Great white fever

Get your heart pumping with a face-to-face encounter straight off the set of Jaws, Terry Smyth writes.

Imagine you're the marine biologist Hooper in the movie Jaws and you've just told Quint, the salty old skipper of the Orca, that you're going to use a shark cage to get up close and personal with the great white shark that's been terrorising the resort town of Amity.

"You go inside the cage?" Quint asks. You nod. He leers at you, says "Cage goes in the water, you go in the water, shark's in the water - our shark," then turns away singing "Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies."

Quint clearly thinks you're crazy, but he's wrong. And he's wrong about another thing, too, but we'll get to that later. In the real world, diving with great whites is not a crazy notion.

Such encounters, while said to be Australia's, if not the world's No. 1 adrenaline rush, can nonetheless leave everyone safe and smiling, including the shark.

Given the great white shark's reputation as the most fearsome monster of the deep, having attacked and killed more humans than any other shark species, diving among these creatures is the extreme edge of adventure tourism. Yet there is no shortage of people keen to confront their fears on diving expeditions in Australia, South Africa and California.

South Australia, the world's No. 1 haunt of the great white, is home to the world's first great white diving operation. And while it was the 1975 movie Jaws that won the shark fame and inspired the business, it all began a decade earlier with a shark attack.

In 1963, Rodney Fox was diving off the South Australian coast in a spear-fishing competition, trailing some dead fish behind him. The fish attracted a great white that slammed into Fox like a torpedo, badly mauling his chest and arm.

He escaped with his life, barely, and still has a shark tooth embedded in his wrist to remind him. However, not only did he go back into the water, he went back into shark infested water - deliberately, but with a difference. To protect divers wishing to observe great whites, Fox invented the shark cage.


From his shark cage, Fox was the first to film great whites. He shot the live shark sequences for Jaws and it is his invention Quint mocks in the hunt for the man-eater. Fox and his son Andrew operate Fox Great White Shark Expeditions out of Port Lincoln, South Australia, offering tours on their diving boat to the Neptune Islands, about 40 nautical miles out into the Southern Ocean.

There are seal colonies there, and where there are seals there are great whites. Off the islands, customers can get wet and observe the great predators from a cage just below the surface, or, if certified divers, from a cage lowered to the sea bed. There's more to it than the rush, however.

Both Rodney and Andrew are self-confessed "shark-huggers". Rodney says that since his shark attack he has dedicated his life to the

appreciation and preservation of the great white, and to research into the behaviour of a fish about which little is known. Like father, like son. Andrew is a biological scientist and, like his father, a world authority on the great white. He recalls his first encounter.

"When I was seven years old, Dad took me out on an expedition. At about 9.30 at night he woke me up to look over the side of the boat and a really big white shark was spy-hopping."

Spy-hopping? "The great white is one of the few sharks that puts its head above the water to look at you. It was a very powerful first encounter."

Andrew's never lost that sense of awe.

"Great whites are special," he says. "Once you've seen them, they seem to have something different from all the other sharks, even the giant whale shark. I can't imagine a more exciting animal."

He says it's that promise of excitement - "the adrenaline thing" - that attracts the customers.

"Generally they have a pretty good idea of what they want - to get in a cage and see a shark. They've watched National Geographic and Discovery channels, and they've seen the movie Jaws. Maybe for all the wrong reasons - the thrill and the vengeance aspect.

"But, interestingly, Jaws is probably responsible for most of the research on sharks, and great white sharks in particular.

"Through the movie, a lot of conservationists and shark-huggers have found their way to us. When people come out with us, we make an effort to calm it down to a sort of spiritual, eco-tourism experience.

"Everybody wants to see sharks jumping up in the air, smashing into the cages, biting the platform, breaking teeth.

"So we have to tell people: 'You're not allowed to touch the sharks. We're not allowed to make them jump out of the water. If we do, the sharks bash themselves up and go away, and it's a lack of respect for such a majestic animal.' " While qualified divers can be taken in the cage to the ocean floor, most people enter surface cages, breathing though air hoses.

"I guess it's a little overwhelming for a person who has never dived, or even snorkelled, to get into a cage and see a shark, but in most cases we can get nearly anybody to do it," Andrew says.

"A lot of people say, 'I just want to look from the boat.' Then generally they see how easy it is and see little old ladies and kids being able to dive with the sharks, and they're quite happy to slip on a wetsuit, and we show them how to breathe through a regulator."

Typical reactions? "Everyone's attention is drawn to those teeth, of course [saw-like, extremely sharp and 7.5 centimetres long], but a lot of people expect to see mad, frenzied creatures and can't believe how slow they are and why they're not biting and eating all the time."

Then there's the eyeball encounter.

In Jaws, the crusty Quint says: "The thing about a shark, it's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When it comes at you it doesn't seem to be livin' until he bites you and those black eyes roll over white."

Wrong again, Quinty.

"Many are surprised to see a structured eye, with a pupil, looking at you, not the big dead black eye of myth," Andrew says.

Research suggests the world population of great white sharks, like all other shark species, is in decline. However, the animals are notoriously difficult to track and cover vast distances for reasons yet unknown. The best guess is that there are fewer than 10,000 in Australian waters.

Great whites seem to follow regular pathways, stopping off at feeding locations such as seal colonies, which Andrew calls "shark restaurants". When not dining on fresh seal, many great whites hang out around the Neptune Islands. It's the best place in Australia to see them and for several months of the year the Foxes spot up to a dozen a day.

Many of those sharks are regular visitors, such as old Jonny, who recently arrived for the seventh season in a row, accompanied by some giant females.

"He's about 41/2 metres, which is about as big as they grow, despite all those myths about seven-metre sharks," Andrew says.

"He's a real star. He stays around the boat and is as curious about the people as they are about him. He doesn't act aggressively but looks up at you occasionally and visits the divers down in the bottom cage, moving close in to the cage. He's such a regular that people just fall in love with him."

A typical trip to the Neptune Islands with Fox Great White Shark Expeditions includes four nights at sea, and it's not all about getting wet to meet and greet the beast at the top of the food chain.

"We also eat, drink and party," Andrew says.

So does that involve sitting around singing "Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies"?

"Actually, yes, there is a bit of that."

Quint has a lot to answer for.


Great white shark-diving expeditions are based in Port Lincoln, South Australia.

Port Lincoln, on the Eyre Peninsula, is 650 kilometres by road from Adelaide and 40 minutes by air, with daily flights from Adelaide.

The shark viewing location is the Neptune Islands, in the Southern Ocean outside Spencer Gulf, about four hours by boat from Port Lincoln.

A typical tour, including four nights on board, costs about $2000.

You don't need to be a certified diver to see sharks from a surface shark cage. Qualified divers can view from a cage lowered to the ocean floor.

Jonny is a 4.5-metre great white shark. For several weeks or months each year he turns up at the Neptune Islands, but where he comes from or where he goes is a mystery. Fox Expeditions tagged him one year to track him by satellite, but the tag malfunctioned. However, other tagged great whites have travelled thousands of kilometres. One was tracked from South Africa to South Australia and back again. Jonny is a favourite of the Fox Research Foundation's adopt-a-shark program to raise funds for satellite tagging.