My eyes were darting around the cage looking at the three other divers wedged into their respective corners. The tense body language alone was making it very clear it was our first time ever doing something like this. It was hard to ignore the sheer power of the ocean, as conditions were rough that day.
As we descended to the ten meter mark, my side of the cage was starting to aggressively tip—nearly facing the seafloor. Using all my body strength, I was trying not to fall onto my fellow cage members. Once our underwater gravitron ride finally reached 20 meters, the cage leveled out. It was show time.
The adrenaline was pumping after this wild ride to the bottom of the seafloor. I cleared my mask just in time to see a 4 meter female great white shark open its jaws right in front of my face. She had been circling our cage throughout our descent and I hardly noticed!
My first time seeing a great white is hard to put into words. It’s impossible to replicate the feeling that comes over you when an animal of this size, power and notoriety is acknowledging your existence, or looking you right in the eyes. It’s instantly humbling. There’s no denying that these apex predators own the water that surrounds you completely.
It’s estimated that great whites have survived 11 million years—dating back to the Miocene epoch—and you can see why. They move through the water with perfect precision, slowly circling and monitoring before taking any action. Every movement is calculated and considered, developed and programmed over the centuries.
Let’s take a few steps back. Cage diving with great whites wasn’t exactly as simple as booking a dinner reservation. A lot of things had to fall in place to make this happen. It needed to be the right time, the right conditions and the right mindset. In order to embrace the experience, I needed to discard any preconceived notions about diving with these misunderstood animals and just go for it.
Currently, South Australia is the only place in the world where you can safely cage dive with the ocean’s apex predators. There were two other locations in Mexico and South Africa where you could in the past. But, due to safety issues and changes in the marine ecosystems, those locations are no longer operational. So, the first step to see the GWs was to travel to the North and South Neptune Islands—a wild passage that is not for the faint of heart. Andrew Fox, the man in charge of our diving vessel, spent countless hours tracking weather conditions, waiting for the perfect moment to introduce us to these remote islands.
In 1963, Andrew’s father, Rodney Fox, shockingly survived one of the worst shark attacks ever documented. But instead of giving into fear, Rodney chose to focus on curiosity. From then on, he dedicated his entire existence to studying great whites and brought his son along for the ride. From being instrumental in the filming of JAWS, to putting shark conservation on the map, the Fox family has played a critical role in bringing humans closer to great whites through their unique method: surface and bottom cage diving.
Flash forward to 2023, Andrew has become one of the leading authorities on great whites globally. So, when he said the conditions were the worst he’s seen in years, and it wasn’t safe to venture to the Neptunes, everyone on the vessel blindly agreed. However, instead of sitting idle, he decided we would alternatively search for South Australia’s other “big three”: the elusive leafy seadragon, the giant cuttlefish during their mating season and the endangered Australian sea lion.
The first detour was to the iconic Tumby Jetty to search for the leafies. As we donned our 7mm wetsuits with heating vests underneath to beast the winter solstice, we physically and mentally prepared ourselves to tackle diving repeatedly in 13 degree water. The rain was guiding us, providing incredible rainbows in every direction. We hoped these numerous rainbows would bring us luck, as the chances of actually seeing dragons were slim. They are masters of camouflage, after all.
In fact, they’re so elusive that there’s a dedicated team called Dragon Search South Australia that’s sole purpose is to spot, identify and study these creatures. The organization is made up of citizen scientists and run by project coordinator Janine Baker. This team is instrumental in helping us understand the history of these complex, hard-to-find dragons—as they only reside in these waters.
Sadly, not seeing any leafies, we steamed overnight to our next detour—Whyalla. It was going to be a rough ride to one of the only places in the world where giant cuttlefish mate in mass. After nearly overdosing on seasickness medication, I shockingly pulled up in one piece. Accepting that cold was my new normal, I was the first to jump in the water to start the cuttle quest.
Unlike the leafies, the cuttlefish were everywhere. These squid-like aliens were surrounding us in five meters of water. The males were on a singular mission: to mate, and then in some cases, die. Giant cuttlefish’s reproductive process is so intense and demanding, it leads to a rapid decline in health among the males. It was estimated that over 250,000 cuttlefish were in the area for this particular mating season. By the time we got there, many looked like they had been through a genuine battle to survive.
After two days of the underwater squid rave party—as cuttlefish’s colors are incredible—we got the nod from the man in charge that it was time to make the voyage to the Neptunes. And this dicey ride seemed like the most fitting time to get to know the legend himself. Sharing many tilted breakfasts, lunches and dinners side-by-side, we went deep on Australia’s wild ocean, the benefit of bringing people close to great whites and Andrew’s extraordinary life.
After 40 years, Andrew knows most of the local sharks by name and can recognize all of their visual patterns. When just getting started, he would cage dive four times a day to make sure he could identify every shark with ease. Sharing this knowledge with others manifested through his photography and liveaboard voyages, ultimately helping people to understand sharks better by observing them in their natural habitat.
When us first-timers got out of the cages, Andrew was waiting on deck to see our reactions. After coming face-to-face with a great white, he would ask us to elaborate on exactly what we thought and how we felt. It was in those moments I could tell he genuinely loves what he does and the sharks he’s spent a lifetime studying.
But now back to where we started: the cages. On a given day, we could either wake up, eat breakfast and spend the rest of the day on the surface or deep diving—which were two totally different cage experiences. At the surface, great whites are more active as it’s their hunting territory. At the bottom, they are calm, slow moving and in their element. I did it all, repeatedly, for a week straight.
We are programmed to have a very distinct image of great whites in our minds. For my generation, JAWS certainly had a lot to do with that. But besides the movie, we tend to fear what we don’t know. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid of sharks (or any wildlife for that matter.) They are apex predators for a reason. But, taking time to learn from the experts and going to witness their majesty up close and personal, gives you the chance to appreciate, respect and value them in a completely new way. And this gained value and wisdom does help to change your view.
I thought my time on the liveaboard was complete after the many shark encounters. However, our last day had us diving in 2 meters of water with around 30 endangered Australian sea lions. I had the chance to connect with leading sea lion expert, Dirk Holman, from the National Parks and Wildlife Service Government Division. And once started, we couldn’t stop talking for hours.
He explained that these sea lions in particular are some of the hardest animals to study, as they exhibit so many varying behaviors. He described them with a somewhat anthropomorphic quality—the sea lions having their own individual feeding, breeding, living and traveling preferences. Given that these animals are so endangered, he’s working on programs and projects to keep the population alive and thriving—while trying to study them as much as possible along the way.
It’s not hard to fall in love with sea lions, as they come off as extremely curious and precocious. They’re interested in everything you’re doing above and below water. After spending nearly two hours observing them, I found myself struggling to say goodbye. Andrew was surprised we had such intense encounters, leaving us all wondering if those rainbows we saw earlier in the week were lucky after all.
Witnessing South Australia’s big three thriving in their natural habitats reminded me of the resilience and adaptability of nature. These animals have been surviving and evolving long before humans ever walked earth. They have navigated the challenges of changing environments and have matured in response to the shifting tides of time. Their ability to adapt and endure serves as a profound reminder that nature's resilience is a force to be reckoned with and is way more powerful than any of us.
As we continue to coexist with these remarkable species, it’s our responsibility to recognize and respect their presence. Through conservation efforts and sustainable practices—like choosing regulated dive operations—we can ensure that future generations will also have the privilege of witnessing the wonders of the natural world. These humbling 10 days showed me first hand the importance of preserving our planet's diverse ecosystems through once-in-a-lifetime natural encounters. That’s the underlying message Andrew and his team strive to share, and it surely landed with me.
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