By Max Anderson
In 1963, Rodney Fox was seized around the chest by a Great White shark. Two years later, he decided he had to know more about his attacker, and entered the waters off South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Today, at 75, Fox is a researcher, filmmaker and conservationist – and he’s still going eye to eye with the planet’s most feared apex predator.
Max Anderson: You’ve been doing research off Eyre Peninsula for over 50 years, much of it through the company you started, Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions. Just how much do we know about sharks?
Rodney Fox: Well, a huge amount is known compared to when I was bitten in 1963! After the attack, I tried to find books on sharks to learn more, but I could find only three – and they were all written by game fisherman.
Today, South Australia is one of the leaders in shark research. We do a lot of work with the CSIRO and Flinders University – in fact I’ve just returned from a seven-day expedition with Flinders scientists. Apart from a new tagging study specifically looking for relationships between individual sharks, we’re also currently taking tissue biopsies to determine what the sharks eat over different time frames of residency.
MA: The waters off the Neptune Islands are famous for a visiting population of great white sharks. What are the biggest questions we’re yet to answer on great whites?
RF: We don’t know how many there are – and that’s in spite of all the talk about culling. We still don’t know where they breed, in fact a great white has never been seen or photographed giving birth. And we don’t even know how long they live. We used to think they lived for around 30 years but research shows it could be 70 years or more.
In more recent times, we’re still very interested to find reasons that great whites seem to gather in some geographical areas for a time, and how this relates to increased shark attack risk.
MA: In 1963, you were taking part in a spearfishing competition when you were attacked by a Great White, said to be the most savage attack that anyone has survived. Do you know why you survived?
RF: There were four or five things that happened day, all of which could be called ‘miracles’. Firstly, I was fit, and I fought off the attack. The shark towed me under because I was caught up in a line – but miraculously the shark had cut it in the first attack and it broke. It was a miracle people saw the blood, and it was a miracle there was a boat on hand and they were able to get me to the hospital within an hour. A minute later and I would have been dead.
MA: After all these years working with great whites, are you at peace with the attack?
RF: I’ve never had nightmares. Even when I was lying in hospital I was able to distract myself with thoughts of food and fields of beautiful flowers. So I’ve been able to suppress it right from the beginning, unless I want to talk about.
MA: Well, we’re sorry to ask you to revisit it.
RF: No, I’ve spent a large part of the remainder of my life experiencing, learning and helping research about sharks. Just like the darkness, fear disappears when you shine a light on it.
I’ve had to tell my story thousands of times – at least six, eight times a week. People usually want to know how I got out of the shark’s mouth. And they mostly want to know ‘Did it hurt?’
MA: And did it?
RF: When the shark had hold of me, the thoughts were only of survival. The only pain was the painful thought of dying, which is not the same as the pain of hitting your finger with a hammer. It was only in the rescue boat that the pain started to come in waves.
MA: Tell us about shark cages.
RF: I originated the first ever shark cage in 1964 – I got the idea while I was looking at the lions in Adelaide Zoo. But I wanted to use it to see if I could go back into the water. I invited two other shark attack survivors to go in with me with me and asked [renowned underwater photographer] Ron Taylor to film it. Then I approached world record-holding game fisherman Alf Dean and asked him if he’d show me the great whites he’d been catching off Port Lincoln in Dangerous Reef.
We shot the film using the cage and it was the first time great whites had ever been filmed underwater.
MA: Ten years later, the same cage concept was seen by tens of millions of people around the world. What was your part in that?
RF: I was the coordinator for a six-week expedition with the production team sent out by Steven Spielberg. He wanted to get live footage for a movie he was making called Jaws. We took them out to Dangerous Reef where they got a lot of good footage of great white sharks, though a lot of it couldn’t be used because it made their big mechanical shark look too unreal!
