Field Report: Dancing with Australia’s Great Whites
The View from the Shark Cage: Dancing with Australia’s Great Whites
North Neptune Island, South Australia
Photos by Howard and Michele Hall
Our shark cage stops at 60 feet, about three feet from the bottom, holding four of us and our cameras. The water here at North Neptune Island is dark and cold. The bottom is covered with green sea grasses that are often disturbed by the wings of giant stingrays and delta-winged bat rays.
Under normal circumstances I’d be fascinated by a stingray that was more than six feet in diameter, especially when they are followed by a school of silver jacks. But we are not here to see stingrays. We are here to see great white sharks.
This is my seventh trip to South Australia to photograph great whites. My first was in the early 1980’s. Back then we might wait a week or more before a shark stumbled into our chum line and followed the odor to our boat. Great whites were rare then. Shark fishermen and trophy hunters had decimated the majestic predators. But today, thanks to Australia’s strict environmental protection of the white shark, great whites are coming back. On this expedition I am seeing the results of many peoples’ efforts, driven in large part by Rodney Fox and the Fox Shark Research Foundation. We are fortunate to have Andrew Fox and Rodney Fox join us on this expedition.
Andrew pulls on the signal rope and the heavy shark cage settles on the ocean floor. I un-strap my Deep RED camera system from the cage floor and turn the power on. My wife, Michele, is behind me, pushing her still camera out between the bars as a 14-foot great white glides past the cage and turns to circle it.
I look down at my camera and see that it’s still booting up — the process takes nearly two minutes. I look up to see the shark pass by only three feet away. Behind it, two more great whites are approaching. Michele’s strobe flashes away, so there must be at least one more shark on her side of the cage. In fact, there are many more. By the end of the day, Andrew identifies ten different great white sharks. Most of these are familiar to him. Using natural variations in body markings Andrew has identified more than 40 different sharks that regularly come to North Neptune Island, some he has seen for 11 years.
My RED camera powers up just in time for the enormous dark shadow heading my way. It’s a gigantic great white, enormous not just in its length, but in its girth. It must be more than four feet in diameter. “Mrs. Moo” is what they call her, Andrew tells me later. She is more than twice the size of a large cow.
I slide a small door open on the side of the cage and point the camera at the approaching leviathan. Hitting the run switch, I watch this amazing animal fill the viewfinder. Several people in the cage are yelling through their mouthpieces. Their voices are not understandable but I am sure each is yelling some variation of, “Holly Hogs, look at the size of that beast!” Indeed, she is awesome and majestically beautiful all at once.
We’ll spend the first seven days of our expedition at North Neptune Island off Australia’s southern coast. After re-provisioning in Port Lincoln, we’ll head back out to sea for Hopkins Island, where we hope to film one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals, the Australian Sea Lion. Stay tuned…