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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Cage Diving with Great White Sharks (Port Lincoln, South Australia)

April 21 - 24, 2017

We are soon approaching the best time of year to cage dive with Great White Sharks in South Australia (late April - June).  But before I share this particular travel adventure…I need to give you a bit of context.  

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of the ocean.  It’s not just sharks and jellyfish, or a fear of drowning, that keeps me from going more than thigh deep. It’s a “fight or flight” instinct that is immediately triggered every time I step foot in the water.  As humans, the ocean is not our natural habitat.  Even Olympics swimmers can’t compete with the grace and ease of an ocean otter, its body slicing through the water as it looks for dinner.  In the ocean, our senses are immediately deafened… our bodies crushed by waves, our sight refracted by glaring light, our ears battered by pressure, and our taste buds, assaulted by salt.  But scariest of all is the 360 nature of this world.  There are no walls. Danger can approach for any direction - up, down, side to side.  I hate it.

For those of you who have traveled or lived in Australia, you’d know that the ocean courses through the blood of most every Australian.  From birth, their toes are constantly connected to the water.  Surfing and swimming are extensions of their bodies.  Tell an Australian, you hate the ocean, and you’ll get thrown in repeatedly until you change your mind.  

I realised if I was going to live in Australia, I had to confront the ocean.  My training started each weekend forcing myself a little farther into the waves of Bondi Beach.  On my trip to the Philippines, I forced myself to snorkel with whale sharks, shocking myself with my enjoyment!  For those of you who read that post, you know that whale sharks were spotted the day I arrived and my travel partner forced me into the water with them.  It was the first time I really started to realise a potential love for the ocean.  Those magnificent beasts gently gliding through the shallow water… couldn’t give a crap that I was swimming alongside.  Their ignorance of me, made me calm.  I was so engrossed that I completely forgot about the vastness surrounding me. It was such an amazing experience that I knew I had to keep the momentum going… resulting in this blog entry.

Great. White. Sharks.  One of the most feared animals of the ocean.  Fuelled by movies like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea and unhealthy obsession with Shark Week, these beasts inspired fear, as well as a  deep admiration and curiosity, even behind glass at the aquarium.  Generally when I decide to do something… I go all in.  So of course, as soon as I thought I was “cool” with the ocean, cage diving with Great Whites seemed like a natural next step.  So I booked a non-refundable ticket on the Calypso Star, a famous cage-diving boat out of Port Lincoln, South Australia.

To get to Port Lincoln, I spent a few days driving and camping my way from Adelaide past Mount Remarkable National Park to Port Lincoln.  I had sunrise coffees with campsite kangaroos and beachside lunch stops at Greenly Beach and The Point.  It’s a lovely drive, although you can fly to Port Lincoln if you prefer.

For those of you interested in the road trip portion of the trip (Adelaide, Mount Remarkable National Park and Barossa Valley wine region, I’ve provided see my other blog post here

The day of the cage dive, I was up and at the boat by 6am.  It’s a three hour ride to the Neptune Islands, south of Port Lincoln, temporary home to Great Whites.  I watched the sunrise, while frosty salt water whipped my face.  

We were divided into groups of 8 and put into a dive order.  We were outfitted in 3mm thick wetsuits because we’d be down with the sharks for about 20 mins and it is VERY cold.  The tour provides a wet suit, masks, booties and sunscreen.  You can buy sickness tablets for a couple dollars and rent a Go Pro for $50.  All you need to bring is swimmers, a towel and dry change of clothes.  They’ll also sell you the pics they take for $35 (I always buy these because hell when am I going to do this again!). 

Calypso Star is the best shark boat because they have a license to “chum.”  If you are unfamiliar with the term, “chum,” it's dead fish guts and blood that they pour into the ocean to attract the sharks.  It wasn’t long before the fish bits attracted a 6 meter shark.  WOW.  At first I looked over the edge of the boat to catch a glimpse until I saw him clear the water a few yards out… no more looking over the side of the boat!

How does cage diving work? Essentially the cage hangs off the back of the boat and you enter the cage from the top, climbing down a metal ladder, to the bottom of the cage.  You have a weight belt around your waist to help you stay under the water to look at the shark and a dive respirator so you can breathe.  Between the intense rocking of the cage, the icy cold water, and the unnatural breathing, you have barely enough concentration to find the shark in the murky water and snap a pic.  

I was in Group 2 which turned out to be the best group because the water was clear because of the clouds in the sky (sunlight causes light to refract against bubbles in the water making it hard to see).  This guy was HUGE and VERY curious.  The best position in the cage is on either end because there isn’t a vertical bar in the corner of the cage, so you get a sweeping view of the shark without a stupid bar in your video.  However, it’s also the most disconcerting position due to the LACK of a bar.  I was so sure I’d panic.  I’d never used a respirator, I’d never been in water that rocky and cold, and I’d never been two feet away from a 6m shark before with no glass to separate us.

