Deadly Animals (Come to Australia): Shark Diving

Sunday 2nd March
Somewhat naively I assumed as Port Lincoln had almost been the South Australia state capital there would be a bus or shuttle to the airport. When the one stewardess asked if we needed a taxi I wasn’t sure but I assumed at least one other person would be going to the town centre. As I was walking out of Port Lincoln airport I saw a taxi driver holding up a YHA sign and he said I could share the cost with the person who had booked it. Luckily Holly agreed to this as the airport was even further away than I expected but soon we arrived.

It took a while to check in because the lady at the desk was almost to helpful even taking people on a tour of the building. Once check in was complete I decided to see if there was more to Port Lincoln than I’d seen on my first visit. My first stop was to a local museum to learn about the local industry and whilst I was glad to support a local organisation as soon as I walked in I regretted my decision as it appeared very ‘specialist’.

I was the only visitor and I was personally led to one of the separate buildings and as I walked around the attendant sat down. This was one of the most arkward moments on this trip. I didn’t want to appear rude but at the same time I had absolutely no interest in reading about or looking at a display on different types of spanners and bolts. It was like being in a giant ‘Man Drawer’ which had ended up taking over a small wharehouse. I wondered what the attendant was thinking about the situation as he can’t have found it interesting watching me pretending to look interested.

I left that section within probably 5 minutes before looking at the other displays which were marginally more interesting because there were colour photos. I left the museum and headed to the Pier Hotel to get some food as they offered a food/drink deal for those at the YHA. Service was incredibly slow and I’d heard a joke that the more remote you get, the slower the pace of life also gets. I guess this makes sense as it is probably often to hot to rush about.

After dinner I returned to the hostel and chatted to my room mate from France who should have done the cage dive but had overslept and missed the pickup. Luckily he had been able to book at no extra cost for another day though it meant returning to Port Lincoln. Once i had sorted everything for the following day I went to the lounge where I just relaxed though because people were already watching Dodgeball there wasn’t any conversation.

Monday 3rd March
My room mate had gone to all the necessary precautions to ensure he didn’t oversleep again and although I had set my alarm for 10 minutes later there was no danger of me doing the same or getting the extra sleep. It took a while for my brain and eyes to function, but I remembered the key items (camera, wallet, sun cream, hat, swimmers/towel) and made my way outside. There were two different companies which none of us had realised and although the taxis were reserved for certain companies it seemed people were just getting on anything and the drivers were only counting people not names. I was one of the few on the correct bus, and luckily for those that weren’t we all ended up at the jetty anyway.

I got chatting to 2 lads from Scotland and one from the Netherlands in the queue and as the only free table available when we boarded was at the far end we took it. This however did meant that the crossing was slightly rougher despite us being constantly told that conditions were particularly calm. I wasn’t taking any risk about motion sickness so whilst I’d never taken them before I took two sea sickness prevention pills which had cost $2 each (one the night before, one after waking up).

After the initial excitement had worn off, and the reality that we’d be on the boat for 3 hours sunk in I started watching a video on Great White Sharks. Unfortunately this had no sound and as I felt tired I closed my eyes and slept. The others must have soon followed as I realised when I woke up. I’m not sure how long I slept for, even if it it was a proper sleep but either way I felt more awake when I went on the deck to take in the views of the disappearing coast.

Those that have followed this blog from the beginning will know prior to 2014 I hadn’t had the best of luck on my dolphin cruises or attempts at sighting them from the cliffs. Imagine my surprise then as I stood on the lower deck talking to two guys from Adelaide about the Ashes a dolphin came right out of the water alongside me. I didn’t have my camera and so I just appreciated what I was seeing until as we were travelling quite a bit faster we left them behind.

Whilst I’d had advice that if there are a lot of sharks it is more exciting to be in a later group on quiet days my gut told me there is a risk the later groups would be standing around on deck for a long time with no guarantee they’d have a closer sighting than the early groups. I knew I’d be satisfied seeing any type of Great White Shark activity so I was more than happy when I found out I was in the first group. We passed a colony of New Zealand fur seals (a popular meal for sharks) and arrived at our anchorage off North Neptune Island. Then the cage was prepared and the captain gave us some safety information. There was a lot to take in and it was all slightly overwhelming but I felt the key message was don’t stick your arms out of the cage.

