vessel, the MV Calypso Star 2, which we passed en route on its way home from the day tour, is fitted with a gyroscopic stabiliser that greatly reduces the roll and helps minimise seasickness.

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