They also shot a sequence using a half-sized man and a half-sized cage to make the sharks look twice as big. One of the big sharks got its head caught in the cage, and it shook and thrashed and tore the winch off the side of my boat – which was all captured on film by Ron Taylor. Spielberg actually changed the whole story on the basis of that. In the book [by Peter Benchley], the marine scientist in the cage is supposed to die. But after that footage, Spielberg changed the script so the scientist escapes through the buckled cage onto the sea floor and survives.
MA: Jaws wasn’t great for sharks…
RF: We became ashamed to admit we’d been part of it because it did the exact opposite to what we were all about. It inspired the killing of a lot of sharks, in fact, if we’d known we wouldn’t have done it.
But Jaws also had some positive effects. So many people went on to become marine biologists because they grew up watching Jaws. And the first cage diving tourism expedition came out of it, too. We were contacted by a group of rich tourists in San Francisco who wanted to do it after seeing the movie. That blossomed into the ecotourism thing it is today.
MA: So cutting to 2016, what has cage diving done for sharks?
RF: It’s done things for people. Sharks have been able to be observed and photographed in the wild so now there’s been hundreds, thousands of articles around the world, as well as hundreds of documentaries and films, dedicated to sharks.
It regularly brings researchers and scientists to these waters, but it also brings paying tourists who are really interested to join in and help with basic research. The more people that get to appreciate great white sharks through documentaries, articles and first-hand experiences, the more those sharks will be appreciated, protected and researched.
My son Andrew, who has a science degree, now runs Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions. He has a photographic database of hundreds of great whites that regularly visit the waters around the Neptune Islands. Some of the great whites have been returning for 14 years.
MA: What’s a typical Rodney Fox Shark Expedition on the Princess II?
RF: Typically we’ll go out for two or three days but we’ll also do trips lasting five or more days. We’ll visit Hopkins Island so people can swim with Australian sea lions – and these animals will come and play like Labrador pups! – before going out to the Neptune Islands, where we’ll anchor in calm waters.
This is where around 15,000 New Zealand fur seals breed, and the reason why the great white sharks reside there. After we anchor, we set up a berley trail and lower the cage before people submerge on the end of ‘hookah’ airlines. As the sharks swim past you get to see these beautiful, wonderful creatures, which look like aeroplanes gliding through the water. Each shark is marked differently, so passengers can help with identification – or they can simply stand there going, “Oh my God, oh my God!”
MA: Since you spend much of your life on the water, do you escape to the desert for a holiday?
RF: Actually, I like desert – it’s similar to the sea for solace and the fact there’s no mobile phones or ATMs.
But I’m always on or near the sea. My wife and I live in [beach suburb] Glenelg and we have a beach house at Black Point [Yorke Peninsula]. I love South Australian waters because I’ve seen such wonderful things. One of the most amazing is the leafy sea dragon, which nature designed so delicately to blend in with the kelp … they look so vulnerable. To see them in their habitat among the kelp is an incredible thing.
MA: If you hadn’t been attacked by that Great White in 1963, do you know what you’d be doing today?
RF: Well, when I was bitten I was selling life insurance, and I know I wouldn’t be doing that! But every penny I earned went on diving, snorkelling or spearfishing, so I clearly had the calling to the sea.
It’s funny, I’m often asked ‘Did they kill the shark that bit you?’ And I’ve had to analyse that.
The fact is, the shark was doing the job that sharks do. As apex predators, they take out the weak animals, they keep other species like seal and dolphin populations in check, and they keep the oceans clean. Humans think that if a shark bites, that it has to be punished. But it’s what they do, they’re a necessary part of our ocean, which is under constant pressure from human interference and destruction.
We can’t just kill them from fear.
Rodney Fox’s book ‘Sharks, The Sea And Me’ is available online.
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. The drive from Adelaide takes roughly three hours to Port Augusta (a de facto gateway to the Peninsula); it’s a further three hours to Port Lincoln.
For more on Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, including calendar of expeditions visit the website. Dive licences are not required for cage diving.