It’s one of the most sought-after wildlife experiences in the world. But as Max Anderson discovers, cage-diving with great white sharks is no soft adventure.
I don’t see him coming. He’s like a ghost – a 4.5-metre, one-tonne ghost. It’s just as skipper Kym Shepperd had told us before we were submerged in the steel cage. “Don’t expect them to announce themselves, don’t expect them to make any noise and certainly don’t expect to hear any Jaws music,” he’d said. “Great whites are the ultimate stealth predator so keep looking over your shoulder, because you won’t see them coming.”
I did this same trip with Adventure Bay Charters six months ago and I didn’t see them coming then, either. But that’s because there were no sharks.
Prospective cage-divers, let’s get this out of the way: great white sharks operate under their own set of rules and it has nothing to do with human expectations. Indeed, our knowledge of them is so scant that no-one knows where they breed in Australian waters and no-one has ever seen a great white give birth.
Last year, some 15,000 people visited the far-flung town of Port Lincoln, on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, for the primo bucket-list adventure of staring into the maw of the world’s most feared predator. They each paid about $400 to one of three cage-diving operators to sail two-and-a-half hours south to the remote, wave-thrashed Neptune Islands. If they saw a shark while submerged in a cage, they paid another $100 or so for the privilege.
The first time I went out, my expectations were as high as anyone else’s. The four-person crew of the Shark Warrior – including salty skipper-dude Kym and happy first mate Skye Sevelj – worked tirelessly. The weather was golden, the sailing calm and the muscular headlands of Coffin Bay National Park, with its fur seals and white-bellied sea eagles, offered the sort of wild views that make you want to give it all up for a life on the water.
And, truthfully, all 27 passengers aboard – including Melbourne bankers, Sydney builders, New York cops and a family from Perth – had a good time. We never gave up hope and our spirits were kept afloat by hearty food, including hot soup to warm us after we came out of the freezing-cold ocean. But each time we emerged, shivering and streaming water from our wetsuits, we’d shake our heads like treasure hunters: “Nope, nothing yet...”
So here I am again, wondering if it will be different on this cool, windy day. I have the same tireless crew but this time the passenger list includes 16 US Marines on R&R from naval exercises on the Eyre Peninsula. Kym gives us a pep talk before we set off: “We’ve got a south-easterly today so to any of you who aren’t used to rough seas, we’ve got plenty of sick bags on board. Don’t be afraid to use them; there’s no shame in it.” He turns to address the Marines: “Obviously, this doesn’t include you guys.”
An hour out of Port Lincoln, the seas begin to buck like a mule. Marines have traditionally used the call “Oorah!” as a battle cry. On this trip, it comes out more as “Bleuur-rahhh!” as half of them puke endlessly. Three passengers are laid up for the entire day.
(I didn’t see that coming, either, so here’s another pointer for prospective cage-divers: this is the Southern Ocean and it comes roaring in all the way from Antarctica. If you’re unsure about your sea legs, heed the charter operator’s advice and take seasickness tablets; they work.)
We arrive at a calm anchorage on the lee side of the Neptunes, where a rainbow arcs against the steely sky like a sign of blessed mercy. On the rounded dome of an island, we can see groups of New Zealand fur seals: the colony of 50,000 is one of the world’s largest and is used by great white sharks like truck drivers use a roadside diner. Some believe a migrating great white can be sustained by a single seal for weeks.
The Adventure Bay Charters crew begin their preparations, lowering the cage as well as a unique glass-walled pod called an Aqua Sub that keeps its occupants seated and dry. The pod and cage can each accommodate six people, so 12 in total can maintain an underwater vigil.
To up the ante, they hang waterproof speakers off the boat and play heavy rock in the water. The sharks’ super-sensitivity to vibrations draws them to the sound source (AC/DC’s Back in Black is said to be a favourite) and it means the crew doesn’t need to berley the water with fish guts, which is a messy business. They also beat the water with flails, rasp the aluminium decks with gaffs and drop acoustic “rattles” made of rope and brightly coloured rags.
After the briefing on how to use the air regulator, I suit up, get harnessed with lead weights and step down into the cage with five of the Marines. I immediately start hyperventilating when the icy water seeps into my wetsuit but I grip the rail, stare intently into the turquoise and bring my breathing under control.
Hanging off an airline far, far out to sea while waiting for a shark is an odd business. A curtain of gleaming trevally circles the cage, creating a hypnotic effect. Occasionally, I turn to make hand signals to my fellow divers or wave at the audience seated in the glass pod. It all becomes quite peaceful, Zen-like, abstract... until I feel a furious tapping on my shoulder. One of the Marines is pointing. And, suddenly, there it is: a 4.5-metre male great white shark.
Don’t ask me where he came from or how I missed him but he is six metres away, gliding with a small entourage of pilot fish. Muffled pandemonium breaks out on the decks above (“Shark! Shark! Shark!”), like someone famous has just swept into town unannounced.
And in a way, that’s what has happened. Just as we’d been told, there’s no Jaws music to herald his arrival but he needs no introduction with his scythe-like dorsal fin, rakish gill slits and implacable mouth. Frankly, we’re all star-struck.
The great white languidly makes his tonne of bulk vanish in the turquoise gloom, before torpedoing back into view to bite one of the coloured lures. My exclamations of shock and excitement emerge as a burst of silver bubbles.
On the journey back to the mainland, we enjoy calmer seas as well as hot sausages, cold beer and plenty of rock music. And, after six separate shark sightings, there’s a distinct feeling of mission accomplished.
Tour operators around the world offer wildlife “adventures” without demanding much of participants. By contrast, cage-diving with great whites is no walk in the park. You have to earn your encounter – sometimes by traversing rough seas, by enduring water temperatures that can make your body work overtime and by being prepared for disappointment if the sharks have other ideas.
But to have been in the water with one of the world’s most feared apex predators makes it a challenge worth rising to. Or, as the US Marines would say: “Oorah!” ￼
Cage-diving is perfectly easy – suitable even for kids – and a diving licence is not required. You can join the Adventure Bay Charters tour as an observer for $395; this includes all food and local hotel transfers to and from the Port Lincoln marina. If you want to enter either the Aqua Sub or the cage, you pay an extra $125 (includes all gear hire), which is refundable if no sharks are seen. The best sighting periods are December to February and May to July (the latter months are when the fur-seal pups are entering the water for the first time). Prices are lower during the off-peak season. Calypso Star Charters and Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions also offer cage-diving tours. Calypso’s five-year shark-sighting record is available online to help you determine the best time to visit and maximise your chances of spotting a great white.