Swimming with Big Fish

 

Swimming with Big Fish

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

If you’re young (at heart) with an appetite for extreme adventure, you’ll definitely want to visit port Lincoln as a gateway to cage dive with great whites in the waters surrounding the Neptune Islands. If that doesn’t rock your boat, there are other fish in the sea to fill your downtime—and stomach—in this industrious, yet unhurried, South Australian town.

Esquire Malaysia )

 
 
 

 

Into the Cage

I’ve always prided myself on my sea legs. But the turbulent three-hour boat ride from Port Lincoln, at some point hovering precariously on waves six- to eight-feet-high, to this spot of blue, somewhere in the middle of the Southern Ocean, is a rude awakening.

The engine had stopped. “But I still feel nauseous,” I tell one of the boat’s crew, as I stumble to my feet. “Should I wait it out?”

No luck. I’m supposed to be among the first group to go into the water. By the time the sign-up sheet had come around, the decision was already made for us (myself and two other journalists from Malaysia — we’re here on a press trip). The only blank lines left to fill were those under “Group 1”, and the only thing left to do was to psych ourselves into believing that the first group has it best: the sharks would be sharper and more curious, before tourist fatigue set in.

The young Aussie, seemingly in rude health and physique, dismisses my concerns. “You’ll be fine. It’ll go away once you’re in the water,” he says. I can only take his word for it, and struggle clumsily into my wetsuit and gear. Despite the nausea, though, I’m in good spirits. I’m excited. Let’s do this.

Out on deck, we gather around Dan the skipper, squinting against the sunlight as he metes out the golden rules we have to abide by — or risk short-circuiting the fun for everyone.

One: we’ll go down in groups of six, three on each side. “Keep to the side of the cage so the regulator tubes don’t tangle.”

Two: “Go right to the bottom of the cage and stay there. The weighted vest should help.”

Three: “At all times, hold on to the hand bar inside the cage for support, never the cage frame.” In case, you know, a great white comes gnawing at it.

Four: “Keep your mouth wrapped tight over the regulator to keep the water out.” And breathe through my mouth? Sounds easy enough.

Then, one of Dan’s boys sticks a video camera in our faces. “Any last words?”

“Nope,” I say, laughing. “I plan to come back, all body parts intact.”

“Are you scared? Be honest.”

“No,” I say, without hesitation. And I mean it. Then, it’s my turn.

The cage, which begins at the surface of the water and plunges eight-feet deep, opens like the mouth of a beast as I step onto the top rung of the ladder. I lower myself inch by inch, breathing in sharply as the icy water slowly seeps into my wetsuit.

Here goes. I take a deep breath, bite hard onto the regulator, and go under.

 
 
 

 

The Land of Tuna Kings

Against a backdrop of impossibly blue waters and equally blue skies, we cruise along the curve of Boston Bay in a four-wheel-drive. We’re in the good hands of David Doudle, founder of Goin’ Off Safaris and our tour guide for the weekend.

“It’s a beautiful day and everyone’s out,” he tells us — though it’s not clear what he means by “everyone”. The streets aren’t exactly bustling, people aren’t out soaking up the sun on the grass, and restaurant- and café-goers aren’t tumbling out onto the sidewalks. It isn’t, by any means, deserted, but it has the relaxed ambience of a small town — people going about their own business to their own rhythm.

As we stray off the foreshore and nip inland, David points at a truck backing into The Fresh Fish Place, a fish-processing factory that is also a restaurant and a cooking school. “They’re just hauling the fish in from the jetty. Wherever you go for lunch, you’ll be having this morning’s catch — fresh from the sea,” he says.

Port Lincoln might not look like it at first glance, but that truck is our first sign of the industry that makes this place rich: seafood. There are king oysters going at a hundred Australian dollars a piece, snow-white abalone (unlike the canned brown ones we Chinese are fond off), prawns, yellowtail kingfish, mussels, lobsters… But without a doubt, the town’s crowning glory is its resources of Southern bluefin tuna, especially to satisfy Japan’s insatiable appetite for sashimi. In fact, Port Lincoln lays claim to Australia’s largest commercial fishing fleet, and is so rich there are reportedly more millionaires per capita here than anywhere else in Australia. Here, tuna kings rule.

