Of Prey and Predator

Australian Sea Lion, Hopkins Island

A private message arrived in my Instagram inbox, lit up orange, not uncommon, but this wasn't the normal request to repost one of my images or a brand apologising for using one of my images without permission, this was an invitation to swim with a predator and swim with its prey.

I was on the top of the Yorke Peninsula, after having completed my lap of the boot and making my way to Adelaide when the invitation arrived. The dates lined up, flights were booked, and I'd be making way back across the gulfs for a few days in Port Lincoln thanks to the generosity of Adventure Bay Charters and Eyre Peninsula Tourism. They had invited us to jump in with the great white sharks and swim with the Australian sea lions, two days in the water off the islands of the region, including heading into the magnificent Neptune Islands Group Marine Park.

I'd be joining twenty one other Instagrammers from around Australia. I was in Port Lincoln only six short weeks ago, but this would offer another perspective, another angle for LAND SEA YOU ME, and a fantastic opportunity to meet other passionate photographers, scientists, writers and bloggers. It would also allow me an opportunity to see shark cage diving without the use of bait and burley. I'm in the process of formulating a firm opinion on the practice of cage diving, I personally haven't made up my mind on whether or not we should be encouraging shark-human interactions, particularly with the use of bait and I was interested to see first hand how each of the shark cage diving operators are approaching the practice (my thoughts on cage diving will be discussed further in the LAND SEA YOU ME book). There is of course many positive outcomes from the industry, science, conservation, education, income into the region, and a unique and extraordinary experience, seeing first hand one of our planet's apex-predators, the Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).

No other word in the English language is as emotive as the word shark. Heart rates increase just at the words utterance and no other shark has the reputation and mystery surrounding it as the Great white. The pointer, white, noah, white death, the man in a grey suit. I've been fortunate enough to see them in South Australian waters before, always from the safety of a cage, it is an experience which comes close to being indescribable. We are raised on a popular diet of fear and loathing for the great white, perpetuated over centuries and very rarely are we introduced to the fish below sea level, in the silence and beauty of their world.

I spent the first dive in the cage with a group of five others, but my first twenty minutes were without a shark sighting. Not something entirely unexpected or concerning, I climbed out to let others in the cage when the cry of shark went out, they were there! On the deck of the boat we would see a flash of skin, a glimpse of girth, but they didn't break the surface. I was offered a shot in the single cage (pictured below), something I had never experienced before, I jumped at the chance. You slide in, the roof is closed and you're let adrift into the ocean, just you, the oxygen bottle, the depths, the sharks and your imagination. Nothing in my life has been as immersive as this, I could have spent hours in the cage. A wholly peaceful experience, watching the sharks in the abyss below melt into depths. I wanted to make photographs, but at the same time I just wanted to watch the dance of the shark, to take it all in.

Your first glimpse of the shark as it passes you by is often one of wide-eyed wonder. Even knowing their size, you still are over-awed by their grace and presence. It is truly a beautiful, humbling and privileged experience to have the slightest glimpse into their environment, particularly without the encouragement of blood, guts and offal. They are there, naturally inquisitive, passing by or staying metres below in the inky blue. The excitement of spying one in the distance is magnified as they approach, slowly, powerfully they make their way towards you, suddenly the cage isn't big enough, the bars not strong enough, scenes from Jaws are on a loop in your head, but the shark darts away just feet from where you swim, you're perfectly safe. They're inquisitive, circling the boat, circling the cage, always on the edge of your peripheral vision, they don't appear in front of you, rather they emerge from the ink, silent and always with one eye on you, wondering what you're doing in their realm. My experience aboard the Shark Warrior was wonderful, the staff knowledgeable, passionate and perhaps most importantly extremely respectful of the sharks and ecosystem.

We would spend the better part of the day in waters of the Neptune Islands under a brooding sky, appropriate for romance and drama of cage diving. Every one of us managing some time in the drink with the sharks, memory cards filled. We would be back in the water again the following day, this time however with the Australian sea lion in the turquoise waters of Hopkins Island.

We were greeted with a beautiful day on the water, sunshine and little breeze, and only a short steam to Hopkins Island where we found a crystal clear bay, boiling with sea lions. The arrival of the boat set them charging awkwardly across the sand to the sea where they would tumble, glide, and seemingly fly through the water, eager for us to join them. We suit up and dive right in for another truly remarkable experience. It's hard to believe they aren't enjoying the interaction as much as you, their faces making a something akin to a smile only solidifies this feeling. Mimicking your movements and darting about, they surround you, tumbling, blowing bubbles and diving in and out of the water. Their reputation as the puppies of the sea is well grounded. The hour spent in the water was an hour spent with constant movement around you, never alone, the complete opposite from the day previous. The silence and stillness of the day with the sharks was replaced by the noise and chaos of the sea lions. Two unique experiences for entirely different reasons.

After spending the morning amongst the sea lions we steamed back to Port Lincoln via the magnificent Memory Cove in Port Lincoln National Park. I had visited Memory Cove when I passed through previously, but to see it from the water was another highlight. A sheltered stretch of bone-white sand and water so rich in colour it is the definition of postcard-perfect. We stopped to marvel at the cove and its resident white-bellied sea eagles, grab a quick group shot and steam back to Port Lincoln.

We were then treated to a seafood feast, courtesy of Eyre Peninsula Tourism and Adventure Bay Charters. It was a fitting end to a wonderful weekend, comparing stories and chatting with staff and locals over a few drinks. We were made to feel extremely welcome and treated like royalty for the entire journey. It was a far cry from the cold hard ground and packet pastas of my tent, tough to come back to.

I'm back on the bike now and making my way on the final stretch, only six weeks to go! If you see me on the Fleurieu, along the Coorong or down the South-East, say hi, I'd love to chat.

Cheers crew!

Special thanks to Matt Waller and Frances Smith for all your hard work, hospitality and organisation. I'd also like to thank all those that I met on the Instameet for making it such an enjoyable and interesting couple of days. I look forward to following your journeys in and out of the ocean.

The crew of #ABCInstameet2016

You can pre-purchase the LAND SEA YOU ME book here.

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