He was magnificent.  With the slightest turn of his tail he’d speed past us, one eye following our movements.  He was far more interested in us than the chum.  Pass after pass he’d approach the cage and lazily glide past, clearly the dominant species.  There is something about the lack of a glass wall that makes you really feel like you are out there with him.  It was probably the same “fight or flight” instinct that kept me intensely drawn to the edge of the cage scanning the murky darkness for another pass.  I was a mouse caught in the stare of a viper.  It was the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever done.  I probably would’ve died of exposure before willingly leaving the shark, if he hadn’t eventually wandered on his way.  After his departure, I realised how bloody cold I was and shot back up the surface.  

Adrenaline pumped through my veins warmed my body much faster than the dry change of clothes.  If I’d had the chance to get back in I would’ve.  I was so excited and awed and bloody proud of myself!  I did it!  And boy, would I do it again.  Since this trip a year ago, I’ve spent more and more time in the ocean, continuing to probe my fears.  It’s a gradual process.  If you have an intense fear of something, don’t let it get the best of you!  And if you have a fear of sharks; get in there with em!

South Australia roadtrip from Adelaide to Port Lincoln and back through the Barossa Valley wine region

April 21 - 24, 2017

While my main reason for traveling to South Australia was to cage dive with Great White Sharks (see blog post here), I had an amazing time road tripping to Port Lincoln from Adelaide and spending a few final days in the Barossa Valley.  These aspects of the trip deserved a short post for those looking to visit the area. I’d recommend a minimum of 4 full days to do the drive and probably 3 full days to properly do the Barossa wine region.  We did all of it in 4 days plus the cage diving, which was a little gruelling.  Good old Australia… so much to see and none of it close together!  

We only spent the evening in Adelaide.  It’s quite normal but filled with delicious restaurants like Africola.  It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Australia.  There’s also a ton of cute bars off Hindley Street that’s apparently awesome; we didn’t go out because we had an early start.

The first half of the drive to Port Lincoln is BEAUTIFUL.  I wish we’d had more time to explore some of the beaches and parkland on the Adelaide side.  They come highly recommended.  Mount Remarkable National Park was a great pit stop.  You really feel like you are out in the middle of the bush, surrounded by wildlife.  So many kangaroos (and spiders).  We stayed at Mambray Creek Campgrounds which provided exactly what we needed - nature, a car park and tent area and bathrooms with showers.

The second half of the trip to Port Lincoln was a little less scenic.  You pass through a lot of small petrol-stop towns filled with more industrial structures than natural ones, before you reach Port Lincoln.  We stopped to hurriedly set up camp while it was daylight, and then continued on down the coast to Farm Beach.   

It was pretty meh, so we continued on to Greenly Beach which was well worth the terrible dirt road we had to drive down.  The car park is on a cliff and you walk down to the most secluded, lovely beach.  Very romantic!  We spent the rest of the day there and caught the sunset before heading back to Port Lincoln. 

Port Lincoln is apparently quite lively on Friday and Saturday nights.  There are a couple bars on the water.  We had an early morning for the cage diving so we didn’t make it out but we were told it was good fun for a night.  We stayed in the Port Lincoln Tourist Park a little ways out of town on the ocean, which was nice but I kind of wished we’d been within walking distance of town.  Kind of up to you, what you’re looking for.

I was up at dawn to head to the port for cage-diving.  You can read about my experience here.

Back in Adelaide, post road trip, we dropped the rental car and took the train out to the Barossa Valley for our final day/night of the trip.  We arrived very late at Discovery Parks Tanunda, which was straight out of an American summer camp movie.  Our cabin was made completely of wood paneling and straight out of the 70s.  It was pretty hilarious.  

It was pouring rain so we ran to the first restaurant that looked open.  The neon “Open” sign swung in the rain, the restaurant dark behind it.  Straight out of an 80s horror flick!  But inside The Barossa Valley Brewing was cozy and had "all you can eat" chicken wings!!!  YUM!

Within minutes we’d made friends with the only other patrons of the pub, a few young people who worked at some of the wineries.  Before we knew it, we’d been offered a private wine tour for free!  It was the guy’s day off and apparently he loves nothing more than showing people the grapes.

The next day we hit four wineries throughout Tanunda.  The scenery along the way was breathtaking!!

Our new friend works at this winery.  It felt like an upscale family estate.  Everything in place, a nice hearth and two adorable dogs napping near the entrance, but perhaps not quite cozy or unique.  I thought the wine was quite good though!

This is my type of winery.  Small, cozy and uniquely decorated like an upscale hunting lodge.  And the wine was delicious.  Definitely my favourite stop of the day.

What a beautiful outdoor area for a quick lunch and wine tasting.  It felt like an old, brick Italian villa with flowers and sunshine all around you.  I soaked up the wine about as fast as I soaked up the sun. Mmm.

Australia's oldest family winery; you can feel the history here.  It's a huge, sprawling property that feels resort-like yet comfortable.  It felt like a family estate.  The wine and the cheese/meat board were yum!

Our lovely friend returned us to the train station so my friend could head to the airport and I could crash in Adelaide before leaving the next day.

Overall, South Australia was a lovely holiday.  I wish I'd had more time to spend here.  I would definitely come back!