One of them is the late Dinko Lukin, a Croatian immigrant, who was instrumental in reviving the business in the early nineties after the city’s economy took a huge blow as a result of the reduced quota on bluefin tuna in 1989, imposed to counter dwindling stocks caused by overfishing.

“So a guy like Dinko Lukin and a couple of other people got their heads together. They realised that if they could nick whole schools of tuna by using boats trailing nets to tow them in slowly, they could then release them into pontoons offshore and farm them like they could cattle or sheep, and the bigger and higher-quality tuna could then demand a premium price. So that’s what happened,” David says.

But tuna’s also a growing business in other ways. In one of these pontoons — measuring twelve metres wide and thirty metres deep, just a fifteen-minute boat ride out from shore — you can actually swim with these massive fish. It’s the wading pool, a pit stop to the ultimate bucket-list item in these parts. And Port Lincoln is apparently the only place in the world where you can do this.

“There are about sixty bluefins in there, each of them weighing about eighty kilogrammes. They’re bigger than you guys,” David says, laughing.

And he’s not joking, as we soon find out for ourselves. These muscular fish average about two metres in length and can go from zero to seventy kilometres an hour in a burst, so strong, despite their benign appearance, that we’re warned of any vainglorious attempts to even try and touch them. The only thing you’re allowed to do is feed them. You hold out little dead fish by the tail, dangle them right on the surface of the water, wait, and hope that the bluefins don’t take your fingers off.

And they never do. They don’t even nick you. I’m surprised by how precise they are: how they stop short of coming into contact with you despite no effort on your part to avoid them, darting away just as quickly as they come in metallic blue-silver flashes, the dotted yellow lines of their finlets flickering like lights.

Later that night, we have tuna in a different setting: freshly cut, raw, and on our plates at Del Giorno’s Cafe. In Port Lincoln, somehow, it just seems like the natural order of things.

 
 
 

 

The Nowhere Place That Could

As a celebration of tuna’s making of this city, residents celebrate the Tunarama Festival every January with the Tuna Toss World Championship. Yes, you read that right. An act of industry that originated from unloading the overflowing boats that came into port, where men would stand on their decks and throw the tuna up into the waiting trucks, has become a spectacle. However, in the Tuna Toss, only in the grand finale is the tuna the real thing. Anyone can enter, but there’s also a professional category that has seen the participation of Olympic hammer throwers from around the world.

Port Lincoln, too, has its own Olympic son: Dean Lukin, the son of Dinko Lukin now working in the family business, had won gold in the super heavyweight-lifting division at the 1984 Games. I like to imagine that his hauling in tuna had formed part of his early training. It’s easy to imagine, too, how the city transforms itself during festive times, its residents sharing in the good cheer when a local son makes good. Certainly, there are enough success stories to go around.

At some point, we pass a life-sized, bronze statue of a horse near the Port Lincoln Hotel, and David points out that it’s Makybe Diva: the only racehorse in history to ever win the Melbourne Cup three times, owned by another tuna baron, Tony Santic, who is also a Croatian transplant. “When that horse won for the third time, people were celebrating in a bar. Tony put twenty thousand [Australian] dollars on tab to treat everyone to drinks,” David recalls.

In this way, Port Lincoln is a charming place: it has a humble sensibility, but an outsized ambition evidenced by its larger-than-life characters, harking right back to its first resident: Captain Matthew Flinders, who had identified Australia as a continent and charted the coastline here in 1802, naming the port after his native Lincolnshire in England. And although a workaday sensibility permeates the atmosphere, the city’s wild edge constantly presses up against it as a reminder not to take things for granted.

You’ll find it in the craggy coastal cliffs and surrounding bushland, in the stately old Manna Gums found at Mikkira Station, among which wild koalas live, and in the ever-changing pattern of sand dunes our four-wheel-drive gets stuck in and which we have to dig ourselves out of. You’ll find it on the open road, where we can see the charred stains left on the land in the wake of bushfires, and where we narrowly miss running over shinglebacks (also called sleepy lizards) and a slim but venomous King Brown snake. You’ll also find it in the occasional news of shark attacks.

In 2011, resident abalone diver Peter Clarkson was “taken” by two great whites, as David puts it.