The captain and one of the younger looking lads started throwing ropes with meat out in front of the cage. I was halfway hearing Holly tell me about her night at the hostel when suddenly it was announced that they had a bite, my adrenaline levels shot up as my group made our way towards the cage. I was last in so I had plenty of time to watch the entry procedure, 2 steps down, a quick photo, grab the mouthpiece/regulator, splash it in the water, then purge it before putting it in the mouth.

The shark had disappeared when we got down in to the cage which was probably lucky for me because the first thing I did was swallow a load of salt water as I didn’t have my lips properly around the mouthpiece. I didn’t let this setback affect my confidence but I was grateful to have some time to get used to my surroundings without a shark potentially smashing the cage. It was a very strange sensation to only breath through the mouth, and every time I looked down to my feet as I was under the non solid section of the cage pressure built up in my ears. It is difficult to get across just how much of a blur and how uncomfortable the first 15 minutes were but I was determined to stay under. I “ate a teaspoon of cement and hardened up” as I knew it wouldn’t last and once I was back on deck I’d quickly forget how much I hated the initial feeling.

I’d noticed the cage had started to rock violently and smashed against the boat. Initially even though i couldn’t see it, I genuinely thought that a shark was either behind or under us. I didn’t feel scared. By this point I’d got used to the breathing and I had been able to take in my underwater surroundings. Gradually I realised it was a false hope that the shark was already near. The shaking of the cage was just the choppy waters, the noise I could hear was the captain banging the sides to attract a shark and the only view was of the large lumps of beat that had been thrown over board. There were also a large number of fish though these seemed more interested in the propeller.

6 of us had entered the cage and there was no guide but we tried to communicate using hand signals and shrugs of shoulders. Eventually after about 45 minutes the general situation became to much and one of the lads left. This created a mass exodus which left 3 of us including me. left. When we filled out our forms I got the impression most of the group were qualified divers but out of the 3 left 2 of us had no real experience of scuba diving (I had a 10 minute failed attempt 3 years ago). I knew something would come along in the end, it was just a case of watching and waiting. We all experienced the same conditions and whilst I know only to well I am not physically as strong as some guys I more than make up for it with my mental strength.

Speaking to them a couple had admitted they were impatient and I think they believed they could leave the cage and get back in if shark reappeared. Of course it didn’t work like that. Back in the cage I continued staring out ahead as moving to much was causing icy cold water to seep down a slight tear in the diving suit and I think I’d started to day dream. Mark suddenly shook me from my thoughts when he jabbed me in the side and pointed over to the right side of the cage.

I always thought I’d be scared when I saw my first glimpse of a Great White Shark. Perhaps that’s because I always thought it would suddenly appear all teeth showing right in front of me rather than it being pointed out to me as it majestically swam past. It didn’t seem to be in an aggressive mood but then crocodiles also look uninterested when they are calculating the situation. The shark was clearly doing the same because it seemed to be circling an area on the right side of the cage and when it appeared the second time we tried to follow its path but lost it even though visibility was good. That was a slightly errie feeling because the same happened in Jaws when it suddenly attacked and as I’d been watching it so intently I couldn’t work out how it had vanished. At over 4m it wasn’t exactly a small fish.

All of a sudden there was a huge hissing sound and a load of bubbles. This is it, now it’s about to attack us and I braced myself but nothing happened. The problem seemed to be with the pipes providing oxygen to us which is quite a large problem to have but so far as I could tell I was still breathing though I think inside I was freaking out a bit because and this might sound silly, how would I have known I wasn’t actually breathing anything in until it was to late to leave the cage. One guy did leave and as he didn’t return I gestured to Mark I’d go up “Do we have to come out I asked?”…the response I got was classic, small town Aussie. “Can you still breathe?”…”ummm yes”…”well get back down and look for the shark”. So that’s what I did, and boy was I glad I did.

This time Mark was looking the wrong way when I grabbed his arm. It all happened within 6 or 7 seconds but the shark had suddenly appeared and was heading straight towards us, slightly on the right as its mouth slowly opened. All of a sudden it rose up and aggressively grabbed a piece of meat before disappearing in the bubbles that had been generated by the splashing. The top of the cage was clunked two times, now it was time to get out and for another group to take over. There were at that point 4 or 5 of us in the cage and I’d tried to alert those on the left side and assumed we had all witnessed what had happened. Sadly two people had missed it and hadn’t been in the cage for the other viewings.

