We go swimming with sharks in South Australia
As horror classic Jaws turns 40, our travel editor James Draven visits the place where those non-rubber great white sharks were filmed… and jumps in the ocean with them. You can too. While listening to AC/DC
Snap! The sound is a digital sound byte rather than a physical one. Not the inexorable slamming shut of a rictus grin of 300-odd razor-blade teeth, but a smartphone’s impersonation of a camera’s shutter.
Great whites sharks, also known as white pointers, have 48 - 50 frontal teeth at any one time: 22-24 along their top jaw, and 24-26 along the bottom. Behind this front row, they can have up to seven further rows of teeth poised to move into the frontal position each time the shark loses a tooth. Their gums are, very literally, like an infinite conveyer-belt of deadly fangs. Over a lifetime a great white will go through tens of thousands of teeth, and at any one time it can have up to 350 teeth in its mouth… usually.
Matt Waller, founder and owner of Adventure Bay Charters, hands me his mobile phone, showing me an insanely close-up photograph of a white pointer’s gaping jaws. There’s not a tooth in its head.
In June, 40 years ago, Stephen Spielberg released a film to the cinema-going public that terrified an entire generation of swimmers out of the ocean and forged a new genre: the summer blockbuster movie.
There’s a metafictitious scene in the film in which one of the movie's human protagonists plans to deliver a lethal blow to the titular shark by the then unheard of method detailed by the character as, “Man goes into cage, cage goes into water. Shark’s in the water: our shark.”
It was what we today call cage diving, and it was in fact by this pioneering method that the underwater photography of great white sharks for the movie was captured.
After suffering a particularly horrific great white shark attack during a spear-fishing competition in December 1963, the resulting injuries of which requiring 462 stitches to put him back together, Rodney Fox went on to design and build the first underwater observation cage in a bid to face his fears from relative safety and get back into the water. Along with helping out with the filming of Jaws, Fox’s cage-diving expeditions have made filming these creatures possible for Disney, Universal and National Geographic, to name but a handful. They have also spawned a tourist industry.
In South Australia’s Port Lincoln, thrill-seekers, gap-year types and adventure tourists clamour to go out to sea with tour operators who bait the waters with blood, fish guts and animal remains then stick their guests in underwater, ‘sharkproof’ cages and wait for great whites to attack. One company even reportedly trails hunks of meat through the water on a rope and, when a hungry shark appears, drags the flesh through the cage, causing the shark to give chase and collide with its steel bars… all in the name of filling GoPros with homemade horror footage, and teenagers’ shorts with cack.
The problem is that, down in Port Lincoln, nearly all of the sharks you’ll see are pretty battered, covered in scars from injuries sustained from repeatedly crashing into boatloads of backpackers.
“We rarely see a shark that isn’t all beaten up,” says marine biologist, Brinkley Davies, with whom I’ve been diving: “It’s a real event if you see one that’s still in good shape around here. I’ve even seen a picture of one with no teeth,” she adds, “and considering they constantly regrow and replace them, it just shows how much damage is being done to them.” I ask her if she believes their injuries are caused by impact against steel cages. She does.
Sharks are pretty smart too, and it’s becoming a matter of debate as to whether they’ll start to associate humans with getting fed and begin looking to the beaches as a source of food. People, it should be pointed out, aren’t usually on the menu for these awesome predators but swimming around in bloody fish guts and throwing them chunks of meat has got to be the equivalent of running through Lisa Riley’s dressing room wearing just whipped-cream underwear.
It’s with all of this in mind that I jumped into a cage submerged in the Neptune Island Conservation Park’s shark-infested waters under the care of a company that uses a rather unusual form of bait: rock ’n’ roll.
While their competitors maintain that shark sightings with Adventure Bay Charters (ABC) are merely the by-product of them dropping anchor in the same seas as their blood-chumming rivals, there is method to the apparent madness of dropping submergible speakers into the ocean and blasting Highway to Hell into the depths of Davey Jones’s Locker.
ABC says: “We see a very different behaviour from sharks attracted by acoustics compared to attraction by berley. By playing music through underwater speakers we encourage curious sharks to venture around the boat to investigate the source of the sound. When sharks are not lured by food they are not as aggressive and do not attack the shark cage or vessel and, therefore, this impressive creature isn’t harmed by us coming to see it.”
Under the water I can hear the distant, tinny sounds of the music through the speakers, and I’m disgusted when it changes from Rage Against the Machine to Kanye West. I wait a while but all else is quiet. Above the water, I can hear the whooping and hollering of a huge crowd of guests on another charter a little way from ours and know this means sharks are being lured to their vessel by the cloud of berley that enshrouds its hull. They’re gonna need a bigger boat.
Dropping back down into the cage, a little deflated, I signal to a fellow diver that I’m going to cut into my own wrist if the sharks don’t venture over our way soon. And then, whether attracted by pitch black humour or Black Sabbath, the first of five great white sightings of the day comes into view, lacerating the atmosphere as it appears through the murk and slices through the ocean.
It circles and, as it turns and swims directly toward me and flashes me its wicked smile, I’m at once both pleased and uneased to note it has a full complement of gnashers in its jaws.
James flew to Australia with Qantas, with return economy flights to Sydney from Heathrow starting at £783. For more information, visit: www.qantas.com.au