“What do you mean, ‘taken’?” I ask.

“Well, they couldn’t find any trace of him. Not even scraps of his wetsuit. Nothing.”

 
 
 

 

It's Crunch Time

They don’t waste any time coming. Not long after I get into the water, I see one — a great white, named for its fair underbelly, its slate-grey upper body casting a menacing shadow in the water. The section of the cage at eye-level is a long, horizontal gap, so you have an unfettered view. Lithe and torpedo-shaped, the beady-eyed shark manoeuvres close around the cage, but thankfully, doesn’t press up against it like I’ve seen in some photographs. I try to forget that some of the scenes from Jaws were filmed around here.

Before I can marvel at more sharks closing in on us, I have to come up for air. Having never dived before, the breathing regulator takes some getting used to.

“What’s the problem?” Dan the skipper asks when I resurface for the third time.

“I can’t stay down for too long. I can’t breathe properly,” I tell him.

“Okay. Well, just try to stay down for as long as you can,” he says, a little unhelpfully. But the rest of my forty-five-minute dive passes in much the same vein, and my bravado slips.

Still, despite the interrupted viewing, it is an inimitable experience. This is the only place in the Asia-Pacific region where you can dive with great whites, and there’s usually a good chance — though not a guarantee — of a sighting on any given day. The waters surrounding the Neptune Islands are home to a large colony of seals and sea lions, which are a food source for the migratory sharks. But even so, human intervention is necessary. Our guides from Calypso Star Charters are authorised to attract the great whites using berley. They also use crude noise to attract them, by slapping the plank of large paddles onto the surface of the water.

Critics of the bait approach, however, have said that it teaches the sharks to associate human presence with food, and could be a factor in shark attacks. Another guide, Adventure Bay Charters, claims their tours to be berley-free, preferring not to interfere with the sharks and their marine environment. Instead, they use an arguably more sophisticated method to attract the sharks: audio sound vibrations. Believe it or not, they’ve gone as far as to observe that the great whites are attracted to rock music. And it turns out the sharks’ band of choice is AC/DC.

Whatever the case may be, I see six great whites in a day. Wow, I think, as I finally emerge from the water. But any jubilation is short-lived.

A sudden, sickening force surges up in my throat. The excitement had kept it at bay, but now, it’s uncoiled and coming fast. I yell out to a stranger for a plastic bag — “Quick, please!” — and throw up.

 
 
 

 

Getting there

Find your way to the city of Adelaide and then fly on to Port Lincoln. Qantasand Rex Regional Express make the trip from Adelaide to Port Lincoln daily (~50 minutes, $AUD 230–350 return fare).

General tours

Goin’ Off Safaris is your one-stop shop for tours in Port Lincoln. David Doudle can hook you up for wildlife experiences, fishing trips, hiking expeditions, seafood tasting and educational tours.

Cage diving with great white sharks

Believe me when I say it’s not just for adrenaline junkies, and is doable for the even the most casual of tourists. In fact, your biggest problem won’t be fear; it’ll be seasickness. I was not the only one who puked my guts out (luckily, it was well-timed). I’ll admit I noted with some satisfaction that an Aussie guy who looked like the infuriatingly fit sort did, too.

Go with Calypso Star ChartersAdventure Bay Charters, or Rodney Fox Expeditions. The usual tour offers a surface cage dive like the one I did, which costs $AUD 495. Rodney Fox Expeditions, whose founder is a shark-attack survivor, offers longer expeditions and also claims to be the only outfit in the world to offer cage diving with great whites on the ocean floor, descending approximately sixty-six feet. Of course, for this, you’ll need to be PADI Open Water-certified.

The best time to go for shark sightings is reportedly from December to February, or May to September, though you should still be able to spot great whites outside these months. No outfit “guarantees” sightings, but there is usually a pretty good chance of one. Calypso Star Charters, for example, has a tracking calendar to give you an idea of the frequency and number of shark sightings. In the event that you don’t see a great white: some of the tours offer a partial refund or your next tour at half price.

Swimming with bluefin tuna

Only one outfit offers this, for $AUD 100.

Useful websites

portlincoln.yourvisitorguide.com.auvisitportlincoln.netsouthaustralia.com