I think we had all expected more but compared to those guys I considered myself very lucky. At that stage of the day it was more frustration for them than worry because we all thought that more sharks would appear and we’d get another chance. In fact we almost considered ourselves unlucky for having to wait so long before we saw anything. This view was partly reinforced when the same shark returned quite quickly as we stood on deck getting out of our wetsuits. It was quite  crowded but I still saw the shark go along the front of the cage and then thrash at the meat. As a result group two were only under for a maximum of 15 minutes as the captain had a policy to ensure people stayed down until they lost patience or until they saw a good piece of shark action.

In terms of what groups saw what I’m not sure but at some point the shark returned and again went for the meat on the right side. When I first saw the shark under water it looked light green, looking down on it in the water from the top deck I would have described it as light grey but when it came out of the water Its fins and upper body were almost black.

This was the last time we saw this shark and as another group entered the cage it vanished in to the distance had left one group had as long a wait as us until another shark came over. I was standing at the front and the captain indicated that the shark seemed nervous of the meat and rather than going for it just circled the boat a few times before heading off. It was very exciting each time it appeared but it didn’t attack the meat so we didn’t see it come out of the water.

Over the course of the day we were given free breakfast, lunch, snacks and soft drinks. As the sunset, I guess I felt philosophical about my experience. More than 10 years before, when walking along the coast of Hartenbos in South Africa my dad and I had spotted through a pair of binoculars a fin circling a bird (I think a cormarent). We watched it for a while when the fin (belonging to a shark) had suddenly come jumping out of the water and grabbed the startled bird before both disappeared under the water. The cage dive hadn’t been the adrenaline activity I’d expected and instead it had felt more like a nature watching activity requiring lots of patience however for me it was still enjoyable and an unforgettable experience.

I sat on deck with Holly and a few of the others with a beer whilst we chatted about travel and our lives back home. Then as we started to near Port Lincoln, an elderly man who I wasn’t was a friend of the crew or had actually participated in the cage dive approached me as I stared out at the islands. He gave me some information on ‘Cape Catastrophe’ and the islands around us. Each island was named by Matthew Flinders after 8 individual sailors all presumed drowned when the rowing boat they were on to find a source of fresh water had suddenly disappeared.

We returned back to the hostel by taxi and saw people who had cage dived with the other company and unfortunately it sounded like they’d had a day even less successful than us. A few of us were going to go out to get some food but it was already quite late and In the end I decided I’d save my money for another day. This decision was partly made because for the second time on this trip I’d left my shower gel and shampoo at the hostel and I knew replacements would cost the price of a meal!

From this point on my evening got progressively worse. Victoria had asked me to send details of my Sydney accommodation and when I logged on to my YHA I realised that my YHA accommodation in Sydney hadn’t been confirmed. I couldn’t remember which I had tried so I phoned both but neither had any record and all were sold out on the Saturday for a music festival I wasn’t even going to. Out of all the days that was the one day I couldn’t afford to be homeless because it is the date of the long awaited Bruno Mars gig with Victoria. Luckily I finally found some where called the Maze which at least is near the station.

Next I realised to my horror that hotmail/outlook had decided to suspend my account because they wanted a validation code and would only send it to an email address that they had closed due to inactivity. During the next 30 days please use my Gmail account which will probably become my main email address anyway. Still I was a bit frustrated and sent an email to the Outlook Support Team from my other outlook account thanking them for encouraging me to use their competitor and to ditch an account I only clung to because I’d had it so long. Unsurprisingly, despite having confirmation of receipt and being promised an answer in 24 hours as at the time of writing I have heard nothing.

Tuesday 4th March
I had arranged to leave the hostel slightly earlier to share the costs of the taxi with a guy called Ben who had travelled with the other company and had been unlucky because he’d not seen any sharks when in the cage. I felt almost guilty I’d seen one, especially as it was something I’d finally decided to do more as an afterthought. Their captain had however agreed to the half price return offer and he intended to take the offer up later in the year.

Whilst I had an extra hour at the airport I didn’t mind because I’m used to earlier starts and It gave me a bit of time to catch up with this blog. I’m fairly used to the overly relaxed style at small airports, but Port Lincoln took it to a new level when I realised we didn’t have to put our cabin luggage through a security check.

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