Dropping off the bow of a ship, in a cage submerged in shark-infested water is a surreal experience, to say the least. The disorientation is brief but acute as the water absorbs the light and obscures the surrounding depths.
Then everything sharpens around a sleek shape with a hooked-dorsal fin. A four-and-half meter Great White cruises within an arm’s reach of the diver, its eyes leveling with your own as it swims in an eerie silence.
The shark is spectacular, and the moment is thrilling.
An entire industry in Port Lincoln, South Australia, whose coastal waters play host to the world’s largest Great White shark population, has been built on the demand for such exhilarating experiences.
Numerous locations around the world offer the chance to dive with Great Whites, but Port Lincoln is home to Adventure Bay Charters, which claims to have a fresh, more sustainable approach towards the magnificent fish.
Owned by Matt Waller, the company which has been in operation since 2007, claims to be the only cage-diving business in the world to abstain from attracting sharks with chum (blood and fish). Instead, it attracts the Great Whites by playing rock music through underwater speakers. Waller began looking for alternatives to chumming after he noticed what was happening to some of the sharks in the area.
“I used to own a third of shares in Calypso, our biggest competitor,” he explains. “A difference in approach to business caused a rift between the partners and I got out. The day I took a photo of a Great White shark with no teeth left after it had been baited into continuously biting the cage, was the last day I used chum to attract a wild animal. When it looked like our business was succeeding at the expense of the sharks I started looking for alternatives.”
Waller soon began to develop Adventure Bay’s use of sound to attract sharks. It has grown with great success and the company’s recorded shark sightings reveal it to be just as effective at attracting the animals as chumming.
“I picked up the idea from a photographer who had spent some time in Guadalupe, Mexico,” he explains. “There the idea of playing music underwater was initially used to distract guests while they waited for sharks, but they began to notice that there was a different reaction in the sharks when the music was playing.”
They had few details about how it worked, but gave it a try anyway. “We were on our own with just a simple story and an idea,” he said.
The practice of chumming the water in order to attract sharks for tourists has long been controversial. In South Africa, diving and surfing clubs adamantly oppose the practice, claiming it has changed the Great Whites’ natural aversion to people and boats and it leads them to associate the two with aggression and frenzied feeding behaviour.
Marine biologist Lindsay Graff agrees the practice is troublesome but for different reasons.
The sad thing is if a shark gets too close to beaches or boats, people rush to have it destroyed
“Baiting will always be necessary for scientific study, because it allows us to get close enough to tag sharks. We need to be really careful, however, using it for tourists. There is so much we don’t know about these animals so it’s difficult to determine if we’re changing their natural migratory and feeding behaviours by throwing blood in the water and encouraging them to linger in an area or behave aggressively around boats. The sad thing is if a shark gets too close to beaches or boats, people rush to have it destroyed. Close encounters are much more likely to result in the death of a shark than a person.”
Marine biologists and cage-diving operations do agree on one thing, however: increased public interest in these animals will be crucial for their conservation. According to the wildlife conservation group WWF, Great Whites are a vulnerable species. They are caught as bycatch by commercial fisheries and have been hunted aggressively for their fins and teeth. Waller hopes encounters with the animals will encourage the public to invest in protecting the species.
“They’re amazing to see,” said Jessica Olsen, an Adventure Bay client. “They come out of nowhere. One minute you’re staring off into nothing, listening to ‘Wild Thing’ play through the water, and the next a four-meter shark appears. It was an amazing experience.”
Demand for these experiences is increasing. The cage diving business has been growing at a steady rate of 35 per cent a year over the last three years. Waller believes the biggest drive to the growth has been promotion and accessibility. Offers of day trips, regular air service and better accommodation in Port Lincoln have all played a role.
“I’d like to see the end of baiting for tourism activities,” says Waller. “But I’d like to see the continued expansion of the industry globally. Shark protection is a very topical subject now, and I hope it will increase demand via awareness. I predict that the biggest growth going forward will be in sustainable travel, and increased desire for authentic wildlife encounters without the zoo mentality.”
Many Adventure Bay clients walk away wanting to know more about shark biology and behaviour, but Waller confesses the most common question remains decidedly unscientific: which band do the sharks like best?
“They really respond to AC/DC,” he says.